It's always nice when you have idle time not to have to think of ways to fill it up yourself for once, but to be presented with a task by someone else. So, when the Warden of Fairacres asked me if I'd lead a retreat, I leapt at the chance. That may sound a rather peculiar title to some of you, so I should explain that Fairacres is the name of the place where the (Anglican) Sisters of the Love of God have their Convent of the Incarnation, between Iffley Road and the River Thames, by Donnington Bridge, in Oxford. It's rather a magical place which I've been visiting since I was directed there by a lady on a train on a journey back to Oxford from Edinburgh in 1988. It seemed a bit loony saying "Dear Prioress, I met this woman on a train, and she said I should visit you" but you should always follow your nose in these things, and nearly 27 years later, we are still friends. In fact I wrote a letter to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands about exploring a possible vocation to the priesthood at the same time as that letter. It has been a much happier relationship than that which developed with the Church of England, and is now the only place where I am regularly invited, and welcomed, to preach and to celebrate holy communion.
Retreats, for those who are unfamiliar with them, are times set aside for paying special attention to God. There are lots of different kinds - they may focus on certain approaches to prayer, or meditation on Biblical and especially Gospel stories, they may be self-directed with a good book and a better intention, or directed by talks from someone with a few ideas, and on a good day, a little wisdom to share, or they may be entirely silent, aiming in the removal of all distraction to hear the still small voice of God. I've tended to go for the silent sort, so being asked to lead a retreat was a challenge. I've done it before, but generally for parishioners (other people's) who had heard of retreats and wanted to give one a go, or for students who never had, and thought they sounded an interesting adventure in spiritual seriousness. This was to be for the Companions of the Sisters of the Love of God, what you might call the "groupies", those whose personal circumstances and calling had not led them to join the community itself, but who have found refreshment in its life and witness. So these were seasoned campaigners, all of them far more experienced in the retreat business than I am. And we were to be joined by the newly elected Mother Superior of the order, whose serene presence and leadership of some of the worship, and gently sensible way of exploring ideas and solving problems, was a great boon - although of course, it does rather raise the stakes! I've generally had most of the community in attendance on days when I'd been invited to take the morning eucharist, but that's never more than an hour, and this was to be four solid days of having to be a grown-up, with witnesses. Well "faint heart ..." and all that, and tally-ho.
Our destination was the Llangasty Retreat House, Brecon, Powys, LD3 7PX, it's got a website too, and I've given the full address because it has my wholehearted recommendation. It's set in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, beside an immense lake, which I'd thought must be landscaped, but no, it's an original feature, laid down by our Maker before there were any people around to notice it. Around the lake are the Black Mountains. Rain or shine - and we had both - it was an idyllic location, lending itself to the sort of joy in creation that was to be an underlying theme of my talks.
Choosing a theme wasn't easy, and I struggled for some weeks. The Warden (whose day job is chaplain and fellow of Pembroke College) had suggested I could borrow the notes of the person who was originally going to do it, but had to withdraw. But I've never been comfortable trying to palm off other people's stuff as my own, and in any case, the point of a challenge is to rise to it, and try to do something new. Then, one morning at the eucharist, we had a reading in which the crowd "begged to be allowed to touch the hem of Jesus's garment", and that got me thinking - principally what a godsend that sort of attitude would be to a Safeguarding Officer in these troubled times - and at about the time that Justice Lowell Goddard was announced as the person to investigate the abuse of children by those with power, over a five-year enquiry. And that strikes me a terrible undertaking - necessary, but a great and painful burden all the same. So, and because I've always considered myself untactile, I thought we'd take the theme "Transforming Touch", and have a look at some stories in the Gospels, of touching, and not touching, and see where we went.
