Anyone who is even slightly acquainted with me, will not need to be very perceptive to imagine I’m no good at properly chilling out on days off. For me a day off is packed with all the stuff I don’t have time to do during the rest of the week. I can’t sit still. I do stuff. Lots of stuff. A day doing nothing is a day wasted in my view. My inability to wholeheartedly take part in inertia drives my husband crazy, as he is a master of intentional slothfulness.
But after a particularly busy, stressful and demanding period at work, I decided to appease the growing number of friends who were suggesting I take time out, and I booked myself a 24 hour tactical withdrawal. We don’t use the term ‘retreat’ in the Army. A retreat is something you do when you’re being driven backwards by the enemy. A tactical withdrawal is something you do on your own terms so that you’re in a better position to assess the situation. Semantics? Or a frame of mind? Actually when thinking of it like this, perhaps what I’d booked was more like a retreat, as I wouldn’t have ordinarily opted for this on my terms! And I did rather feel like I was being driven there.
A few days later I was literally driving there. It was raining hard but nothing could dampen my mood. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the hours leading up to my departure from my house, as I’d been packing- an activity I relish. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I carefully and deliberately chose my favourite toiletries, books and pyjamas, all the while thinking about what a treat it would be to have the time to use them. Moisturiser works so much better on the skin than in a drawer.
However as I got closer to my destination, the creeping anxiety that had surrounded the booking of the tactical withdrawal/retreat, was nudging back into focus. I knew very little about retreats and the unknown can be scary. The basis of my knowledge was an episode of the recent BBC comedy “Fleabag” where the main character and her sister get into trouble for talking, and an episode of Rev. As I thought about the latter, I realised with panic that, like Rev, I’d completely forgotten to pack any wine. I hissed something profane at the wheel. How could I have been so poorly prepared? The coming 24 hours of inactivity on my own seemed to stretch out in front of me into eternity. I scolded myself first for being so forgetful and for swearing. It didn’t seem like a very retreaty thing to do. Then I wondered if I’d pass a Sainsbury’s on my way…
As I drew near my final destination, I spotted a pub. It had warm lighting and people inside. Wonderful. A quick glance at my satnav and I noted it was 1.4 miles away from Shepherd’s Dene. I could easily walk it in 30 mins, even in the dark and rain. Relief. I had no idea how I’d feel on retreat or how I’d cope with doing nothing for 24 hours, so this would be my fall-back position if necessary.
Having finally arrived, I turned off my headlights and hopped out into the driving rain. Pitch black woodland surrounded my car and the path to the front of the house seemed very long. Standing in the dark, I fleetingly thought “What a likely location for a murder.” Great. I’m supposed to be getting into a restful and relaxed frame of mind and all I’m thinking of is being murdered in the woods. I don’t much like the dark.
Dashing into the lit porch with my luggage, I tried to put thoughts of serial killers lurking in the shadows out of my mind. I’d arrived just in time for dinner and a large party of women were already seated in the dining room saying Grace. I dumped my bags and joined their table. They were a very lively group of women in their 50s and 60s. Phew. If I can’t bare my own company, at least I have these lot, I thought. This group can be my primary fall-back position and the pub can be my secondary.
After a hearty meal I was shown around by a member of staff, and ideas of how I might spend my time began to emerge. On the list of things to explore in the morning, I noted a terrace, a lounge, a garden room, a chapel, various quiet spaces next to full bookcases, a little shop and extensive gardens … and of course the aforementioned menacing woods. The last room she pointed out was a bar. Hurrah! She explained it was an honesty bar and showed me the chit I’d need to sign to show what I’d purchased. Feeling very at home, as it was a replica of any number of Officers’ Mess bars I’d been in, I began to think the retreat wouldn’t be so difficult after all. This was now my primary fall-back position. Sorry ladies. The retreat really couldn’t get better.
That’s what I thought anyway, until the lady showing me my room mentioned she was also a masseuse (!) and I booked a massage with her on the spot. “A sports massage though” I requested, trying to sound as tranquil and relaxed as I could, whilst explaining how much I dislike soft aromatherapy massages and instead prefer to good going over with knuckles, elbows and even knees. Anything to weed out those knots. By the look on her face I’d said something else un-retreaty. Must try harder to appear peaceful and serene.
