The once-a-year habit that keeps me sane

Dam at carmel.jpg
The main dam just behind the retreat accommodation building.

My article published in the Catholic Weekly recently.

In Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey the poet William Wordsworth described the place on the banks of the Wye river where he first felt the movements of his soul to wonder and peace.

Unlike Wordsworth’s bucolic English-Welsh landscape, my happy place has undulating hectares of tall, golden grass marked by wire fences and wide, welcoming gates, generously dotted with cow-pats and little shrubs, clusters of tall eucalypts, and a tranquil dam that shelters a family of black swans and other birds, frogs and crickets.

There’s a quietly adorned chapel. And out the front of the property, there’s a statue of the Madonna and Child on which both are wearing happy, even mischievous, expressions of welcome.

I returned there last week, to the Mt Carmel Retreat Centre at Varroville. It’s such a joy to be able to return from time to time to places such as these, oases of peace just a stone’s throw from the bustle of suburbia.

More than a joy; a necessity for living rather than merely surviving.

But it can be hard to pull ourselves away to a quiet place as Jesus so often did with his disciples. When so many needs seem to press themselves in on us it’s easy to push aside the ‘one thing’ Jesus told the busy Martha was really necessary.

It’s hard work (and good work) needing to be across everything in the life of a young family. But it’s even better, and often much harder to let go of our illusion of having control sometimes, and sit down by Jesus’ feet to hear what words he has for us.

I decided for my annual retreat this year I was only going to go for some rest and prayer for 24 hours, but when the time came to leave it seemed like a great day to start some planning for the school holidays instead. There was a swimming lesson and a basketball game and grocery shopping to get to. Towels hung damply in the bathroom, and three weeks of school holidays needed planning.

And Peter and the children needed me around didn’t they? I resisted my ego-fuelled urge to leave a list of chores, and Peter only chuckled when I suggested, in a final effort to master at least something in my absence, that he not let them stay up too late at night.

One day was enough to take a ramble over those golden paddocks, admiring what the mid-winter light and colours do to the landscape, time to read, to pray the Divine Office, to doze in a chair after lunch, to sit in the chapel, and to join the nuns in their nearby convent for their Sunday Mass just after dawn.

I did think about posting some photos to Facebook. But I only sent a couple home for my children. For just one day, I could let everything else go and accept the rest, gratitude and quiet that God seemed to want to give me.

I remembered Wordsworth’s elevated nature verses, the way they verge on paganism, and how much richer it is to know that God is an actual person we can thank for the restorative power of beauty.

There are so many ways to be refreshed during busy seasons of life and it’s good to do whatever is genuinely restorative.

But to watch the wind moving the trees and have no reason to go anywhere or do or think anything, to enjoy the soul’s rest that can only find room in stillness and silence and solitude. And, just for once in a while, to not have to watch the clock for the time to go home to tend to someone else. I can recommend that!

St anthony's hermitage
St Anthony’s hermitage, one of two private hermitages just behind the retreat centre. It was so cosy and warm in there – and that weekend was FREEZING so it needed to be!

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