I supposed that you could say that I was raised on a noisy spirituality. Aside from very early childhood, which I don’t readily remember, we were in the Baptist Church in Scotland and worship and prayer needed to be expressed vocally. Of course, as my Christian understanding grew, I came to recognise the value of the moment of personal and private devotion, known descriptively as one’s ‘quiet time’, and that played an important role but in a context of sharing in open prayer and finding ways of expressing one’s relationship with God. I am not placing any judgment on that – it worked for me at the time. I am simply offering a brief description of what was – and recognising that different things speak to different people and at different times.
My introduction to silence as part of prayer and worship, for anything other than a fairly brief period, came in my final year of studies for the ministry. The Scottish Congregational College then shared premises with the Scottish Episcopal College and, as the lone residential Congregationalist, I tended to share more in the life and worship of my Episcopal colleagues (all of whom were resident) than did my fellow Congregationalists. On Monday evenings we had a devotional address, which was followed by silence until breakfast on Tuesday – though I seemed to remember many Mondays when it was more honoured in the breach than in the practice. We also had occasional quiet days.
The years passed, many of them, and I began preparing for a sabbatical that was due to take place in 2011. As I considered various elements that I wanted to be part of that sabbatical, three very different things emerged as things I wanted to do, which I believed would enrich my ministry in very different ways. One was to spend some time in the Holy Land. A second was to spend some time in Zimbabwe, cultivating our Synod global link. The third was to go on retreat, which I had not properly done for a serious amount of time.
As I considered various possibilities, a retired minister who was then serving on my support group, and whose judgment I greatly valued, suggested that I try a silent retreat, specifically an individually guided Ignatian retreat, and, also specifically, that I might come to St. Beuno’s.
So the idea was born, and the opportunity sought. This is what I wrote in my sabbatical report:
“So I arrived at St. Beuno’s with a degree of trepidation, not sure whether I was going to love or to hate my seven days of silence. A train to Rhyl in North Wales, followed by a taxi ride took me to St. Beuno’s Ignatian Spirituality Centre, near to St. Asaph, and situated between Rhuallt and Tremeirchion. A beautiful location in the Welsh hills and extensive grounds provide a superb setting for the centre. As the St. Beuno’s web-site says:
“A retreat is principally a time for you to be alone with God. That is not to say we expect you to be kneeling all day in a chapel. Many people who come on retreat at St Beuno's take advantage of the beautiful countryside and the safe walking area to breathe fresh air and to exercise. … A retreat is a time for leaving behind much of what normally fills our time: television, work, computers, telephones, commuting, preparing meals, chatting etc. and having time to reflect, to ponder, to pray, to be.”
I had not really known what to expect but had thought that, if nothing else, I would get some reading in alongside the opportunity to pray. However, it was not to be so. I was quickly to learn that a retreat (of this kind) is definitely an opportunity to give space for God – and so began of rhythm of meals in silence but accompanied to music, times of prayer, walking and meditating, a daily Eucharist and a daily meeting of about 35 minutes with my spiritual director. Even my Bible reading was restricted to the passages suggested for use in my times of prayer.
Had it all been explained in advance, I might have wondered how I would cope and whether it would all prove too much – but the reality was a wonderful experience of space and reflection with God. Here was a real opportunity to focus on what God wanted to say to me through his word. This was a chance to put aside the technology and pressures of the everyday world and listen for the voice of God.”
Suffice to say, I have, to date, returned to St. Beuno’s for three further such retreats, in 2012, 2015, and 2017. Each has been on the same model, and yet unique, offering different experience, but each an enriching opportunity for prayerful reflection.