THE night before I went on retreat, I sat in bed reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner aloud to my wife. "How is he going to pick the bones out of that?" she asked.
I was thinking much the same myself. I had not read Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem since I was at school, roughly 50 years earlier. This re-reading prompted a host of other questions. For a start, what possessed the "grey-beard loon" to shoot the albatross in the first place? Why did he fix this particular wedding guest with his "glittering eye", and force the poor unfortunate to hear his tale of woe? And why was I going to spend the next day exploring this darkly faux-Gothic tale?
The answer to the last question was a conjunction of person and place. The retreat day "Mariner! A voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge" was being led by the poet and priest Malcolm Guite. I knew Dr Guite's work, and had heard him talk about poetry, and had been impressed by both.
Also, the retreat was to take place at Otley Hall, a spectacular 15th-century moated hall, with ten acres of splendid grounds, less than an hour's drive from my home in Suffolk.
All the same, I wasn't sure about "opening up spiritual themes of love, loss, recovery, and prayer" through this odd poem, as the blurb for the retreat advertised. But I was booked in, and had promised to write a piece about it.
MY ROUTE took me through the villages of Charlsfield and Debach - the locations used by Ronald Blythe as the source for his best-known book, Akenfield; so I was feeling decidedly literary on arrival at Otley.
The house is grandly wonky, as if it was designed and built freehand, complete with herring-bone brick and monolithic chimney stacks. A shimmer of turquoise at knee-level, as a peacock strutted round the corner of a barn, distracted me from admiring the house.
The barn, built on a skeleton of green oak, was the venue for the day. Inside, I introduced myself simply as Malcolm, and was taken to be the speaker. Fortunately, the real Malcolm appeared behind my shoulder before there was any further embarrassment.
There is something marvellously Middle Earth about him: tweedy, beardy, portly, cheery. He is the sort of person who ought to smoke a pipe - and he does.
The Revd Catherine Beaumont, who, with her husband, Ian, owns and lives in Otley Hall, gathered the 20 or so retreatants together. We mostly ranged from middle-aged to elderly, with a sprinkling of clergy and Readers, many of whom were regulars at Otley retreats. Mrs Beaumont introduced our leader - or, rather, let him loose on us.
DR GUITE is Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, and lectures widely on the relationship between theology and the arts (when he is not fronting his blues-influenced band MysteryTrain). He is in the process of writing a book on the theology of Coleridge, and we joined him on a kind of theological workshop, which dismantled the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and then put it back together again.
This was not like any retreat or quiet day that I have ever been on. It was full-on verbal engagement. We had a close-up exploration of the text, its nuances, and its layers of meaning, fostered by Dr Guite's scholarly enthusiasm and spiritual insight. He paced the room, speaking apparently without notes.
He began by exorcising the ghosts of any bad English teachers whose traditional reading of the poem rendered it a kind of cryptic riddle. He read - or rather performed - the poem for us.
He told us that Coleridge's best friend, William Wordsworth, had suggested that they co-write a Gothic ballad (popular in the late 18th century), in order to fund their walking tour of the Quantock Hills. In the end, Wordsworth contributed no more than three lines, and, when Coleridge took it on, it grew to be something much more than light entertainment.
The Rime, Dr Guite argued, is a study in the profound effect of evil, and of the hope of redemption, found through grace and prayer, and made evident in God's presence, and expression, in creation.
At the time he wrote the poem, Coleridge was trying to shrug off the Christianity of his upbringing (his father was a priest), and managed in the "grand narrative" of this work to "write his life before he lived it".
He began to take laudanum as a painkiller, but ended up as a fully fledged opium addict, before being rescued, when he was near death, in a pub in Bristol. Later in life, he returned to his Christian faith, and wrote knowledgeably and imaginatively about theology. Like his nautical hero, he found a way to return home.
SETTING sail with the Ancient Mariner, we welcomed the arrival, at the time of vespers, of the albatross as if it were "a Christian soul". We experienced the tragedy that resulted from the Mariner's random act of wickedness, in shooting down this "pious" bird.
We saw how the killing of the bird, in Dr Guite's words, "disturbed a natural balance that the sailors never understood." And, as he began sympathetically to discuss Coleridge's belief that the Logos, as described in the Gospel of John, could be heard in the utterance of the natural world, a gust of wind threw rain against the window of the barn.
In the doldrums, the Mariner - surrounded by "slimy things" - tried to pray, but found that no words would come from his heart, which had turned "dry as dust". Eventually, his darkness was dispersed by the light of the moon, and, suddenly, those same reptilians appeared as blessings:
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
As a "spring of love gushed from my heart", he found that he could pray. And here, at the turn of the poem from despair to redemption, the albatross fell from his neck.
