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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What is a Retreat?

People often ask what a retreat is, and then question why nuns should need to make one. Those of you who have done one of our online retreats will know that it took me eight minutes to sketch an answer to the first part of the question without attempting the second. However, as the community begins its annual retreat tonight (and I shall be offline save for the daily FB prayer intention on our Page and some pre-written posts which will appear, as if by magic, in this blog), I thought it might be good to say something about what a retreat is and what it is meant to help us do or become.

Essentially a retreat is a time when we try to let go of as much of the busyness of life as we can in order to spend more time in prayer and meditation on the scriptures. It means a shift of focus, hopefully a deepening of attention to God. Often the first few days are rather bleak. It isn’t as easy to let go as we thought — even in a monastery! One by one our defences against God are taken down, and even though that is what we most desire, it is painful and seems contradictory. We want to pray, but prayer is the one thing we can’t manage. We want to come closer to God, and it is as though two opposing magnetic poles were at work. We want to focus on God but all we see is ourselves, and not the selves we hope the rest of the world sees, but the selves that deep down we know ourselves to be: grubby, and not very impressive.

Sometimes that is the whole work of the retreat: to let us see ourselves as we are and know that we are loved, despite all our blemishes and shortcomings. Sometimes, we are permitted to go further: to catch a glimpse of the beauty and holiness of God that makes us want to change radically, to become, however inadequately, more ‘worthy’ of His love. Conversion does not usually happen all at once with a road-to-Damascus finality. It is a process that gradually unfolds in our lives. That’s why we Benedictines make a vow of conversatio morum, a promise to open ourselves to this process every day.

During these days of retreat (we emerge on 5 September), we shall be undergoing a kind of death-to-life experience, a conversion, if you like. Our part is to free the time and give God scope to work, trusting that He will do what seems best to Him. Please pray for us as we do for you. Often the fruits of a retreat are not seen until long after, but if we are sincere in our searching, we know that he will respond. God is never outdone in generosity.

St Monica
Today is the feast of St Monica, patron saint of the widowed. Here’s what I wrote about her last year: http://www.ibenedictines.org/2011/08/27/widowhood.

BBC R4 Sunday Programme
Yesterday’s BBC R4 ‘Sunday’ programme (in which Digitalnun took part with Vicky Beeching and Bishop Alan Wilson) can be found on iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01m4bwc/Sunday_26_08_2012/Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Online Retreats

Yesterday we received the first feedback from our Online Retreats. Eleven* people took the trouble to sit down and write a thoughtful, and in some cases quite detailed, response to the whole experience as well as the particular questions raised by doing a retreat on lectio divina. Even in my tired and curmudgeonly state, I was immensely encouraged — by the obvious sincerity, the desire for God, the generous appreciation of what we are trying to do and the evident determination to carry the retreat on into daily life. We were particularly struck by one person’s comment that we had brought the monastery to them: that is exactly what we had hoped to do, to enable people to share in its inner life of prayer and worship.

What we were not prepared for was the fact that many found the title of one set of retreats, Five Minute Focus, bewildering. In our defence I can only say that we did not mean the ‘five minutes’ to be taken literally, although I suppose one could read through some of the retreat material in five minutes. We wanted to convey the idea of focusing on God, of regularly returning to him through the day in short ‘bursts’ or periods of attention. In the context of lectio divina or prayer that makes perfect sense. Perhaps we should have spelled that out. At least everyone who responded acknowledged that they had received ‘value for money’!

Both the dedicated Retreatline (email) and LiveChat have enabled users to ask questions and share reflections in confidence, so it looks as though the Five Minute Focus format is working well. We shall be tweaking things a little in the light of the responses we have received and may make adjustments to the Shared and Companion Retreats before launching them later this year. The one utterly devastating criticism (made by only one person, and in such a gentle, kind way one couldn’t take offence) was that we didn’t seem to have a sense of humour. As I have often been taken to task for having too much humour, I am nonplussed. I blame the dog. Wouldn’t you?

* Eleven people may not sound a huge sample, but the service has only been running a little over a week.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail