NESTLED into the foot of a Scottish mountain, the oldest retreat centre in Britain, St Molaise’s cave, has not been altered for more than a millennium. Wild goats pick their way through the bracken, but otherwise the cave, just east of Arran, on Holy Isle, off the west coast of Scotland, remains as remote and undisturbed as it was when a hard-working abbot withdrew here in the sixth century. As an advertisement for the joys of retreat, this dusty cave leaves something to be desired, but no better testament can be found to the enduring appeal of spiritual withdrawal.
And yet a retreat does not have to mean cutting yourself off; increasing numbers of communities are opening their doors to retreatants who would prefer to join others in a ready-made spiritual rhythm rather than attemp to conjure up a sense of godliness in splendid isolation. Jesus himself may have withdrawn on occasion to pray in “a deserted place” — eremos topos: the Greek gives us the word “hermit” — but, as St Anthony the Great discovered, put two hermits together and you have not a paradox, but a monastery.
However you choose to go on retreat, there is little doubt that monastic communities are the experts on leading a structured spiritual life. But some may question whether personal renewal can be achieved by dipping in and out of monastic life.
Fr Christopher Jamison, a former abbot of Worth Abbey, is trustee of the Retreat Association. He has no doubt that time spent in a monastic community confers benefits that are unobtainable elsewhere. “A monastic community has its own rhythm of prayer and life, a conveyor belt that you can step on to. At Worth, everyone follows the monastic timetable, although I do joke that retreatants should leave the 6.20a.m. service to the professionals. People usually start with our 7.30a.m. worship.”
Fr Jamison and his brethren had to manage a surge of interest in visiting Worth Abbey after the BBC TV series The Monastery was broadcast in 2005; but he insists that this was far from a disruptive intrusion.
“We already had a retreats programme, but we doubled our capacity after the television series. The genius of St Benedict’s Rule is that it describes explicitly how the monastery should welcome guests: visitors should be received as Christ himself, and brothers are assigned to the task of accommodating them. The protection against being overwhelmed is built in: the dual rhythm is there from the beginning.”
When asked whether anyone has ever decided to become a monk after going on retreat, Fr Jamison pauses. “The answer is obviously yes; but that is because we run what is called the Compass programme for those who are already considering their vocation. Around half of them have gone on to join an order or a seminary.”
THE landscape, artworks, and even architecture of many monasteries help to create an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation. If the 6.20a.m. service at Worth sounds achievable, there are several traditional monasteries that follow the age-old monastic routines, offering true immersion in the asceticism of community life.
Caldey Island, off Tenby, in Pembrokeshire, is home to an order of Cistercian monks who start every day with a vigil at 3.30 a.m. It is a beautiful and secluded place, and welcomes a few retreatants to live alongside the community in a separate retreat house.
Turvey Abbey, in Bedfordshire, is a Benedictine community of nuns, whose stone building dates from 1605. Courses in icon-writing resonate with the age-old monastic setting. Another convent that offers retreats with icon-writing alongside regular retreats is Minster Abbey, in Kent. This monastery was refounded in 1937 on the site of its Saxon predecessor; part of the building is said to be the oldest inhabited structure in Britain. There is also Holy Cross Abbey, Whitland, in Wales, a prayerful community that offers retreats. It lies in the same valley as an original Cistercian foundation established by St Bernard of Clairvaux himself in 1140.
The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, is president of the Association for Promoting Retreats, an Anglican organisation set up in 1913. He, too, advocates a retreat within a praying community. “Some people on retreat need space and silence, above all; but, for me, the resonance of a praying community is absolutely a necessary catalyst. I go on retreat to the Community of St Clare, at Freeland, in Oxfordshire. I also find Hilfield Friary, in Dorset, and Launde Abbey [Leicestershire] are great places for prayer and retreat.”
Popular though Launde Abbey is, I question its status as a community. But the Bishop points out that a permanent presence of prayer is not confined to traditional monasteries. “Launde has a small praying community on site, committed lay people, and also one member of a new monastic order.”
THE relative shortage of desert in Britain proved little obstacle to the first monks and nuns here. They ingeniously transferred the spiritual topography of retreat on to the many islands around the coast, and in lakes and loughs. St Columba’s companion Báetán set sail from Iona to search for just such a “place of retreat in the sea”, although somehow contrived not to find a single one off the west coast of Scotland. Others had more luck, and numerous island retreat centres are still in operation today around the coast of Britain.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne stands alongside Iona and Caldey Island to make up three foundational monasteries of England, Scotland, and Wales. All of them retain their retreat function. Only Lindisfarne has no permanent monastic presence.
