When I was at school, the announcement of the annual Lenten retreat was awaited with some pleasure. It was a one-day event, held at various stages for the various year groups, and its main attraction was that for a full day there would be no lessons, and we would be allowed to go out of bounds. The school – St Philomena’s in Carshalton, which still flourishes – had and still has the most beautiful grounds, including a grotto and a lake, both of which were of course normally banned to us for safety reasons. But when on retreat we were meant to be spending the day in quiet reflection, so were allowed to roam freely.
The grotto was reputed to have a secret tunnel – that led to oh, I don’t know, the staircase in the library where the school’s ghost was said to lurk – and the lake was sometimes marshy, sometimes dry, according to the weather and the local water table. But it all felt slightly holy because there was a statue of Our Lady and it was very peaceful and cut off from the general hurly-burly of school life. And it all sealed into my mind the connection between going on retreat and being somewhere rather beautiful, a connection that has remained.
Today, a retreat for me – for most of us? – requires at least an overnight stay in order to offer a real opportunity to get into a rhythm of prayer and reflection and to disconnect from chatter. I remember with particular pleasure arriving at Wickenden Manor, the retreat centre in Sussex run by Opus Dei, in deep snow one Lenten Friday night. There was a warm welcome, a delicious supper, and Evening Prayer in the simple, beautiful chapel. Over the next couple of days, the sense of being a guest in an extremely comfortable home jostled agreeably with the gentle discipline of silence: we had reading aloud at meals, no chatting, and some thoughtful and well-presented material for meditation in the chapel, along with the daily Office and of course Mass. The house, with its 1930s manor-house style and its well-stocked library, gives out a sense of order and quiet assurance – “Agatha Christie but with prayers instead of a murder,” as one retreatant later put it – and I soaked myself in some long-delayed reading (Benedict XVI and John Paul II, since you ask) and even finished some embroidery.
But a decent retreat does also include a sense of challenge. Opus Dei is rather good at this: the talks were not mushy, and there was a sense of being reminded about the basics of a healthy Christian life with a dash of vigour. It does us all no harm to be reminded of things like daily prayer, regular confession, dropping in to weekday Mass with reasonable frequency, and so on. I liked the brisk assumption that we would all take part in the afternoon Rosary, and the reminder that this prayer should be a regular part of all our lives – on a bus or train, or on an ordinary weekday.
A different sort of retreat is the type taken as a group, where a team united on a common project takes time out together. Earlier this year, groups from St Patrick’s, Soho, serving meals for the homeless, came together for a weekend retreat at Worth Abbey, led by a priest from the Community of St John. Worth is glorious – we loved the chanted Morning and Evening Prayer with the monks in the great church, the hearty Saturday afternoon walk in the countryside and the cheery well-sung Sunday Mass with lots of young families from all around.
Father John Jesus of the Community of St John (CSJ) took us through the Gospel of St Luke, opening up whole new dimensions I had never seen before, much less studied or explored. It was at once intellectually stimulating and profoundly inspiring. We grew together as a group, deepened friendships already forged through kitchen work at St P’s, and found a new sense of common purpose in praying together. The CSJ is one of the new movements in the Church and a sign of immense vigour and hope. Fr JJ, in his grey robes, seemed at home among the Benedictine monks, and all of us relished being out of London and – oh, back to schoolday memories again – in a place of beauty with a lake and a sense of away-from-it-all.
For most of us, monastic life is something rather remote and a retreat is a good way of learning to recognise it as a part of Catholic life. I found it rather satisfying to come across a monk busy at work with a bonfire in a wooded corner of the abbey grounds where this spring new plants will flourish. It was satisfying seeing them all filing into their places for prayer in the dark early morning, and knowing that this was happening day after day. There was something rather powerful about that rhythm of daily prayer and then the Sunday chatter of families gathering after Mass, children jumping about and news being exchanged, all under the benevolent shadow of the great church that dominates the scene.
We had a lengthy vigil of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament on the Saturday evening. I struggled with this – I am so used to being busy and to interspersing my work and activities with cups of tea. It was difficult to enthuse when given the weekend’s timetable. But I needed that quiet time, free of diary planning and emails. The Blessed Sacrament brought reverently to the altar, the silence, the peace, all finally opened up the space for prayer – and when things finished with Benediction, it was good to make our way to our beds with a sense of peace.
A retreat isn’t really an optional part of Catholic life – it’s something that is truly necessary to retain spiritual sanity in an internet-obsessed world with its news-driven sense of drama and its bickering and sniping. And a good retreat isn’t a time of self-obsessed me-on-me pondering: it includes challenge and refreshment, drawn from wellsprings of wisdom and soaked in prayer. Ingredients can include a good library (some spiritual classics, plenty of biographies and plenty of history), good food and real coffee, comfortable accommodation, the Offices of the Church and, ideally, access to some outdoor beauty – a shrine or grotto, lake or meadows or just a garden. We may well find, at some stage, that we must spend time with God in less pleasant places, in dinginess or difficulties, loneliness, hardship or worse. We do well to stock on the beauty that He willingly gives us and make use of it to ponder His love and care.
For more information on the retreats, visit isjlondon.com (Brothers of St John) and worthabbey.net (Worth Abbey) and for Opus Dei retreats contact [email protected]
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