Have you ever seen the episode of the TV comedy drama series Rev when our main character, Rev. Adam Smallbone, goes on retreat? Adam, played by Tom Hollander, is in the austere setting of a convent, and returns to his room when suddenly Roland, the media vicar, played by Hugh Bonneville, appears at the window, crying “Retreat!”
In he comes and it transpires he’s brought plenty of alcoholic supplies with him to offset the effect of the austerity to which they have both committed themselves for the next several days. Then Adam opens the drawers in his bedside cabinet and reveals his stash of chocolate bars and bottles of whisky.
“Dear boy,” says Roland with a look of extreme seriousness on his face, “I think we’re going to get through this.”
I’ve just been on silent retreat for a week at Lee Abbey in Devon.
It isn’t a convent, nor is it austere, and there’s absolutely no need for chocolate bars and bottles of wine in the bedroom, as we were well-fed… in fact, I find retreat centres tend to over-feed you rather than the opposite, and within the Christian community that runs the retreat centre, there is a team of house elves who wait on you hand and foot until you almost feel guilty… and thus begin the insights you may draw from silence.
And ever present outside this retreat centre is the sublime scenery of Lee Bay. Throughout the week, it called me, a background to all that was said, a huge presence out there. There were all the things Michael was saying as he weaved his spell and beguiled us, and all the insights and metaphors his stories gave us about the dynamics of life, and beyond it all was the vast embracing presence of the scenery, the rocky headlands, the tree-covered cliffs, the sea.
Our silence lasted 48 hours, and I loved it.
Insight is the child of silence wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
For me, a silent retreat gets better and better. You’re completely released from small talk; from having to answer other people’s questions; from people at the table passing comment on your vegetarian meal and asking what it is; from people commenting on why you’re eating a banana or a pear or a yogurt instead of the rich lemon syllabub and caramel sauce and chocolate flakes they are all eating.
You are free: to smile at people and not say anything; from any anxiety that you ought to say something; from feeling out of it because other people are chatting in little huddles and you’re the only one not talking; from feeling compelled to make conversation just to fill the silence or to be polite or in case people think you’re unfriendly.
Everyone is released from the curse of unguarded tongues and small talk and nonsense. Blessed silence releases us from all that. Silence is such a gift. How I love it.
The only person allowed to speak during that silence was our retreat leader, Michael Mitton. And he gave us treasures, in what he later described as “a Jackanory week”, retelling stories from the bible in the most beguiling way. The stories were taken from his book Seasoned by Seasons.
His retellings of those stories engage every sense: funny, illuminating, revelatory and totally absorbing. Moving and absolutely relatable, these stories are intimate, warm, human.
It’s as if you are an invisible observer on the scene of a story. Or maybe you are inside the thoughts of a character. You can smell, feel, hear, touch and taste what it is like to be there. There is humour, poignancy and passion in these stories and often they are deeply moving. Sometimes you may find yourself thinking, “What! Is this in the bible?” or “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this character. But this story is so powerful, and relevant to me, and my life.”
I feel, too, that I now have a much richer sense of Jesus himself, his humour, his warmth, his compassion, his wisdom, his humanity, his understanding, his disregard for convention and rules, his sharpness, his wit, his mental flexibility, his clear vision, his sheer versatility.
During the silence, there were for me no telephone calls, no internet, no Facebook, no texts, no messages, no emails. Only the power of Michael’s storytelling, the insights that poured from those stories, and from the silence, and above and beyond it all, the grandeur and majesty of God’s creation, silent, unfolding before me in lines of faint blue and pink across the horizon above the luminous sea.
During my visit to The Holy Island of Lindisfarne last year, I sat on the shore by the Lindisfarne Causeway and watched the tide come in and cover the road.
Here are my insights – and a few images – from that experience.
Sitting at the end of the causeway and watching the tide come in is one of the activities suggested for you here Give Yourself a Retreat on Holy Island by Ray Simpson. It has many benefits and can be quite amusing as you watch cars driving along the road well outside the safe crossing time, and wonder whether they’ll soon be floating away. This too can be a good prompt to reflect upon the quality of patience.
It’s also a challenge to your ability to sit quietly for an extended length of time and meditate; to some it can become boring. We sat with several other people, some of who left early, but we stayed till the water was surging across the road.
I found myself thinking of the High Tide of God; sometimes it comes flooding in over the road and then you may not pass. At other times, it is out, and your way along the road is free.
Of course, you can interpret the tide differently, reversing the meaning.It all depends upon the viewpoint you take; whether you see yourself sitting on the shore, or whether you see yourself as a boat, or as a bird skimming the waves. Instead of equating the tide with a signal that you must patiently wait, you can equate it with a time for fruitful action. That is how Shakespeare interpreted it when he wrote: There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.
So even non religious people can sit here at the end of the causeway and take from this their own reflections on life.
My personal reflections for my own life, work equally well when applied to the current world scene.