The Revd John Ansell, an Anglican priest who lives in Gloucestershire, has conducted post-graduate research into “new monasticism”, and believes that such communities offer an authentic retreat experience. “With new monasticism, you do not simply dip into the community as a retreatant: when you go home, you can take a part of it away with you. The process of initiation and formation that starts on a community retreat can last all year.”
Not all new monastic communities are able to offer retreats, although the larger ones have established facilities to welcome guests — the Northumbria Community, the Iona Community, and St Michael’s Priory (formerly the Well at Willen), near Milton Keynes, for example. The Pilsdon Community, near Bridport, in Dorset, an ecumenical foundation with an Anglican heritage, offers non-directive open retreats. It focuses on helping people to rebuild their lives after crisis, and offers hospitality and welcome to all.
THE Iona Community, founded in 1938 by a Church of Scotland minister, George MacLeod, predates the most famous of all European monastic retreat houses, Taizé, by eight years. Although it has not matched the popularity of its French counterpart, it, too, offers a range of retreat options and retains a faithful following.
Although some may argue that new monasticism is not very monastic, others might say that it is not very new. St Francis of Assisi established a Third Order as part of the Franciscan movement in the 13th century: lay people who sign up to some of the principles while continuing to live a secular life.
New monasticism is different because “it aims to be blind to denominational difference,” Mr Ansell says. “A community is not a distinct denomination, or a Church, but people living together, praying together, and working in fields such as education and youth work. But there is something of St Anthony in every community. New monasticism is just the latest incarnation of this long-standing tradition of prayer and devotion.”
And yet, as Launde Abbey demonstrates, many retreat houses cross some of the boundaries between the monastic, community, and secular worlds. Many of the most popular centres in Britain also have some form of permanent community life at their core, even if it is not strictly monastic. St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, near St Asaph, in north Wales, is one of these.
“The St Beuno’s team is made up of Jesuits and non-Jesuits, religious and lay people, men and women. We live in community at St Beuno’s,” the director, Fr Roger Dawson, says. “While we are a Catholic retreat house, about half of those who come here are not Catholic, and Ignatian spirituality has great ecumenical appeal. So people come from all traditions, including Evangelicals, and from abroad, too.”
The Revd Jonathan Mead, a Methodist minister in north London and officer in charge of learning and development for the Methodist Church nationally, is an enthusiastic supporter of retreats. He has experienced what many consider the Holy Grail of spiritual asceticism: the 30-day Ignatian exercises.
As might be expected of a Free Churchman, Mr Mead does not hold that retreats are necessarily best spent in a monastic community. “A lot of retreat centres are run by communities; but it is no less of a retreat if you choose somewhere that is not. You can pray anywhere. Monasteries have developed ways of praying that are very valuable, but you can adopt a monastic rhythm without living alongside an actual community.”
On this last point, it seems, hangs the essence of the retreat experience: the need for discipline about prayer times and a structure to the day, which is why many choose to retreat to a community where this is already in place. “I have been on retreats without a leader, but I always take a resource with me, such as a five-day retreat guide. One of my most meaningful times was at the Chelmsford diocesan retreat centre [at Pleshey] in Essex, when I used a five-day guide based on Ignatian exercises.”
THE LATEST issue of the Retreat Association annual guide, Retreats 2016, refers to going on retreat at home. Although closing the curtains and hiding in the attic might seem a reasonable way of dealing with ministry overload at times, the article offers more sensible advice, and emphasises the need for a structured approach to prayer and Bible-reading.
A retreat, it seems, is never that far from St Molaise’s cave. This is literally true: a short walk from the cave brings you to a Buddhist retreat house, the Centre for World Peace and Health. It demonstrates respect for its holy predecessor, St Molaise, and actively welcomes Christian and other faith groups to visit on retreat and join in with the daily meditation schedule practised by its community of volunteers.
During a recent visit there, I met a former Buddhist nun who had completed the traditional three-year unbroken retreat at the southern end of the island — something that I had heard about, but was struggling to comprehend. For many months after it finished, she had difficulty adjusting to speed: even a bicycle seemed unnaturally fast after the rhythms of the tide. I asked her whether she had to rediscover the power of speech after three years without talking to another human being.
“Oh, no,” she replied. “I did meet up with the other retreatants at times.” As I began to nod in relief that it sounded humanly possible after all, she added: “I only spent the last six months in total seclusion.”
Nick Mayhew-Smith is the author of Britain’s Holiest Places: The all-new guide to 500 sacred sites (Lifestyle Press, £19.99, CT Bookshop £18). He is doing doctoral research on the Early British Church at Roehampton University.