BUBBLES AND SILENCE: a 10 day retreat

I am writing a daily blog (Monday to Friday)  on preparing spiritually and physically

to lead a Pilgrimage of 100 miles in September.

for details of the Pilgrimage, click on the dropdown Cotwold Pilgrimage bar at the top of this page 

Yesterday's blog was full of suggestions for a Day Away with the Lord.

Today's is a longer posting - an account of a 10 day silent retreat.


Getting away from it all


“Ten days of total silence?” gasped my family in disbelief. “You’ll never do it. Won’t you be bored - or lonely?  What will you do all day?”

I had to do (‘make’ is perhaps the more correct term) a Silent Retreat as part of a Course, so it was not something I had specifically chosen, and I went in some fear and trepidation.  The website promised:

“Each day of an individually guided retreat (IGR) you will be meeting with your own retreat guide, who is a member of the team at 'The Centre', to share what concerns you most deeply at that point of your journey with God. The retreat provides a time for:

-       Finding a space for personal reflection, prayer and meditation

-       Exploring with your guide different ways of praying

-       Making the connection between your prayer life and daily living.

Although the retreat is lived as a group experience it will be made in silence as an aid to prayer and personal reflection. Gardening and manual work is available for those who wish.”

Gardening feels like outdoor housework, so I packed some good books (Christian spirituality and Christian biographies), a kettle to make coffee/tea in my room if I needed to, and my own duvet and pillow for comfort –just in case!  I also took my walking boots, my laptop, a beautiful new journal – and provisions as I had elected to selfcater, just wanting to have a simple, light diet.

Arriving at the Retreat centre was a little scary – but I was greeted by a warm smile and the aroma of baking: homemade cakes for tea each afternoon! My room was far better than I had feared; there was a remarkably comfortable single bed, a wardrobe, handbasin, desk and chair - and a lovely large comfy armchair.  As usual in a strange place I hastily rearranged all the furniture to suit myself – with the comfy chair positioned so that I could sit and read and pray looking out of the window towards the beautiful gardens. The laptop was plugged in and to my joy and dismay I discovered there was internet access.  What a temptation!  Did I give in?  Read on ……

A group of 16 retreatants gathered somewhat warily later that evening, for an introductory session with the 4 Spiritual Directors. Then we were into silence!  I went to bed with a sense of excitement and anticipation as to what God might have in mind for me. And so began a routine which soon seemed to be my new way of life.  It was remarkable at how soon my time was happily spent reading, praying, meditating.  I made myself a routine: it included the Divine Hours – saying the daily office with its prayers and Bible readings on waking, at midday and late afternoon, with compline at bed time. (I used Phyllis Trickle’s book which has it laid out for each day in a very easy to follow way).   That gave a structure to my days. The mornings were for Bible readings – lectio divina, or Ignatian, or even reading an entire book of the Bible in one sitting, not something one often has time to do. The walled garden of the convent was a haven of late roses in the September sunshine; or the bench looking over the valley and on to the North Downs was a therapeutic resting place. I was blessed with a week of sunshine and enjoyed meeting with God whilst sitting enjoying the beauty of his creation.

After lunch each day, I donned my walking boots and strode off to explore the Kent countryside, using the walking maps provided in the Retreat Centre.  Speaking to God is easier for me when I am walking alone and able to look at nature in all its glory. I walked several  miles after lunch each day, before meeting with my Director for 30 – 40 minutes. He listened to my descriptions of what was going on between me and God,  made suggestions of verses in the Bible which might be helpful, and then on one occasion he encouraged me to use the craft room.   I hesitated; I can’t draw and have never found it a useful exercise.  But one afternoon I went in – and found sugar paper and poster paints, reminiscent of primary school.  Instead of painting, I tried a little calligraphy, using a verse which had been especially meaningful the previous day. I tried writing it out in different versions of the Bible – the internet was very useful for looking them up!  - and found it remarkably insightful.  As I was leaving, I suddenly noticed a box full of tubs of bubbles.  BUBBLES!  Suddenly the inner child was released and I ran out into the garden and blew bubbles  - rejoicing with God, just enjoying the freedom and the fun and the enjoyment.  Later, I found the piano and appreciated having the time to play.

Evenings were spent enjoying long deep bubble baths, relaxing, going to bed luxuriously early to read and to journal about the day, and then to sleep deeply in the silence and dark of the country.

There was one wet afternoon, and I withdrew to the prayer room in the Tower, a peaceful little eyrie with helpful books and pictures and objects. It served well enough for a while, but personally the beautiful grounds and countryside were preferable.  I also attended the daily service just prior to supper, and was glad to be able to worship God with others – even though we couldn’t speak afterwards!

The silence was only uncomfortable for me at meal times.  It was a strange feeling to be at a table with 3 others, eating yet unable to converse in any way.  Music was played whilst we ate, and the members of the Community withdrew to their own dining room – presumably to be able to talk!  And washing up and laying tables with others but in silence was strange at first; but then it became companionable and we got used to one another and to the silence – and learnt to communicate in other ways.

God spoke to me in ways I would never have imagined – there was time and space and silence in which to listen, unlike in normal life.  It was salutary to be reminded of how seldom I stop to listen to God, allowing him time and space instead of rushing around in my busy-ness. No, I didn’t hear a specific voice, but I sensed his Presence, had things confirmed in my subconscious, and had several ‘day dreams’ where He drew near.  Everything is gift. By the end I was sad to be leaving, and ‘normal’ life seemed strangely unalluring!

I did remember to return my room to its former state before leaving!  And the laptop? Well, yes, I did Skype with members of the family once or twice.  Perhaps it was cheating; but for me it was real, an important part of my life, and it in no way detracted from the silence and solitude of my Retreat.  Will I go again? Yes.  But I have also learnt to take smaller, regular times out to Practice the Presence of the Lord. There’s nothing quite like it.


The Revd Penelope Swithinbank attended a Retreat at the Sisters of St Andrew, Eden Hall,  Edenbridge, Kent.    Sadly the Convent has had to close this year.


Have you enjoyed an extended time away? How did you get on? What did you do? How good a time was it?