Sunday, November 23, 2008

Silent Retreat 3


If you are going to be ill, a silent retreat is the place to do it. We are not in the college but in the religious community: this is the community which brought the world Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu, and I have a strong admiration for the work of these men. Daphne arrives next and she gets 10 out of 10 as a trainee vicar for supplying tea and sympathy and the suggestion that I should go to bed until formal procedings start. My cell is eight feet by seven and contains a bed, a chair, a chest, a washbasin, a desk and a window. My bed is seductive with smooth, soft sheets and a yeilding mattress and I succumb to its charms. (Steady on!) It is a quick nap and I soon find myself in the common room with Stuart, both plugged into our i-pods and sitting in comfy chairs. We look, Hilda subsequently tells us as she sets out a succulent chocolate cake, like two old men in an old people's home with our hearing aids in.

The others arrive in dribs and drabs and our little birthday party is a success with Karen and Dr. Bob pleased with the convivialities. I am now feeling dreadful again and have taken to carrying my own box of tissues around. I am now borderline obsessive/compulsive over the use of tissues and hand washing.

"Stick with Shan, she's a nurse" Sue advises.

"Yes but when I was asked to sit with an old lady in church who looked ill," Shan confides, "I thought she had dozed off (it was the vicar, after all) only she had actually collapsed. Still, I got her to hospital in time."

Evensong is one of those amazingly spiritual occasions: religion through theatre. The church is vast and airy and, as dusk falls, incredibly atmospheric with its subdued candle-lit shimmer. Our hosts, the brothers - an ecclectic mix of lay and ordained Anglican men, mainly on the old side of completely indeterminate in term of age - conduct their worship in plainsong and the liturgy is chanted with the beauty that only a lifetime's commitment and confidence can bring to its rhythms and choreography. I am, as ever, moved only saddened that I have no voice to join in with the chanting and feel somehow cheated of this contribution to worship which I always enjoy.

My joints now all ache, particularly my lower back.

Dinner is with the brothers. We are in informal silence (apart from my caughing and sneezing)as we listen to Fr. John read to us from the life of St. Bernard. I catch a glimpse of the continuity of the monastic order's practice down the ages.

However the reading is unutterably dull. Fr. John is my personal tutor and his Belfast lilt goes someway towards making the life of St. Bernard marginally more interesting.

"When does the poor chap get his meal?" I wonder. I sidle up to him later and thank him for his reading which I claim to have enjoyed.

"Did you really? I didn't. I much preferred the biography of Kate Adie which we read last week." Kate Adie is a national treasure

We have one taught session this evening: Fr. George on Benedictine spirituality. In and amongst he told us a little of the history of The Community of the Resurrection and he talked about the joys and challenges of living in community.

Compline is optional. Mike and I opt out. We have forty minutes before formal silence to catch up as we are taught at different sites. No siting up until two in the morning putting the world to rights on this weekend for us then.

At 10.00 I go to bed. By 10.02 I am asleep. At 11.05 I am wide awake. My teeth now ache and I am shivering. I have a lamp which can be set to mimic sunset and sunrise as an aid to natural sleep. I set it again to do the sunset thing. And Again. And again until I am worried that so many sunsets in such a short period will cause a rupture in the fabric of the universe and then where should we be?

I dream of the BVM only I know it isn't her, but a woman in a cunning disguise. There are two clues to this. 1) she wears blue, everyone knows that, not a pink sari and 2) she doesn't usually travel on a zebra. I don't normally have religious dreams and I know this is linked to my strong objection to the nasty Victorian plaster cast of the BVM on the common-room mantlepiece which I always make a point of turning to the wall. I have nothing against the BVM as such (well not much. Actually, how long have you got?) But I do object to mawkish Victorian iconography. The community is, you will have realised, a tad Anglo-Catholic.

On the way to the shower in the morning, Cathy, wearing a nice line in bedsocks I feel - not every woman could carry them off as well as that, slips me a long strip of paracetamol. A fistful of dullars.

"There you go, Chuck." (She is from Liverpool. You can take the girl out of Liverpool but you can't take Liverpool......) Anyway. I have now had so many paracetamol that the brothers have me down on suicide watch.

Things can only get better.

I text my beloved to tell her I have a very heavy cold and awful symptoms. She replies "Don't come home."

Maybe not then.