This week I have been on our Diocesan Clergy Retreat. My old rector always used to say that all clergy should go on retreat together so I mostly have. It is bad enough being an extrovert going on silent retreat but having to do it on your own is just agony. So if it looks like it will be a good speaker, off I trot with a motley crew of clergy and lay readers with a pile of books (not all holy), a magazine, an iPad, a journal and pen, and a bottle or two of wine. The latter is for sharing, of course.
For the past few years our retreat has been at Whitchester just outside Hawick in the Scottish Borders. It is very chintzy. Chintzy walls, chintzy sofas and chintzy chairs, chintzy carpets (can you have chintzy carpets? well they are mostly Chinese by the looks of it). It is all very lovely and very comfy with a log fire roaring in the lounge, a couple of remote-control recliners in the sitooterie, and very elegant and old bits and bobs. A rather nice country house really. With proper butter knives, don’t you know.
And that was what made me think I was living in an Agatha Christie novel this year. Picture the scene:
One by one we arrive, pulling our little suitcases behind us with enough for a four-day stay. We are shown to our elegant rooms by the Warden and then gather in the lounge by the log fire while the rain chucks it down outside. There are eight of us including our Retreat Leader. There aren’t very many of us, I think to myself, considering we are a diocese of at least 75 clergy. (I assume they all prefer to have a solo retreat. That’s a lot of solo retreats going on!) But eight feels like a nice number. Not too many people to avoid if you want a quiet corner and chances are there won’t be a queue for the reclining chairs in the sitooterie. And looking around them I thought that yes, they did all fit into an Agatha Christie novel. There was the older lady with the tartan skirt and pearls, and the overweight middle-ager who huffed and puffed and didn’t look as if she really wanted to be there. There was the man who changed into his slippers and looked quite relaxed and at home, and the bishop, of course, in purple shirt and a bag of comfy clothes into which he’d change.
Dinner was served in the dining room with the curtains closed against the storm and the chandelier reflected in the wonderful mantle mirror. (Such a pity there was no sherry beforehand.) Conversations rose and fell and everyone was keen to capture the attention of the Retreat Leader. Ecclesiastical gossip was shared and hopes and fears expressed for this retreat. Our Leader was keen not to impose any rules upon the group and that we should all agree on when we should keep silence and when we should stop. Over coffee and our first session we agreed that we would go into silence after her first talk that evening and break it on the eve of the last day at dinner. (This was to pacify me, the only one who struggles with silence. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to talk until after Mass on the last morning. Imagine!)
And so our retreat began. But on the second day I noticed that the lady with the tartan skirt and pearls came to the morning talk and then disappeared. It was most strange as she was never seen again and nothing was mentioned, as we were in silence. Where had she gone? Had she disagreed with the speaker and walked off in a huff? Or had she been strangled in the walled garden and left to lie with the budding snowdrops? And then there were seven. It was most strange.
On the third day the same fate befell the Bishop. He went to bed at night and never came down again in the morning for breakfast. Where had he gone? Had he been suffocated in his bed by an unhappy priest? Or had he drowned in his shower by the hands of some unknown assailant who was now walking around in his purple shirt impersonating him in a Borders town? Again we were all left to ponder his fate in silence. And then there were six.
In the evening of the third day the man with the comfy slippers (which were now walking shoes) looked anxiously out of the darkened window as we gathered for our last talk. He seemed more interested in examining the gloom of the garden than listening to our speaker. I thought I saw a flashing light at one point and when I next opened my eyes (just resting them, you understand) he was gone! Gone in the middle of a talk! And nobody seemed to have noticed. Did it have anything to do with the flashing light? Had he gone off for an assignation which turned horribly wrong and he was now lying in the garden being pecked by the pheasants? And then there were five.
We five huddled together and made it safely through to the dinner on the last evening when the lady in the tartan skirt and pearls joined us for the meal. Turns out she hadn’t been strangled but had just been busy and might come back for the Lay Retreat at the weekend. The Bishop, we were told, had engagements which he couldn’t miss but he too would return with his wife for the weekend retreat. (Thank goodness he hadn’t been strangled although I fancy it might have been done by a maniple if he had.) And then it was explained that the man in comfy slippers had a Vestry meeting and was being picked up by his Rector’s Warden at the appointed time. The lights in the garden were no more than the headlights of the car coming to pick him up. And I was so sure the pheasants had a rather guilty look in their eyes.
So there you have it, dear readers. That is the kind of thing I am left to imagine when I am forced into silence.