Retreats as Sacred Space

As part of our series examining the idea of Sacred Space, Sara shared her thoughts on how retreats can be a sacred space on Sunday 23/8/15.

Isaiah 55 Verse 3 “Give Ear and Come to Me, that your soul may live.


We are now heading towards the end of the series on sacred space and today I am going to thinking about going on retreat. They come in many shapes and sizes some are were you go away for a day, some a weekend or week, there are those which guided by a Spiritual Director, some follow a set theme, some incorporate art, icons or music and so on – what underpins them all is that include silence and there are some that are made in complete silence. As I have become familiar with Retreats over the last few years I have come to appreciate how they are indeed sacred space. I would like to share with you my first retreat experience and my reflections on it, which have helped me to understand and value them.

As many of you know I help to facilitate a knit and natter group here at St B once a month, Tom my husband often says to me “do you actually do any knitting or do you do most of the nattering” I cannot understand where he gets this impression from?  Well I suppose being together for nearly 25 years may have played a part.  You see I always thought retreats were for the more “quiet monastic” amongst us, not the natterers like me.  Throughout much of my Christian life retreats were never really on the agenda and I think this may be due to the fact that some of the churches I went to did not appear to speak about them, silence and stillness was often not a part of the worship or life of the church it was often loud and very interactive, this is not a criticism in any way it is just how it was.

However when I began the process of discernment with regards to Ordination someone suggested that I should go away on my own on a retreat as a way of helping me to listen to God and to see if he was calling me to Ordination.  So I took their advice and booked a 2-day silent retreat at Loyola Hall, I had no idea at all what to expect and to be honest I was nervous and quite scared. At the time I remember I had only just passed my driving test and was not a confidence driver – in fact during those early months of passing my test I would not turn right at a junction, but that story is for another day! So Tom said he would take me to Loyola, I remember the day well.

It was Friday afternoon and we drove to Loyola Hall, as we got to the gates of LH I had to ring the buzzer to be let in, I got out of the car, suitcase in hands and watched the creaky gates slowly open.  I walked through them and watched as they closed with a thud. Tom waved me off and I can still remember that feeling of dread, as the gates finished their journey of closing, I knew this was it, I was locked in (well I wasn’t really but that is how it felt). Now I know this sound rather dramatic but that was how I honestly felt I was afraid, uncertain of what to expect and felt extremely alone.

I made my way up the long and winding path to the big house rang the bell and was shown to my room, a simple space, I remember unpacking my bits and sitting on the bed with tears in my eyes thinking what on earth had I done.  My first priority after this was to find out were I could have a ciggie as I still smoked then, as I approached the little office to ask about this I remember feeling really uncomfortable, there was no noise at all - Ciggie location found, I went off to puff away some of my anxiety.

By this time there were a few more of us around and we headed down to the lounge for the first meeting of the weekend, making polite conversation and I started to relax a little.  At 4.00pm the people guiding the weekend told us that from that time we had to remain silent till 4.00pm on Sunday – 48 hours.  Now before hand I had thought that I could cope, but all of a sudden the reality of this was staring me in the face I thought what on earth have I let myself in, so I quickly went to my room and rang Tom demanding to be collected and taken home, this was not for me.  Fortunately my usually accommodating husband refused on this occasion and told me to get on with it!  So I did.

During that first day as I spent time wandering from the different prayer spaces, outside in the gardens, around the chapel I felt a little disappointed, I suppose I was expecting God to shout to me what I should do about Ordination, about my journey of faith.  I was trying very hard to “incline my ear and listen”, but didn’t appear to hear God.  I clearly remember thinking “right” I will sit quietly in the chapel, surely something should happen there, however I found it anything but sacred as the silence was painful, I have never experienced absolute silence before in my life and it hurt me physically and emotionally – also this silence and space meant I had time to think, to ponder upon my thoughts and uncertainties regarding myself, my faith and my calling and I didn’t know how to handle even though it was what I longed for.  It felt uncomfortable and unhelpful and I remember wondering if this was worth it, was it any good as all I seemed to be doing was walking from place to place, kicking leaves, wondering what to do next – but I preserved.

My first encounter with meal times was an experience too!  I found it uncomfortable initially sitting with 12 other people in a room of silence and I worked hard on not banging my knife and fork on the place also I really wanted salt on my potatoes but just could work out how to ask for it without speaking or doing a game of charades at it was at the end of the table so I passed on the salt and vowed to make sure I sat near it at the next mealtime!

