“Come and have a drink with us!” She shouts merrily from the kitchen.
I put my keys down and glance at the clock. It’s half past nine. I’m tired, of course, but the wine and the crisps look particularly inviting and so I decide, despite my better judgement, that it’s worth the risk.
Before long I find myself trapped in the far corner, between an agitated Church Warden and an almost-definitely-sozzled Reader; both of whom are gunning for the Vicar. Husband, who is currently standing in for the authoritative absentee, attempts diplomacy; whilst the one to my left leans in and whispers how many glasses she’s necked since 8pm. Someone else throws in a comment about money and I can instantly see from the look on dear Husband’s poor Curatey face that the conversation has gone full circle. Perhaps not for the first time. (It is, however, the first and last time he’ll offer wine at a Warden’s meeting! The things you learn on Curacy…)
“Well, anyhooo….” I stand up and indicate my immense desire to exit the conversation, “this has been lovely, but, you know… I’d better go upstairs and pack!”
“Pack?” Hiccups one. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going on retreat tomorrow,” I tell her, flashing a quick smile at Husband, who has taken this opportunity to start clearing up.
“YOU’RE going on retreat?!” She asks, aghast. “But… who will look after the children?!”
“Oh, haha…” I laugh. (You know, the privileged, ignorant laugh of a modern wife in a completely equal, partnership-type marriage, who can’t quite believe that someone could ask who-on-Earth is going to take responsibility for their shared offspring and actually mean it.)
But apparently she does. She means it.
And so I give a helpful nod to the underestimated sperm donor over there, washing his own glasses at the sink.
“NO!” She gasps. “You’re not making HIM do that?!”
Better make like my eyebrows and head upstairs, I think!
Later, of course, despite the feminist indignation, the old wife-guilt pops in and asks poor Husband just how we came to this arrangement, again?
“I mean, I know this is bad timing, you’re stupidly busy… but… did I really make you do this for me?!”
His eyebrows take a lift this time.
“No.” He says quite plainly, “I booked it remember? If anything, I’m making you go.”
Ah. Yes, of course. I remember now.
I remember that I’m married to a wonderful human being who absolutely has my best interests at heart. I also remember that if said W-H-B has to come home to me sobbing, exhausted, anxious, too tired to move, over-analysing, picking our faith to shreds or rocking silently in a corner for much longer, he’s going to burn out too. And we can’t have that.
And so off I go, on my first night away since Tiny was born 18 months ago. Because, clearly, what we all need, is for Mummy to just go away and be on her own for a bit!
And do you know what? A whole month later, I can tell you, it did the trick.
I mean, I was nervous when I first arrived. The place was quiet, peaceful, and full of nuns and crosses. I came armed with four journals and two Bibles; there were three chapels to choose from, not to mention the glorious outdoor space. What should I do first? Where should I go? How do I get the most out of such a short but precious period of time?! Where are You God and what’s Your Hotline?! Help!
I was offered dinner and made a place at a table with two warm and chatty ladies, who made no time in asking why I was there? Hmm. Fresh from that “encouraging” conversation the night before- with a woman I understood to be of the same generation– I decided to proceed with caution. I mean, they seemed lovely, but I felt a little too fragile to take the hit. And so, I began to explain-slash-justify that Husband was a Church Leader and that I’m involved in quite a few things alongside him, but that at the moment really I’m struggling to pray and-
“Hang on,” interrupts the one with the calm and soothing Irish accent, “didn’t you say you have small children?”
Oh no. Here we go.
“Well, yes but-”
“Oh no, dear.” She shakes her head slowly and smiles. “You have small children. Your whole life is a prayer.”
“Well, yes, of course, but I’m an intercessor-” I begin to campaign, but she stops me again with a gentle wave of her hand.
“No, no dear. That’s enough. Your whole life is a prayer. You just enjoy some time here with God. That’s all.”
And just like that, the other lady begins to reminisce about her time at home with her kids and the conversation moves on.
The conversation moves on, but the moment stays with me.
Because somehow, that allowance, that understanding, that Spiritual pat on the shoulder, that slight wave of discipline and that nod of solidarity from this kind stranger has gotten through to me in a way that I’d never have allowed a friend to. Yes, somehow those soothing words have freed my soul, and the sense of guilt and duty about all of the things I should be doing and thinking and experiencing and being are lifted, like invisible weights that I didn’t realise I was carrying.
I left the dinner hall and put my stack of journals back in my room. No To-Do List, no agenda, God; just me and You.
On the way out to the beach, a book caught my eye. It’s called At Sea With God, by Margaret Silf; a reflective writer I’ve enjoyed before. I figured the title was a pretty good one for the beach and so I took it with me. Good choice.
In the first section of the book, Silf compares our souls, ourselves, to boats, for the sake of a few reflective exercises. She encourages us to consider our make-up; the recognisable traits we may have inherited from our family; the consequences of our past experience. She talks about maintenance; the need to ensure that our boats are seaworthy; taking care of them- mind, body and spirit- with the kind of regular care and discipline that keeps them fit for purpose. And, most significantly for me, she talks about fuel- identifying the activities and relationships in our lives that give us energy, and those that drain it from us. It isn’t possible or Biblical to remove all of the things that drain us- in fact, most relationships in ministry are characteristically draining! But she does stress the importance of “topping up”; making enough space and time for those relationships and activities that are encouraging, energising and life-giving; in order to sustain the energy we need for the rest. Most importantly, however, she also talks about energy theft. About how we all, quite naturally, top up our own energy supply by stealing it from others and allow them to do the same to us! What we all need to do is to go to the Source. To go to God, as a first point of call; to rely on God for our value, purpose and identity, above all others; to trust our Creator with our journey. We need to stay connected to the One who made us, most of all.
And so I was able to spend the remainder of my time away doing just that. Presenting my rugged little boat to God; leaks, splinters and all. Talking to Him about the different relationships and activities in my life. Listening. Identifying some bad habits. Reflecting on the things that bring me joy. Giving thanks for my family, my friendships; the real joy-givers that bless my soul. And yes, unpicking and unpacking some of the unhealthier ones too.
Of course, I came away with resolutions. And of course, a month later most are broken! But not all. In the last month, I have felt like a different woman.
My priorities have changed. Dramatically.
My prayer life has changed. Naturally.
My attitude has changed. Thankfully!
Maintaining some firmer boundaries where I hadn’t realised they were needed, I have since found a whole new vat of creative, pastoral energy; feeling drawn towards aspects of Husband’s work- our work- here that I couldn’t have imagined before.
In short: the space was energising. The book was enlightening. The time was encouraging. And retreats are life changing, actually.
For ALL of us.