A Retreat We Didn’t Expect

Last week, when I announced that the community would be making its annual eight-day retreat, most people wished us well, assured us of their prayers and thought no more about it. A few expressed envy. Eight whole days alone with God! Nothing to do but become holy! How wonderful! If only it were so. We have just survived the most gruelling retreat I think any of us has ever experienced, and none of us is very keen to repeat the experience. I suspect monastic readers will have an inkling where this is leading, but for those of you who are not monastic but full of innocent enthusiasm, let me explain.

The community’s retreat is carefully planned — the work of the house has to continue but the eight days we spend in retreat are the nearest we come to a holiday, so rest and relaxation are meant to be  part of it. We try to avoid appointments that take us out of the monastery or bring others in, disengage from the internet, social media and other forms of communication, and try to focus more completely on the more hidden side of our lives. We have some shared lectio divina, so that there is a common element, but in general we follow Fr Baker’s advice, ‘Follow your call; that’s all in all.’ If that includes some time spent drowsing over a novel in the garden or dabbling in watercolours, so be it. 

Usually it works well, in the sense that we look back fondly on our retreat time and acknowledge its blessings gratefully. I’m not sure that would be true this time. The retreat began began badly, with a great deal of upset caused by someone outside the community. Next, there were seemingly endless interruptions, minor domestic crises and sleepless nights (not helped by the fact that I twice forgot to unplug the main telephone overnight, so that we had nuisance calls in the small hours). Finally, there were unexpected demands from various bodies that we supply them with statistical information, financial subscriptions or whatever, and do so IMMEDIATELY. The milk of charity turned to yoghurt in my veins when, having duly worked out and supplied the required information, we received automated Out of Office replies telling us that those who had made the demands were now on holiday. It is alleged, though I couldn’t possibly comment on the truth of the matter, that something like a parsonical ’damn’ was heard to shatter the silence of the monastic scriptorium as yet another unhelpful email zipped through the ether.

So, was it all negative? Something to grumble about, a wasted opportunity? A retreat that left us dazed and crotchety, not to mention tired? Certainly, it wasn’t the retreat we planned or expected. It was actually much better than anything we could have devised. That doesn’t mean it was enjoyable. It wasn’t, but it did teach us something that idling in paradise or shaping everything to suit ourselves could not. It showed us how much we need God, how much we lack patience (a very Benedictine virtue) and how necessary it is to be ready to begin again every day of our lives. In other words, the retreat did what a retreat should do, and the fact that we didn’t enjoy it or wish to repeat it demonstrates how necessary it was for us, both as individuals and as a community. Today, therefore, we give thanks for our retreat — and are relieved that we don’t have to go through the process for another year.

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13 thoughts on “A Retreat We Didn’t Expect”

  1. Thank you for this honest account. I hope you will find some of the joys of retreat seeping into ordinary time.

    “The milk of Charity turned to yogurt in my veins” is my new favourite sentence. I SO understand what that means!

    Grace and peace to you. Andrew

  2. Well, I’m glad you’re back, life is not the same without a frequent dose of Digital Nun wisdom. But how you navigated that without ending up with a rubbish bin of rotten scraps instead of just yoghurt, deserves a paeon of Alleluias from all Christendom.

    Wind down week sounds wonderful. Enjoy.

  3. Oh the joys!! Have a good week now….and I expect it will be next year that a totally unknown young woman arrives at the Monastery by taxi convinced that she is meant to test her vocation. NOW. (She didn’t stay)

      • We were lucky; it was mid-morning when she turned up. A large part of the rest of the day was spent listening to her, then contacting the Sisters (from another Community) who were running our Norwich house; they were able to accommodate her and! put her in contact with somewhere/someone who could really give her the help she needed. We were blessed that day….

  4. My mother-in-law‘s favourite dictum:
    Patience is a virtue
    Possess it if you can.
    Seldom in a woman,
    Never in a man.
    From me: No Comment.

  5. I too will take away the yogurt metaphor. As a vascular surgeon it had always been ‘treacle’. The clotting of yoghurt is much more apt.

    Do hope you all get peace this week.

    Sending love,

  6. I wonder – would it have been better or worse if all that had happened in a non-retreat week?

    It all feels rather like -work- to be honest. I recently broke down in complete hysterical laughter when realising that my esteemed managers had now assigned my working hours 3 times over between now and Christmas. I mean, at that point it isnt a ‘I could but I might have to be late delivering x’, it’s a simple ‘no, this is impossible’.

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