Day 2 - The next day started well but I remember in the morning seeing a lady sitting on a bench who was crying her eyes out and I really felt that she needed some comfort, but what to do, this was a silent retreat so I thought I better leave her and not break the rules so to speak of silence. However my guts told me this was wrong and I thought you know what sometimes rules need to be broken! I am really glad that I did, this lady had come on retreat on the advice of friends but was struggling with the silence and the feeling of being alone and wanted to leave as it was affecting her mental well-being.  She left soon after. I am glad we chatted as on reflection I can see that she was not ready for a silent retreat and was possibly too unwell to manage it.  I had broken the rules but I knew it had been the right thing to do.  

By the end of the weekend I found myself getting into a little rhythm, I still felt uncomfortable and was not really sure what I had got from it as such, but that intense dread I had felt when Tom had dropped me off 48 hours had gone, I remember thinking when he came to pick me up that I could have stayed there a little longer and was now a little anxious about the thought of having to face “the world and life” again.  I have never looked back since that first retreat and have gone on a number of them since and they are a significant part of my life now.

A few years ago I spoke about the life of Evelyn Underhill and she one the one who first introduced the Anglican Church to idea of Retreats and she says this about them.

“They take the soul from its normal pre-occupations where, with the minimum of distraction the soul can then attend to and realise God, this is the essence of Retreat”.  

Her writing and thoughts have helped me enormously she has enabled me to see that going on retreat, entering into this sacred space is not complex and she actually encourages us to enter into them simply and talks about being passive whilst on retreat, “thy will be done she says, and whatever our feelings about how we are doing - or about how we are using the space  - this will not prevent God from making something of us and something of this time – “come as raw material ” I really like this and try to hold this at the centre when on retreat.

As we let go or of ourselves, our expectations as such whilst on retreat then as she puts it more “able to move our gaze from ourselves to look upon Christ and to see what God in Christ does to us and for us - and what we do for others” Evelyn heart believed that all people had the possibility for this, for this holiness, and she wanted to make spirituality accessible and real for all.  

These few simple insights have helped me to not only understand how precious retreats are as they allow us the space and time to encounter and contemplate God and her insights have also enabled me to know that they need not be complicated and entering into the sacred space they provide us with is not beyond our reach.  

As we said in our opening liturgy just now “The Sacred is always with us, it is not found because it is always here. After that first weekend I can see that I was trying to find this in a way when it was there all the time.

  1. My expectations on that initial weekend were extremely high and unrealistic, I thought that I would come away from it sorted, I am certainly able to see how being on that retreat did help give me some clarity to questions and thoughts I was pondering upon.  But rather than being the instant fix as such, it was only part of it – I liken it to a mosaic where many pieces come together to make up the picture.  My retreat to that sacred place was an important part of my journey but was only a part. 
  2. Over the weekend I tried very hard to behave and to “do” the retreat properly and put immense pressure on myself.  I was extremely tired at times but would not allow myself to rest, or snooze I had to “do” stuff, reflect, pray, engage in the prayer rooms, write in my journal and so on. I was doing a lot of doing instead of being! I spent much of the time giving myself a really hard time because I was not doing it right. On reflection I can now recall my encounters with the colour and creativity of life around me as I kicked the leaves, as I wandered and can see that God was present despite of my me and what I was feeling.
  3. I have also thought about my brief encounter with the lady who was upset at length after the weekend and was glad that I spoke with her and “broke my silence”.  Yes we go on retreat to withdraw as such from the world but we are never fully apart from it, we are always connected.
  4. This weekend was to be the start of my journey into stillness and silence and it was here that I started to challenge the assumptions I had always made about myself that this sort of thing was not for me. In the following months and years and continuing to this day I have made the pursuit of silence and stillness a central part of my journey, it has helped to settle me and has enabled me to become much more grounded in God.   Silence, stillness and going on retreat have now become integral within my life.

Evelyn Underhill speaks of going on retreat as “entering the living silence” and the word that really resonated with me was “living” - over the last few weeks we have thought about how retreats, pilgrimages, St Brides and ourselves, are all sacred spaces, each of them are alive and living and I we do well to consider the words written in Isaiah -   ‘Give Ear and Come to Me, that your soul may live’.