In which Ruth falls silent but two weeks too soon

silenceThe virus came upon me. The no-voice virus came upon me hard. For ten days now I have had no voice. Actually that is not strictly true – the voice has varied from Minnie Mouse on helium to Eartha Kitt (you have to be of a certain age to get these) after a pack of Gitanes to nothing but a squeak or a dry husk. Every morning I have woken and tried it out hopefully to the cats. “Good morning Lucy Pussy!” I scratch. “How’s my lovely Rita Kitten?” I mouth. Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Of course there is a certain irony here. Over a year ago I had suffered several asthma attacks all winter long for which I was referred for a CT scan which showed up something on my lungs. Scarring, fibrosis, I was told. This meant a referral to the Respiratory Clinic. Now if you are a reader in the UK you will know that referrals on the NHS should happen within 12 weeks. Ha! I laugh at the thought of it. 11 months later I got my appointment with Forth Valley hospital and it was just a few days before the Lost Voice. So as I sat in the Consultant’s office I was able to say that I’ve hardly had any asthma, any colds or coughs, no lung or breathing problems at all, thank you very much. “Jolly good,” said he. “Some COPD, a bit of Fibrosis, some thick bronchi-whatnots so a wee bit of physio and we’ll keep an eye on you every year, dear.” And I was shown the door.

That was merely a week before the voice went. the lungs wearied, my temperature went up, my asthma-cough came back to haunt me at night. Oh pooh. Bloody typical. And the double irony is that I’m due to go on a silent retreat next week! That will be when my voice returns, I bet you!

This enforced silence has made me think, of course. Made me think about how noisy I am. How often I take for granted that I can pick up the phone for a blether, to ask a question, to have a moan. So that has been a salutary lesson for me and I’ve felt oh so lonely at times. What would I have done without Facebook, Twitter, Messaging, texting etc? Drama queen, eh? I wish I could say that I have used this enforced silence for good, of course. For some meditation or holy listening and mindfulness. (The subject of next week’s retreat, ironically.) But no, I have worked on using the time to get lots of computer and office things done. Can you hear my introvert friends scream now, can you?  But let me tell you it was not easy being an extrovert trapped in an introvert’s body. Oh no!

Of course I have much for which to be thankful. My little team who have rallied around and stepped in to say liturgies, preach my sermon, make phone calls on my behalf. Bless them. And yes it is very good for a control freak such as I to have it all taken away from me from time to time. But you know, the timing could have been better, eh?


And then there were five…

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. books pile

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:

log fireOne 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 snowdropsdisappeared. 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.

pheasantsIn 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.


I finished The Chessmen!

This was my fear with the New Year Resolution. That a book would come out that I’ve been waiting for for ages. A book that I wouldn’t hesitate to 1-click on Amazon and have it the next day. Now that I’m not buying fiction (did I mention that?) I knew that I’d either have to beg, borrow or go to the library and wait.

And so it was with The Chessmen,  the third in the Lewis trilogy by Peter May. But one of my little flock gave me a signed copy as a gift last week which was so sweet. She’s getting straight into heaven, that one!

For a while I wasn’t so sure about this book. There seemed to be a lot of descriptions of Lewis countryside, seaside, and skyside, and not too much happening in the excitement stakes. Having said that, the writing is beautiful and the descriptions wonderful.  The story went back and forth in years and helped set the scene for the present and that was done well and I didn’t get confused. However, about half way through it all picked up a pace and I ended up loving it. Couldn’t put it down in the end. 4 stars.

Tomorrow I go off on my annual Retreat. Silent Retreat. And I’m dreading it. No, I am living in hope that the Retreat Leader will say at the beginning: Welcome to the Clergy Retreat. This retreat we are going to have conversation at meal times and in the mornings. Thereafter we will be silent. And my heart will sing. Until such times, I am taking my Kindle with a zillion books to read.

Reflection on Christ Church’s silent retreat

One of the participants in our wee parish silent retreat a few weeks ago shared with us her reflections. She has given permission for them to be shared here too.

Morning has broken; the second day
Paintings to focus our thoughts
Poems to deepen awareness
Spiritual truths embedded in
Walking through trees and shrubs.
The wind whistles at this season of Pentecost
Blowing where it will through our inner being
The heart
The mind
The spirit
Searching for our inner response.

At our Eucharist the candle flickers
Then leaps into being with a sudden breath of air
Only to die down just as suddenly out of sight
But the flicker is still strong
A continual presence
Our togetherness in silence is the essence.
The overwhelming sense of each journey is strong
Private, individual,
Yet each heart beating at an inner level
yearning for communication
searching for a destination.
Or maybe the journey itself is enough for now
For God to mean more to us
not less.

