Whitchester Parish Weekend

In all the churches I’ve been rector, I’ve led silent retreats. They have never been over-subscribed but usually appreciated by the dozen or so who do attend. Even those who have never been silent before often become devotees and persuade others that they should try it. Readers will know that I myself struggle greatly with silent retreats. There are probably more blogs about my catastrophes than any other topic and I invite you to go seek them if you want a laugh. However, I do find that leading them is not quite so difficult for me – probably because I get to speak and listen and have enough in the organising to keep me busy.

Since I’ve been at Christ Church many have said that they wouldn’t come on a silent retreat and that’s fine (and quite understandable). And often the feedback after a retreat is that people just wished they had got to know one another better. Mind you, I think you can find out a lot about folk watching them in silence but that’s another topic… So this weekend we had a Parish Weekend. Not a retreat. Not silent. Just a weekend for us to get to know one another, enjoy conversations, and have fun. Hopefully.

We went back to Whitchester Christian Guest House just outside Hawick because they are trying to encourage more visitors and it is a lovely house. A bit too close to nature for my liking but I know others like that sort of thing. I’d planned to go from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon so that any who worked could join us. The majority were probably in the 70-80 age group but that was offset with one family with 3 year-old Eleanor. I’d planned on worship morning and night, and took along some crafts for those who didn’t want to go out hiking or whatever folk do when they go off into nature.

Unfortunately it rained all day on Saturday and although some did go out (mostly looking at overpriced cashmere) the rest of us learned how to do encaustic art and produced some masterpieces. We also made our own labyrinth which took up most of the day but everybody painted at least one leaf on the fabric. It can now be used in our own church – or if you would like to borrow a 12′ square labyrinth, do let me know.

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Worship didn’t go as well as I’d planned because I’d printed the booklets incorrectly. Page 1 was at the beginning and the correct way up, but Page 2 was at the back of the book and upside down, and so on. It was a test of ingenuity and caused some pauses in unexpected places as some shuffled back and forth with puzzled expressions. On Sunday we had a Eucharist to remember the beginning of WW1 and everyone was invited to bring a flower from the garden and lay it on the altar. (We’d pretty much got the hang of the booklet by then!)

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The only problem was nature, and I feel just a little smug about this. Breakfast was delayed by some time while the staff leapt around the dining room with a net trying to catch the two bats who had swooped in. At night they were back and forth like busy bees and this rector certainly did no wandering about outside after dusk.

We had a lot of laughs and did indeed learn more about one another. Perhaps every alternate year we ought to forgo the silence and just have fun instead.

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.


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

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!

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.

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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.

Mission & Ministry and a single bed

The M&M committee spent 24 hours in the beautiful Whitchester discussing all sorts of things including how to improve clergy morale. We think we’ve come up with a great idea but you’ll have to wait to hear about it. But it is very exciting.

I don’t know why but it is so much more productive for Committees and Boards to go away to work. (Unless you go to the Quality Hotel in Perth, that is.) But there is something about different surroundings, comfy chairs and good food to make it all the more appealing and conducive to hard work. Not to mention the fact that a wee glass of vino helps us get to know one another better. Whitchester (just outside Hawick) is certainly comfy and the food is wonderful. The bedrooms are gorgeous and chintzy and really my only complaint was the single bed. I know not why, but I just can’t sleep in a single bed so I spent most of the night tossing and turning in a three-point-turn kind of way.

I’ve booked St Mark’s in for a silent retreat next June but this time I’m having the room with the double bed. So there.