The smell of frankincense billows through the side chapel, as the fine powder falls onto a burning disk of charcoal. Reverend Matthew Wright, the new priest at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock, is preparing for the Thursday evening contemplative prayer group, which will focus on the non-canonical Gospel of St. Thomas.
“I want to reclaim Christianity as a path of transformation and awakening,” says Wright. “So often it’s about believing — but at its heart, Christianity is a path.” At the age of 29, Wright, who took his post in October, already has explored a number of paths, from Zen to Sufism, bringing a range of insights into his approach to spiritual practice. No wonder he’s a good fit for Woodstock, where he has congregants with backgrounds in Buddhism, Sufism, the teachings of Gurdjieff, and strictly Christian traditions.
Wright’s roots are in the Pentecostal church of the North Carolina mountain town where he grew up. He was in his late teens when his parents stopped going to services. “I was happy to be out of church,” he recalls, “but then I started missing spiritual community. I started exploring other churches.” At first, his explorations were tentative. While tiptoeing in and out of services at an Episcopal church, he discovered an intellectual approach that welcomed his expression of doubts and conflicts.
Around the same time, a high school teacher who was a Hindu devotee became “the first person to ask me if I thought God was within me. I hadn’t thought of that. It opened me to the contemplative tradition. I started to read the Upanishads.”
At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Wright embarked on a major in journalism, then switched to religious studies. He went to the local Zen center, hung out with the Sufis, and helped found an interfaith alliance. A Tibetan studies program took him on a three-month trip to India, Nepal, and Tibet, where he studied Buddhism and examined the effects of Catholicism on Nepalese Buddhist worship, art, and literature.
By this point, he had discerned a vocation to the priesthood. He spent a year in an Episcopal Service Corps program, joining Mennonites and Catholics in working with adults with mental illness and helping them transition back to the work force. “It was grounding,” he says. “Spirit in that context is not esoteric. We were down in the muck with real people.” At the end of the year, he stayed on as a staff member for six months, saving money to return to India for visits to ashrams and meditation centers.
Finally Wright settled into studies at Virginia Theological Seminary, where he says, “I found the Catholic side of Christianity — the saints and mystics, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila. I felt like I needed mentors, but they’re not as accessible as in Eastern traditions. A priest with a three-year professional degree is not a guru or a roshi. So I spent time with Sufi and Vedanta teachers.”
Upon ordination, he moved to the Dutchess County town of Brewster to live on an organic farm started by Episcopal nuns. “Ten years ago, a sister had a vision,” he explained. “They turned the lawns at their retreat center into vegetable gardens and brought in livestock. I served for two years as priest for their community and for small churches that couldn’t afford ministers. I thought I wanted to work for a big church, but I grew to love the small churches, the sense of family and community.”
However, his responsibilities included working as a farm hand, running retreat programs, and managing the interns that came and went. He wanted more time for community work that would make a difference in people’s lives, as well as time to develop his own contemplative practice.
The position at St. Gregory’s is part-time, bringing more balance to a life that includes administering retreats at Holy Cross Monastery on Route 9W in West Park. Wright and his wife married in September and have moved into a cottage up the road from the monastery.
He took over at St. Gregory’s from interim priest Gwyneth Murphy in October and is gradually bringing his interests into the activities of the church. Rabbi Jonathan Kligler of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation joined Wright for an interfaith workshop in early December. The new priest hopes to incorporate the splendid public gardens and labyrinth behind the church into community events such as retreats and “quiet days.”
Wright is also trying to get involved in social justice efforts in the area. Since the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, he’s been talking about issues of entrenched systemic racism, pointing out, “The Gospels are all about freeing the oppressed.” The St. Gregory’s community is already involved in the local soup kitchen and the social service efforts of Family of Woodstock. “I’d like to expand that outreach,” says Wright. “And I’d love to get forums going around spiritual themes and topics. I’d like to shift the dialog from ‘What do you believe?’ to ‘How do you pray?’”
St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church is located at 2578 Route 212, just east of Woodstock. A Christmas Eve service will begin with caroling at 7:30 p.m., followed by a Christmas Eucharist at 8:00. A Christmas Day service is scheduled for 10 a.m. The Thursday evening prayer group starts with a potluck meal at 5:30 p.m., preceding a contemplative prayer service. The regular Sunday service begins at 10 a.m. See https://stgregoryswoodstock.org for more information.