I am on retreat for two days at a beautiful place in Sussex called St Cuthmans. I have a large room that overlooks a lake, around which ducks are swooping and skimming; and I can see in the distance, through the tall trees, the hills of the South Downs.
After making a call on arrival to my mum to see how she was getting on in her new care home I switched off my phone and it will remain switched off while I am here (like many people I am often during a typical day having a quick peep to see if there are any new messages, and feeling sometimes relief, sometimes disappointment it there are not!). And I shall resist the urge to avail of the recently introduced free wifi. I will not talk to anybody, and when I awoke this morning not knowing what time it was, I decided not to look; rather to get dressed and go outside for a walk, which is what I enjoy doing every morning. I will take the chance here to slow down a bit, to look carefully and to rejoice in the beauty of the massed ranks of daffodils in the garden and the new buds emerging on trees and bushes. I will try to walk and to eat a little more mindfully. I will spend a bit of time just sitting in the comfortable armchair in my room, gazing out at the lake, listening to the birds. And I will give thanks.
I discovered this place years ago when I was here for a L’Arche meeting. It was a popular venue: a lovely old house with log fires in the winter and nice food, plus tea and cake at 4 o’clock. And there’s a wonderful spacious library, and a large garden and grounds. Most of all there is a palpable sense of peace and tranquillity. The house was at one time owned by a missionary order called St Julians and it is where people would return, exhausted, from long missions abroad in need of rest and healing. We held our L’Arche meetings in many places and they could be fraught affairs but when we came to St Cuthmans we always seemed to have a good and harmonious gathering. I decided after that first visit that, even if it’s a bit pricey, I would come here each year for a little retreat. I was well ready, as ever, for these latest two days of solitude and rest. The last few months have been busy at work and there was a lot going on as well on a personal level, with my mum on that bewildering journey into dementia. A few weeks ago when I was feeling especially weary I booked in for my two days here and that helped keep me going. When I used to give induction to the new assistants at L’Arche I always impressed on them the essential need to take care of oneself. I often have to remember to take my own advice.
I was at St Cuthmans in December 2016 for what turned out to be my last L’Arche meeting. A few days earlier I had seen an advert for an interesting sounding job ‘CEO-Irish Chaplaincy’. It was here that I wrote my application and decided to actually go ahead and send it. I am profoundly thankful that I did and that the application was successful.
I’m sure that we must all be affected, in body and spirit, by the physical environment we find ourselves in; so too by the history of a place. I know how much I need for my own well-being to find places where there is space, and peace and quiet, and beauty. Many of those we support at the Irish Chaplaincy are not so fortunate. One of the things that struck me most on my first prison visit was how tiny the cells were (and most are shared with another). Prisons are also very noisy. And if I ever found myself in a room, any room, that was locked from the outside I think it would send me into utter panic. To not be able to go out for my early morning walk is utterly unthinkable. And many of those we see are ‘banged up’ (i.e. locked in) for 23 hours a day. And some of the elderly Irish we visit in London are living in poor conditions. I don’t know how they ended up like that: probably it was a gradual process, a slipping through the support net of what may once have been provided by family or the wider community. We do what we can now to offer some comfort and companionship, and to try to reconnect people to an outside world which must look very alien and uncaring to them.
This will be my final visit to this sacred place because it will close soon due to the huge financial cost of running such a big old house. I’m fortunate that I have other places where I can find my space and my peace and quiet; my places of rest and healing. But I will miss St Cuthmans.