So here I am, sitting on a lovely Virgin train leaning its way around the corners that lead me back to home. Just the place to reflect on the 8 days now past- spent in silence at St Beuno’s Ignatian Retreat Centre near St Asaph, North Wales.
I went with as few expectations as my over active imagination could avoid, just hungry to make a new spiritual journey towards God.
The experience was not about fireworks, emotional and spiritual highs, but it was every much a spiritual journey for all that- full of humour, grace and peace. You may also be surprised to hear that 8 days spent in silence, with little reading even, was rarely boring! I thought the best way to describe it was to share some excerpts from my journal, so here we go;
Friday (on arrival.)
(St Beuno’s) is a place that feels comfortable, in a rather staid way. Because of its Jesuit ethos of silent contemplation, people do not speak to one another- rather they walk past one another and do not as much as nod. To someone schooled in the primacy of communication, it seems somehow alien. I can not decide whether it is a relief not to have to make small talk with all these strangers, or slightly missing the overt hospitality.
(I wrote down some prayers;)
Free me from performance and the need to impress
Free me from the need to be liked
Free me from the need to compete in order to feel of worth
Let me be me
So you can be you
After a snooze I went to the Eucharist service. The out-of-placeness returned. Strange liturgy, ritual I did not understand and sung elements I did not know. I decided not to take communion as this seems to be a hot issue in the Catholic church at the moment.
I sat looking through the song book- lots of unfamiliar hymns and songs, but lots of familiar ones too. I came across this one and it made me cry
My song is love unknown. My Savour’s love to me: love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be. O who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?
Brian (retreat guide) gave me a couple of pieces of scripture again- one from Isaiah and another from the Gospel of Mark…
I then sat in the summerhouse and read Isaiah 43 1-4- which is of course very familiar- it is the same passage that Mary and Andrew gave to us when we came up to Scotland. Hmmmm. The same mixed passage- about him being with us when we pass through fire and through waters. And then the bit about sending people from the north south, east and west. Did this happen? Is it just a co-incidence- it is a rather obvious bit of scripture to give to anyone who is feeling cut off from God I suppose? Let us just hold it there and see what happens next…
(in the hills in the tiny rock chapel)
I intended to read some of the passages that Brian had given me, but before I did so I decided to listen to some music. I thumbed through the options of my Mp3 player and decided first on some choral music- that was enough to break open the floodgates, next I listened to black gospel, then Matt Redman- I was singing along and crying. Matt Redman had these constant references to breathing and breath, and each time I breathed there was a cloud of vapour mist. I spent nearly two hours in there in the end.
After lunch, a long walk- the sun is shining and I went over the other side of the main road, along some quiet lanes, and eventually up into the hills and forest, crunching the snow and putting up pheasants. I took no photographs, just put my head down and tramped. I think I must have walked around 6-7 miles.
On my return, after the bath, I was tired and a bit head achy and not feeling well. I did not go to the service.
If I go come home now, I would. Perhaps just as well that I can’t as who knows what the next few days will bring?
Time to go to the chapel and just be for a while.
…Back now after who knows how long- half and hour, and hour? I sat breathing out the words “Do not be afraid”, then the other translation “Peace be with you” words that Jesus seems to use a lot, and then I realised that I am not often at peace. I am usually either distracted (often with good things, but many times with trash) or slightly disturbed- chewing over things, picking at scars, hoping for things (particularly myself) to be better/more productive, more fulfilled…
…This afternoon and evening I did art. Lots of art! I am even sort of pleased with one of them… I am just back from the art space and it is nearly 11. I missed the service and everything.
Went out to Labyrinth and sat in the hut to read Mark 4, 35-41 (Jesus Calms the storm) and Luke 12 12-32 (The rich fool and not worrying)
I liked this from the message; “…not to be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.”
There is the line too- “The father wants to give you the Kingdom itself!”
I went to the chapel for a while, then to the art space. Made a picture collage. Enjoyed it, and it more or less looks like I hoped it would. Needs a layer of PVA glue tomorrow. Also messed around with water colours- for the first time in years. Less pleased with those! I think I spent 7 hours in there- which went in a flash.
(with retreat guide)
We were talking too about reading the Bible, how a poetic reading of the Bible is different- no less truthful, but in poetry we read for a deeper truth. The words are just as precise, just as rich as any textbook, but they are set free to become active, even ambiguous. So it is that the words of God (as opposed the The Word) can come to lead us on and on and on. I suggested that I had often wished that the words of St Paul had been written as poems. “Or READ as poems” retorted Brian…
It is amazing how much we still communicate with others even in silence, or rather how much communication we perceive from others. You find yourself, after many silent days spent in the company of strangers, ascribing to them personalities based on clothes, body movement, smileyness and general demeanour. So there is one bloke who I have taken a dislike to as he stares malevolently at me, and seems to always push others out his direction of travel- particularly in the food queue. Then there is the shy woman who always scurries, and the self possessed at-ease-with-herself one. There is the man who wears expensive suits and exudes control and the nice bloke who I can only hold in the highest admiration for his willingness to fart at a silent retreat not once but three times- smiling benevolently throughout. I like him! What do they all make of me?
(after long journey in my head through Jesus death, theories of atonement…)
but this is enough for now. Pretty soon we are going to have a communion service, and I am going to take bread and wine.
Met with Brian- told about yesterday- he gave me the death of Jesus again, then told be to be silent, and then read the resurrection! Followed by good old Thomas.
I was fairly lazy today- spent a slow morning in the bedroom reading the passages, then in the afternoon took a long walk on a loop round some roads, back into the fields, then a bath, and it was time to go out for a meal with Maggy.
Lovely meal, now just looking forward to coming home…
In reading through these fairly random excerpts, I am not sure that they fully communicate the richness of silence as a means to open up deep things of this world and the next. I was not always purposeful or fully engaged in my silence- I am a past master at going into my own skull and disappearing- part of the survival skills learnt in a troubled childhood. However, there was always a turn around, new thing to encounter. If ever things became ’empty’, I did something else- I headed for the hills, one of the chapels, or made some art.
Thanks to the lovely Brian McClorry there was also lots of humour to be had! He has an impish intelligence that often tripped over into glee with who God is.
If you are considering going on retreat- go for it. It is something you are unlikely to regret.
I will posting a few more bits and pieces from my retreat over the next days…
Thanks for sharing a very personal and honest account of your time in silence. So wonderful to see St Beunos in the snow, especially the labyrinth. On my visit a couple of months previously it was covered in leaves! With you on Brian’s impish sense of humour by the way.