It was one of those dark, grey winter days when the sun never appears and the rain never stops. It was also one of those journeys. Road works, hold ups, and hours of blinding motorway spray. By the time I arrived it was beginning to get dark, I had been driving for most of the day and I didn’t feel very spiritual!
I got out of the car. Everything was totally silent. In front of me was a large courtyard surrounded on three sides by a very old and impressive monastery constructed entirely from granite.It even had its own towers, the turrets of which were periodically obscured by the mist. “It’s Hogwarts.” I said under my breath as I collected my bag and started towards the gates.
It had seemed such a good idea at the time. I had been approached by this magazine to go on a spiritual retreat with all expenses paid, as long as I was prepared to write about it anonymously afterwards. What could be better? I had thought. After all a prayer life like mine needs all the help it can get!
As I made my way towards a huge oak door I reflected on why it was I had chosen to come here. As an evangelical I thought it would be good to experience something completely outside of my tradition. After all we do not have a monopoly on truth and I want to learn from any tradition which helps lead me to the feet of Christ.
So several dozen web pages and a couple of conversations later I opted for a Franciscan monastic retreat. The plan was to pray and read, join in the spiritual rhythms of the friars and have a daily conversation with a spiritual director. I had been looking forward to it, but now as the sound of me knocking on the heavy door echoed eerily around an increasingly dark courtyard, I was less than sure that this had been a good idea. From deep within the building I heard footsteps, the turning of a key and then the huge door in front of me slowly began to creek open. I braced myself for my first encounter with a Franciscan version of the Dalai Lama. Imagine my surprise when a blond haired lady in a bright pink jumper poked her head and said, “I bet you’ve had a crap journey, come in and have a cup of tea!”
Somewhat taken aback I meekly followed. She led me to my room. It was small and simply furnished but I was surprised to see a TV and a sign saying, ‘smoking not permitted in the bedrooms.’ Somehow their presence did not quite fit with my idea of a monastic retreat! I unpacked and had the tea but eventually I had to face it. I had two hours before evening prayers with the Friars. My spiritual retreat had begun. Now what to do?
I sat at the desk. The silence of the place was so loud! It seemed to amplify my thoughts, intensifying the moment. I let the silence wash over me preparing for prayer.
I wrote on a piece of paper “Why am I here?” When it comes to prayer there is always this question of motive for me. In my job as a church minister it’s all too easy for my job of work to get confused with my own walk of faith. There was also the further complication of writing this article… The danger was that to write an article was going to change the nature of the retreat itself.
Slowly I sifted through my motivations and as things came to mind I wrote them down. ‘To lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil.’ (It had not been a great journey on that front and there was the unexpected TV now to contend with. It never ceases to amaze me what trash I am capable of watching late at night. I took the plug out and resolved not to turn it on.) I continued: ‘to help me understand myself and my world from your perspective’; ‘to develop a more godly rhythm of life’; ‘to make sure it is Christ I am serving’; ‘to take hold of the eternal life to which I am called’; ‘that at this point in my life I might know what faithfulness looks like’.
I then started to write prayers. I began with confession. The discipline of writing brought more thoughtful reflection than I usually bring to spoken prayer. I was conscious at first of feeling a little awkward and distant from God. Then a long prayer of thanks marking all the stages of my life and God’s faithfulness to me in each. As I wrote I began to be aware of a growing sense of God’s presence and the peace and the sense of privilege which came from that. Once I finished I wrote down one more thought. ‘Speak Lord, or not.’ This summed up my realisation that God owed me nothing. My responsibility was to bring myself as fully as I could into His presence and simply wait. The rest was up to Him.
Time seemed literally to fly by and before I knew it was time to join the Friars for evening prayers. I made my way through the long, dark corridors, and eventually came to the church. After negotiating yet another impressive door, I found myself standing in a candlelit and very cold chapel. The pews were arranged in a square and scattered amongst them were eight or nine friars, all apparently deep in prayer. I sat down and waited for six o’clock. As I did the unmistakable sound of snoring came from the friar sitting next to me, gradually getting louder and louder. As the church bell struck six o’clock though there was a remarkable transformation. Like the sprinter at the sound of a starting gun, he sprang to his feet. Within a nanosecond of the first bell he began to lead us. “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” After the initial shock I was immediately struggling. As open as I try to be I just can’t do the Mary thing! It left me quite cold and it wasn’t just the theology. It seemed perfunctory – no passion or conviction, just endless repetition. After about 20 ‘Hail Marys’ I was on the point of shouting “I’m an evangelical – get me out of here!” when the friar sang a hymn. The words were breathtaking.
“Christ be near at either hand, Christ behind, before me stand, Christ with me where e’re I go, Christ around, above below. Christ be in my heart and mind, Christ within my soul enshrined, Christ control my wayward heart, Christ abide and ne’re depart. Christ my life and only way, Christ my lantern night and day, Christ my unchanging friend, Christ my guide and shepherd to the end.”
After a light tea I went off to see Father Paul, my spiritual director. As I entered a warm oak panelled room the Friar was sitting in a comfortable chair. With his grey hair and beard, brown habit and gentle face he certainly looked the part. He explained that we would only talk about what I wanted to talk about and that we would do so in complete confidence. He suggested that in this first session we just got to know each other. He had a lovely pastoral manner and we spoke freely for about an hour before he left me with a book on the life of St Francis to read, suggesting we could discuss it the following evening if I wanted to.
When I got back to my room I reflected on our conversation. I found it strange that we had not prayed but I was intrigued by him. He was obviously an academic having held university teaching positions, but I was impressed with his relaxed and wholesome approach to life. One line he said kept replaying in my mind, “The only thing that we have that is truly ours is our sin. Everything else is a gift.” I realised that I was looking forward to talking to him some more the following evening.
