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.