Reaching out and opening up: Experiencing a retreat at St Beuno’s

Published on 20 Sep 2019
View of St Beuno's

by Catherine Mangham

"Set in the rolling hills of North Wales, with views of the sea and Snowdonia, St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in St Asaph provides the perfect environment for people seeking the space to reflect on the presence of God in their lives and in the world. St Beuno’s dates back to 1848, having being built originally as a place of study for Jesuits. Its architect was Joseph Aloysius Hansom (of Hansom Cab fame). The fine stone buildings give a grand impression over the Welsh countryside, while broad corridors and simple but comfortable facilities provide people with a prayerful environment in which to undertake retreats and programmes inspired by Ignatian spirituality."

So the St Beuno’s website introduces itself. The centre includes a fully equipped arts centre, several chapels, including the Rock Chapel on a local hill, built by Jesuits in training. A book of mapped walks for all abilities and energy levels are available in the lobby. There can be up to 40-50 retreatants at any time, but it is rare that you bump into people much except at mealtimes and Mass.

As a retreatant, the experience starts on arrival in the afternoon. You will be met by the welcoming team and shown your room and Mass is at 17:45 daily, with supper at set times afterwards. The retreat proper starts with a meeting where you will be introduced to your spiritual director and the concept of silence as a medium within which the retreat takes place. St Beuno’s protects this silence of voice and also of non-verbal communication as far as is possible, to allow space for us to hear ourselves and ultimately God.

Ignatian spirituality suggests that once we have peeled away the onion layers of distraction and external influences in our lives, we will be able to hear and feel what bubbles up from the depths of our being. This, St Ignatius believed, was the God spark in us, often suppressed through learnt behaviours and attitudes which surround us as we grow up and live out our lives in the world, trying to fit in and make our way. In external silence which hopefully encourages inner peace and stillness, the still, small voice has at least a chance to be heard.

Mealtimes can be daunting for the uninitiated. But embarrassment at trying not to slurp soup or crunch too loudly, seems to settle into an acute awareness of colour, texture, taste and smell. Slowing down allows us to savour every morsel and the food is wholesome and nourishing. Music is played at lunch and supper but breakfast is accompanied only by the comforting whir and squeak of the rotary toaster. Excruciating awareness of ourselves turns outwards into attention to the needs of those around you… are there enough water glasses? We give people time and space at the toaster. Personal space seems to expand as well as our respect for it. A brief nod  and grateful smile and we are left to our own thoughts again.

The team of spiritual directors include priests, religious and lay directors and a large number of guest directors are employed also. Directors engage with their retreatants in as many ways as there are different needs. They are skilled at engaging with us in the place where we are, on our spiritual journey. You will be encouraged to reflect on how each prayer session goes for you. What was helpful and what was not, what inspired, energised and attracted you and what discouraged, bored or left you cold. Emotions and energy levels, St Ignatius felt, were the clues to where God is working in our lives. In short, as long as we are leading lives which are oriented towards God – following His commandments, what inspires and energises us will be in keeping with God’s will for us. What exhausts or discourages us, will not be leading us to God in such a direct way, but can still be used by God for our redemption. If we are serious about discerning God’s will for us, therefore, we need to pay attention to our inner feelings, as well as to try to live good lives.

Another tenet of Ignatian spirituality which is to seek and find God in All Things, may resonate more with some of us. Silence and stillness can both be very good for revealing to us the unexpected in ordinary, everyday things. Savouring these moments and reliving them again at the end of the day can hardwire more positive thoughts and memories into our awareness, and reveal to us how blessed we already are. Developing a sense of gratitude can often be the start of a shift in our relationship with God and with our neighbour. Of course scripture reading and directed prayer will form the central pillar of your retreat, but this willing entry into inner and outer silence works so powerfully to bring the heart and the head together. Add a good stomp in the hills, or creative work with your hands, and the head, the heart and the body are all engaged in reaching out and opening up to receive God in all His glory into our lives.