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Can retreats actually improve your health?

26 May 2023

Huw Spanner looks at a range of houses that offer prayer for healing

The yellow “open door” through which Carisbrooke Priory invites people to enter and encounter God

The yellow “open door” through which Carisbrooke Priory invites people to enter and encounter God

“INNER healing” is a phrase often heard in Christian circles; but what exactly does it mean?

The international director of Ellel Minstries, Andy Taylor, says: “The definition we use is that it is the restoration of God’s order in a person’s life. To us, that is purely a work of the Holy Spirit. We’re asking the Lord to come and transform someone’s life as he thinks is right.”

Mr Taylor refers to the Gospel story of the woman with internal bleeding who touched the hem of Jesus’s robe, and was healed in that moment. “The Lord could have left it there, but he didn’t. He brought her out of the crowd and called her ‘daughter’, and declared her clean in front of the whole community. Imagine the pain of rejection and isolation she had endured, and how that had affected her, inside. To me, that’s inner healing.”

The director of clinical services at St Marylebone HCC, in central London, Suzanne Hyde, is less enamoured of the term — which is why it no longer uses the unabbreviated form of its name: St Marylebone Healing and Counselling Centre. “I think the word ‘healing’ is imbued with connotations of New Age and ’woo-woo’ stuff and people throwing away their wheelchairs,” she says.

She prefers the idea of a journey towards integration and wholeness. “In the Bible, not everybody gets up from their pallet and walks. Each of us has our own path, and for every person that’s different.”

The suggestion of the supernatural is ticklish. “I wouldn’t discount the miraculous,” the warden of Launde Abbey, the Revd Alison Myers, says. “Listening to someone’s story in a pastoral conversation, often you think: ‘This problem is intractable. How can things change?’ And yet people come back to us to say that something has shifted. More often, perhaps, it happens gently rather than with a great fanfare, but again and again we find that, when we pray with people, God shows up and people change.”

The director of the Greenhouse Christian Centre, in Poole, Mark Strand, believes that God can heal both the body and the mind miraculously, “but it is clear that quite often he doesn’t. I don’t know why that is, but it’s not for us to say: ‘We don’t think God’s going to heal you; so we’re not going to pray.’ It’s for God to choose how he acts.”

The founder of the Well Christian Healing Centre, in Leamington Spa, and its director of ministry, the Revd Anne Hibbert, says: “We live with the tension that we totally believe that God heals today and yet often we pray for someone and they seemingly don’t get better.

“We know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever, and there are passages like Matthew 4.23 that say that he healed everyone. I don’t know why he doesn’t heal every time, but that great Catholic priest Francis MacNutt used to say: ‘Don’t ever forget that healing is a mystery.’

“I guess some people may be disappointed because they don’t get the healing they sought, but they may get something else. They may have a peace in their spirit that they never thought they would ever have again.”

The cross by the pond at the Greenhouse

Mrs Hyde, a Jungian psychoanalyst, believes that there is a danger that Christians try to “quick-fix” people’s problems. “I’m not saying that, occasionally, something may not shift very quickly; but our experience of many years is that it takes hard work and commitment. When we do our initial consultation, we really emphasise that it’s a journey: it’s not just all going to be great.”

The director of the Harnhill Centre of Christian Healing, in Cirencester, the Revd Kate Picot, says: “We do see significant changes in people’s lives, but we don’t make any claims, and we encourage people to keep an open mind. We often tell them, ‘You may have come here for one particular reason, and often something else may happen that is a real blessing.’ Some people discover only some time later that they have received something quite deep here.”


MR TAYLOR, too, testifies that “time is an important factor in the healing process. I think it’s the kindness of the Lord, actually, to go gently with people in a way they can handle.

“We try to manage people’s expectation that we’re going to pray the ‘magic prayer’ and they’re going to be a whole new person. We try to encourage them to put aside their agenda and let the Lord do what he wants to do, because often what we think is the issue is really not the thing the Lord wants to get to at all.

“Often, we see a gradual transformation take place in a person, so that, by the end, they’re saying, ‘I don’t recognise myself.’”

The senior chaplain at Crowhurst Christian Healing Centre, in East Sussex, the Revd Steve Gendall, points out that “often in the Gospels, as in our own experience, we see that, when expectation rises, there is more opportunity for something to happen.” None the less, he says, “I hope we don’t raise expectations unwisely.

“There are people who have been coming to Crowhurst for 30 or 40 years who have had something of a healing experience, but are still broken and still needing a touch from the Lord. I find that I am still a wounded man myself.”

“We often see healing in very narrow terms,” Mr Strand says. “This is my problem, this is what I want God to sort out. Often, God is much more concerned about our relationship with him. We try to help people understand healing in the broad context, so that they don’t go away totally disillusioned if what they’ve specifically asked for doesn’t happen.”


BEING cared for — and cooked for — and given time to rest is another aid to inner healing, Mrs Picot says. “We have people coming to Harnhill who are burnt out, and just need to sleep and rest. Sometimes, it is the basics of learning how to be a human being rather than just a human doing.

