Home' Aurora : Aurora December 2013 Contents "Once I went, I was sort of hooked," says
Mary Mowbray of Charlestown.
She is talking about 'going on retreat',
about going away to a quiet place with the
Lord to find peace and light and energy
for life's journey.
We are familiar nowadays with the
notion of 'couples retreats'. They present
opportunities to relax, slow down in
peaceful, isolated settings, to re-energise
relationships away from work and kids
and household demands.
For many today and over the centuries,
the 'retreat' involves self and God.
Christians see their archetype in Jesus'
forty days of prayer and fasting in
the wilderness before he took on the
demands of public life. His concern for his
disciples to "come away and rest awhile"
(Mark 6:31) is generally considered the
first invitation to 'make a retreat'.
Growing up in Mayfield, Mary
Mowbray had enjoyed the influence
of the Redemptorist priests at the
nearby monastery. While a student at
San Clemente High School she had
experienced retreats in the strictly silent
mode that prevailed prior to the Second
Vatican Council of the early sixties.
One of the priests wrote to Mary eight
years ago, encouraging her to attend
an Emmaus Journey four-day retreat at
Galong, near Yass. He believed she would
benefit from this "happy blend of holiday
and holy day".
Mary discovered that the retreat dates
coincided with a planned break from
work --- sufficient coincidence to override
her reluctance. It was"the most uplifting,
beautiful experience I've ever had".
She has been back to Galong every year
The Emmaus Journey is "for those
retired or in the second half of life". Mary
experienced a life-enriching camaraderie
with men and women into their nineties
who return annually to St Clement's
retreat centre. In particular there are "two
beautiful ladies from Canberra" with whom
Mary has a close bond.
While conversation and joint activities
have fostered these relationships, Mary
has chosen from lunchtime on to spend
her days in silence. Sitting on the balcony,
wandering in the gardens and grounds
enjoying nature's offerings, or alone for
hours in one of the chapels, Mary finds
her spirits renewed. In this setting, just
writing a list of things on her mind has
been sufficient to disarm them and bring
Does it last? Mary comes home "feeling
a million dollars". Over time some of that
capital is spent. "I always feel close to
God," says Mary. "Down there you feel it
more." This place of retreat is one to yearn
for. After twelve months Mary is happy to
be driving down the long tree-lined avenue
at St Clement's once more. "Thank God
I'm here" is her feeling and her prayer.
Any advice? "Just go. I was hesitant. It
was the best thing I ever did. Take that
step and go. You won't regret it."
Elizabeth Hicks, Pastoral Associate at
Wallsend-Shortland Parish, has 'gone on
retreat' almost every year since 1997.
She discovered the opportunity
was provided when she began her
employment as a Pastoral Associate in
Wallsend Shortland parish. She embraced
Elizabeth has undertaken retreats of
various lengths and styles, in locations
near and far.
Her first experience -- approached with
"some excitement and some trepidation"
-- was at Douglas Park which offers itself
as "a place of profound contemplative
silence". Being "plunged into silence"
she initially found disconcerting and
constraining, especially as it had a visual
aspect as well: people were not looking
at one another even as they shared meals
together. How do you get the salt?
Elizabeth found that the silence
"exaggerated personal noise" and made
her feel uncomfortably self-conscious.
This morphed into awareness and
attentiveness. As she became more
immersed in the experience she "started
to notice everything and become very,
very aware of everyone and everything".
Nature blossomed in her newly-attentive
presence. She literally stopped to smell
the roses and to see with clarity those
everyday things which are only a blur to
busy, darting eyes.
Spiritual vision became focused. This
first retreat, as with most following, was
a directed retreat where Elizabeth had
an experienced 'prayer companion' or
'spiritual director' providing material
and guidance in her quest to come
closer to God and discern issues and
directions in her life. Prayer, reflection
on the scriptures and spiritual readings
combined to provide a "holiday with God",
a "time of spiritual recreation" in which
the awareness of being known and loved
personally by God developed profoundly.
Elizabeth tells of a moment when
nature's elements combined to assist her
scriptural awareness. Moved by a barely
perceived breeze, a flotilla of small leaves
on the water's surface floated leisurely
towards the corner of a bamboo-
surrounded pond. This observation
stays with Elizabeth to image the crowd
following Jesus to Jerusalem. Even the
stragglers are there, and those eddying
undecided on the edges.
A few years ago Elizabeth realised a long
hoped-for retreat at beautiful Jamberoo
Abbey. Choosing a solitary retreat and
expecting spiritual refreshment, she
unexpectedly encountered pain and
sadness associated with a tragedy in her
early adult life.
Such time 'in the wilderness' is a familiar
experience from the pages of spiritual
pilgrims throughout the centuries. Even
when deeper personal issues and feelings
were encountered, Elizabeth found herself
responding with gratitude to the God
who was with her through it all. It was
a 'graced' occasion in which she was
healed of a long-buried grief.
By contrast, a thirty-day Ignatian retreat
in 2001 was "an absolute joy and a gift".
She had experienced the gift the Jesuits
passed on to countless people from their
first experiment in lay retreats at Siena,
nearly five hundred years ago.
A retreat at Riverstone with the Tyburn
Nuns, who live a rigorous, though joyful,
fully-enclosed life centred on communal
prayer, afforded Elizabeth a profound
experience of universality and oneness,
the "sense of connection, of praying with
the entire Church".
"I come home from retreat spiritually
buoyed," says Elizabeth, "but when I don't
nurture the experience, be attentive to the
way the Spirit calls, then the experience
quickly dissipates. Still, I think being
faithful to a retreat has a cumulative effect
and very quickly I can tap into the gift of
No doubt that's the value of retreats --
developing awareness in periods of quiet
of the important things we miss in our
busyness. "The Lord does things when
you're on retreat. Maybe he does them all
the time and we don't notice."
For Elizabeth retreating, put simply,
is responding to the Lord's invitation:
"Forget everything. This is our time."
In any important relationship "our time"
is worth creating. 'Doing a retreat' --
'going on retreat' -- is a gift to enrich the
relationship with self and with God.
BY MICHAEL O'CONNOR
"Happy blend of
holiday and holy day"
Mary comes home
"feeling a million dollars"
This is our time."
Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
SEASONS OF GRACE
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