WHEN I unintentionally seat myself and my three-year-old
daughter, Olivia, in the quiet carriage of the 13:17 to Exeter St
Davids, I decide, after a few moments' hesitation, not to move,
despite the black look from the lady in the seat behind me.
Apart from the fact that I have just offloaded my luggage -
buggy, car seat, rucksack, books and art materials, coats, my
daughter's lunch-bag, and a bag of emergency rations - I decide
that enforced quiet is a good discipline. We are, after all, going
on a retreat.
As it turns out, the retreat house, Lee Abbey, is perfectly set
up for children: not only does it have supplies of bread, butter,
Marmite, peanut butter, chocolate spread, fruit, and drinks, and
toasters for out-of-mealtime snacks (essential for little ones),
and an open-all-hours playroom, there are also "vending rooms" with
fridges, sinks, and microwaves, and youth and children's workers.
It is also one of the few retreat houses in the UK with a resident
community (including several other children).
We check out the playroom, and the only way I can prise Olivia
away is to promise a return after dinner: delicious beef stew and
dumplings (made from meat reared on Lee Abbey's own farm), broad
beans, broccoli, and new potatoes, followed by chocolate brownies
Later, I turn in at the same time as Olivia - weary after our
journey (Underground, two overland trains, and a £35 taxi ride),
but feel-ing expectant that, as scripture promises, if I draw near
to God, he will draw near to me.
I USED to be of the opinion that the words "children" and
"retreat" were incompatible. Then, having noticed a "welcoming
youth and/or families" icon in the Retreat Association guide, I
emailed 20 of the 43 UK retreat houses that advertise
My enquiry had been tentative: was there really a
retreat house where a toddler would be welcome, and not disrupt
others? Ideally, I hoped for a fully catered place, to offer relief
from relentless chores.
Ten did not reply (Whaley Hall; Othona, West Dorset; Wigwam
Retreats; St John's College, Nottingham; Clare Priory; St Mary's
Convent; the Scargill Movement; Wydale Hall; Coleg Trefeca; Purley
Chase Centre); ten were keen (The Friars; St Gildas Christian
Centre; Community for Reconciliation;Immanuel Christian Retreat
Centre; Lough Derg; Whitchester Chris-tian Guest House; Worth
Abbey(on its Family Holydays only).
Three seemed so eager to consider offering similar retreats to
other spiritually starved parents that they left messages on my
answering machine (Minsteracres; Quaker Community; and Lee
In the end, Lee Abbey triumphed. It offers 280 acres of
woodlands, moorlands, and coastline in the Exmoor National Park for
children to explore, as well as childcare on most mornings with
CRB-checked children's workers. It can also provide the opportunity
for spiritual direction, or time with the pastoral team.
I SEE a spiritual director on three out of the four mornings I am
here. I trot off to my first session after Olivia is happily
settled in childcare.
My spiritual director, Claire, asks what I am hoping to get out
of my time away. All sorts of things tumble out. We also talk about
motherhood: how I feel God's approval, yet still want to find more
time for my relationship with God.
Claire suggests I walk in the grounds or visit the art room, to
enjoy time by myself without demands. As I leave, it's as though a
pressure valve has been released (all the anxiety of a first baby,
and of trying to get it all right).
Then I head out to the stretch of private beach on Lee Abbey's
north-Devon coastline. As I walk, I feel God's encouragement: "Come
to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest." Sheep on
the hillsides remind me that he is the Good Shepherd, and I relax
into a sense of a no-pressure Him.
The next morning, Olivia says she doesn't want me to leave her
with the children's workers. My heart sinks. Then I recall the
advice in the bookI am reading: to accept whatever experience you
have with God as being what he wants you to have that day.
I surrender the day to him. And later, Olivia changes her mind
about being left.
Today, Claire and I talk about a specific situation I want to
ask God about. On her advice, I go to my room and pour out my
request to God. I gain a deep sense of peace.
The next day, Olivia and I go through the same routine about
being left. So, I hang around in the playroom, and do the Bible
study that Claire has given me.
I woke this morning, anxious that I will leave without feeling
that I have really met God. But the study reminds me that when we
come to God with faith he always responds, though not necessarily
as we expect. I eventually leave Olivia settled, reminded of the
little ways God has spoken, encouraged or given me peace every
I talk with Claire about the challenge to be more open to God in
the day-to-day, and to think through ways I can create more
"windows" of time in my life, both for him and for me.
IS IT possible to go on retreat with a toddler? At Lee Abbey, yes.
The childcare meant that, while I was with Claire, Olivia was able
to enjoy a scavenger hunt, Bible stories, and craft activities,
sang and danced to worship music, played, and made Rice Krispie
And I appreciated the flexibility of the community in everything
they did to serve, from the child-friendly option on times to eat
to the time I turned up for spiritual direction.
Not only did I come back rested and refreshed; I have managed to
be more open to God, and I have found a failure-free Bible-reading
I did put on weight, though. That is not such good news for any
IF NOT travelling by car, a Lee Abbey pickup to and from
Taunton can be pre-booked on arrival and departure dates of all
published conferences, for £19 each way. Otherwise, a taxi is
necessary, from Taunton or Barnstaple. Lee Abbey will work to
accommodate parents and toddlers on organised retreats, including
Individually Guided Retreats. Individual retreats start from £60
per day. 0-4-year-olds stay free (older children at reduced rates).
Lee Abbey is also running 12 family holiday weeks this year, and
youth camps in the summer for 13-18-and-16-25-year-olds.