Trinity Sunday
Father and Son
The Spirit’s grace
in the smiles of each face.
The Peace.
Hands clasped and touched
The unspoken expresses so much.
The bread and wine shared
The Christ who cared
enough to die for me
The Agony but oh what ecstasy
That he rose for all eternity.

And finally
A blessing.
The face of Christ on our TV screen
Reflects our own faces
A profusion of green
From the trees in the garden beyond our wall
The wood of the window
Like the cross behind his head
Drawing us into his sphere
Of love so near.
And as we pray together
our journey continues
in word
and in silence
from here.

by Gillian

Art and Spirituality Parish Retreat

So, no sooner am I back from the Clergy Silent Retreat and rejoicing at noise and blethering willy-nilly, than I take some of my little flock (and some of my neighbouring little flock) on a silent jaunt back to Whitchester. This time I was leader (let’s hear it for leadership in the church!) so I got to do some talking and lead worship so that was fine. I was staying in the Buccleuch Suite which is rather grander than the other chintzy rooms with a huge white leather sofa and TV. The sofa is so that one can meet with Retreatants for spiritual guidance, I’m guessing, but it is the slippiest sofa you ever sat on. In fact, I found it perfect for afternoon naps. Unfortunately the TV only seemed to get BBC1 so my plan to get away from all aspects of the Queen’s Jubilee rather failed as they seemed to have it wall to wall all weekend. That’ll teach me.

In between talks I did manage to catch up on some more reading in the delicious recliner in the ‘sitootery’. What did I read? Well thank you for asking. I read Jesus Freak by Sara Miles which is a kind of follow on to Take this Bread. In fact, I didn’t enjoy it quite so much because it did rather go over the same ground. However, if you’ve not read the first one so recently, then I’m sure you’d enjoy it more. It is more theological and reflective I think. But you still come away from it thinking what a crap Christian you are inspired and refreshed.

I also finished How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran which is one of the funniest books I’ve read for a long time. Every man, woman and child should read this book. (But probably not on a Silent Retreat as there is a risk you will get pains from trying to stifle sniggers.)

My GP is encouraging me to read Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn which is kind of a study in the Sacrament of the Present Moment for non-Christians but with the Buddhism taken out. Does that sound complicated? Well apparently many medical people are now using this method of relaxation for patients who suffer from stress, chronic pain, obsessive compulsive behaviour, etc. (I’ll leave you to decide which category I might fit in to!) It all seems jolly nice and worthy but I’ve only just started so I’ll let you know how I get on.

I also managed to squeeze in 37% of The Private Patient by PD James on the Kindle. Its ages since I read any PD James and I’d quite forgotten what a great writer she is of that genre. And yes, I do have a wee crush on Inspector Dalgliesh. Now I’ll need to finish it quickly before I forget the plot. (Or lose the plot.)

But what about the Retreat, I hear you cry? Well it was on Art and Spirituality and we looked at four paintings with a bit of history, a bit of meditation and a bit of pondering. The feedback was good but the talks could have been a bit longer, I’m told. (Note to self – don’t start writing the material just a week before you leave on retreat.) Music at mealtimes didn’t go down terribly well. Someone, who shall not be named but you know who you are Ian,  said he wanted to take out a shotgun and kill the Swingle Singers singing Bach. How can you not love them? I don’t know. It seems that behind my back there was much silent rejoicing on Sunday at breakfast when the power went off and I couldn’t get the CD player to work!

We arrived to glorious sunshine and enjoyed sitting outside with the noise of the countryside deafening us all. Yellow birds, pink birds, bumblie bees, dogs, pheasant (not turkeys I’m told), sheep, lambs and cows. What a racket! The second day was dull and cold so I made a log fire which whiled away an hour or so keeping it stoked etc. Our last day was sunny again. There were some moths (one was squished with a copy of Christianity Today) and a few bats. It is nice to be home.

Silence and noise

So every year there is a Diocesan Clergy Retreat, now held at Whitchester Retreat House just outside Hawick. It is all very comfy and chintzy with log fire and napkin rings and home cooking and butter knives.  Now, we all know that I am not great with silence. I don’t mind a little of it – I call that “peace and quiet to read a book”. But frankly too much of it makes me go a little bit … what can I call it … strange.  I start to regress and giggle at the slightest thing. I sigh loudly when really I’d like to share an insight with somebody. I catch people’s eyes and smile forlornly. And yes, one of these days I shall design a retreat for extroverts which is part-silence and lots of creativity.

