|Penhurst Retreat Centre, West Sussex ... with geese (courtesy Global Connections).|
The very first retreat I ever went on was in October 1989, at St. Julian’s Community in West Sussex, as it was called. Back then it was an Anglican lay community: it’s now St. Cuthman’s and is run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton. As I drove into the carpark, flanked by dark trees rustling in the chilly night breeze, the peace of the place washed over me in soft waves.
I was pretty much in awe of St. Julian’s that weekend. This was an unguided retreat; I’d simply booked myself in for some time out to myself. I loved everything about St. Julian’s. The lake in the grounds with its lone heron. The old-fashioned but comfortable furniture, the serenity of the old house, its floorboards creaking. The way members of the community would leave a breakfast tray outside each retreatant’s door each morning, with a thick wodge of toast (the community made their own bread), a small pot of jam and a golden curl of butter. (Breakfast in bed? – now that’s my idea of a retreat!) But most of all I loved the silence. Meals in the small dining room were taken in silence and it felt oddly liberating. The gentle, companionable silence somehow gave people permission just to be themselves. No pressure to talk. No fuss. (For an introvert like me, that's bliss ...)
My first experience of Compline at St. Julian's was magical. Dozens of tealights shimmered like small stars in the dark warmth of the chapel. The straw laid on the floor had a sweet smell – it made you think of farms, sheep, the Nativity. The simple beauty and profundity of the Compline liturgy invites us to wrap ourselves in the presence of God for the night.
I went back to St.Julian’s several times and since then have been on many retreats at a variety of beautiful places, north and south. Back in March I took a week’s annual leave and the jewel in the crown was the Quiet Day I’d booked at Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex. I love the sense of intimacy at Penhurst: it’s a beautiful Jacobean house set amongst quiet hills and woods, with an art room, an orchard, a labyrinth, a pond and a small flock of six plump, imperious geese who eye you up suspiciously and always have plenty to say for themselves. The house was built in 1652 and has a long history connected with mission, including a link with the Hudson Taylor family. I was at Penhurst again in October, and I’ll be there again in February. (One of the good things about being single is that you do have time – and, sometimes, the cash – to give yourself a spiritual spa day now and then. It always feels like a treat.)
And it should feel like a treat, because Jesus once said to his disciples, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ (Mark 6: 31).
When on retreat – taking a spiritual spa for the soul – we can forget about pressures and deadlines and simply allow ourselves to BE. That is the kind of rest God wants for us – not to be stressed out, but to be relaxed and satisfied in him.
Back in March, after the Quiet Day had finished, I stayed on for the evening meal and eventually left Penhurst at 7pm: the moon was so bright it was casting dim shadows and Venus shone like a diamond through the trees. Everywhere was utterly silent, apart from a tawny owl hooting in the woods. It was the perfect ending to a beautiful day in which I had tasted of the deep peace, the shalom, that God delights to give us.
Often I lose that sense of peace – but I can always return again to the source. The well of living water is always there, and the invitation always stands.
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11, verses 28-30)