Once alone in my room I did a jig of excitement that all was going well so far, and I was neither lonely nor tense. I unpacked, and put everything away neatly, and took great delight in stacking my reading material on the desk. Quite a collection of books to keep me occupied, though seeing them all together, I wondered how many I’d get through. I’d been advised not to bring anything too work-related or too taxing, so I avoided Biblical commentaries and anything by Bonhoeffer. Instead I’d opted for “The Four Loves” by C. S. Lewis, one called “Rules for a New Brother” that I’d packed because it was small, but on closer inspection of the foreword I realised it is “A rule written for people who are considering living and working in a community supported by rules of chastity, obedience and poverty”. Hmm, probably won’t be reading that one then. Next up were a couple of books by Judy Hurst, a book called Anglicanism- A Very Short Introduction, which certainly edged rather too close to the ‘work’ category, then a book called Ignatius that the Bishop of Jarrow had lent me, and whilst he said there was no rush to return it, I felt this retreat would be the perfect time to start and finish it. Finally I stacked my last two books on the pile; two light-hearted and humorous travel books by Bill Bryson.
Satisfied with my stash, I changed into some comfortable clothes that could pass for pyjamas, or at a push, very casual lounge-wear if I decided to go to the bar later on. Finally I got to the welcome booklet. Page one:
Everyone at Shepherd’s Dene hopes you have a comfortable and restful stay with us and hopes your time here will give you an opportunity to reflect and to grow close to God.
Ah yes. God. You see what definitely makes this much more a retreat rather than a tactical withdrawal, is the fact that this isn’t just about me getting away and relaxing. It’s supposed to be me finding more time for God. Prayer, reflection, even meditation if that’s what it takes, were all things I was planning on doing, yet so far hadn’t given much thought to. I was still rather more concerned with “filling my time” so I didn’t feel I was wasting it. As that thought crossed my mind, I winced at the imaginary voice of one of my eminently more mature Christian friends telling me “Time spent with God is never time wasted.”
Committing myself to being better at retreats in the remaining 22 hours than I had been thus far, I turned up Classic FM on the radio I’d brought with me, ran a bath and went back to my pile of books, running my finger along their spines whilst choosing. Peace, calm, retreat, relax, God… I went for Bill Bryson. Ignatius could wait for the morning. Baby steps.
The next morning, feeling very refreshed after a peaceful night’s sleep I awoke to see the scenery outside my window for the first time. Mist clung to the treetops in the distant hills and an expanse of gardens, meadows and trees filled the foreground. Beautiful. Breakfast, coffee, morning prayer in the chapel and a massage followed, and by 11am I was beginning to think I had this retreat thing nailed. Whilst wandering around, one of the chatty ladies from the big group invited me into the terrace room to join their “knit and natter” group for a bit. Being in company wasn’t against the rules, so I spent the rest of the morning sharing tales with a dozen women and their balls of wool. Lunch followed, and I realised the rain wasn’t going to clear up, so if I was going to explore the grounds, now was as good a time as any.
Cheerfully resigning myself to the fact I’d get soaked- in the absence of waterproofs or a hat- I set off towards the gardens with a spring in my step, feeling that this was just the sort of thing you should do on a retreat. I began at the labyrinth which is a beautifully-kept pattern of low, grassy mounds. Unlike a hedge maze where you can’t see where you’re going and have many choices, in this labyrinth you have only one choice, and you keep following it until you reach the centre, which you can see. I sensed after 15 minutes that what I was doing was very repetitive, and to an outsider, would look very odd; walking round and round in circles on a seemingly flat field. But I persevered. I could just about tell that I was getting nearer the centre. Besides, this monotonous walking and turning and walking and turning was just the sort of activity you could do whilst praying. So I did pray a bit. I thanked God for the beautiful day, brought to mind my friends on my prayer list who need God’s healing, and then spotted a sign in the distance inviting me into the woods for a walk.
