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.

Audio version

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Spirit Days 2018

Spirit Days are a monastic invention, usually enjoyed after Pentecost since we are no longer allowed a liturgical octave in which to savour the fruits of the Holy Spirit. This year, however, we are keeping them before and during Pentecost, beginning today: three whole days of otium negotissimum, very busy leisure — a mini-retreat, if you like. The computer will be switched off, the answerphone switched on, and only the doorbell will be allowed to intrude on the silence (which we devoutly hope it won’t).

Like most monastic inventions (e.g. champagne, private confession) Spirit Days are capable of being very slightly subversive. The rationale behind them is beautifully simple. If we can’t have a proper liturgical octave, we can at least have some days of profound and joyous meditation on the Holy Spirit. Since we must follow the promptings of the Spirit in everything (or they would not be ‘Spirit’ Days), we are free to garden, make music, scribble poetry, knit, play with the dog or whatever (within reason) takes our fancy. This is liberty of spirit (small ‘s’) in action. As Fr Baker would often remind the nuns of Cambrai, ‘Follow your call, that’s all in all,’  and we are Bakerites to a nun. The only limitations are that we must pray, read, eat and sleep — exactly what is asked of the novice, whose fervour is legendary, if not always measured.

So, from today until Sunday evening, we shall be young again and simply rejoice in the Lord. Join us in spirit (small ‘s’) if you can.

An apology
Tweets, blog posts, etc have been pre-scheduled as we are not online. Comments will have to wait until after Pentecost for moderation.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

In Praise of Rain

Jokes about the drought are frequent. Ever since it was declared, it seems, we have had nothing but rain. April was the wettest on record for a century; it was followed by an unusually wet May. Even now the skies pour down; so why not celebrate rain and sing its praises?

It is a grey morning here in Herefordshire, but the raindrops skittering down the window panes are more brilliant than the Queen’s ‘river pageant dress’ as they trace their delicate patterns of silver and crystal down the glass. Step outside, and the rain feels warm and fresh on one’s face. The earth is soaking up the rain, with grass and trees bending under its weight. From the undergrowth comes the unmistakable smell of wet earth and lush vegetation. One can almost hear the grass growing at one’s feet. Everything is vibrant with life.

In the Bible rain is always seen as a precious gift, giving life and freshness to the earth. As befits a nation of desert-dwellers, the Israelites celebrated rain as a blessing, to be longed for in time of drought, praised as spring rain and autumn rain, gloried in as a sign of God’s gift of fertility and growth. Like them, we pray for the heavens to rain down the Just One, liken the action of the Word of God to the rain doing its work on the earth, acknowledge Christ to be Lord of sky and storm.

We are glad of the rain, for two dry winters have reminded us that it is not a gift to be taken for granted. As we sing in the Canticle of Daniel, ‘springs and showers, bless the Lord’; and as Fr Baker reminds us in Sancta Sophia, we are called to ‘praise the Lord amidst the noise of the water-spouts’. A cheering thought as we raise our ‘brollies yet again.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail