A weekend with Friends

Published on 27 Apr 2020
Friends visiting St Beuno's. Image credit: Prim Herridge

by Prim Herridge

Sitting here in sunny Oxfordshire in mid-April, where ‘social-distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ are now words firmly anchored into the nation’s psyche, it seems so much more than a mere month since we took the last daffodil-strewn turn into St Beuno’s for the Friends’ weekend. ‘The Lockdown’ was discussed at mealtimes but not one of us had any idea that the shocking figures already seen in Italy would be replicated here, within such a very short time. 

Come with me then, particularly those of you who were unable to take part in our precious weekend, and let me give you a glimpse of the love, friendship, spirituality - and frivolity - that was shared over the weekend. Frivolity was the bit where Hilary, Dianne and I ‘pinched’ the bottle of wine and the crisps and bunked off to the lounge while the others were watching the film on Saturday evening. As we dashed up the steps, hoping not to bump into Father Roger, we really felt like naughty school girls trying not to get caught. In truth, we had just missed each other over the preceding months and were simply looking forward to a much needed catch-up. 

This little episode was probably sparked by listening to Fr Damian earlier on in the day. He had the task of delivering a session entitled ‘What St Beuno’s means to me’ and it was obvious that the Jesuits who had lived in the house during the last few decades of the previous century could have often been caught ‘being naughty.’ Fr Damian’s session kicked off our Saturday morning and he did so with his usual mixture of local knowledge and stunning photographs. He delivered his session as he always does, with insight, gentleness and humility - all with that wicked sense of humour. He imitates some of the brothers so well and often stands up to deliver a quick vignette - he’s such a great mimic! Can we put this session in again please, Fr Damian? I just love it and your photographs of the old House and grounds are stunning. 

These photos served well as a link to the next session which saw Fr Roger giving us an update on the building works. We have had these updates over the last few Friends’ Weekends and they are so exciting. The first session, a couple of years ago, saw the sharing of the plans and the architects’ intentions. Going for a walk later on Saturday with Fr Roger and being able to see how these intentions have actually materialised was just awe-inspiring. The new boiler room is a good example, and I took a few photos to be able to show you. How can a boiler room be exciting, I hear you ask? But it is! It is simply beautiful, clad in wood and topped off in local slate, the stone masons have then built immaculate cream stone walls alongside. Not a bit of mortar, yet completely true. It really does look stunning! 

Hold on, Prim. Hold on! You can’t go outside just yet because......considerable discussion followed Fr Roger’s morning session, examining the different phases of the work, what has already been done and what is still to be accomplished. The team’s accommodation is almost finished and there was definite excitement that they will soon be able to move back ‘home.’  The changes to the Hopkins gallery to include the new entrance, reception and team common room are now completed and are simply beautiful. We then talked about funding, the vast sums involved, and pondered different methods of bringing in more money, specifically to allow the Friends’ Prayer room to be started. More about this in a later edition; we are all going to need to be resourceful, I think.

We also had two visitors, Attila Kulcsar, the new Media and Communications Manager for the British Province, and his colleague, Alex Wentworth, the new Website and Digital Media Manager, both of whom are based in Mount Street in London. Attila described their roles and we discussed the challenges faced by St Beuno’s both now and in the future. The discussion became very animated - maybe you have heard Fr Roger sometimes draw attention to what ‘has just happened in the room,’ and that was one of those moments. Does the Holy Spirit descend on us at that moment? No idea, but the change in the atmosphere was almost palpable. We started to discuss the exciting prospects of bringing more young people here on retreat and suddenly everybody had a contribution to make. Ideas such as ‘paying forward’ for a place for a young retreatant, getting the message out through secondary schools, and much more. Again, watch out for these suggestions in a future newsletter, as we can all have a role to play in this. 

The afternoon finished all too quickly. The walk with Fr Roger was glorious in the spring weather, with signs of hope all around, and allowed us to admire some of the views opened up by the judicious felling of some trees last year. The Rock Chapel is more visible now and plans are afoot to make it more accessible, possibly with a defined path. This will be a welcome addition for the many retreatants who have found such solace there over the years. 

Before mass we had our final session of the day. Entitled ‘Praying with Creation,’ it was led by Judith, one of the newer members of the team. It was inspirational, from the moment we lit the candles at the beginning, through the gentle, guided prayers over the tiny floral arrangements and finishing with an opportunity for each to share their own thoughts. We were all so moved by this session, recognising Judith as a creative and faith-filled leader who gently pushed us to experiment with the flowers and leaves as a focus for prayer, something new for us all. My little vase had a chip in the base, but the contents were just perfect, sparkling in the afternoon sun and casting intricate shadows through the tiny leaves. Thank you, Judith. Definitely more of this in the future please. 

And so to Mass. Each one of you reading this can instantly take yourself there. You can close your eyes and hear Fr Stan’s gentle voice, you can sense the reverence in the room, you can be one of us as we took our communion there, wanting to hold the moment of God’s grace for just that little bit longer. It’s such a privilege, isn’t it, to be a part of this community? Gratitude overwhelms me, each time, as I just thank God for allowing me to be there. 

Saturday’s dinner provided the opportunity for us to catch up with other friends and the team. Mealtimes are always interesting during these Friends’ weekends; the food is always good and you can move between conversations of a deep philosophical nature to the more practical ones of how to grow radishes in winter! Breakfast, on the other hand, is always silent. Prayerful, expected, thoughtful. Glorious silence.  

Sunday morning arrived, another God-given spring day full of hope and promise. The sessions were gentle, reflective and prayerful. Tim gave us the opportunity to look in detail at the gospel for the day and consider Pope Francis’s suggestions for prayer and Fr Stan concluded the programme with a session enticingly called ‘Stopping Places.’ With his own gentle humour, encouraging and prayerful, he talked to us about places to pray, places to pause awhile, places to simply ‘be.’ Fr Stan is a very special person, (Yes, I know, they all are!) and if you are ever lucky enough for him to lead you on retreat, you will be one very fortunate individual. 

Mass, lunch, goodbyes, and then it was over. But not quite. Once the car is packed I have to just go and check. No, not the room, not that I have done the bed linen triage correctly, not that I have left my key in the room, but the steps in the garden. Before I leave St Beunos, I need to climb the Stairway to Heaven, I need to stand at the top and look down on the house, and count my blessings just one more time. 

Lord, take care of the team and this blessed place, until we can all go back and be together again.

Prim Herridge

Thankful and humble to be called a Friend....

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