No. Walking and turning, walking and turning. I put the sign out of my mind. The woods could wait. I decided finishing the labyrinth was an act of discipline, spiritual discipline. Nevertheless my pace quickened. Walking and turning, walking and turning. Eventually I reached the middle where I expected to see an identical, mirror image of the path I’d been following but there was none. Then it dawned on me I’d have to take the very same path back. That’s the other difference between this labyrinth and an ordinary maze: it has only one entrance and exit point, so you end up back where you started, exactly where you started. This was a crushing blow. I felt I’d really been good by completing it to the centre point but I just couldn’t do it all again to get out, so like a petulant child I stepped over the mounds, squelching as I did, and hoped no-one was watching. It didn’t feel at all like a retreaty thing to do.
Glad to be momentarily out of the driving rain and under the canopy of trees, I picked my way along the winding downward path, feeling very excited indeed. I like to think of myself as a bit of a wood connoisseur, or at the very least a wood enthusiast. Years of Army training has given me keen senses so I feel very in-tune with the layers of smells and sounds and sights that are packed into woodland. I love being perfectly still and watching and listening to the pattern of life going on around me, high up in the tree-tops and rustling in the fern. My late teens and early twenties where spent in woods just like this one, laid on my front, covered in leaves and camouflage cream, watching and waiting and concentrating hard. I love woods.
In contrast to the greens and browns I spotted a large pink handbag, and its owner, leaning peacefully against a tree with her eyes nearly shut, helpfully warned me that the path below leading to the stream was very slippery. As I descended at pace, wishing I could look as peaceful as her, I pondered whether the extent of path’s slipperiness could be argued. Can slipperiness be objective or is it, by nature, always subjective? I didn’t find it slippery, in that I had no expectation of slipping. I have good balance, hardy walking boots and quick reactions. Then I wondered if all adjectives are subjective. Beauty is subjective, but what about the wetness of water? Surely water’s wetness is a given. I was mulling this over, with my hands in my coat pockets, when I came to the stream, and slipped on some mossy stones. Recovering myself, and making sure the wise old lady hadn’t seen, I decided to keep my hands out of my pockets from now on.
I strolled slowly by the stream for a long time, stopping frequently to eat the last of the season’s brambles, and watching out for birds. I’d brought my binoculars and bird book with me, and to my delight, within half an hour I’d spotted a dipper, bobbing in and out of the water. I wondered whether dippers had been mentioned in the welcome pack. What an honour to have spotted a new species which could be added to the list. I was terribly excited and tried to take photos in case Shepherd’s Dene needed evidence. Otherwise surely anyone could make anything up?
I continued along the stream then up a bank into the woods, consulting my map when I came to a fork in the path. It wasn’t a terribly detailed map; it had no scale and some rather unconventional markings that you wouldn’t find on an ordinance survey map, such as “pagoda”. It showed the path I was on turned into a “path under construction”. I could clearly see the beginnings of this new path, with its recently laid stones and scree, which I followed hopefully for some distance, but then all that sort of disappeared. Feeling hopeful, I followed into the unknown, having to really use my imagination to discern where the path might be. I consulted my soggy map again, peering at the steep descent in front of me. Where had the dotted line gone? The extensive tangle of brambles and gorse bushes all around made any of it seem like an unlikely path. But the map did seem to be sending me into this netherworld so I pressed on, picking my way carefully through the dense, thorny foliage.
Now this is what the beginning of the "path under construction" looked like
Every few meters that I advanced seemed to reveal even more impenetrable brambles, nettles, thistles and gorse. So much gorse. Too involved and committed to turn back, and frankly, too unsure of where I’d come from, I kept moving. I fell once or twice, grabbed several vicious bushes, snagged my actual face at one point, and was altogether not having a happy experience on my stroll in the woods. In fact I was gathering some pace on this steep and spiteful bank. At one point I wondered if any human feet had ever walked upon this morass. There was no evidence that any had, and there certainly wasn’t a bloody path under construction or otherwise. Eventually I emerged from the jungle onto the plateau below, covered in scratches, panting, sweating, soaking wet and bleeding, like some kind of primitive cave dweller. Peaceful I was not.