Well, where did we go? All over the place! From ancient Israel to the Sistine Chapel, via Romford, and Cambridge, and S. Giles-in-the-Fields, and Chelsea, and Littlemore, and Barton. We looked at the calling to prayer for those far off, and the difference it might make; at the significance of hands in our sacramental actions; at the washing of feet, and the theology and spirituality of walking, and being earthed in the ground from which we were made; we looked at the holding in tension of difficult times and situations, that takes power from us; the challenge to trust our gut, which is the reverberation of the image and likeness of God within us and requires no further evidence nor proof; at the challenge not to cling to what we know, but to grow, into new vocations and responsibilities; and at the calling to become like the little children, whom Jesus touched and blessed, giving and receiving in love and wonder. Not bad for four days! In fact, probably a little too much for four days, and some - like the spirituality of walking - was work in progress. But the audience was kind, and I felt comfortable to share stories with them I might not with a Sunday congregation, even one I knew well, and they laughed at what were meant to be jokes, and sometimes when it was surprising, which is always good.
On those other retreats I had led, the biggest obstacle was the silence. We are a talkative species, which is not to say that others don't communicate in their own many and various ways, but they don't go on and on so. We do. So to spend a few days without conversation, eating in silence together, hearing only my droning words, and the words of the liturgy set out, was completely foreign to those other groups. Eating in silence in particular. I may even have said to a group of well-heeled parishioners from a wealthy part of London one time "you're more embarrassed at the noises you make at lunchtime than by the money you have". For the students, adherence to the silence was almost pantomime seriousness, which was endearing to watch. You had the feeling that even "please excuse me, I have an urgent and distressing need to find a lavatory" would be acted out in excruciating and hilarious mime. On this occasion there was no such problem. Everyone moved comfortably into the silence after compline on the Wednesday evening, and we stayed that way until after the last talk on the Sunday morning, a little before our final eucharist and a talking lunch before we departed. It was rather a special silence, large-hearted, and gracious, and I hope we all felt well-received within it, and deepened in our fellowship. To those who've never tried it, this will sound like so much mumbo-jumbo, to which I can only respond, give it a go.
In between services - morning and evening prayer, a pre-lunch eucharist, and compline (at 8, so still in broad daylight) - and addresses, there was space for walking and taking the air, for making a time to speak to Sister Clare-Louise or to me, and for us, if we weren't needed at those times, also to see the sights. For me, the countryside was one of the greatest pleasures. Since childhood, I have loved at least the idea of farms and farming, and here we had those patchwork fields of the storybooks of long ago, and all day, somewhere, the sounds of the cattle and the sheep, and just occasionally, a donkey braying. Then there were the high hedgerows on the twisty lanes, occasionally breaking at a gate or a natural gap in the flora, into a rustic prospect of fields and woodland. There was a garden centre hidden in a walled garden, and I couldn't resist buying a Toadflax plant, for its name, and for a memento of Wales. Then there was the little church of S. Gastyn, founded by him in th 5th century and pretty much completely re-vamped by Robert Raikes, lord of the manor, in the 19th century, and in the Tractarian style, in the perhaps whimsical hope that "the beauty of holiness" might bring Jesus to the valleys in a way that by then wasn't working so well with the chapels. There is a roll of honour for the dead of the Great War behind the curtain that hides the bell-ropes. Thirty-two names are written there; seven of them are the Raikes family.
And then, having delivered my seven talks, and celebrated Holy Communion for four days in a row, having basked in the silence, and walked in the rain, and finished two P G Wodehouse novels and started a third, it was time to take my leave of my new friends, albeit slowly, as two of us had a lift to Abergavenny railway station, and were met there by two more, so there was company to Newport, where our seat reservation divided us up for the final stage of the journey, to Didcot, and thence to Oxford. The noise and busyness of the stations was a shock after the peace of the last few days, and Oxford's Babel of tongues irksome on the bus back to Barton.
With the kind gift the retreatants made me, I have been able to buy a little camera, with which, had I had it already, I might have illustrated this essay. Another time. For now, happy memories will have to suffice, of a few days touched by God, in the countryside, with friends.