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Sanctuary with chocolate spread

24 January 2014

Can a parent go on an individual retreat with a toddler, and actually find time to spend with God? Christine Miles gives it a try

Time out: Lee Abbey

Time out: Lee Abbey

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 and cream.

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 family-friendly credentials.

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 Abbey).

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 day.

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 cakes.

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 plan.

I did put on weight, though. That is not such good news for any mum.


TRAVEL details
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.

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