Hello – I write on the first day of the relaxation of the lockdown here in the UK and we have travelled from Warwick in the Midlands to the lovely Surrey Hills, close to Leith Hill Tower with its wonderful views.
This early 18th century cottage was originally a gamekeeper’s cottage and is hidden amongst dense woodland down steep, narrow winding lanes and is like a storybook dwelling. It stands beside a beautiful sparkling pond which often attracts swans, geese and ducks and other wildlife.
It is so peaceful here, with a sense of stillness and tranquility, a gentle subdued light lending a dreamlike quality to the scene as we move towards the end of the day.
Only the delicious sounds of a bubbling brook, an enchanting variety of birdsong, buzzing insects and the numerous calls of other wildlife can be heard. The cool breeze and the receding golden glow of the sun highlights the long shadows across the grass. This is indeed the perfect place for a retreat, in the heart of nature.
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.