However, until such times, I shall continue going to the annual clergy retreat because I’m familiar with the place and the people. This year our retreat was led by Bishop Gordon Mursell, retired Bishop of Stafford, now living in Scotland somewhere west and south, I think. And what a hoot he was!  Very amusing, self-deprecating, witty, went off on tangents but always came back and the journey was always worthwhile. And that is what’s so annoying about silent retreats – you don’t get to dialogue with the retreat leader and that can be very frustrating because I’d have loved to chat with him at some of the talks. The topics were all about vocation and really worth listening to. I never once noticed how long he spoke (which is always a good sign with me) and I was often left wanting more.

So, apart from the daily offices and talks what did I get up to? Well, reading mostly as the weather was not the best. The second day was nice and sunny and I managed to inveigle someone else into escaping in the afternoon on a jaunt to Melrose for a wander round the shops and a coffee. But the third day was rain all day and cold so there was nothing else to do except read and build fires. As I stood outside on the doorstep having a ciggie or two, it did occur to me that the country was not really terribly silent either. Birds started at about 4am just as the bat flitting was dying down. Opposite we had a field of sheep and little lambs mehing and baaing and there was also what sounded like a turkey, but may have been a grouse or some such meal-in-waiting. What with that and the hot water pump between bedrooms 5 and 6 it was not exactly what I’d call silent either.

First book was Take This Bread by Sara Miles which I had started before I went off and was half way through. It was fabulous and I can thoroughly recommend it. The author, raised an atheist, wanders into a church one day, received communion and found herself transformed. The fact that this church happened to be St Gregory’s in San Francisco might have something to do with it, being a radical Episcopal church which loves to do liturgy. But it is Bread and food which capture her imagination and soon she is running a food pantry from the altar of the church for the city’s homeless and destitute. There are some wonderful characters throughout her story, many of whom we all meet in churches around the world, and it is a book to be read by old and new Christians alike. 5 stars.

The second book was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges are Not the only Fruit. I saw Winterson being interviewed by that blonde throaty woman who does the Book Show on Sky Arts, and it really caught my attention. For this is a memoir, partly written about in Oranges, of an adopted child who grows up with the very strange Mrs Winterson and her husband. Religion doesn’t come out particularly well in this book but that is what makes it so fascinating – the way that some people use faith for their own ends. The book is funny, shocking and sad but always very real. Another 5 stars.

Next I read the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy: Mockingjay. Now you might be thinking that this wasn’t very serious theological reading for a retreat but I have to say that there are some great themes in there. I couldn’t put this one down either and was delighted at the way it all ended.

I then started to read How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran but it was so funny and rude that there was a real danger of me exploding so I had to abandon that until a more private time. Instead I spent some time meditating on Woven Words by Mary Fleeson from Lindisfarne. The last three were read on my Kindle so people may have thought that I was reading the Complete Works of Barth, unlikely as that may seem. That’s the beauty of a Kindle. Nobody knows what you’re reading.

I did plan on doing a little blogging and footering around on Facebook and Twitter, but serve me right… I couldn’t get a great signal and there was no wi-fi. Going into Hawick and wandering about holding my phone in different positions only helped me get the urgent emails I needed so I didn’t really get to ‘chat’ with the outside world as I’d have liked. Someone somewhere was having a laugh at my expense, I’ve no doubt.

Finding a comfy chair to do all that reading was no mean feat, let me tell you. In the lounge at Whitchester there is a big comfy squashy sofa but it is of the kind that once you get into it, you may never get out of it elegantly once more. There is a rather delicious pink sort of Chesterfield but it is a little upright for me but the matching armchairs at either side of the fire are not too bad for curling up in with a book. However, through in the conservatory, there are two rather splendid blue chairs of the type found in old folks’ homes. These particular ones have a remote control and you can slowly tilt until your feet are up and your head tilted back – perfect for reading. If you go too far of course you end up either tilted so far back there is nothing else for it but to go to sleep, or the other way you find yourself thrown out of the chair as it tilts up and tosses you out. Great fun though.

And soon I shall take my own little flock and friends back to Whitchester for another silent retreat. However this time, I shall be the one doing the talking. Yay!


Did I mention that I went to see the Avengers last week with Son #2? I think he misled me. There was no sign of Steed or Purdie, no high kicks, no wonderful hairdos. Actually there were a few high kicks from a bunch of super-heros in 3D which involved involuntary ducking from the older members of the audience. I was a bit disappointed with the 3D. It was a bit forced, I felt, and I actually felt that I would have enjoyed it better without it. Son #2 was terribly excited with it all while I thought it was okay. He’s owe me one now. I need to find a real slushy or religious movie to take him to.

What else did I get up to last week? Well there was the visit from the local S1 class for a romp round church looking for Christian symbols. I usually enjoy these sessions muchly but this one was a bit tricky. There was a lot of hostility and the teacher said that many of them hadn’t wanted to come because they were ‘scared’ of churches. Gosh. What’s that all about? One delightful child smashed a priest’s host (unconsecrated) into smithereens for a laugh. I was surprised at how angry I felt at that. I do know that I could never be a teacher, that’s for sure.

