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Retreats: Changes of pace at changes of life

13 May 2022

Julie McKee finds out how retreat centres are helping people to deal with life’s dilemmas

Sheldon retreat centre near Exeter, Devon

Sheldon retreat centre near Exeter, Devon

THE wellness industry is the fastest growing sector in tourism: it is predicted to be worth $919 billion this year, the Global Web Index estimates. The appetite in the secular world for a deeper and more restorative holiday experience — whether it’s outdoor yoga, a nature retreats, or going off-grid — appears to be widespread.

In the Christian retreats sector, many retreat houses are doing quietly what they have always done: offering rest, renewal, and spiritual refreshment through individual stays and a programme of themed retreats. Some retreat houses, however, are incorporating more of an emphasis on well-being and mental health in their programmes. Some of these are framed by the rhythms and patterns of a resident community’s spiritual life.

At Scargill House, in the Yorkshire Dales, for example, forthcoming retreats this year include Story through Mindfulness and Song (7-9 October); Renew, Refresh, Restore (20-22 May; 6-9 June; 12-16 September; 21-23 October; 27-29 January 2023); and Wellbeing — Melt Away Your Stresses and Strains (4-8 July).

This focus was “a deliberate choice”, post-pandemic, says a member of the Scargill community, the Revd Shaun Lambert, who is a Baptist minister and a psychotherapist. “We reopened to physical guests last year, and, almost without exception, people are coming to us exhausted, stressed, low mood. . . So this idea that Jesus came that we might have life in all its fullness — well-being — is part of that.”

Similarly, Othona, in Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, is offering a Wellbeing Week (1-6 August), covering the themes of nature, exercise, sleep, meditation, and nutrition. The Joy of the Present Moment, a meditation retreat focusing on “Awareness, Attention, the Body, the Breath, Stillness, and Silence” (14-16 October) is being run by Valerie Quinlivan, a member of the World Community for Christian Meditation.

Other retreats include seasonal, nature-inspired events, such as Spring Watch (23-26 May) and Winter Watch (14-17 November), that take in exploration of the coastline near by.

Holland House, a retreat centre in Worcestershire

Othona’s warden, Debbie Sanders, who co-manages the centre with her husband, Richard, says: “We have become very keen here on working with mental health and well-being, because I think this is a great place for that to work well, for people who need to be in nature. We’ve seen a lot of improvements in people coming here who have mental-health issues.”

Among the groups that use Othona are Trustlinks, a mental-health charity, Alcoholics Anonymous, YMCA, and Survivors Together (female survivors of sexual abuse).

As well as being able to enjoy the peaceful location, joining in with the rhythms of the resident community — eating together, and helping with chores or practical tasks — can have a stabilising effect. “Some people like to have something to do with their time here. It makes them feel part of a group for that section when they’re here,” Mrs Sanders says. There are also daily services in the chapel, open to all on retreat.

“It’s definitely the case over the last two years that people have become more self-reflective, because they’ve had to,” the Warden of Holland House, the Revd Ian Spencer, observes. “People come to the house to make sense of all that. They want to be connected again.”

At Holland House, in the diocese of Worcester, Mr Spencer is running a series of Yoga for Wellbeing workshops, which, he explains, draw on the “incarnated tradition of Christianity”, and also principles of yoga that seek to help “clear the noise from our heads”.

A qualified yoga teacher, Mr Spencer notes how not just our minds but “people’s bodies have suffered through Covid. Often, they’ve not eaten well, not exercised, or they’ve had Covid. At Holland House, we provide an experience that will address their well-being — which includes the mind, the spirit, and the body.”

The Chapel of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at Sheldon

Good nutrition is an integral part of their focus on holistic well-being. “We cook everything fresh, in the kitchen, whether it’s bread, soup, puddings,” Mr Spencer says. “We try to love people by giving them lovely food, and they feel loved and cared for, I hope.”

At Launde Abbey, in East Norton, Leicestershire, combining the physical with the spiritual is also a key part of the hospitality.

“One of our retreatants recently said that the nice thing about going to a retreat house is that you get the hotel thing, [in that] you don’t have to cook or clear up, but you also get the prayer thing, and you can join in with it,” the Warden of Launde, the Revd Alison Myers, says. “People come to comfortable bedrooms in a house with historic ambience. The food is good and plentiful. It’s all layers of the same well-being [experience].”

As with other retreat houses, Mrs Myers has noticed how worn out many guests are. “There is a lot of exhaustion around, buried under busyness,” she says. “‘Space to breathe’ is a phrase we seem to be using a lot, and people seem to be responding to that.”

Othona, in Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, focusing on mental health

Themed retreats, which include bird-watching, glass-fusing, and gardening are “a way in” for people: “For example, we have contemplative creativity coming up,” Mrs Myers says. “It’s based on an activity, but that’s a way in to helping people slow down and be more mindful. It will include prayer, and possibly some thoughts for reflection, but the way in is a common interest.”

Similarly, there are beginners’ retreats for those new to the experience, or for whom a full retreat feels too much, which involve more “hand-holding”. “I don’t think you can assume that people know how to use the time,” Mrs Myers says.

Members of the community are also looking to “make more explicit” ways in which people can transition back to their daily lives: for example, through the teaching of spiritual practices: “How do you take what you’ve got so you don’t just go back out, discharge your batteries, and then you have to come back and recharge them again — but you find ways of keeping them charged where you are.”

For Dr Sarah Horsman, Warden of Sheldon, in Devon, well-being and mental health are not something new, but aspects of what they have continually tried to incorporate. “It’s always been about the creation of good space. It’s what we set out to do.”

Dr Horsman, however, has observed the fatigue and heightened vigilance that have developed over the past two years for those in ministry, or anyone in front-line settings, in terms of increased responsibility and having to keep other people safe.

The chapel at Scargill House, North Yorkshire

“That’s a very costly place to be in, and people benefit hugely from being able to relax about vigilance; so that’s one of the most significant things we’re doing at the moment, I would say — giving people space in which they don’t have to be vigilant.”

One of the ways in which Sheldon manages this is by using house rules, such as no clergy shop-talk, to enable people to know what is expected of them. Dr Horsman continues: “A big part of our ethos, or USP, right from the beginning, has been that people step back from those normal roles that they inhabit.”

While retreats can be beneficial for everybody, Mr Spencer especially urges the ordained — who, he says, are coming in fewer numbers today — to go one them.

“I would suggest a great many clergy are running dry, and they don’t feel they’ve got the time. They’re doing a fantastic job, but I worry about their well-being. It’s critical to their mental, physical, and spiritual health that they get out of the parish, not half a day: really, you need 24 hours — for the sake of your parish, your family, the gospel, and your own beautiful self.”

For Mr Lambert, there is a noticeable difference in guests at the end of a stay at Scargill. “One of the most joyful things is seeing people’s faces change, even just on a weekend. They might come looking grey, tired, maybe even a bit ratty, and then, by the end of the week or weekend, they’ve changed — their face has changed.

“I think part of that is the space: we have a beautiful chapel, we’ve got 90 acres, we’re in the middle of the Dales. So we trust the space. Although we have a busy schedule, we don’t overload people when they’re here.”

Mr Spencer also highlights the distinctiveness of retreats, compared with the experience of a holiday. “Somehow, the idea of retreat goes to the heart of the intuition that we’re valuable. . . We have to refresh our relationships with ourselves, our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our God, and these things are really important to people.”


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