Monasteries and Retreat Houses
I spent the middle of last week in a monastery. It was only a couple of nights. We were staying in St Mary’s, the Redemptorist monastery on the side of Kinnoull Hill, just on the edge of Perth. My recollection of staying there some thirty years ago, most probably for post-Ordination Training, is that the monastery was cold and gloomy with dreadful food. Now thankfully the accommodation is enormously improved. The rooms ere all en-suite, properly heated and with bedside lights; and the food was uniformly excellent. I think that the community sold a field, presumably for housing, in a highly desirable area, and invested the money in a significant upgrade of the facilities.
Down the years I’ve stayed in a variety of monasteries and retreat houses. My first monastery was Mount St Bernard, a Cistercian house in Leicestershire., designed by Augustus Pugin. A group of us went from school, History Grecians who were doing 12th century English monasticism as a special subject for A-level. I remember little about the place; only that we travelled there and back in a master’s elderly van, certainly without seat-belts in the days before Health and Safety. And that the monastic life did not seem very different from the routines of Christ’s Hospital, my boys’ boarding school; a fixed daily routine punctuated by the ringing of a bell.
When I was an Oxford Diocese ordinand, in the mid 1980s, we were invited to a two night stay in St George’s, Windsor. Even at the time I realised that staying in Windsor Castle, protected by a detachment of Scots Guards, might not be the most appropriate preparation for parish ministry. The main speaker was the newly appointed Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries. When I asked him about the disastrous appointment that had recently been made in our Oxfordshire parish, he made it clear that he regarded such questions as insubordination. The nature of the exchange made me pleased to leave the Oxford Diocese and to come north of the Border for my curacy.
Here in Scotland none of my POT [Post-Ordination Training] sessions were housed in anything like Windsor Castle. My first such event was on Cumbrae, at the cathedral of the Isles. Getting there from St Thomas’, Glasgow Road, involved getting a bus into town to Haymarket, a train to Glasgow Queen Street, walk to Glasgow Central for a train to Largs, a boat to Cumbrae, and then another bus. The building was pretty run-down at the time, the lighting was all 30-watt bulbs, and the teaching input [from a Scottish Bishop] equally dim. Subsequent POT sessions took place at St Drostan’s, Tarfside, ten miles up Glen Esk in rural Angus, and at Stirling Youth Hostel. St Thomas’s, where I spent two years, relocated its church weekends from Kilcreggan, a shabby Christian retreat centre in the west, to the more palatial surrounds of Crieff Hydro. During our decade in Duns I did an Edinburgh Diocese silent retreat on Holy Island. Walking around the island was wonderful. The input was less wonderful. I met Bishop Richard one afternoon, and was unsure of the protocol for greeting one’s bishop on a silent retreat. He hailed me from several metres away. “Hello, Chris. What do you make of the speaker ? Isn’t he awful !”.
ICS annual Family Conferences alternated between the UK and continental Europe. Fashions change, but most of our home conferences were held at Ashburnham Place, in East Sussex, not far from Battle. Good grounds, and good cake. Two of our ‘overseas’ conferences were held at the Bible College at Beatenberg, halfway up a mountain in Switzerland. Because I am a complete wimp about heights and mountain roads, I had to wear a face-covering on the short bus journey up from Interlaken West station. But there are superb views from Beatenberg looking south across to the breathtaking mountain panorama of the Three Peaks [Eiger, Mönch and the Jungfrau]. And it is unreconstructed rural Switzerland with cows coming past the college twice a day for milking.
For several years the annual France Archdeaconry meeting was held in the Maison Diocesaine at Arras, usually in January with snow on the ground. It was a very big, cold, stone building with footsteps echoing along the long corridors. One year we went on an afternoon coach outing to look at bits of First World War trenches. And then the Archdeaconry meetings moved to the Abbaye St Jacut sur Mer, on the Brittany coast in the Côtes d’Armor, and were held later in the year. St Jacut is delightful: the site of a historic abbey which was purchased and rebuilt in 1875 by the Community of Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of St Méen-le-Grand. The rooms are nothing special, but you can walk straight out of the grounds onto the coastal path, which links a number of small beaches that face west towards the afternoon sun.
My post-retirement time in Brussels introduced me to a variety of Belgian abbeys; to Kortenberg Abbey and la Foresta and Drongen. There was always beer on offer, and I learned that each of the Belgian beers is meant to be drunk out of the appropriately shaped glass. From 2014 I got involved with the annual Men’s Retreat, very ably organised in recent years by my friend Armin, which brings together men from Holy Trinity, Brussels, and the German Lutheran Church. The usual programme is a mix of teaching input and break-out groups, group worship, a Saturday afternoon walk, and a Saturday evening film. Themes have included Journeying, Male Spirituality, [Male] Friendship, and, last year, Elijah’s encounter with God at the mouth of the cave in 1 Kings 19. Films have included Clint Eastwood’s amazingEl Torino, the little-known On a Clear Day, set in Glasgow with Peter Mullan and Brenda Blethyn, and Brassed Off and Pride. Our preferred venue is Maredsous, a 19th century Benedictine foundation set in a thickly wooded valley in the Ardennes.
I was unsure about the SARAC retreat. SARAC was the creation of the late Ken Gordon, who felt strongly that retired clergy should have some recognition in the Scottish Episcopal Church. He died earlier this year, and it is not clear whether SARAC will survive him. And I was a bit anxious that it would be a very parochial [i.e.provincial] gathering; with a small huddle of retired Scottish Episcopalians swopping memories of ministry in Glencarse and Pittenweem and Blairgowrie.
As it turned out, apart from the speaker, none of the participants were Scottish. We came from Somerset and Yorkshire and Canada; from South Carolina and South London. Gerald had been a priest in a group of parishes in rural Canada, ministering to Inuit peoples and flying himself from one community to another in a single engined plane. Geoffrey had been an Army chaplain, a Lieutenant Colonel, serving in postings around the world. Iain, our only Scot, had been Archdeacon in the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf for two decades. The teaching input, an arbitrary series of readings from Luke’s Gospel, was a bit random. And we probably overdosed on services, all taken from the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book. But it was good to be in a different setting. And it was very good to have time to walk on Kinnoull Hill with amazing views across the Carse.
If travel regulations allow overseas travel, I shall be back to Maredsous for this year’s Men’s Retreat in about 6 weeks time. The likely theme will be Sanctuary, in a time of global pandemic. Numbers at the abbey will be strictly limited compared with past years. Two years ago we had to limit numbers to 30 men, and draw up a waiting list. This year it may be only half that number. I am excited at the prospect of meeting up again. But I don’t know what this year’s film will be.