I have just returned from a couple of short days away in a religious community on retreat, and having benefited spiritually from such an experience felt that I should share some reflections on it with you. Many people have never experienced a retreat and may wonder what it may offer them, some may just wonder what happens on a retreat and may just regard it as a couple of days holiday for the vicar, but I believe that it is a powerful spiritual discipline and one which can benefit us as both individual Christians and the body of Christ in Elson.
I have been spending my time with a community of nuns called the Sisters of the Love of God, based at Fairacres in East Oxford. The Convent [of the Incarnation is within walking distance of the town centre in a student house-share dominated part of town. The area has a slightly run-down feel and a considerable ethnic diversity. Past its gates however, there is a large, spacious and above all quiet sacred space, as these Carmelite Anglican Sisters do their work of prayer and contemplation.
Retreats differ from one religious community to another, and may be guided by a Sister or a priest or as I prefer, unguided. For most of the two days I spend my time in silence, the only words spoken are in worship (5 offices a day and mass). The rest of the time, once shown in, the mantle of quiet settles and one is able to spend time in prayer, spiritual reading, contemplation and reflection; one potters around with a cup of tea and a homemade flapjack, engaged in the kind of spiritual engagement that normal parish life simply does not afford one.
One must got get the impression that this contemplative work is unconnected with the world. It follows in a very challenging way, Christ’s prayer for us to be in the world but not of it (John 15:19). One does not spend this time of quiet, with mobile phone and television turned off, disengaged with the world, but I immerse myself in the world whilst still in silence. I walk down by the river and through the Oxford Colleges and in the midst of the busyness of Oxford, but in prayerful watchfulness. Absorbing, reflecting and seeking God in the midst of all this. Some might find the town oppressive and prefer the country, whereas I find that latter environment uncomfortable. I suppose we are at heart either country or city people, and I know what kind of person I am.
In this quiet, through time of prayer in the silent chapel and before the blessed sacrament, whole new avenues of spiritual refreshment become possible. In a city, in a community, one discovers that it is possible to rub against one another and form community without formality and our bonding as the body of Christ becomes stronger than ever. Early(ish) nights and sleep contribute to the rebuilding of one’s spiritual strength which one prays will be to the benefit of our parish. New insights to our problems, creative new ways of doing what we already do well and a reassurance of God’s love are made plain in the stillness of prayer, the study of God’s word and basking in his presence.
I was privileged to be asked to celebrate the Mass for the Community on St George’s Day, and it was a wonderful, spiritual experience; although the pace and stillness of their mass takes some getting used to!
So, what good has come out of my retreat this year? Hmmm. Too soon to tell, I suspect. I know for one thing that 3 days is simply too short, and that next time I should spend more days actually in silence, with part of Monday and perhaps Friday given over to travelling. I was just getting deeply into it when I was torn away. The spiritual benefits of the retreat will, undoubtedly, bear fruit shortly.
There is no set cost for a retreat with the SLG in Oxford, you make a contribution, get fed once a day at lunchtime and the rest of the time fend for yourself from a simply stocked food store or a trip to the Tesco’s on Cowley Road. Oxford is only an hour and a half by road or two and a half by a very good train from Gosport. I commend a retreat to you all: time spent with God is time very well spent indeed, and you will find it useful, stimulating and energising.
A beginning point might be a Quiet Day with our Diocese’s own Religious Community: the Sisters of Bethany in Southsea. I am leading a day on the 17th May which comprises of two talks, a mass and some opportunity for quietness and prayer on a Saturday. Speak with your clergy if you are interested.
Another good place to start is the Retreat Association who publish a directory of places (not always Religious Communities) where you can go on retreat. Local(ish) places to us here in Gosport include SLG (where I go), the Benedictines at Alton or Elmore near Newbury, Benedictine nuns at West Malling in Kent, Hillfield in Dorset with the Franciscans or Quarr Abbey with the Romans on the Isle of Wight. Fr Simon, Mother Margaret or Caroline would be happy to advise you further.
May you find Christ in the stillness. Go on retreat. It will transform you.