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Nature retreats: finding inner peace outdoors 

26 May 2023

Many retreat houses are making more of their natural setting, Julie McKee discovers

Lee Abbey

A view of the North Devon coast from the grounds of Lee Abbey

A view of the North Devon coast from the grounds of Lee Abbey

FOR many Christians, a key part of being on retreat is being able to take time out, within beautiful surroundings, to listen to God.

Retreat centres tend to have stunning grounds or be set in beautiful scenery, and many are now offering events that combine scriptural themes with the natural world, such as a bird-watching or walking retreat.

Mark Winter runs regular bird-watching retreats at Launde Abbey, in Leicestershire, and on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. He is a keen birdwatcher who has been running his Look at the Birds retreats since 2004. His most recent retreat at Launde Abbey, earlier this month, was fully booked.

“Running nature-based retreats in the spring, notably in May, is a really good idea in Britain, because that’s essentially the breeding season. The birds are so vocal. . . Everything’s coming to life,” he says. During the week, which is likely to run again next May, his group spends time at Rutland Water Nature Reserve, and watches the ospreys. “There’s plenty to enjoy and see.”

Look at the Birds retreats are based on the Sermon on the Mount, and the fact that, as Mr Winter says, there are more than 300 references to birds in the Bible. During the five-day retreat, “there is a mix of exploring these biblical references and what they might mean, on the bird-watching, together.”

This year’s Holy Island retreats take place on 25-30 September and 23-28 October. The history of Lindisfarne — particularly of St Cuthbert and his care for animals and birds — provides extra material for contemplation. “He was our equivalent of St Francis. . . His legacy was to introduce some protection for the bird life,” Mr Winter says.

Bird-watching lends itself to the business of slowing down, taking time, and being still, Mr Winter says. And his approach is closely tied to what he calls the “Christian tradition of recognising nature and God’s involvement with that. . . We follow a typical Christian retreat pattern; so there’ll be morning and midday prayer, but, where possible, that prayer, particularly at midday, is outside.”


THE Warden of Launde Abbey, the Revd Alison Myers, says that the team there has been looking at how to create more opportunities to connect with nature in the centre’s programme this year. “We’re very conscious, coming out of a pandemic, how important nature was to so many people . . . alongside realising the well-being benefits of things like walking in the woods, and [how] being in green spaces connects with spirituality.”

She highlights the dramatic setting of the Abbey, in a bowl in the Leicestershire countryside, within its own parklands, among grazing cattle and sheep, as a fundamental resource. “A lot of people say that, as they come down the hill towards the first groups of lawn, they begin to relax. . . And they just feel they’re stepping aside from whatever it is they come from.”

SanctumA hammock awaits in the Sanctum grounds in Herefordshire

As well as nature-focused retreats, Launde is also providing more places to sit in the grounds, including trails and walks.

One retreat that makes specific use of the grounds is Reforesting the Soul (12-15 September), run by Canon Andrew Mayes. Based on his book of the same name, the four-day event will draw on the symbolism of trees in the Bible and Christian tradition, taking in the surrounding woodland, with an emphasis on spiritual rejuvenation and ecological awareness. It is the first of its type at Launde, although Canon Mayes is a regular retreat leader at the Abbey.

On a similar theme, the Hidden Life of Trees is being led by the Revd Brigid Main at the Othona Community, in Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex (19 July). Using the centre’s grounds and the seventh-century chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall near by, it will explore the connections between trees and our prayer life and support systems, and is one of many nature-themed events at the centre this year.

Much of Othona’s nature programme is linked to its annual Green Weekend, geared around environmental sustainability, which took place earlier this month. Debbie Sanders, joint-warden with her husband, Richard, explains: “We’re building on people who come to that event, and people we’ve got to know, on our programme this year.”
One example is the Scything Week (26 June-2 July), led by the wild-flower and scything expert Richard Brown, which developed out of an interest — generated from last year’s Green Weekend — in learning the skill. Participants will be able to practise on an adjacent field that belongs to the Othona Community and is being turned into a wildflower meadow.

