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Teens Look to the Heavens at Cedar Hill Retreat Center

Swedenborgian Church Youth League

By Kurt Fekete

Six enthusiastic teenagers from five different states came to Duxbury, Massachusetts, to attend the annual fall retreat at Cedar Hill Retreat Center. Our theme was “Look to the Heavens,” and we explored celestial bodies, both natural and spiritual, through art, religion, science, creative projects, and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. 

Sunset on the beach!
(Kevin, Jeff, Heather, Bill, Athena, Caroline, Charlie, Ethan, and Julien)

We have lived in awe of objects in outer space for thousands of years and we are still captivated by their fascinating beauty and inspiring mystery. It was wonderful to have discussions about these astronomical wonders that we so often take for granted. 

Rev. Sage Cole led our Saturday morning opening session on the sun. Sage discussed how vital the sun is to our existence and explained how God is very much the same. God is at the center of all that we are. God’s love permeates all that we do and all that we are. Like the sun, we can choose to distant ourselves from the God and hide in the darkness, but God is still close to us shining love and wisdom no matter where we are. God is always there. This really resonated with us, as it was an overcast, rainy day. We knew that the sun was above us, but we could not see it. Sage closed her session with an art project where we colored pictures representing how we feel when we are basking in the sunshine of God love.

Sage’s afternoon session was focused on the moon. Specifically, Sage discussed the phases of the moon and how the phases relate to our faith. Our confidence and beliefs continually wax and wane like the moon, sometimes gaining in strength and other times declining. The teens talked about each phase in the lunar cycle and how it relates to us, from the new moon to full moon and back to new moon. I particularly liked the conversations about the visually beautiful waxing crescent moon and how it corresponds to times in our life when hope and faith are just birthing. This is when we are finding our way out of the darkness and starting to move towards a better enlightened state. 

I led the Saturday evening session and presented a slideshow on Swedenborg’s theological work Other Planets (Earths in the Universe). I explained how this is not a book that Swedenborgians often discuss as it contains some content that does not align with our more advanced scientific understanding of the planets in our solar system. For instance, in Other Planets 3. Swedenborg writes, “We can determine on rational grounds that bodies as large as the planets—and some of them are significantly larger than our own—are not uninhabited lumps created only to be carried along on a wandering course around the Sun and shed their feeble light for the benefit of just one planet. Their function must be more worthwhile than this.” Nonetheless, I presented the information as Swedenborg wrote it and we all had fun considering the alien inhabitants and spirits and talking about their appearances, beliefs, and lifestyle. I explained to the teens that they should look at these described planetary inhabitants as possible reflections of their own personal qualities and characteristics. Instead of focusing on their unlikelihood, consider what we might learn from these alien beings that Swedenborg wrote about. It was an entertaining session to present, and I think the teens, and some of the staff as well, enjoyed this session.

Sunday morning, we woke to sunshine and blue skies. I was extremely grateful as this was to be our star-gazing evening. My morning session was presented as a creative workshop. The teens were given the challenge to create their own planet where they would like to live. First, they reflected on some questions about what the geography of their planet and what people and animals on their planet were like. Then, they were given blank round sheets of cardstock and instructed to write key words about their planetary dwelling on one side and artistically represent their planet on the other side. After they finished, each teen presented their planet to the rest of the group. I explained how this activity was like what Swedenborg wrote in his book Heaven and Hell §41, “The angels of any given heaven are not all together in one place, but are separated into larger and smaller communities depending on differences in the good effects of the love and faith they are engaged in. Angels engaged in similar activities form a single community. There is an infinite variety of good activities in heaven, and each individual angel is, so to speak, his or her own activity.” Making your own planet is like discovering your own heavenly community.

Rev. Kevin Baxter arrived Sunday afternoon with his son Ephraim. It was a joy to see both of them! Kevin led the afternoon session on the stars. Stars, Kevin said, are like little lights to guide our way in times of darkness. The Ten Commandments are a great correspondential example of stars. Swedenborg calls these stars our “remains.” Kevin showed us the brass sextant that his mother Polly gave him as a present when he was ordained as a minister. She told him it was a gift to remind him to never forget where he came from and to use his “remains” to guide his path. Then, Kevin had the teens work together to write their own set of “teen commandments.” Kevin laid out a grid on easel paper with feelings and thoughts on one axis and God and the neighbor on the other axis. The teens and Kevin plotted the teen commandment “stars” on the grid with magnitude related to importance of the commandment and position related to whether the commandment dealt more with thoughts/feeling (x-axis) or God/neighbor (y-axis). This activity created a paper teen commandment constellation! These stars were redrawn on cardstock with holes in the place of stars so it could be illuminated to show the constellation on the ceiling! This was such a meaningful and entertaining activity. 

In the evening, after dinner, Kevin and I led a closing communion service where we reviewed all our celestial discoveries and read the Bible passage that this entire retreat was based on. In Isaiah 40:26 we read, “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”

After the worship service, we went outside and looked up at the galaxy of beautiful stars. The Milky Way was clearly visible, and we observed quite a few constellations. I set up my telescope, and we got a nice view of both Jupiter and Saturn (unfortunately, we did not see any of Swedenborg’s planetary aliens). We ended the evening with our traditional ice cream sundae dessert while we played some games including our favorites, Quiplash and Catchphrase. 

We dragged ourselves off to bed at midnight and the Midwest van departed only a few hours later. The remaining retreaters worked hard cleaning up Cedar Hill, and we all departed the retreat by the late morning after a last visit to the beach. I am so very grateful to our session facilitators, Sage and Kevin, along with drivers and support staff, Heather and Jeff Oelker. A very special thank you to Lori Phinney who helped shop for the groceries before the retreat and then came back Monday morning to help with the retreat center clean-up. We all learned so much and grew so much closer together in our little heavenly retreat community. Hopefully after this retreat, both teens and adults will all take more notice of the sky, and let the heavenly light of the sun, moon, stars,  planets, and the galaxy shine through just a bit brighter for all of us to see. 

Read the full issue of the Fall 2023 Messenger

Meet Kurt Fekete