About two and a half years ago I went on a silent retreat, which was a wonderful experience. (My abiding memories are of amazing dinners eaten to the soundtrack of nothing but classical music, the joy of not having to make small talk with anyone, and an invitation back towards simply being in God’s presence without an agenda). I was pregnant with Jesse at the time, and my spiritual director asked me if I would be back again to repeat the experience. I laughed at the thought that a silent retreat might be possible in the new terrain of motherhood. But this past week I finally made it.
It wasn’t actually a silent retreat this time. I had been reflecting in the summer about the future, and what I wanted to do, reckoning that once the next baby arrived I’d have a little less headspace and energy to think about those kinds of things. And a couple of friends recommended an organisation that runs two day retreats helping to answer questions about direction and purpose. So that was how I came across Crossroads. And how four days after moving I left Andy, Jesse and our new home to spend the weekend in the middle of Oxfordshire.
Only when the clamour of the outside world is silenced will you be able to hear the deeper vibration. Listen carefully.
Sarah Ban Breathnach
It was both terrible timing (practically) and beautiful timing, because if there was ever a moment when I needed to escape the stress and exhaustion of all that had been going on for weeks, it was this past weekend. I wondered if I might end up spending the weekend simply curled up in a ball, mumbling incoherently, recovering from the previous week. I woke on Saturday morning with some anticipation to the astonishing sight of snow (the first snow Jesse had ever seen) and had to scrape it off the car to make my getaway. Sadly, I scraped half of it into my boots. I drove carefully with wet feet through the sleet and rain and fog, and made it out.
It was a beautiful old house, where we met – eight strangers, mostly men, and two guides. The days were more structured than I had foreseen, and there was no monastic rhythm by which to order the day (and no psalm chanting either, sadly). It was a safe and open space for anyone, of any faith or none, to share, reflect, explore and question. The guides were wise, thoughtful, and insightful. I revisited terrain I had pondered before and wondered if there would be a different way forward that was visible.
We looked backwards at the paths we had trodden before (there were stories about career paths and unexpected family upheaval, dreams and disappointments) . We tried to listen in to what we most wanted, and not resist. We started to entertain the idea of change (a new environment? an exhibition? a new job? an end to a relationship? a rebalancing of priorities?), and helped one another to examine what might be at stake, what change might ask of us, what might be lost if we didn’t try. And then we tried to unearth our unique inner genius (that’s the bit hardest to explain), and to make plans to move forward. It wasn’t a small process.
On Sunday morning, in the middle of it all, I went for a short walk. And I noticed that I felt afraid, and not at ease in the cold, wintery countryside. The leafy tapestry beneath my feet was beautiful, and constantly shifting hue with each few steps. But I didn’t belong, and I couldn’t think where I did belong. I walked on despite my fear, wondering why I couldn’t feel happy in this spacious idyll, this gift of a place. I didn’t know where else I would feel happier, even though at the same time I knew that there was deep contentment our season of family life right now. The moment was crowded with so many questions and uncertainties that I couldn’t see where or when they would leave me in peace.
The garden was brown and dry and bare, trodden down, chaotic, with husks of summer fruits or dry branches lying across my path or heaped in beds. So much was a mess and seemed to belie the promise of future colour, beauty and fruitfulness. But yet that was the season and it all belonged, and chaos, I knew, couldn’t stop it blooming again, given the right care.
So I came away a little more peaceful and hopeful. I have no tidy to-do list for the next month or year, but I can see a balance to be redressed. Things have got out of kilter and there are parts of me I want to find more space to express, and other parts that can take a back seat. It’s fine that the new baby will cram more things out for a while; I have a clearer idea what shape I’m trying to build back into life, and I have a few things to try out to help me get there.