I finished the second in the Hunger Games trilogy: Catching Fire. Not quite as exciting as the first one, but good all the same and I just had to download the third to my Kindle straight away. I’m looking forward to discussing it at the book group next week. I’ve also been reading Take This Bread by Sara Miles… finally. This is one of those books which has been lying around for ages and I’d never got around to reading it. But when friends start to rave about her follow up then you just need to get down to it. Of course it is brilliant and is covered in pencil marks and I’ve put quite a few quotes into my Journal. It shall go with me on retreat, along with Jesus Freak.

The rest of the week seems to have been taken up with sickness and grieving – post funeral visits and hospital visits. These are some of the best bits of my job. Listening to stories and just being there.

And now we have arrived at departure day for the Clergy Silent Retreat. *sigh*  I know, I know, why do I do it? Why do I keep going on silent retreats when I know I am going to struggle so much? Well the thing is, that I do need silence from time to time. Even extroverts can cope with some silence. But that’s just it. Some silence. I need a partial silent retreat really so that I can blether too.  I often plan what form that would take but never get around to doing it. So I hover around outside having a fag and trying to catch people’s eyes just to make a connection. It was fine when a certain clergy friend used to go with me and we could scamper off in the afternoons to Melrose or some other such delightful Borders town for a look round the shops and a blether.

I shall be taking my phone and netbook and may blog, tweet or facebook. At least I can talk to someone that way. But I seem to remember that the wi-fi is not very good nor is the phone signal. Pray for me, dear friends. Pray for me and I shall for you.




In just a moment, when my sporty lift arrives, I shall venture south for the Edinburgh Clergy Retreat to Whitchester. The silent (yes, I said ‘silent’) retreat will be led by the Rev’d Canon Anne Dyer who makes wonderful connections between art and theology. Visual is always good in my book.

I haven’t had a retreat for a couple of years so am kind of looking forward to this. Kind of? Well, yes, for readers of this blog may know that I don’t always cope well with silence. And if ever someone does a silent-ish retreat for extroverts then I’ll be first in line. In the past I have disgraced myself by giggling at the slightest thing and scampering off with fellow retreatants for afternoon tea and a blether.

I have my Kindle charged and my notebook at the ready. No netbook, just my phone. Please pray for me.

Retreat? No, advance!

The parish Silent Retreat is over and seems to have been universally enjoyed. Those who were convinced they’d never manage, did.  The programme was probably a little too filled for such a short time and may be says more about me and how I’d like to retreat.

Whitchester Retreat House served us beautifully. Good food, lots of space, and glorious rooms.



I had the Buccleuch Suite with white leather sofa and chair, TV (that I couldnt get to work!), kitchen and the works.  A double bed instead of singles would have made my life complete.

Lovely grounds to sit in.

Helenreads w400

After silence was over some of us gathered in the open-shed-thing in a garden (what is the name?) and shared stories and laughed. Someone said it was like the Red Tent and I think that is exactly what it was like! Stories of death, illness and women’s bits.

The 'Red Tent'

The 'Red Tent'

Prayers ascending for the one who couldn’t make it. And here are the retreatants looking very happy now they can talk.

RetreatGirls w400

Hi Ho! Hi Ho! Its off on retreat I go

It has been a very busy week – sorry for the lack of blogging – but when a priest is going to be away for a weekend there is much preparation to be done. Preparation of pew sheets (this time to include marriage liturgy eucharistic prayer for a blessing), visiting, and much photocopying and prep for the retreat itself. (Not to mention 2 hospital appointments but you know, there are just some things one should not blog about!)

11 of us are heading off the Whitchester today for 3 days of silence and contemplation. Now, as you know, some of us ENFPs struggle a bit with silence and would much prefer part-silence (yes, we do need a bit of quiet) and part activity and talk. However, sacrifices must be made. Our little flocks (or big-assed flocks as suggested at Synod by C & A) are not all made up of extroverts and noisy attention-seekers like myself. So I shall be leading a silent retreat (and I get to talk) and suffering for the art. And Whitchester is a lovely place to go and be quiet – chintzy rooms, log fire, excellent food, and beautiful grounds.

Our theme is going to be Seeing and Believing using the DVD of the same name by Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans. (Check out Canterbury Press if you’re interested.) We shall be looking at some classic images of Christ by some of the world’s greatest artists and meditating on them. I have enjoyed doing a little more research than the DVD offered. Art works for me so I hope it does its thing for those coming.

OK, better get on. I hear they are all rather nervous about the prospect of keeping silence, albeit for just a short time. But from past experience, I know that they will not want to come out of it at the end.