Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Silent Retreat

Dr. Bob and I have left our student cohort and have been fast-tracked this term and moved from Yr.1 into Yr.3. This is because we are on a two year course as I am a Theology graduate and Dr. Bob is a Doctor of.....something or other scientific. Dr. Bob is the cleverest person I have ever met and yet he is also one of the most self-effacing: "I am a worm and no man". I have no idea why he hangs out with me because I tease him mercilessly which he now believes is his sole function in life. Mind you, anyone who watches the Catholic Channel when unable to sleep and then gets hooked... I think he said something about "hot nun totty", but as that would be so out of character I may have misheard him.

We are currently studying Church History. I hated church history all those years ago and time has not improved my mood. It is deathly. Dr. Bob has been known to snore but he is too generous of spirit to actually voice criticism: "Well, he obviosly knows his stuff...." Whereas I want to say something acerbic about his failure to carry the rest of us in the slipstream of his enthusiasm. (Actually, there are several hes. Some are better than others.) However, Yr. 2 are not having a lot of fun on a module on pastoral care either. Listening skills have been reduced to the level of party games. Hilda was very scathing and I don't think I can repeat what Cathy said. (And she works in a Christian bookshop! Shame on you girl!)

Still, I have a cunning plan, as Baldrick would say. I worship at the shrine of St. Ipod. This is a strategy I learnt from some of my pupils - and boy are they in trouble now that I am wise to it!. You have to sit sideways on to the lecturer and at the far end of the row. You feed the earplug wires up the back of your shirt and through the loop at the top and feed the obscured ear's earpiece wire behind the ear and over the top. You can then appear to rest your head studiously on that hand and no one knows.

Aren't teenagers inventive?

I survive church history with the help of Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Holst and Butterworth (what with me being patriotic). My pupils have been known to attempt to survive my lessons with help from Satan's Tattoo or Up Yours Mother-f***er (asterisks just in case Neil still drops by).

Tommorow the original team are on a silent retreat for the weekend. Yes, THE (whole) WEEKEND!!!. There is a lot of discussion about whether any of us can sustain silence for a weekend. Still, we can text. I have a heavy cold. My intention is to spend the whole weekend in bed with a good novel and Classic F.M. Radio. Maintain silence? You just try me. It is just possible, though, that this may not be within the spirit of the weekend. We are also told we may not bring alcohol. This is something of a blow as it is both Karen and Dr. Bob's birthdays and I have ten bottles of wine in the boot of the car even as we speak. Get thee behind me Satan - about Sunday lunchtime ideally.

This priestly business is fraught.

When I got up on Friday morning I was worried I might die. When I went to bed on Friday evening I was worried I might not. This is the day I attend the silent retreat after work: I have to get through the school day first and I know I am not well. Men and colds eh? Still, I have a light timetable today and I can hang around the staffroom catching up on administrative tasks. Later that morning I am forcibly ejected from the staffroom by my compassionate colleagues for "sneezing with menaces".

"You've got to be nice to me today." I say to my Yr 9 class. "I'm not well."
"Hahahaha. As if." trills Hayley.
However they are a lovely class and we have a good time and get plenty of work done.

My Yr 11s were just as accommodating but we are disadvantaged by my classroom's proximity to the school's bus lane. From 2.20 to 2.40 we live on the edge and the strange accoustics don't give us any warning.
Woosh! Out of nowhere a cream coloured tornado flies past the window.
"BUS" shouts Matthew.
Two minutes later the bus has turned round and wooshes past again.
"BUS" shouts Matthew.

When I was a student-teacher we learnt about the development of cognitive thinking in children via the writings of a Frenchman called Piaget. His three year old daughter was having trouble distinguishing between "slug", "same slug" and "different slug" in the garden. I have managed to apply this principle to Matthew. He now shouts "BUS." and two minutes later "SAME BUS." Matthew is 15.
One feels tax-payers money isn't being entirely wasted on the education of children in the Spen Valley.