this bit of the construction was less clear
I made my dishevelled way to the stream, ducking under fallen trees and scrambling over low-lying logs, as if reaching the stream would make this decent more purposeful. I spotted a little pond to my front, or rather my now submerged feet found it. As I stood staring into the shallow waters seeping into my sodden boots, absent-mindedly picking thorns out of my hands and legs, and sucking my fingers that were still bleeding, I thought of my own frog-less pond at home, and wondered if I might find and catch one here today. How wonderful to rehome a frog! But then, I reflected, transporting a frog in a tweed pocket probably wouldn’t do it much good. Besides stealing wildlife from a retreat house is probably against the rules, and if it isn’t written in the welcome pack, it should be. Again I chastised myself for my un-retreaty thoughts, and after standing around in silence for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time, I did the whole sorry journey in reverse.
Back on the high ground at last, I sighed heavily and set off back to the house. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. My not-at-all-peaceful walk was interrupted further when, out of no-where, two black Labradors crashed towards me, barking and snarling and snapping their jaws. I’m sure there are do’s and don’t’s when you’re confronted with aggressive predatory animals. I’m sure I watched a programme or read a book once that made suggestions about body language or tone of voice when you’re just about to be savaged. I’m sure you’re supposed to hold your ground and look big, or run, or climb a tree, or shout, or stay perfectly still and pretend you’re dead. But which bits of those advice was for salivating, barking, incensed dogs? I wish I knew why they were so angry with me and maybe I could placate them, reason with them. I was rooted to the spot. Was it my blood and sweat they could smell? Bloody brilliant, this, I thought. Who gets savaged on a retreat? I knew these woods were dangerous.
My mind was rather blank and yet they were still pacing and barking and running rings around me. I wasn’t terribly happy. I don’t think I’ve ever been especially fond of barking dogs, but less so since I was savaged by a pack of two dozen wild dogs in Sarajevo last year, while I was out running (another story). I’ve not been fond of dogs or running since. I looked around me for a stick or a ladder up a tree or a man in a flat-cap with a whistle and rosy cheeks but none were forthcoming, then I remembered where I was so I said a quick prayer, and then dogs eventually lost interest and raced away, to scare the living hell out of some other poor creature. Thank you God. That seemed like the most retreat thing I’d done for hours. Catching my breath, and relieved the black beasts were gone, I squelched back up to the house. I was filthy, soaked through and still bleeding a little bit from my bramble encounter. I’d need a bath, change of clothes and possibly some low level medical attention.
Back at the house, and once recovered from my ordeal, I found myself a quiet room to sit in until it was time to leave. I read for a bit, but even though I had 2 hours to go until I made it to 24 hours, I was aware that the very fact I was clock-watching meant it was perhaps time for me to leave. It wasn’t cheating, it was beating the traffic. I settled up, thanked the staff and it wouldn’t be until I was half-way home that I’d realise I hadn’t checked with them to see if the dipper was a new bird to add to their list of sightings. Bummer.
My first retreat was over. Had it been a waste? Had any of it been a proper retreat? Had I done any of the things I was supposed to do? Ignatius remained unopened. I’d not really spent that much time alone. I hadn’t prayed much, or not much more than usual. I certainly hadn’t meditated. Was it a failed retreat? I considered these things as I drove home in the rain. By the time I pulled up outside my house, I’d decided that I had indeed retreated. Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s type of relaxing but it was my type of relaxing, and after all it was my first attempt. I’d rejoiced in God’s creation in the woods (well at least on the well-trodden parts of it, not so much in the bramble haven) and I’d prayed when I needed help. I’d even seen God’s love shine from the lovely knitting ladies and in the meals and conversations we’d shared. Overall, I was deeply grateful for the experience, and that I had the means to treat myself to it. Shepherd’s Dene is God’s retreat house, those woods are God’s woods, the dipper I saw is God’s dipper and I’m God’s child. A bit rubbish at retreats, but God’s child non-the-less. I give myself a C+ and a “Try harder next time”. Only next time I’m going to go for 48 hours, and I’m going to nail it.