I went to bed reading the book on St Francis. Once or twice I found the cynic in me questioning the historicity of some of the stories but generally speaking I found his life an inspiring read. I was reminded that it is only in surrender and brokenness that we find true peace. I was struck that in the life of St Francis it was the experience of absolute poverty and sacrifice that brought such freedom and cheerfulness. In turn I was challenged about my own attitude to ministry. It is so easy to grow resentful when your car is the worst in the church car park, and no one seems to notice. My motives and agendas sat uncomfortably with the purity of calling I was reading about. It was as if the Spirit was teasing out the fault lines in my attitudes as I read. I wrote again before I went to bed, ‘It is Christ I am serving.’
The next morning I woke early – the mattress saw to that, but I decided not to attend morning prayers with the Friars, choosing instead to pray alone.
As I knelt down I realised my appointment with Father Paul was not until nine o’clock that night and the whole day was now stretching in front of me with nothing else to do but pray. Characteristically I started to plan out my day and what I could do. I had brought several books with me that I really wanted to read but as I did I began to feel uneasy. The Lord began to confront my drivenness. I knew that I found reading a lot easier than praying. I resolved to read only one and spend the majority of the day in prayer. It proved to be an important decision.
Breakfast was just bizarre. As I walked towards the dining hall I met Anne, the only other guest in the monastery that week. A lifelong catholic, grandmother and experienced retreater, she would prove to be an interesting mealtime companion. “Look at these bookmarks” she said as we passed a table. “They are made by the hermit who lives in the grounds.” She saw the surprised look on my face. “Yes, there is a Friar who has taken a vow of solitude and who now lives in the forest on his own.” We took our seats in the dining hall. I was just about to ask her more about him when she said, very sweetly, “Now would you mind if we ate in silence this morning, I find it so helpful to do so when on retreat.” So there we were, just the two of us, sitting at a table that would seat 20, in a great hall that would seat 100 and the only sound the chink of our cutlery. There was Anne, a picture of spiritual serenity, and there was yours truly looking out of the window to see if I could see Hagrid with his bookmarks! Back in my room I started with the Bible. I wanted to root the day in scripture so I took time reading some of the psalms. I was drawn to Psalm 51:10-13. I realised it was a confession for a teacher of people like me. I walked round my room repeating it aloud until it was memorised.
It was reflecting on this Psalm that brought me to my lowest point of the retreat. ‘Renew a steadfast spirit within me.’ I started to reflect on how much I needed that. I felt tired – I’ve been in Christian leadership for 18 years now. I was feeling pulled in every direction and consequently doing little really well. I sensed a lack of centre and rhythm in life and huge questions about what the future of the church should look like and how to balance my role with being a father and a husband. I was weary of negative people and I felt tired, and searching. I kept saying, “Lord, what does faithfulness look like?”
Feeling like I was probably getting a little over intense (!) I turned to the book I had been given on St Francis. At one point it described how Francis used to take his disciples on mountain retreats where the cold and the dangers would break many of his followers. “Sometimes he saw in their eyes that frightened and lonely look that said simply that they had followed him to the mountains to find what he had found and instead had found only themselves. That void, that emptiness was the prelude to being filled with Christ himself. At that point they were finally free and ready to meet Jesus.”
That was it! God gets us to the end of our resources so that we will listen to him. The very thing that I felt disabled me from meeting Jesus was in fact empowering me to do so! As I faced up to the poverty of my experience I was now ready to meet Jesus. It is in brokenness that we meet the King.
For the rest of the morning I just started to pray and this led naturally to interceding for the church, not because it was my job but because it was my privilege to do so. I had a members list and went through each individual by name. A number of times I just felt I ought to pray in a particular way.
Before I knew it it was lunchtime. Three hours had just vanished! Looking back this is the only thing I would do differently. I would fast next time.
Meals were an unwelcome interruption to the intensity of the retreat. It may seem absurd but it is true. I learnt that when we truly meet with God, prayer ceases to be a duty and becomes a desire. I was already beginning to feel a level of aliveness way beyond my normal experience. In him really is life! His presence, this communion is what I am made for. The pure, incorruptible joy of knowing and being known by God was literally intoxicating.
That afternoon I read a devotional book on prayer. It reminded me that spiritual growth occurs when we focus our lives on Jesus and practice the disciplines. Prayer and reading become intertwined for me and the hours rushed by in one sustained time of spiritual nourishment.
My evening conversation with Father Paul was great. We talked over the life of St Francis and the nature of the Franciscan Order today. It was so refreshing to talk to another Christian leader without any reference to church or the job. It was all about following Jesus. I came back and wrote in my journal essential truths of which I had been reminded. ‘I retain the image of Christ but due to the fall I have lost his likeness. My life’s purpose is to see the likeness of Christ restored in me through the work of his grace.’ I prayed into the night for I knew that come mid-morning tomorrow I would need to leave and I just didn’t want to.
Now, three months later, what’s the legacy of the retreat? Psalm 51 has become part of my spiritual DNA. I say it most days. The hymn ‘Christ be near me’ continues to nourish me. As to my questions, I left with no answers. There was no revelation or road map but a very real sense of a Father who would walk with me. Three months down the line I definitely would say that God has been answering my prayers. As for the retreat experience, I found it so nourishing that I am planning two in this coming year!
The author is a minister of an evangelical church from the south of England.
- Take 48 hours excluding travel
- Be alone with God
- Don’t rush into prayer, quieten your soul and be still
- Write things down
- Read and memorise scripture
- Take with you sources of input, i.e. books and tapes
- Take a variety of resources but don’t have an agenda – see where the Lord leads you
- Make time to intercede for others
- Keep a journal
- Make retreat a rhythm of life