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Retreats: Offering a sign at life’s crossroads

13 May 2022

Retreat centres offer support when life gets complicated. Susan Gray hears more

Space for contemplation at St Beuno’s

Space for contemplation at St Beuno’s

ACKNOWLEDGING rites of passage is a patchy affair. While birth, marriage, death, and others, such as graduation, have ceremonies attached to them, many times of personal transition happen under the radar, leaving individuals to figure out their next steps on their own.

But retreat houses are increasingly stepping in, and offering themed retreats to support participants as they explore retirement, later-life vocations, relationship breakdown, or career crossroads.

The executive director of the Retreat Association, Alison MacTier, says that retreat houses continually evolve to meet guests’ changing needs, highlighting retreats around gender and Covid as recent trends. “They definitely deal with modern issues, and 20 years ago they would have dealt with whatever was more prevalent then.”

The retreat leader Amy Boucher Pye, who trained as a spiritual director last year, reflects that the transition into parenthood may be the life stage when it is hardest to get away for a supportive retreat. “When my two — now teenage — children were young, it was years before I was able to go away on my own.”

The manager of Penhurst Retreat Centre, Joanna Legg-Bagg, confirms that solitary retreats remain a potent way to navigate life changes. “One of our most popular streams is individually guided retreats. They are generally in silence, offering the opportunity for people to come and spend time with a lot of processing time built into each day.”

For those who have retired, diaries dominated by school runs and sports practice may be a distant memory, but the emotional and practical challenges when employment ends are immense, and it can be useful to reflect on these on retreat.

At Penhurst, in Battle, East Sussex, their Running the Race: Preparing for Retirement retreat (7-10 July) is aimed at missionaries who have served overseas, and those involved in full-time Christian ministry in the UK who are preparing for retirement.

For missionaries, the return to the UK can be traumatic. Anne de Reybekill, who co-leads the retreat with Evan Winter, says that it is hard to replicate the intensity of overseas relationships, where co-workers are like extended family. This feeling of displacement is compounded the lack of a settled UK base, owing to debriefing and home assignment duties.

Building relationships with a new church can also cause trepidation, as someone with decades of overseas or UK ministry experience does not want to overwhelm their new vicar or parishioners. Mr Evan advises a softly-softly approach for re-entry into church life: “Don’t start throwing out your ideas on day one.”

Running the Race retreatants are spiritually and emotionally mature; so, Mr Winter says, the group functions with a minimum of ground rules, mainly to do with recounting experiences: participants are urged to tell only what they are comfortable with, and couples should not tell the group anything that they have not told each other first. Additional spiritual support can be sought from the retreat centre.


INDIVIDUALLY guided retreats are a popular offering at St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in north Wales.

The director of St Beuno’s, Ruth Holgate, says that retreatants spend 23 hours each day “with God”, and 40 minutes with a spiritual director. Additional spiritual direction is possible, but the emphasis will be on how to spend the day to discern what path they should take in their life.

Jay Ashworth Space to think at Penhurst Retreat Centre, East Sussex

St Beuno’s also runs a Change of Direction retreat every summer (26-31 August), and has launched Navigating Your Life With God (14-18 July), which allows participants to learn the tools of discernment that are useful both in day-to-day life and at times of change. For men aged 30-55 sensing a change of direction, St Beuno’s hosts a Discernment Weekend for Older Men (2-4 September).

All retreats at St Beuno’s begin with settling in and clearing the ground ready for Ignatian spiritual exercises that support making big decisions.

“The insights of Ignatian spirituality, and particularly around discernment of spirits, help people to notice what’s going on in them,” says Ms Holgate, “so they can make a freer decision.

“Part of the process is that freeing up from things that are getting in the way, and then handing it over to God and asking for confirmation that this seems to be: ‘I’ve got this decision that I’m leaning towards. And is that the one I want enough?”

The Ignatian perception of movements and counter movements are experienced more intensely on retreats, away from the distraction and noise of everyday life, Ms Holgate says.

Having taken a 30-day retreat as a 29-year-old, she says that she would like people in their twenties and thirties to see an Ignatian retreat as a “great place to sit and think: ‘What do I really want to do with my life?’” Bursaries are available, she says; so people at all stages of life can be supported when at their personal crossroads.


CROSSROADS retreats, run by a leadership development coach, Chris Blakeley, were founded 20 years ago to meet the needs of those facing change or upheaval and who need time to reflect, but who don’t have the means to undertake corporate-development courses.

The chapel at St Beuno’s

“There are certain times when life poses big questions,” Mr Blakeley says. “We call them ‘threshold questions’. And those are the times when you need to access spiritual wellness, as well as the practical decision making, in a held space.”

For that reason, Crossroads retreats take place at different Christian retreat houses, including the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, in London (20-21 June).

“We run the retreats in monasteries or retreat centres where there’s a live-in praying community: a place that’s held by prayer seems to have a powerful impact, because people are immediately much more open and much more willing to go to interior places that surprise themselves.”

Relationship breakdown is now a key factor for people coming on a Crossroads retreat. Participants facing relationship or other dilemmas are supported while they reflect on their situation. “Crossroads is a way of actually inhabiting your questions, and letting them work on you, rather than you working on them.”

Groupwork is another hallmark of a Crossroads retreat, and plays a far greater part than in more traditional, non-themed retreats. Mr Blakeley suggests that participants respond more easily to messages from within the group than from the course director, since it feels less official and more authentic.

“There’s something about being in a retreat with a bunch of strangers who have no stake in your life; they reflect each other back very cleanly. So, the group process, the creation of a mini-community for the time they’re on the retreat, is an important part of the process.”

Mr Blakeley also offers regular sessions to help people navigate their life more intentionally, including an annual “refresher”. He speaks of “self-remembering”, which he describes as “staying true to yourself in the day to day.

“Figuring out the meaning of your life is the easy part. The harder part is actually staying on the path.”


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