“We do offer structured retreats — where a guest can meet with two of our team for a time of conversation and pastoral care — but, for the most part, people come here to receive prayer ministry. Really, our job is to just be alongside them, helping them to be real with God, to be who they truly are. That’s when healing can come.”

The Greenhouse offers “a listening and praying ministry”, Mr Strand says. “We’ll pray with them for 30-45 minutes. We will bring specific things to God: ‘Lord, please come and deal with this person’s anxiety — or show us if there’s something else behind it.’ Often, God does do amazing things, but you have to be clear what you’re able to do in a limited time period.”

Ellel currently has four residential centres, from Surrey to Aberdeenshire, which offer one- and three-day healing retreats. “We’re not counsellors,” Mr Taylor emphasises. “Really, we’re coming alongside someone in their own personal walk with the Lord, and helping them to understand, maybe, why they’re struggling, and then praying with them into some of those issues. Each person is different, and we ask: What do we feel the Lord is saying for them?”

The garden labyrinth at Living Well

The Living Well, the Canterbury diocesan centre for healing and wholeness, offers “a ministry of listening and of praying some gentle, supportive, non-judgemental words”, its lead chaplain, the Revd Lorraine Apps-Huggins, says. “That might be for an hour, or, on our deeper-healing days, there is a greater amount of care available.

“So often, what we are doing is walking alongside people in their difficulties, allowing them to come to their own place of peace or realisation. We may see change and we may not — there is certainly no simple answer.”

The Living Well, which occupies an old vicarage in the village of Nonington, is not residential, “but we have wonderful garden cabins that overlook the countryside, and so it’s a place of peace and quiet; and that, in itself, can be healing.”

Carisbrooke Priory, on the Isle of Wight, offers “Christian listening”. Bob White, its “day-to-day leader”, who chairs the trustees, describes this as “essentially listening to people and reflecting what they say. We are not trained counsellors, but our listening enables a person to unpack what is bothering them — even things that were tucked quite tightly away.

“By being allowed to talk, without interruption and without judgement, a person can actually sometimes get to the point where they realise what is troubling them, and sometimes that brings healing in itself.”

Carisbrooke is non-residential — its accommodation is “reserved for people who are on the journey out of homelessness” — but, if anyone comes there “with challenges of heart and mind”, Mr White says, “we would talk with them, and try to ascertain whether this is the right place for God to help them to address those issues.

“We would certainly pray with them, and we might encourage them to become involved in our work here, to address the problem of loneliness — which is one of the major drivers of mental issues today — and to build up their confidence.

“We are confident that we can hold people, and, in the main, we find that, when people are held and valued, their healing comes, because they are no longer strangers in society, they have a place where they belong.”

Launde Abbey provides a place for rest and reflection in the depths of the Leicestershire countryside, all in the context of prayer, Mrs Myers says. “What we do here is create a sanctuary that is both a sacred place, and a safe place. We offer people food, and the natural environment; places to walk; and prayer and one-to-one conversation, so that their hearts can listen again.

“Often, people come here to rediscover a sense of calling. I think that that reconnection with meaning and purpose is a particular type of inner healing.”

St Marylebone makes a very different offer. There, Mrs Hyde explains, people can work with an experienced psychotherapist over a period of up to two years, and “can really explore their inner world. Gaining awareness, and having a safe place to talk about things that really matter, can cause changes in their lives.”

If she and her colleagues feel that somebody would be better served by speaking to a priest, they have a priest-pastor who offers pastoral support and prayer. They also have a healing eucharist every Wednesday lunchtime, and a healing service once a month on a Sunday.

The Well is open weekly for prayer ministry. “Unlike some other healing centres, you don’t have to fill out an application form, and you don’t have to book an appointment,” Ms Hibbert says. “You can literally just step in off the street. Sometimes we haven’t got a clue who people are.” It is not residential, she says, “but there is a very good Premier Inn a stone’s throw away.”

She explains how God gave her the vision for The Well, in 2002: “I was sitting in a friend’s garden, just enjoying the sunshine, and, all of a sudden I felt that God said to me: ‘I’m about to unstop the ancient wells of healing here in Leamington Spa, and there will be miracles and people will come from far and wide.’

“At that time, I was an evangelist with Church Pastoral Aid Society, but I’d never been involved in healing, and I wasn’t entirely sure how it all worked. I still feel I’ve got L-plates on.”


IN MANY instances, the buildings and their setting are an essential part of the what is on offer. The Revd Tom Collins, one of the chaplains at Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast, says: “We don’t invite people here because we have the answers that can sort them out. But we find that, when people come here, with the combination of the beauty of the surroundings and the hospitality of the community, and the space to listen and pay attention to the inner stuff, they find that healing happens.”

Carisbrooke Priory “is recognisably a thin place”, Mr White says. “You walk through the door, and you sense peace.” Likewise, at Crowhurst, Mr Gendall says, “people say there’s an amazing feeling. This place has been prayed into for 95 years, and we believe that the presence of God is tangible here.”

Harnhill is a picturesque manor house in the Cotswolds, built in 1584. “Because the place has been prayed in for so many years, it is a very peaceful place,” Mrs Picot says. “People experience that even as they’re driving over the cattle grid. We have some lovely gardens, and guests see us caring for them, and there’s something about that that just spills over into them.”


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