Other events that make use of the Othona Community’s setting, this time focusing on its location on the Blackwater estuary, include Land, Sea and Sky (19-23 June), which draws on Celtic Christian tradition to meditate on the landscape and the presence of God in all things. Meanwhile, the centre is continuing its regular programme of events based on the seasons of the year, such as Harvest Working Weekend (8-10 September), Autumn Retreat (6-8 October), and Winter Watch (13-16 November).

Mrs Sanders comments on how much visitors appreciate Othona’s secluded setting: “It’s the first thing many people say when they come: ‘How peaceful, how beautiful.’ I think, too, the bird life is important for people. You’re sitting outside, able to see the herb garden, and we’ve got the peace garden as well. . . Even if it’s quite busy, there’s usually somewhere here you can go for some peace and quiet.”


FOR Tina Jeffries of Sanctum Retreats, in Herefordshire, the surroundings of a ten-acre farm are a vital means of enabling retreatants to switch off and enter into a more meditative space. “We use the outdoors as much as possible. The landscape itself is lovely, and gives us the opportunity to do lots of contemplative work. We have very wide, open views to the Black Mountains, and the Golden Valley of Herefordshire.”

OthonaOthona on the Essex coast

Mrs Jeffries runs tailored retreats with an emphasis on being able to separate from the constant connectivity of modern life through silence, prayer, and creative exercises. As a teacher within the World Community for Christian Meditation, which passes on the teaching of John Main, she is a keen advocate of silent meditation, but is also aware of the culture shock that some urban-dwelling visitors experience in transitioning to an extremely rural setting during their stay.

“When I have people here who live in the city, it’s a big contrast. . . I know it sounds crazy, but not everyone likes it. Therefore, I have a whole range of approaches and resources,” she says. “I meditate twice a day, and they can join me for that if they want to, [but] we’re very hands-off. . . I’m keen on enabling people to use these methods of retreat, to help them through very stressful lives.”

Some of the exercises that specifically use the outdoors include using a labyrinth; doing a listening walk that takes in the sounds of the area, or meditating on aspects of the landscape, such as a flower, stone, or tree.

“They’re sensing the environment . . . [and it’s] really getting people to form some kind of respectful relationship with what’s around them,” Mrs Jeffries says.


AT LEE ABBEY, on the north coast of Devon, there is a strong emphasis on worship using the outdoor space.

The Chaplain, the Revd Tom Collins, says: “We’re so aware that the creation, the beauty of the surroundings here and on the coast of north Devon are a fundamental resource of the place where we are called to be doing our retreat — and a key underpinning, I think, of all our retreats. . .

”Where we do our worship, and how we do our worship naturally then flows into how we how we behave, how we live. . . [So] we’re also learning how to live responsibly in the space that we’re in. As much as possible, we are inviting people to be out in the midst of it.”

One of the Abbey’s regular outdoor retreats is Walk and Talk (22-26 May; 10-16 July; 25-29 September), which offers three different daily walk options, depending on ability. “The idea is that it’s in the walking that people share their stories, or an encounter they are in the midst of,” Mr Collins says.

Another popular fixture is the Birds of Exmoor retreat, (5-9 June), which includes a mixture of offsite tours to various parts of Exmoor; on-site bird-watching; and the opportunity to spend time within the Lee Abbey grounds.

Using the outdoors does have an impact on guests, Mr Collins says. “People feel that God is speaking to them through the landscape and through the continually changing beauty of it. . . Being right here on the coast, the weather is always changing. The lighting, whether it’s raining, or whether we are getting dramatic sunsets, all of that . . . speaks to people of God’s power and beauty and richness.”

Mr Winter agrees: “At the end of the day, it’s just recognising that nature is created, and [that] nature gives us so many insights into the loving character of God.”


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