We are studying teaching on Love and Forgiveness as found in the New Testament.
"Give me one of the four Greek words for Love".
"Two things, Katie. One, put your hand up and two, I think you mean Eros."
"Which one's that then?"
"Erotic love."
"That's what I meant."
"Oh, that'll work then. Every time you answer a question at GCSE, just put an asterisk and then a footnote that says: I meant to put the right answer."
"There's no need to be sarcastic."
"Oh, I think there is. Anyway, you're supposed to be being nice to me today 'coz I'm ill. I only came in today because I'm committed to you lot."

Stunned silence

Nathan: "Really?"
Chris: "Did you?"
Belinda: "Ah, Sir. Bless."
Matthew: "BUS"
Me: "Somebody hit him."

As I climb into the car for my short hop to the college, I feel upbeat and very, very ill.

If you are going to be ill, a silent retreat is the place to do it. We are not in the college but in the religious community: this is the community which brought the world Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu, and I have a strong admiration for the work of these men. Daphne arrives next and she gets 10 out of 10 as a trainee vicar for supplying tea and sympathy and the suggestion that I should go to bed until formal procedings start. My cell is eight feet by seven and contains a bed, a chair, a chest, a washbasin, a desk and a window. My bed is seductive with smooth, soft sheets and a yeilding mattress and I succumb to its charms. (Steady on!) It is a quick nap and I soon find myself in the common room with Stuart, both plugged into our i-pods and sitting in comfy chairs. We look, Hilda subsequently tells us as she sets out a succulent chocolate cake, like two old men in an old people's home with our hearing aids in.

The others arrive in dribs and drabs and our little birthday party is a success with Karen and Dr. Bob pleased with the convivialities. I am now feeling dreadful again and have taken to carrying my own box of tissues around. I am now borderline obsessive/compulsive over the use of tissues and hand washing.

"Stick with Shan, she's a nurse" Sue advises.

"Yes but when I was asked to sit with an old lady in church who looked ill," Shan confides, "I thought she had dozed off (it was the vicar, after all) only she had actually collapsed. Still, I got her to hospital in time."

Evensong is one of those amazingly spiritual occasions: religion through theatre. The church is vast and airy and, as dusk falls, incredibly atmospheric with its subdued candle-lit shimmer. Our hosts, the brothers - an ecclectic mix of lay and ordained Anglican men, mainly on the old side of completely indeterminate in term of age - conduct their worship in plainsong and the liturgy is chanted with the beauty that only a lifetime's commitment and confidence can bring to its rhythms and choreography. I am, as ever, moved only saddened that I have no voice to join in with the chanting and feel somehow cheated of this contribution to worship which I always enjoy.

My joints now all ache, particularly my lower back.

Dinner is with the brothers. We are in informal silence (apart from my caughing and sneezing) as we listen to Fr. John read to us from the life of St. Bernard. I catch a glimpse of the continuity of the monastic order's practice down the ages.

However the reading is unutterably dull. Fr. John is my personal tutor and his Belfast lilt goes someway towards making the life of St. Bernard marginally more interesting.

"When does the poor chap get his meal?" I wonder. I sidle up to him later and thank him for his reading which I claim to have enjoyed.

"Did you really? I didn't. I much preferred the biography of Kate Adie which we read last week." Kate Adie is a national treasure

We have one taught session this evening: Fr. George on Benedictine spirituality. In and amongst he told us a little of the history of The Community of the Resurrection and he talked about the joys and challenges of living in community.

Compline is optional. Mike and I opt out. We have forty minutes before formal silence to catch up as we are taught at different sites. No siting up until two in the morning putting the world to rights on this weekend for us then.

At 10.00 I go to bed. By 10.02 I am asleep. At 11.05 I am wide awake. My teeth now ache and I am shivering. I have a lamp which can be set to mimic sunset and sunrise as an aid to natural sleep. I set it again to do the sunset thing. And Again. And again until I am worried that so many sunsets in such a short period will cause a rupture in the fabric of the universe and then where should we be?

