Prior to my ordination, after which life will change and inevitably get a lot busier, I decided to spend a day on a personal retreat at Alton Abbey. This community of Benedictine monks offers generous hospitality, prayerful worship and a space to simply be, all the while surrounded by a natural and inviting arbors from which you can gaze at the world in contemplation.
I went there principally to gain a sense of stillness; a few hours to calm the mind and refresh the soul, but as the day wore on I realised that there is never complete stillness in solitude. For God’s presence is fully alive in creation and she demonstrates her vivacity in a vibrant showy display of life in sight, sound and smell.
On other occasions It might have been a day for expressing myself in poetry or art, but I discovered that this day was purely a time for sitting and waiting, observing and listening. Let me share some of these moments with you now.
Firstly, I have to acknowledge that I visited on a glorious, sunny day – something that the Brothers told me was unusual, as the Abbey often has its own micro-climate of fog and rain, and summertime has its own pleasures when the freshness of spring has given way to abundant blooms and lushness of grass and burgeoning leaves on trees. So after a period of settling into the room I have been allocated for the day I ventured out into the gardens and grounds
A walk along the first path I saw from the doorway took me past the overflowing honeysuckle (see title picture) with its sweet scent and colourful trumpets, before I came to a pause, suddenly aware of the movement and sounds that were coming to me. A row of trees whispered loudly that they were very much alive as their leaves danced in rhythm with the breath of the Spirit; their rippling tones a background pulse to the melody of the birds whose notes rose and fell as if urgently repeating a song of sheer joy.
Choices… whether to take the woodland path or enter the formal garden with its gated entrance and a notice that stated, ‘You are welcome, the rabbits are not! Please shut the gate behind you’. I plumped for the shady woods.
It was cooler and quieter here, and yet underneath my feet crunched the husks of autumnal beech nuts, reminding me of harvest abundance. Whilst the cascade of lace-capped hydrangea and towering rhododendrons gave promises of future profusion and growth. Even the flowers that had fallen to the floor, still radiated beauty; and in the dappled shifting shade, glints of light flashed like beacons signalling a presence.
Fallen blooms, yet like sparrows ‘not one of them will fall to the ground
unperceived by your Father’ Matthew 10:29
On days like this, time ticks imperceptibly onward and I found it was necessary to hurry back into the Abbey Church to join the Brothers in Midday Prayer, then lunch, which even though it was taken in silence, was much appreciated and gave one time to digest one’s thoughts.
The sun by now was high above in a cloudless sky and although I am not normally a sun-worshiper of any kind, I was drawn to the tranquility of the courtyard where I settled on a stone bench and closed my eyes, Warmth has its own life, as it seeps into your bones and lingers on the surface of your skin. My sense of drowsiness was dispelled by the sound of water erupting in shimmering jets of cascading jewels that fell to tumble over a moss-covered fountain, splashing the lily pads, under which fish found shade, their diaphanous tails swirling in lazy circles. All the while the tall purple and yellow irises quivered in anticipation as gentle bees brushed their petals and a kaleidoscope of pansies turned their faces to the sun, exuding a honeyed fragrance so familiar from childhood.
There is nowhere that creation is out of place and as I left the courtyard, my feet grazed the small stubborn weeds that had pushed their way up through the cracks in the paving and brushed against delicate ferns that sprouted in vertiginous splendour high up on the walls. These humbler plants, despite attempts to eradicate their existence, are no less beautiful, and as I walked around the side of the church to seek a shadier nook I encountered tiny white daisies nestling with bright blue speedwell and baby pink cranesbill, which had escaped the mower’s blades.
As always when you visit somewhere for the first time, you’re never one hundred percent sure whether you might stray into areas that are private; secret places full of hidden treasures. Yet the well-worn wall seat was placed invitingly at the end of the two pools of water and seemed a perfect place to linger before Evening Prayer and Supper. Here I was rewarded with a deep feeling of peace, as if God had saved the best till last. Here was life in abundance from the immeasurable variety of insects, including carmine and turquoise bodied dragonflies hovering on lacy wings, and the unseen life within the silty mud, that sent bubbles up to break the tension of the water’s surface, to the chattering house martins that swooped overhead.
As the day drew to a close, and I packed my bag and said farewell to the Brothers, I reflected how lucky I was to have been granted that time and that space to simply be another small part of God’s incredible creation. Those images and thoughts that filled my time there will no doubt sustain me for quite a while to come; a point in time both sacred and divine, a moment of sheer grace.
For more information about Alton Abbey, its people and the work it does, click here