Guest author Reverend Adam Thomas, Director of Whalley Abbey, shares his thoughts on the benefits of retreats and why now is the time to stop, stand still, and re-engage with your place in the world.
Before COVID many of our lives were lived at a fast pace. We had moved from first-class mail to fax, to email, to video conferencing on expensive specialist units, to video conferencing on our phones, in the blink of an eye. Bots exploited the fraction of seconds it took for financial deals to be registered, and beating the sat nav ETA to your destination was a genuine accomplishment.
That pace of life, shared diaries, project managing our work, home, relationships and children; we knew it wasn’t sustainable. We knew that we needed to take a break from it. Not to slow down, but to stop. North Sea oil workers are taught that if their helicopter crashes and sinks, they should get clear of the aircraft and then stop. To look at the direction of the bubbles. They need to take stock to prevent them from swimming in the wrong direction.
It was difficult to stop at work, or at home. But if we carved out the time and found places where people had stopped and stood back, places of historic peace, like Whalley Abbey, where silence wasn’t the absence of activity but a beautiful activity in its own right – we found that we too could find the still point of the turning world.
Whilst COVID has forced many of us to change that pace of life, to spend a great deal more time at home, and have greater quality time with our families, the need for that place of respite, that place of retreat has never been greater. Frontline health and care workers need it to help make sense of what they have endured these last 12 months and at Whalley Abbey, we are providing that space, time and peace for staff to do just that.
But those not on the front line need it too. The slowing down or even stopping of work, the cancelling of months of after-school club runs or social commitments hasn’t stopped our minds racing. In fact, anxiety and sleeplessness abound. The lockdowns are not the same as a retreat.
The term retreat has many negative connotations in English. But to be on retreat, to chose to take a retreat, to find a peaceful and safe place where we can pray, think, study quietly away from our normal life and activities, even if it is a new normal, is perhaps one of the most positive things that human beings can do.
The health benefits of stopping and taking stock, of allowing our adrenaline-fuelled fight or flight response are well documented. The mental health benefits are also now well attested. Less stress, less anxiety, less depressive bouts. Greater tolerance of self and others.
But it is the spiritual benefits that nearly 800 years of history at Whalley Abbey attest to. The silence, the stillness, the slow-flowing river Calder, even each stone in the Abbey’s ruins, sings a far off song that when we stop….we recognise again. A tune that we know, that calls us to join in a dance that we thought we had forgotten. A connection with creation and the creator. A connection that re-grounds us, re-finds us and re-energises us with a crystal clear vision of our place in our world.
As the roadmap to unlocking our country is being played out, and we can once again start to return to those ancient places of retreat, silence and connection, perhaps now is the time to reset that vision. To grieve what we have lost and missed this last year. But also to ground and fix what we might have found. What our new values might be. What we might now value, and what we might feel able to discard. As we begin to win our battle for freedom from the virus, what might we all do with that freedom? What kind of lives, homes, country do we want to create going forward? What might a choice of some days of silence, stillness, rest and retreat reveal to us? At the still point, there the dance is.