After the rush of Christmas preparations, the Inn of the Shepherd offers time for tea, steeped in serenity and sweetened by sharing.
From Sunday through Tuesday, the ecumenical retreat center in Woodstock is reviving the tradition of afternoon tea, a time for introspection and a splash of self-indulgence.
Guests are encouraged to bring a friend and eat in a room decorated with a Christmas flavor. Scents of the season flicker from glowing candles. Tables are set with fine linen, silver and china. Fresh greenery and a tiny candle ring mark each of the 14 places.
Every seat has a window view of the surrounding fields dotted with pine trees. Those who enter the inn are drawn immediately into its tranquil spirit. The inn attempts a little restoration of the soul with the teas.
"Women today are so fragmented that they have forgotten the reason for afternoon tea," said Pam Short, the chef. "That time of reflection and nurturing was once a part of women's lives. We hope they can recapture it and take it home."
Short's daughters, Rachel, 10, and Hilary, 14, greet guests and escort them to their seats.
"Women feel the peace of this place and it draws them in," said Colleen Goodman, who organizes the teas. "Their lives are filled with cellular phones and appointment books. Here, they can relax and walk away refreshed."
A few minutes of silent reflection and a story that promises food for thought precede the light meal. A musician plays softly on the piano as Barb Stiegler, who opened the inn with her husband 12 years ago, reads to her guests.
The teas are not solely for women. Last year, one man joined the group and "blended right in," Stiegler said. "Actually, he said he could stay the whole week."
A respite with afternoon tea refreshes both body and spirit, Stiegler said. She pours Earl Grey and herbal teas from heirloom teapots, one with pale green flowers painted on white porcelain that was her grandmother's. Short and her daughters serve ham and cheese scones, puff pastry filled with chicken salad, fruits and cheeses. Dessert is an egg custard, a Stiegler family recipe.
After the meal, the servers leave their guests with refilled teapots. In one another's company, they fill the remaining time with quiet conversation, which Stiegler calls the gift of friendship. A brief closing prayer ends the afternoon.
"Hopefully, we have given them a piece of what they are giving others in their lives all the time," said Short.
Each guest leaves with a parting gift, this year a Christmas pin, and a replenished spirit.
"That is the real purpose for this place," said Stiegler. "It is set apart for God."
More than 500 guests a year come to the retreat house, which is supported by the Jubilee Ministries of Maryland, an ecumenical organization of area churches.
The Stieglers organize private retreats, seminars and marriage weekends. Yesterday, the inn was the setting for a wedding. Otherwise the first tea would have been the weekend after Christmas, the most popular day for soul restoration.
"The teas are an extension of our mission," Stiegler said. "People learn to foster their contemplative sides."
Tea is served at 2 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday. Cost is $12 per person, and reservations are required. Information: 922-0712.
Pub Date: 12/29/96