The Last Day of the Retreat

Published on 21 May 2018
The bell tower at St Beuno's with the Welsh countryside behind it
Brother Ben Harrison MC reflects on the last day of a retreat at St Beuno's in Wales and what we can carry into our daily lives.

Why this great sadness whenever I come to the end of a retreat, or have to leave any place where I have felt your presence, Lord? I was walking in the hills of North Wales on this cool autumn afternoon, sunlight filtering through clouds over the green hedge-bordered pastures of the Clwyd Valley, with Snowdon's crags snagging distant clouds and Llandudno's Orme recumbent on an argent sea. Contorted trunks of hedgerow ash and thorn fill my foreground, and in the middle distance, clumps of sedge and bracken and gorse; sheep and crows, a hawk waiting in a sycamore. And I want to weep. Why?

Because I love it, and I can't get enough of it, and I can't keep hold of it. It is escaping me. Tomorrow I will leave it. Its moment too will leave it in the lurch. Who knows what will stand in this place next year, in ten years, a hundred? This, this now is so beautiful, so delicious to my senses that I want to eat it, taste it, consume and be consumed by it, make it part of me, make love to it, breathe it, be one with it.

Recovering addicts sometimes say that their drug of choice was more. More of whatever they could get hold of. But maybe that's not just addicts, maybe human beings simply always want, always need – more! Maybe it is not greed but simply fact. And all our addictions and vices are merely proxies, substitutes for the only thing which is big enough and deep enough to satisfy our need for more.

Just as we need an unlimited amount of air to breathe in a lifetime, we need an unlimited amount of love, care, beauty, tenderness, giving, goodness, meaning. Maybe we are simply made for more – more good than we can fit into any lifetime. There is only one who really and ultimately has enough, who is enough, to fill our need, our longing. Of course, that fulfilment comes to us through others, and we need others, but we also need to let it flow to us from the relationships we have with ourselves, with nature, and with God. Everyone and everything that exists is not enough without God.

But all this comes to us in daily increments, in moments and insights and encounters and surprises. We can only fill our lungs with one lungful of air, and even that we can’t hold on to. We can only digest this day our daily bread. Some days, like today, present us with a banquet that we wish could go on forever. Other days leave us hungering and aware of the relentless urgency of our need. And that, too, is a gift.

This sadness I am feeling now, this nostalgia by anticipation, is perhaps a combination of the two – the awareness of the lavishness of the banquet before me now and the awareness that tomorrow’s hunger is waiting in the wings. Can I be grateful for both? Wring blessing from them both? Can this sadness lead me to gratitude, this thirst lead me to a spring, this desperate longing lure me to a fullness of grace that I can only contain by losing myself within it?

A chill blast barrels down the bracken, shakes birch-leaves free. Summer’s gold is strewn across the darkening fields. I breathe my warm breath into the cold currents. Let the wind carry it wherever it will. It has given me another bracing breath to startle my lungs alert. In and out. Give and get. To have it all I have to give it all.

Have it all! Take it. It’s yours. I’m yours. So be it. Amen.

First published in Spirituality (Dominican Publications, Dublin) Jan/ Feb2018 and subsequently in Valyermo Chronicle, Spring 2018, No. 256, by kind permission.

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