Regular readers of mine will know that I’ve helped to run a retreat for mothers at a Catholic retreat centre. For some of the women it was the first spiritual retreat they’ve gone to since their school retreat that was part of the religious education program at Catholic high schools. These are great but are not really the same kind of experience.
I went on my first real retreat when I was 18 years old. It was a weekend silent retreat at the Mt Carmel Retreat Centre at Varroville.
I had found a brochure advertising it at the back of a church. I needed to get away on my own for a bit and here was some cheap accommodation with meals, close enough to home to not be a big deal to arrange. It was mainly pragmatism, not piety, which brought me to that first retreat. But the quirkiness of having to keep silence for two days definitely appealed to me.
I went alone. One of the friars collected me at the train station. I was startled to see a bearded, brown-habit-wearing-monk waving me over from where he’d parked the community’s car. I hadn’t known such people still existed in this day and age.
It felt as though I spent the next 48 hours in another world. It was completely strange and wonderful – in the sense of ‘full of wonder’. I wasn’t used to being without any distractions or interruptions. The first thing that struck me when I went to my little room was how noisy the silence was. It had a weight to it that pressed itself against my ears.
I had only the Bible that was in the room and which I had no taste for. Smartphones didn’t exist so I had no internet. I had a shower and went to bed early.
The next day it was awkward sharing meals and common rooms with the other retreatants and not being able to talk to them, and my room was still too painfully quiet so that Saturday I spent mostly outdoors, wandering around the paddocks, weaving through broad tufts of grass and discs of cow dung.
I watched the moving clouds reflected in the dams. I watched dragonflies, and little beetles and ants, and cockatoos and a pair of swans. The quiet and space began to loosen the tension I’d brought with me. I cried, partly out of the sadness, partly out of relief at being unobserved and free to feel sad for as long as I wanted. That night I made sure I had something to read from the bookshelves available for retreatants.
In the hour-long conferences, I listened to that same friar who had got me from the station talk about the scriptures. I wasn’t impressed so much by what he said as by the way that he said it. I had never seen a person who so obviously, passionately, loved the Word of God. It had never occurred to me that this was even a possibility.
By Sunday lunchtime, not only had I felt a weight of anxiety and exhaustion lifted, I had been given a hoped-for, but very unexpected, way forward.
I will never forget the moment I first heard the friars sing the Salve Regina at the end of night prayer; what it was like to join them in the chapel those first times; the way time slowed down and opened, or the friendliness of the other retreatants I met there once we were allowed to chat over Sunday lunch.
What an enormous grace that weekend had been – I’m sure it affected the whole course of my adult life. It’s only because I have encountered moments of awareness of God’s presence on retreats, as these have unfolded and deepened over years, that I have been able to find him in everyday life, often and every place.