Will Lyon Tupman goes on a retreat
As many of you will know, I am someone who likes being busy, doing things I enjoy, and living a generally active lifestyle. But I had also felt a desire to take a break, in order to reflect on my journey with God and my discernment process with the church by means of a retreat—particularly a monastic one—whenever such an opportunity arose. Moreover, travelling is one of my favourite hobbies, whether returning somewhere familiar or exploring a completely new place. Therefore, for a week during Lent last month, I made my first visits to Belgium and Germany to spend a few days on a monastic retreat at the beautiful and ecumenical Chevetogne Abbey, after which we visited Aachen Cathedral just across the border.
I particularly wanted to go on a monastic retreat because I had gone to school at Ampleforth College, a Benedictine Roman Catholic school attached to an abbey in the countryside of North Yorkshire. It was my time at Ampleforth which introduced me to Roman Catholicism (and, perhaps, my particular appreciation of the catholic tradition in the Church of England). I attended Mass and sung in the choir, and I often attended Compline since the monastic offices were also open to everyone. As a student, I had been on a number of retreats organized by the school, both with my house and my school’s year group. But what would a monastic retreat in a smaller group as a prospective ordinand in the Church of England be like?
Chevetogne Abbey is beautifully set just outside a small village in the countryside not far from a city, rather like Ampleforth. The community, true to their Benedictine identity and rule, extended a warm welcome to us as soon as we arrived. They invited us to attend all of the services as we wished, and we ate together with them at mealtimes. Their hospitality extended further still: some of the monks showed us around the monastery and grounds, explaining the history of the community along the way. We even learned how to make incense in their workshop, and brought some back home to use at St Michael’s, Croydon! Most importantly, we spent much time with the monks in conversation; we formed friendships, with our shared interest and desire for further ecumenism.
Chevetogne is a monastery where both Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity meet, a crucial aspect of the monastery’s ecumenical life. The community worships in two different places: those in the Western tradition worship in the Latin church, while those of the Eastern tradition worship in the Byzantine church. But they remain as one community; they all share mealtimes together, and—perhaps most significantly—they live under the direction of one abbott.
We attended Mass and Compline in the Latin church, and while the services were in French, these were very easy to follow: it was immediately obvious as to what was happening. While Matins and Vespers in the Byzantine crypt were less familiar to us, we realised the monks there prayed essentially the same things as we do at Morning and Evening Prayer back at St Michael’s, and it was so interesting to get a taste of how Christians in the Eastern tradition pray these offices. The offices were very elaborate; much of the language went over my head (being in a mixture of French and Slavonic) but—thinking of us present in the congregation—some of the monks very kindly said a few prayers in English for us. Regardless of our lack of familiarity with the languages, the monks were still praying for us, and with us.
I think one of the biggest differences in Eastern services to Western services is how many people walk in and out as they wish during an Eastern service. Services in the Eastern tradition, on the whole, are significantly longer than Western services, sometimes being twice as long or more. Timekeeping was, thus, a key difference; while you would normally attend a whole service in the West, in the East you can attend it all or just come to as much of the service as you feel or require—like recharging your camera batteries, or refuelling your car.
The monastic offices marked the beginning and end of each day, providing a routine of stability around our days otherwise filled with a rich variety of activities and times in silence. Praying and eating often happened in sequence; in the morning for instance, Matins and Mass would be followed breakfast; lunch would be eaten immediately after saying the Midday Office, and supper would punctuate Vespers and Compline.
We lived a very monastic lifestyle during our time at Chevetogne. We stayed in simple yet perfectly comfortable rooms, we wore cassocks when in the monastery and around the grounds, and I also found I had more time to do things like reading, writing, occasionally visiting the two churches for some more silent prayer, and of course a run in the valley. True to what I had desired in this retreat, we spent as much time in silence as we did in prayer and worship. Furthermore, while I had taken my mobile phone with me, I chose to keep it on ‘airplane mode.’ I was thus free from any distractions from the outside world, which—given the United Kingdom’s political situation at the time—was quite refreshing! I think it’s good that we experienced the monastic life as fully as possible during our retreat, in many ways; indeed, we spent a few days living pretty much as monks.
En route home, we took the opportunity to visit Aachen Cathedral (with both Chevetogne and Aachen being close to the Belgian-German border). We were made most welcome by the cathedral staff, who very kindly showed us around on a guided tour they ran specially for us. There are a number of very sacred relics kept in the cathedral and in the museum nearby, probably the largest collection of relics I’ve seen in one place so far. During our tour, we saw the Throne of Charlemagne, a large stone structure composed of a large chair atop some steps. It came from the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem; these may be the very same steps that Jesus Christ himself walked on, when he was led up to be presented by Pilate to the crowd at his trial. How very moving and powerful indeed.
After attending Mass and visiting the cathedral’s museum and shop, we returned to England. I found this retreat both restful and restorative, and I am already looking forward to visiting again in the future. Have you ever been on a retreat? If not, would you consider going on one? How might a retreat help you to become closer to God?
Will Lyon Tupman is a Pastoral Assistant at St Michael’s, Croydon. You can read his blog at wlyontupman.blogspot.com