It was a damp and somewhat inauspicious Saturday morning earlier this autumn that saw me making a short pilgrimage with other members of Great St Mary’s, to rural Suffolk. I was a little nervous as I knocked on the ancient door and somewhat mischievously conjured in my mind images of strangers seeking shelter at the spooky castle in the midst of a terrible storm.
I was abruptly brought back to my senses when the benevolent face of a nun appeared around the door and welcomed us in. ‘I am afraid the heating is off’ she said with a wry smile and ushered us down a glacial cold corridor. Thankfully the greeting from those already in the room and the proffering of hot tea and biscuits did much to warm us.
We were gathered at Clare Priory, a 13th century Augustinian retreat centre for a quiet day. What followed was a beautiful and gentle exploration of silent prayer, reflection and fellowship, guided with humility and humour by Sister Frances Moore.
As part of the spiritual journey we were encouraged to reflect on the sessions whilst exploring the grounds of the Priory. As I walked the paths, enjoying the sense and sounds of the changing seasons in the garden, I felt the tranquility of this ancient place of prayer seeping into me just as the autumnal sunshine warmed my skin.
I was fascinated by a buzz of bees coming from a crack in the ancient stone work and watched their industry with awe. It felt as though nature was giving me a gentle reminder of the need, as I have profoundly experienced this year, of rest from our toils and tribulations.
It is so easy to be caught up in the buzz of life and deny ourselves rest and refreshment. I took with me on the day a book by Ben O’Rourke ‘Finding your hidden treasure’, a wonderful little book of people’s experiences of silent prayer. I somehow was drawn to take it with me, not realising that the friar who wrote it was resident at Clare Priory and was quoted much by Sister Frances during the day. Whilst reading his words amongst the lavender and fragrant roses, I was reminded how God is ever-present and welcomes us at every moment to dwell in his presence.
Later the same autumn, I found myself on another journey, but this time on the face of it a much more secular one, as I accompanied a friend on my first visit to Center Parcs at Woburn Forest. Again I was apprehensive, but like a lot of things in life where people are critical and dismissive, on enquiry you find they have never experienced something they are so adamant about despising. I was determined however to go with an open mind and whilst in some ways it was like giant cruise ship with trees, I did relax whilst having quite a lot of exercise.
Superficially, an Augustinian medieval Priory and a 21st Century holiday resort, would appear to have very little in common. But life has taught me, sometimes the hard way, to look beyond the packaging, and what I saw at Center Parcs, although somewhat in an often frenetic way, was people seeking rest and escape. It struck me that despite the centuries, in many ways humans change very little and their needs remain the same and whether it is with fireworks, bicycles, spa’s, or rose gardens we seek and crave enrichment and refreshment and we spurn that at the detriment of ourselves and our communities.