In the preparation for Advent, Antonia Willis explores different retreat centres.
town or WE LIVE in
town or country,
whether we work in a busy office or at home, we are constantly bombarded with images, statements and sounds that distract us from the important things in life, threatening to distort our sense of perspective. It is almost impossible to turn on the television or open a magazine without some startling pronouncement, usually reflecting a new branch of 20th century secular superstition, confronting us with its absurdity: "If I'm in control of my skin, I'm in control of my life", we hear; "I always judge a man by the name of his bathroom", we read. No wonder so many of us rush out to buy copies of Munch's painting, "The Scream'.
Well, there is, thank heavens, an antidote to material overload and the pressures induced by a daily diet of nonsense: restful contemplation. Those of us who long for a bit of peace and quiet in an atmosphere where Catholic values are taken for granted, rather than ignored, can do no better than to rush off to a nearby Retreat centre as soon as the opportunity for a break presents itself. The rich, when feeling jaded or physically unfit, think nothing of paying several hundred of pounds a week to be closeted in some ghastly institution where they are forced to eat mung beans for lunch, endure the pummelling of hefty Swedish matrons all afternoon and are then sent to bed early with a glass of carrot juice and a lump of cucumber strapped to each eye. The rest of us, when feeling spiritually jaded and unfit, can pack a toothbrush and a few creased fivers and head for one of the tranquil refuges provided by our Religious communities.
Traditions of monastic hospitality are alive and thriving in this country, perhaps more strongly now than at any time since that unfortunate historical hiatus known euphemistically as the Reformation. There are dozens of Retreat centres in the UK and Ireland, and although you do have to pay for board and lodging, charges are invariably kept to a minimum, accommodation is often in stunningly beautiful (and always peaceful) surroundings, and what is offered is, of course, priceless. Perhaps, in due course, some enterprising soul will come up with a Good Retreats Guide; in the meantime, here are some of the centres which, by all accounts, provide spiritual as well as physical refreshment, and comfort for the world-weary.
St Mary's Priory, outside the village of Fernham in Oxfordshire invites retreatants to spend time in their guest house, St Gabriel's, in "prayer, recollection and reflection", with the opportunity to take part in the Divine Office and to attend daily Mass with the community. The retreat house, a simple but warm and comfortable log chalet, is set in delightful landscape, close to a network of country lanes and bridle-paths leading up to the Downs and, as the sisters point out, to the famous Iron Age White Horse. The emphasis at St Mary's is on private, nonstructured retreats, but if anyone wants to talk to a member of the community, this can readily be arranged. A library of books and cassettes on spiritual and religious topics is available to retreatants, who are welcome either singly or in small groups.
Belmont Abbey is a famous foundation set in the glorious hill-country of Herefordshire. Their new Retreat-master, Dom Brendan Thomas, says, with every justification, that the Abbey is "the perfect place for rest, prayer and reflection"; he also emphasises the energetic activities that take place under the aegis of the community. There is a real flourishing of the arts at Belmont Abbey, reflecting St Benedict's instruction to his monks that "God must be glorified in all things". Hence retreatants can learn about the relationship of plainsong to prayer, with the guidance of the Abbey's erudite and well-known musician, Abbot Alan Rees; they can take a quick course in calligraphy, in Celtic Christianity, or in icon painting. More fundamentally, they can take part in the Abbey's Retreat on "praying the scriptures", during which, Dom Brendan says, there is guidance on how to dwell on and pray through the Bible, using the Benedictine concept of lectio Divina. On a prosaic level, it should be noted that the Abbey's Hedley Lodge guest house is comfortable enough to have won the Tourist Board's coveted three crowns, and is extraordinarily cheap. Women who are not used to staying within the bounds of male monastic communities might like to know that their arrival, singly or with friends, is now both welcome and indeed commonplace. Incidentally, Belmont Abbey trades under the enchanting name of Monksoft Ltd.
Loyola Hall outside Prescot, Merseyside, is, as the name indicates, a Jesuit foundation. The community welcomes retreatants for weekends and for periods of up to thirty days, and offers an impressive range of structured retreat topics with themes including "Loving Relationships and You", led by Dr Jack Dominion, and "Finding God in Literature" led by Sr Sheila Mulryan, IBVM. They also offer a retreat, led by Fr Alban Byron, for divorced and separated Catholics. Fr Alban is known for his sensitivity in dealing with this tricky area, and those of us who are divorced or separated might well find that a trip to Merseyside could prove invaluable in helping to find a way of living within the Church despite obvious difficulties.
The Benedictine Monastery of Christ the King in London's Cockfosters promises a warm welcome and a haven from metropolitan bustle; the Prior, Dom Placid Meylink, stresses that anyone is welcome to stay, and he is keen to "develop still further the ecumenical and interfaith intentions of the foundation." There are currently six guest rooms available, with self-catering facilities; the monks have embarked on an ambitious building project which will lead to the completion of a further 20 guest rooms by mid 1995. As at St Mary's, Fernham, retreats here are not structured, and guests are free to come and go as they please; they may use the garden and the library, and are welcome to attend Divine Office.
The Grail Centre at Pinner, Middlesex, is rather different from the other retreat centres in that its focus is a lay, not religious women's community. In the grounds of the main building, which is largely a Victorian extension of an older farmhouse, are four small and two large "poustinias"; the word (Russian for a place apart) reflects the intentions of the community in providing simple, private dwellings where retreatants can turn hermit for a day or so, or live near the community who will help those who want a more structured approach.
Across the sea, in Ireland's Boyne valley, is Bellinter House, a retreat and conference centre run by sisters of Our Lady of Sion. The sisters have a vocation to foster understanding between Christians and Jews, and from this they extend their aim to espouse the cause of "minorities discriminated against by society, e.g. travelling people, immigrants and, in many cases, women". They run various courses which reflect this ethos, but also welcome private retreatants for long or short periods.