Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Silent Retreat: The Final Episode

I have deliberately slept in as late as possible, missing both the early church service and silent prayer. (I feel I did enough of that in the night.) I don't usually opt out where something is optional but feel that health-giving sleep is what I needed most.

I join the others for Matins. Some of the full time students are there too, in their long robes. Again the service is uplifting and atmospheric and again I don't sing. It pains me. I watch how the full time students are integrated into the worshipping life of the community and feel slightly resentful. Us part-timers stand out in our civvies, muffled up in our performance outerwear and scarves against the cold, not always fully on the ball with the liturgy. The full-timers belong. We don't.

At breakfast the brothers are in silence because we are in silence. It strikes me how noisy the sound of forty or so sets of cutlery on crockery are and I conduct an experiment to see whether it is possible to eat without clattering. It is and I conclude that this may be a passive-aggressive act on the part of the brothers, who must now be close to formulating their break-out strategy. I resolve not to catch Annie's eye. Annie is a giggler.

Annie, however, is having her own issues. With great synchrenicity, or possibly the Grace of God, Annie, who works in mental health chaplaincy, has found herself seated next to the brother who suffers from dementia.

"Are you Amy?"

"No, my name's Annie."

"Ah! The mother of our Lord. And are you a nun?"

"No, I just had my hood up because it was cold in church."

"Are we in silence today?"

"Yes, I'm afraid we are."

"And what's your name dear?"


"Are you a nun?"

I have two bowls of porridge. A cereal killer.

The other Mike has his arm in a sling and has a broken elbow. Something about wet leaves in the dark. He looks to be in pain. He is clearly a much better person than me because he has made no fuss whereas I, with a cold - possibly man-flu, don't feel I have had anything like enough sympathy.

We have four guided sessions over the day. Our tutor is using the Gospel of Matthew and is looking at signs of the servant. Each session has a fifteen minute input and then we are encouraged to walk in the grounds in prayer and contemplation, or use the library, find a quiet space or go back to bed. I opt for the grounds. I am the only one. The others aren't stupid. It is a wonderful Autumn day but so cold. Even in my Estonian jacket - and they know about cold there - I am soon freezing. I hear the sounds of children and follow the path down to a field where four teams of lads aged about 8/9 are playing soccer. These are real matches and very much part of a traditional British Saturday morning. The lads all have proper kit and there are plenty of parents standing on the touchline, their breath steaming around them. I watch for a while at the same time as trying to empty my mind. It is not a good combination so devoid of any spiritual insights other than the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside I head back to the guest house and take the final meditative option, bed.

I do not sleep. I lay quietly and empty my mind. This is not something I am very good at, but I do manage to lay there, wide awake and receptive. I have no deep experiences but I do have a strong sense of peace.

We begin to emerge from our places of contemplation. I am surprised that so many of us had gone for the bed option. No I'm not really. Danny makes me a cup of tea and I am amused again at how funny we all are when we try to communicate in sign langauge. This is silly.

"No sugar." I say.
"You'll go to Hell." he replies.
"What, for not having sugar or for speaking?"
"For having a tattooed penis. Neil said so."
Ah, Neil. I do feel bad that I have not been able to make my peace with him before his sudden and flouncy exit from my blog.

We return to silence.

During the second session I am very much taken by what our tutor has to say. She is talking about Jesus and the temptations in the wilderness from Mat. 3. These temptations are the temptations of ministry. We need to know our own areas of temptation so that our ministries do no founder. The temptations of Jesus were the issues which could have been the backdrop for his own self-agrandisement: he needed to know what his areas of weakness were as he began his ministry. We need to know ours.

Very thought provoking and not an approach I had taken before.

Lunch is the most wonderful comfort food. Huge sausages in a casserole of thick gravy and winter veg, with mashed potatos followed by banana custard. I think I have died and gone to Heaven.

"Are you Amy?

"No, my name's Annie."

"Are you a nun?"

"No, sorry."


Session three. Well, I must confess that I went to bed and missed it. I told Dr. Bob first. I knocked on his door. He mimed "come in". Strangely I didn't see that from the other side of the door. When he opened his door I noticed that he had a spacious twin room. How did that happen? He must be very important!

"I could have a party." he whispered "If we weren't in silence."

"Going to bed. Not well." I croak.

He smiles sympathetically.

Session four has us looking at Mat. 4 where Jesus goes through Galilee preaching and healing. Such is our gifting we are told. To be reconcilers we have first to be reconciled and healed ourselves. As we allow the grace of God into our lives we ask for healing from our own jaggednesses so that we may more effectively share that grace with others. We do a breathing exercise. We imagine taking in God's grace at every inhalation.

What am I exhaling?

I am slipping into the rhythm of the weekend now: Evensong and a eucharist and, obsessed by the fear of infecting everyone else, I intincture. I notice Mike, standing next to me, does the same. Probably too late now Mate. There is an elderly African monk. I don't know his name and this is the first time I have seen him all weekend. His arrival is announced well before he appears by the shuffling of his carpet slippers. On every occasion I have seen him he is always fifteen minutes late to the service. Is it beyond anyone's wit to suggest he sets off fiteen minutes before the others? Then it is the evening meal. I have never before eaten a meal wearing a coat and scarf.

"Are you Amy?"


"Are you a nun?"


I go to bed at 8.00pm and listen to Classic F.M. I engineer one personalised sunset. I am gone.

I have not reset my alarm and my own personalised sunrise sees me having missed silent prayers again.


I am wooly headed with the uninterrupted sleep.

The Community Eucharist is a site to behold: all the Brothers, all the full time students, robed and acting as acolytes and all us part timers. We have incense, candles and chanting. We also have a fabulous sermon from Fr. Oswin. (If I become a monk I might choose Oswin. Isn't it a great name?)

I remember something Fr. George said on the first night. The community has an honourable history of resisting apartheid in the old South Africa and one of the brothers was imprisoned by the authorities. When he contacted the community he was at pains to reassure them that he was well:

"Its just like being at home but the food is better."

Hows that for British phlegm?

I am freezing cold and I notice how many of the brothers are wearing sandles. I'm clearly not cut out for the monastic life. Can I still call myself Oswin? I suddenly realise I have not coughed or sneezed so far today.

At the end of the service the silence is suspended and yet no-one rushes to speak. Over lunch before departure in the college refectory with the full timers and our first years who have been on a teaching weekend and kept apart from us lest we communicate, conversations begin. I comment to Dr. Bob that one of the advantages of the silence has been not listening to Barry's flow-of-consciousness lame jokes. Quick as a flash Barry replies:

"You wait all year for Jack to lose his voice and he goes and does it on a silent weekend. Where's the justice?"