I believe, with Tolstoy (see my previous blog post here) that “the times produce the man”; and currently, those who voted Trump in as President hold the moral responsibility for elevating him into a major role in their society. The tide in the affairs of men, that Shakespeare referred to, has thrown up this situation… and though many hold different views, perhaps we must just wait for the tide to recede, taking with it all the flotsam and jetsam.
Curiously, you can apply this principle to the writing of novels too. Sometimes you find you have a major character in a minor role, and vice versa. This can underlie problems with story-writing when you get stuck, and perhaps you can’t initially work out what you’re doing wrong.
And also you can equate creativity with the tide; the high tide of ideas. As the tide surges in, so can our ideas – but only if we get to work.
And lastly we, as writers, can see the tide as Shakespeare did: a tide of fortune. Are we boats, or birds, or perhaps merely foam on the crest of the waves? We may be a beautiful beached fish, just waiting for the tide to sweep us up again. However we see it, we can learn many things from sitting patiently at the end of the causeway, and waiting and gazing.
So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?
I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.
Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.
St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.
The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.
The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion.
For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).
In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”
The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.
Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.
After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!
I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.
To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.
Living in the Midlands, one of the things I most miss is being near the sea. Brought up in Kent, as a child I often went on family trips to Rye and Camber Sands in east Sussex.
To experience the beauty and vastness of the sea is a magical thing in childhood. I have continued to love the sea all my life.
This half term has been a wonderful opportunity to go to the sea! And I went to east Sussex again – Eastbourne, and the National Trust coastline at Birling Gap.
And I couldn’t resist taking photos – especially of one of my own personal images of paradise, an image that has the power to haunt your dreams and inspire the imagination – a silver sea, radiant in sunlight.
Here are a few views from our recent visit to Eastbourne.
Living as I do in the Midlands, I cannot help missing the seaside! There’s nothing like water – be it river, lake or sea – to make us feel open and free and to give us a fresh sense of perspective.
Now I’m back in Warwick I’m continuing to edit my new novel ‘A Passionate Spirit’ before it goes to be typeset. I have some sharp and perceptive comments from beta readers; their own perspective is invaluable, and I’m just about to go through the ms making changes according to their guidelines.
This editing work will be finished by the time we go to the Lake District at the beginning of August – and then there’ll be more opportunity for reflection among lakes and mountains.
I’ve written before in this blog about those sacred spaces which are known in Ancient Celtic terms as thin places.
These are places where you are led to believe that the veil between the visible and the invisible worlds is thin. They don’t have to be obviously religious places. In fact once I read of someone who had a religious experience whilst crossing London Bridge in the rush hour. For that person, London Bridge became a thin place.
A thin place may be any place where you have new or happy or inspirational thoughts. And one of my most popular topics on this blog is places I love.
But quite often, probably because our ability to tune into spiritual inspiration is hindered by stress, anxiety, tension and so on, our thin places are literally places of tranquillity where we can move apart from the preoccupations of our daily life.
Such a place for me, recently, was Holywell Retreat between Eastbourne and Beachy Head. I was there with a friend and my two teenage children just a few days ago.
The weather was mild and warm, the atmosphere still and hushed. A few people were around, but it wasn’t crowded. This was the end of the Easter holiday, and not yet the high season for tourism in Eastbourne. The sea washed over the stony beach. The white cliffs of Beachy Head were directly ahead of us.
A few people sat on benches watching the sea. It occurred to me that, had I not been planning to drive back to Warwick in a couple of hours, I could happily have stayed there all day in this dreamlike state, feeling the warmth on my skin, listening to the murmur of the sea against the pebbles on the beach, gazing at the white cliffs stretching out to the horizon.
Everything that might cause me anxiety melted away. And above all, I was present in the moment. So were my two children, as they wandered around the beach, and so too was my friend. I dare to believe that each one of us was living fully in the present, as you do in the space between sleeping and waking, when your dreams still linger with you.
Do you have a thin place? Or perhaps it is so special to you that you don’t want to reveal its location! Please share in the comments.
I recently visited Beachy Head, East Sussex, with a friend and my two teenage children.
As we walked along the cliftop, we all agreed: Where in the world could we go that’s more beautiful than this?
Beachy Head, together with the Seven Sisters Country Park and Birling Gap are all protected by The National Trust and they are a short drive out of Eastbourne on the south coast.
I was born and brought up in Kent, and it was only thirty five minutes drive from where we lived to the south coast. Camber Sands was a particular favourite, and we regularly visited and ran over the open dunes, usually going on afterwards to the lovely old fishing town Rye, with its evocative fifteenth century Mermaid Inn.
On every trip, I felt the excitement of that first view of the sea.
And now, I say to my own children, just as my father said to us: “who’ll be the first to catch a glimpse of the sea?”
Everything depends upon our own inner state, as we contemplate such landscapes, which can then become sacred spaces.
For me, standing on a cliff gazing out to sea is a thing of beauty, a joy for ever.