Sunset on the cathedral Originally uploaded by goforchris.
How do I convey the essence of a Holy Week retreat to a world which barely recognises either retreat or holiness? And how do I convey the miracle by which a small island very close to the central belt of Scotland can feel like another world, so that the return to the mainland yesterday was a painful jolt? If I fail to describe adequately the fault is mine.
Begin with the island experienced in the midst of religious focus. I rise on the first day before seven. I have no responsibilities other than to be at Morning Prayer at eight-thirty. The sun is brilliant outside, and the air still and cold. I walk down the lane from the Cathedral of The Isles, two woodpeckers drumming impeccable seven-beat rolls in stereo from the cathedral woods. The seafront is deserted, the sea a glassy calm. The hills of Arran, snowcapped, beckon temptingly, but that is another kind of delight to which I shall return another day. This tiny island of Cumbrae, this little town of Millport, are transformed by a radiant morning and my own sense of growing peace. I realise I have no need, for now, of the usual distractions. And this is retreat.
And what manner of retreat am I undertaking? Not, I think, the conventional one of addresses, contemplation and prayer. Because I am there as a musician, and while others read and listen to talks, I am with my fellow-musicians in the choir stalls, rehearsing for daily Evensong. We sing, we analyse, we criticise, we sing again. And sometimes it is perfect, just for a moment, and we are satisfied, just for a moment. When we sing, it is to a gathering of no more than twelve, including ourselves, and at this time that number seems fitting. We all sit in the choir stalls, and share with and in something beyond our understanding. It is completely absorbing, so that all sense of self is vanished. It is magical. And this, too, is retreat.
Each day there is a celebration of the Eucharist. It is very simple, said apart from one hymn, sometimes including a brief address. And each day, by some chance, there are twelve people present, and not always the same twelve. But by the end of this three day period, I am aware that we are becoming a community, and that our number is somehow ideal. The rhythm of worship, meals, work and recreation seeps into my soul. And this, too, is retreat.
The day ends with Compline, the ancient service of the church, sung entirely in plainsong. We meet again in the choirstalls – singers, gardener, Warden, priest, bishop, visitors from near and far. For at least one of these, it is the first “authentic” compline he has ever experienced. The singing is quiet and totally relaxed, as the novices rely on the singers to lead and support. The rest of the church is in darkness as we pray in a pool of light. And then, insanely early by my usual standards, we go to bed.
And for the rest? In such a busy schedule, there are precious moments of sharing, laughter, hilarity even. Mealtimes, where everyone sits at long refectory tables, provide a setting for conversation that can switch seamlessly from narrow-gauge railways in Wales to our perceptions of Judas Iscariot to whether or not one of the clergy present ever cooks. (The answer is no, and he tucks into his beef cobbler with gusto). And throughout all the interaction, the rehearsing – even the moments of tension when something is not as it should be – people are so gentle with one another that I realise I cannot bear to leave.
Perhaps we are all simply frayed by everyday life. Perhaps it takes the liberation from normality to free us to be thoughtful and kind to one another, to take the time to notice what someone has done well, to read and to talk and to be aware. It would be good if this is how we could live among the pressures of ordinary life, but for now, this is what retreat can do.