Shadowing A Mystic


March 18, 2024

Retreats and Hospitality
Inner Life

by Kimmy Haines, Commonweal Retreat Center Director

Jenepher Stowell in the Chapel. Photo: Peter Cunningham.

It has been an adventure from day one at Commonweal. I still remember the whirlwind of my first day, getting to know everyone and realizing how much I had to learn–and lots of folks around me had been here for longer than I had been alive. (Their joking assumption, at least.) I quickly learned that there is a lot of activity in this little beehive, and one queen bee that I learned to follow instinctively was Jenepher Stowell. Not only does this woman have wonderful style and is always adorned with a great collection of chunky silver jewelry…she has a deeply spiritual and grounding energy surrounding her.

A little over a year ago I was lucky enough to receive the assignment of learning as much as I possibly can from Jenepher so that I could step into her role as she retires as Retreat Center director. The journey began, and I was brought into the fold of retreat planning, site maintenance, and all of the functional details that steadily exist in the background of our beloved Retreat Center.

We attempted to download all that Jenepher has been holding in her head, with her incredible memory: it is impressive to see what she has carried. I learned of the art of sacred space holding and sacred hospitality. The effects that our exterior surroundings have on our underlying health, mental and physical. The importance of straightened pillows on a couch, a smoothed top blanket, and all shades at the same level in each window. Jen always tells me that when people walk into a room that is even slightly disorderly, a feeling of unease and discomfort can translate to a feeling of unsafety and instability. It is our job to make sure people feel safe, held, and at peace while staying here. In the many conversations I have had with folks on this road, I learned that Commonweal is their safe place.

Jenepher and Waz Thomas in the early days of the Retreat Center.

I often hear stories of the early days at Commonweal when Michael and Jenepher attended class at the Integral Yoga Institute and shared conversation over tea after class in her Victorian flat overlooking Dolores Park in San Francisco. “How would you like to come out and start a retreat center with me in Bolinas?” Michael asked her, obviously knowing the right person to ask for this task. I can only imagine how nicely decorated and arranged her space was then!

Even though, as Jenepher says, she “had no idea how to run a retreat center,” she took on the challenge in the late 80s, arriving in Bolinas to help create Commonweal.

In the early days of the Retreat Center, I can imagine Jenepher and Waz hurriedly placing new duvet covers on all of the blankets, spread out in the pacific house living room, as a group was on their way. And I can imagine those early beginnings of the first Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats, which laid the groundwork for the beautiful future of Commonweal.

In addition to building and running the Retreat Center, she also found her way to a little shack on the property with a magical location on the bluff. She reclaimed and renovated what we know today as The Chapel—and then went on to care for it and hold its sacred space for more than three decades. Through the years, she delivered fresh white lilies faithfully, and tended stones left in honor of lost ones. I love to imagine this small structure holding so much love and life force in its energy field.

As Michael Lerner says, Jenepher is one of the people that holds the mystic and reflective center of Commonweal.

After a year under Jenepher’s wing, I have been lucky enough to learn the inner workings of Commonweal, and how this establishment grew from a small community filled with love to what we are today. As the Retreat Center grows and blossoms into a new era, I feel immensely grateful for the education I have received under Jenepher’s care, and the support of fellow staff and Commonweal family. There will only ever be one Jenepher Stowell, but I look forward to maintaining the essence and energy that Jenepher so lovingly gave with her heart and soul for 30+ years to the best of my abilities, with my own style and flair, excited for the journey to come.

Find out more about the Retreat Center on our website.

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