Reflections

Everyone should go on retreat for three days a year

By Robert Porter (Rite and Reason) The Times 13th October 2020 in the Opinion & Analysis page

When I was a student at Cambridge I went on a retreat with some friends. It was a silent affair, and we were still very young, so we spent most of the time tittering from the tension induced by the silence. Although it was in some ways a moving experience, my overriding memory of the retreat was all that tittering.

So, I was surprised when I was recently moved to book myself on a three-day retreat at Glenstall Abbey in Co Limerick. Glenstal is a Catholic Benedictine monastery, and I am an Anglican living in London (although I am originally from Belfast), so I was initially a little bemused that I had been guided there.

Thinking about it, it’s not so strange. First, I have always been fascinated by the Celtic Church. It seems to me it has generally instinctively known what really mattered. At the Synod of Whitby in 663-664, the Celtic Church surrendered its position on, among other things, the timing of Easter and the monastic tonsure to preserve the integrity of the church as a whole.

True, there were arguably political forces at work, since in return for that the Celtic Church was allowed to maintain a degree of independence for a time, but the point remains good – the Celtic Church sacrificed some of its most treasured practices to maintain the coherence and unifying strength of the church as a whole. And of course, the Irish monasteries were the selfless repository of classical and Christian learning in the dark days after the fall of Rome.

Beyond this academic attraction, the monks at Glenstal are renowned for their plainchant (you can listen on Spotify) and I felt that would infuse a healthy mystique into the services. Apart from anything else, I greatly appreciate music and, in this context, the institution of music in church as an aide to worship (one of the reasons why as a young man I made the jump from Presbyterianism to Anglican Church), and I felt that plainchant would wonderfully enhance my retreat. Equally, I am drawn toward the Benedictine ethic of “Work and Pray”. That seems to be a healthy balance and doesn’t leave everything up to God: we must also bear our own responsibility.

Finally, I have some very fine friends who in their time went to Glenstall Abbey School, and I felt if it was good for them it was good for me. Just for the record, I do not regard myself a Holy Joe or some sort of reconstructed (or unreconstructed) evangelical. I am lucky to have been born with a quiet, yet profound and determined, faith.

In this regard I have generally had a very “easy” relationship with God, which sounds wonderful, but perhaps when it has been too “easy” it has caused its own problems such as complacency. Nevertheless, for reasons I choose not to delve into here, I recently recognised I had a lot to be thankful for in my life, and felt I needed to give thanks in a more prolonged and formal way than merely quickly “beaming one up” to the Big Guy Upstairs. The retreat itself was everything I could have hoped for. I will not go into it in depth; it’s between me, God and the monks. Suffice to say I was made to feel a most welcome part of the community.

I will say the schedule of services was rigorous, although you could pick and choose which to go to; a palate of Lauds (6.35am), matins, Mass, vespers and compline. That lot kept me going – and all with that beautiful plainchant ringing in my ears!

Worldly cares

At its best a retreat is not a withdrawal.  It is an engagement. While you do on one level withdraw for a while from worldly cares, on another your mind, heart and soul reach out to engage with the divine. It is rigorous, demanding, uncompromising and ultimately – for me at least – utterly stimulating. In that light, “retreat” is a complete misnomer.

It should, rather, be described as something along the lines of an “assault course for the soul“.  Ultimately, you come out of it feeling as if you have run a marathon (which I have done several times): knackered, but elated, exhilarated, fulfilled and enriched. Of course, I can only speak from my own experience.

When I returned home, one of my friends asked me where I had been. As I explained, his eyes widened incredulously. “Are you taking Holy Orders?” he gasped facetiously.  I chuckled. “Nothing could be further from my thoughts,” I remarked. “But if everyone went on retreat for three days a year, the world would be a better place.” I was quickly taken aback at what I had said. First, it was true – the world would be a better place if everyone went on retreat for three days a year. And it wouldn’t need to be Christian, it could be a retreat (or the equivalent) of any religion where love and compassion were the driving force (that’s most of them, it seems to me, when all is said and done).

It would arguably amount to a balanced, pragmatic and practical striving for engagement without the necessity of casting oneself as a Holy Joe.

Second, I had said it: it was a firm date – family permitting, I would be back again next year. As St Benedict said, the sleepy like to make excuses. Lucky for me I’m an early riser.

Robert Porter is from Belfast and a former solicitor who lives in London

Editor: Do it.  You too will find that you are actually looking forward to those three days every year.  

Mission Sunday 2020

by Fr P. J. Hughes

It’s been one of those years that most of us will never forget. Due to the coronavirus, churches were closed and the mission of Christ looked as though it was put on hold. But thanks to Facebook and webcams, this mission continued with Mass and prayer services broadcast to people’s homes. It was a new way of living one’s faith.

Wherever a priest or religious is placed on mission they are workers in the vineyard, called to animate the baptised faithful in using their talents and gifts to communicate the message of Christ and his church.

As the prophet Isaiah says about those chosen: ‘though you do not know me, I arm you that people may know from the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun that, apart from me, all is nothing’ (Is 45:5-6)

Saint Paul says about missionaries: ‘They give their lives because they have received power from above and the Holy Spirit is leading them.’

Jesus is praying for the success of his mission, that the world may come to know God though the efforts of every missionary.

Working with the poor who have very little worldly possessions, one encounters a humility that they display before God and others. I had the privilege of working in Ecuador, in South America, as a missionary for eight and a half years. The people were so welcoming and lived simple lives, without even basic facilities. Living among the poor, I came to realise that in the end the most important thing to have is faith in God.

No achievements, no wealth, no honours placed upon me in this world can win me eternal life. Only one thing that matters:

to know Christ Jesus and believe in him who is praying for us as we proclaim the gospel.

The poor taught me that faith brings true happiness.

The Parable of the Two Sons

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sire’, but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

This is an extract from a reflection from Bible Alive for the 26th Sunday 27th September and the above Gospel reading

The message of the parable of the Two Sons can be boiled down to the phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’ (but words and actions would have pleased the father more). We profess our faith and say ‘yes’ at Sunday Mass, but do we live out our faith in our daily lives? Modern Western society likes to try and remove religion and faith from affairs of state and day-to-day living. St John Henry Newman taught that there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives. Neither of the two sons responds well to their father in today’s reading. One says ‘no’, but then has the strength of character to change his mind and do what he knows is right. The other pays lip-service to his father, but doesn’t do his will.

Dear Jesus, give us courage to respond to your call and challenge. Help us to make a positive contribution to society in your name. Amen