It felt apt that we were examining how the Mariner rediscovered his relationship to God by finding value in the same creatures as had once revolted him, surrounded by the spring gardens of Otley Hall, teeming with wildlife. The Mariner perceived that "He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast."
Equally as nourishing as Dr Guite's inspiring contribution was the chance to walk about the grounds and to sit on one of Otley's many carefully placed benches, and allow the poetry and the perceptions to sink in. At lunchtime, and before the final session, we were given ample time to ourselves.
THERE were two main things that I took away from this day. The first was that poetry can be profoundly theological - but by inference rather than having to spell everything out.
The second was that both praying and reading poetry, like observing nature, take time, patience, and a trust in peripheral vision. Coleridge believed that poetry could help open up the "inexhaustible treasure" that lurked beneath the "film of familiarity".
Experiences of the divine seem to come when we are waiting for something else, our eyes unfocused. The numinous appears to reside in the oblique.
Wandering the grounds provided that opportunity to allow the whispered "utterances" of God to make themselves heard in wind, water, and the cry of the peacocks.
Before I left, Mrs Beaumont took me round the house. Successions of families have lived in, and worked on, the place. There is barely a straight line to be seen, and stairs lead you to where you don't expect to arrive. But there is rhyme and rhythm and reference. It is a poetic building that speaks volumes.
WHILE I was at Otley, my wife texted with the news that, after four years, newts had arrived in our pond. When I arrived back, I couldn't see them for looking. But, armed with the encouragement of Dr Guite and Coleridge, I waited. Then, a flicker caught my eye, a bubble in the water, the flourish of a tail:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
Otley Hall is running "The Seed Within: Art Inspired by Meditation", on 27 July; "Betjeman (and Brideshead) Revisited", on 11 September; and a "Creative Writing Using Contemplative Prayer" retreat day, on 20 November.
Malcolm Guite's collection of poetry The Singing Bowl is published by Canterbury Press at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.90).
Fancy a creative retreat?
THERE are plenty of creative arts and crafts retreats available now for booking in the autumn, including the following: The Bield, at Blackruthven, in Tibbermore, Perth, "Refreshing Our Spirits: Creative Art Exploration" retreat, from 4 to 5 September (www.bieldatblackruthven.org.uk ; Launde Abbey, in Leicestershire, is running an icon-painting retreat, from 7 to 11 September (www.laundeabbey.org.uk); Llangasty Retreat House, in Brecon, Powys, is hosting a Creative Arts Retreat Movement (CARM) painting-and-prayer retreat, from 7 to11 September (www.llangasty.com); St Cuthman's Retreat and Meeting Centre, in Cooolham, West Sussex, is hosting a CARM creative-writing retreat, from 7 to 11 September (www.stcuthmans.org); Belmont Abbey, in Hereford, is running a "Starry Night: Van Gough's Bible" retreat - "Behind sunflowers, peasants, and starry nights, a tortured artist paints Gospel scenes and sees darkness overcome by light" - from 18 to 20 September (www.belmontabbey.org.uk)
Worth Abbey is running a "Writing in Gold: Icons of Christ, a Way to Prayer" retreat from 18 to 20 September (www.worthabbey.net ); The Well at Willen, in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, is running a "Musick at Midnight": The Poetry of George Herbert" retret, on 26 September (www.thewellatwillen.org.uk); St Oswald's Pastoral Centre, in Whitby, North Yorkshire, is running a mosaic weekend from 2 to 4 October (www.stoswaldspastoralcentre.org.uk); St Beuno's Ignatian Spirituality Centre, in St Asaph, Denbighshire, is running a "Window of Art in Meditative Reflection" retreat, from 2 to 5 October (www.beunos.com); the Monastery of Our Lady of Hyning, in Lancashire, is running an icon-making workshop for beginners, from 5 to 9 October (www.hyning.org); the Briery Retreat and Conference Centre is running a sacred-dance weekend, from 6 to 8 November (www.briery.org.uk); the Society of Mary and Martha, in Exeter, Devon, is running an "Intrigued by icons?" workshop, from 21 to 22 October (www.sheldon.uk.com); Creative Retreats and Holidays operates a glass studio where it is possible to learn stained-glass or glass appliqué, and to take time out with God in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (www.creativeretreatsandholidays.co.uk).
For information on the Creative Arts Retreat Movement, visit www.carmretreats.org.