I dream of the BVM only I know it isn't her, but a woman in a cunning disguise. There are two clues to this. 1) she wears blue, everyone knows that, not a pink sari and 2) she doesn't usually travel on a zebra. I don't normally have religious dreams and I know this is linked to my strong objection to the nasty Victorian plaster cast of the BVM on the common-room mantlepiece which I always make a point of turning to the wall. I have nothing against the BVM as such (well not much. Actually, how long have you got?) But I do object to mawkish Victorian iconography. The community is, you will have realised, a tad Anglo-Catholic.

On the way to the shower in the morning, Cathy, wearing a nice line in bedsocks I feel - not every woman could carry them off as well as that, slips me a long strip of paracetamol. A fistful of dullars.

"There you go, Chuck." (She is from Liverpool. You can take the girl out of Liverpool but you can't take Liverpool......) Anyway. I have now had so many paracetamol that the brothers have me down on suicide watch.

Things can only get better.

I text my beloved to tell her I have a very heavy cold and awful symptoms. She replies "Don't come home."

Maybe not then.

I have deliberately slept in as late as possible, missing both the early church service and silent prayer. (I feel I did enough of that in the night.) I don't usually opt out where something is optional but feel that health-giving sleep is what I needed most.

I join the others for Matins. Some of the full time students are there too, in their long robes. Again the service is uplifting and atmospheric and again I don't sing. It pains me. I watch how the full time students are integrated into the worshipping life of the community and feel slightly resentful. Us part-timers stand out in our civvies, muffled up in our performance outerwear and scarves against the cold, not always fully on the ball with the liturgy. The full-timers belong. We don't.

At breakfast the brothers are in silence because we are in silence. It strikes me how noisy the sound of forty or so sets of cutlery on crockery are and I conduct an experiment to see whether it is possible to eat without clattering. It is and I conclude that this may be a passive-aggressive act on the part of the brothers, who must now be close to formulating their break-out strategy. I resolve not to catch Annie's eye. Annie is a giggler.

Annie, however, is having her own issues. With great synchrenicity, or possibly the Grace of God, Annie, who works in mental health chaplaincy, has found herself seated next to the brother who suffers from dementia.

"Are you Amy?"

"No, my name's Annie."

"Ah! The mother of our Lord. And are you a nun?"

"No, I just had my hood up because it was cold in church."

"Are we in silence today?"

"Yes, I'm afraid we are."

"And what's your name dear?"


"Are you a nun?"

I have two bowls of porridge. A cereal killer.

The other Mike has his arm in a sling and has a broken elbow. Something about wet leaves in the dark. He looks to be in pain. He is clearly a much better person than me because he has made no fuss whereas I, with a cold - possibly man-flu, don't feel I have had anything like enough sympathy.

We have four guided sessions over the day. Our tutor is using the Gospel of Matthew and is looking at signs of the servant. Each session has a fifteen minute input and then we are encouraged to walk in the grounds in prayer and contemplation, or use the library, find a quiet space or go back to bed. I opt for the grounds. I am the only one. The others aren't stupid. It is a wonderful Autumn day but so cold. Even in my Estonian jacket - and they know about cold there - I am soon freezing. I hear the sounds of children and follow the path down to a field where four teams of lads aged about 8/9 are playing soccer. These are real matches and very much part of a traditional British Saturday morning. The lads all have proper kit and there are plenty of parents standing on the touchline, their breath steaming around them. I watch for a while at the same time as trying to empty my mind. It is not a good combination so devoid of any spiritual insights other than the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside I head back to the guest house and take the final meditative option, bed.

I do not sleep. I lay quietly and empty my mind. This is not something I am very good at, but I do manage to lay there, wide awake and receptive. I have no deep experiences but I do have a strong sense of peace.

