"Tony, why don’t you come and have a retreat with us during your sabbatical?"
It had seemed like a good idea at the time but as the day drew nearer the more anxious I felt. What did one do on retreat? How would I survive without TV and no-one to talk to? How could silence help anyone?
Reluctantly I set off to spend a week with David & Joyce Huggett in their lovely home in the Derbyshire Dales. I need not have worried. Joyce was so welcoming, and the setting so beautiful, that I quickly felt at ease. As the week wore on, and with Joyce’s careful direction, I found my life turned upside down. I discovered my true identity as God’s beloved child and what it meant to nurture my inner life.
I was one of many people whose life and ministry was transformed by time spent with Joyce, who died in August, aged 79. She was a pioneer in evangelical circles of the contemplative tradition, helping people to value the disciplines of stillness, silence and solitude. She opened up for them a whole new world of spirituality through her writing, and for some, by her gentle yet persistent mentoring. She introduced the idea of retreat, the practice of listening prayer and the benefits of spiritual direction at a time when such practices were neither fashionable nor always welcomed.
Joyce and David were successfully leading a church in Nottingham when she began her writing ministry. She wrote about many topics, including marriage and relationships, conflict resolution and approaches to prayer, but it is for her devotional writing that she is best remembered. She quickly became a bestselling author with over 40 titles to her name, and an international audience – a major achievement for a British author, and a woman. Books like Listening to God and Listening to others sold in their thousands, and changed the way her readers related to God.
Not only did Joyce write but she encouraged others to write as well, patiently reading their work and helping them improve. She helped me take my first steps as an author, not only critiquing my early offerings, but also opening the door for me to have my work published in Singapore. Kindly, she wrote the Foreword for me, lending her name to my fledgling career as a writer.
In the early 1990s the Huggetts left city centre ministry behind and re-settled in Cyprus. There they made links with Interserve and became involved in holding retreats for mission partners working in in the Middle East. Often people came to them for rest, refreshment and renewal but they also travelled widely, speaking at conferences and holding retreats throughout the region for those who were in isolated and dangerous situations with little support.
David and Joyce were pioneering something new and radical
Nowadays member care (the support of those involved in cross-cultural mission) is a well-established practice within every mission agency, but at that time David and Joyce were pioneering something new and radical. Patiently listening to those who were struggling, offering advice about how to manage stress and care for oneself, providing a safe environment where people could relax and unwind - these were the ingredients of their retreats. Joyce was offering 'de-briefing' before the need was widely recognised, and before there was any formal training on how to do so. She simply offered to all who came deep compassion, a peaceful demeanour, exceptional listening skills and God-given wisdom.
A deeply introverted person, Joyce was happy enough speaking to groups, but would often withdraw afterwards to the quiet of her room. It wasn’t that she was withdrawn or unfriendly, just that she needed time alone to re-energize. She was most comfortable in her prayer room at home in the early hours of the morning, deep in silent contemplation, knowing herself to be loved by God. That inner calmness and hunger for God characterised her whole being and was contagious.
It seems to me a strange irony that towards the end of her life Joyce, whose mind had been so sharp and whose words were so eloquent, should suffer with dementia. It had been her ambition to write her autobiography but it was never finished. What a story she could have told about her life and walk with God, but it was not to be.
Her legacy lives on, however. Contemplative spirituality is more widely practised and the value of retreat recognised. Member care is established. Her books are still available, and hopefully will be discovered by a new generation. Many of us who had the privilege to know her personally still carry the seeds of spiritual life that she sowed within us. Through her example and teaching she taught us to be open to God, and open to others.
Tony Horsfall is a retreat leader and author based in Yorkshire