We begin to emerge from our places of contemplation. I am surprised that so many of us had gone for the bed option. No I'm not really. Danny makes me a cup of tea and I am amused again at how funny we all are when we try to communicate in sign langauge. This is silly.

"No sugar." I say.
"You'll go to Hell." he replies.
"What, for not having sugar or for speaking?"
"For having a tattooed penis. Neil said so." (A bit misleading: see here)
Ah, Neil. I do feel bad that I have not been able to make my peace with him before his sudden and flouncy exit from my blog.

We return to silence.

During the second session I am very much taken by what our tutor has to say. She is talking about Jesus and the temptations in the wilderness from Mat. 3. These temptations are the temptations of ministry. We need to know our own areas of temptation so that our ministries do no founder. The temptations of Jesus were the issues which could have been the backdrop for his own self-agrandisement: he needed to know what his areas of weakness were as he began his ministry. We need to know ours.

Very thought provoking and not an approach I had taken before.

Lunch is the most wonderful comfort food. Huge sausages in a casserole of thick gravy and winter veg, with mashed potatos followed by banana custard. I think I have died and gone to Heaven.

"Are you Amy?

"No, my name's Annie."

"Are you a nun?"

"No, sorry."


Session three. Well, I must confess that I went to bed and missed it. I told Dr. Bob first. I knocked on his door. He mimed "come in". Strangely I didn't see that from the other side of the door. When he opened his door I noticed that he had a spacious twin room. How did that happen? He must be very important!

"I could have a party." he whispered "If we weren't in silence."

"Going to bed. Not well." I croak.

He smiles sympathetically.

Session four has us looking at Mat. 4 where Jesus goes through Galilee preaching and healing. Such is our gifting we are told. To be reconcilers we have first to be reconciled and healed ourselves. As we allow the grace of God into our lives we ask for healing from our own jaggednesses so that we may more effectively share that grace with others. We do a breathing exercise. We imagine taking in God's grace at every inhalation.

What am I exhaling?

I am slipping into the rhythm of the weekend now: Evensong and a eucharist and, obsessed by the fear of infecting everyone else, I intincture. I notice Mike, standing next to me, does the same. Probably too late now Mate. There is an elderly African monk. I don't know his name and this is the first time I have seen him all weekend. His arrival is announced well before he appears by the shuffling of his carpet slippers. On every occasion I have seen him he is always fifteen minutes late to the service. Is it beyond anyone's wit to suggest he sets off fiteen minutes before the others? Then it is the evening meal. I have never before eaten a meal wearing a coat and scarf.

"Are you Amy?"


"Are you a nun?"


I go to bed at 8.00pm and listen to Classic F.M. I engineer one personalised sunset. I am gone.

I have not reset my alarm and my own personalised sunrise sees me having missed silent prayers again.


I am wooly headed with the uninterrupted sleep.

The Community Eucharist is a site to behold: all the Brothers, all the full time students, robed and acting as acolytes and all us part timers. We have incense, candles and chanting. We also have a fabulous sermon from Fr. Oswin. (If I become a monk I might choose Oswin. Isn't it a great name?)

I remember something Fr. George said on the first night. The community has an honourable history of resisting apartheid in the old South Africa and one of the brothers was imprisoned by the authorities. When he contacted the community he was at pains to reassure them that he was well:

"Its just like being at home but the food is better."

Hows that for British phlegm?

I am freezing cold and I notice how many of the brothers are wearing sandles. I'm clearly not cut out for the monastic life. Can I still call myself Oswin? I suddenly realise I have not coughed or sneezed so far today.

At the end of the service the silence is suspended and yet no-one rushes to speak. Over lunch before departure in the college refectory with the full timers and our first years who have been on a teaching weekend and kept apart from us lest we communicate, conversations begin. I comment to Dr. Bob that one of the advantages of the silence has been not listening to Barry's flow-of-consciousness lame jokes. Quick as a flash Barry replies:

"You wait all year for Jack to lose his voice and he goes and does it on a silent weekend. Where's the justice?"