IN a gesture of impish black comedy, I have been asked to write about retreats; having lived in a monastery for two years is evidently a qualification.
This makes a good starting point. There is not so much a gap as a gulf between living as a member of a religious community and visiting one. The latter course of action, unsurprisingly, is easier and rather more popular.
Retreat directories, illustrated brochures, good food guides to monastic houses and build-yourown poustina manuals now jostle for space on guesthouse shelves, having become sizeable — if not quite big — business during the filofax years of the 1980s.
Monastic guestmasters and guestmistresses, whose rooms once lay fallow during the winter months (like the aristocracy, they used to speak languidly of "the season") now stagger the cloisters faint-eyed, reeling with exhaustion. In the "new age" era of the 1990s, as chicly earnest post-yuppies wander the country in desperate search of spiritual enlightenment, they are likely to be no less busy.
With the centrifuge of modern urban existence seeming to whirl its giddy course at ever-increasing speeds, it is little wonder that so many people
experience a mute, uncontrollable desire to get away from it all. Monastic houses and retreat centres offer tranquil surroundings
(frequently), a soothing routine
(usually), good plain food (occasionally), and the chance to discourse obsessively on spiritual themes without being thought slightly touched.
No wonder so many regularly pack their bags at weekends, and slope off silently in search of quieter things.
But, of course, there is more to it than this. God's voice, as a beautiful story in the second Book of Kings reminds us, is small and still. The prophet Elijah, having been threatened by the Queen of Israel, which cannot have been pleasant ("when Ahab told Jezebel . . . how he had put all the prophets to the sword, Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, 'may the gods do this to me and more, if by this time tomorrow I have not made your life like the life of one of them!"), hotfooted it into the wilderness, quietly despaired of his life, was miraculously provided with food, water and angelic assistance, and walked for the statutory period of 40 days and 40 nights before arriving at the mountain of God.
Once there, he discovered — in rapid and disconcerting succession — that the Lord's voice was not to be found in the doomy trinity of earthquake, wind and fire but "in a gentle breeze," the original still small voice.
One can, at the risk of nabbing space properly occupied by the Scripture Notebook, risk a parallel. Many find our contemporary earthquakes, winds and fires not
merely exhausting and disorientating but harsh cacophanies that howl down the voice of God. A retreat, with a little providential good fortune, provides an opportunity to find a measure of spiritual space; perhaps Elijah would not have heard God's voice without his own flight from contemporary high court politics and intrigue.
Nor is it necessarily true that the horrors of the journey home leave one in an even worse state than when one started. The opportunity for reflection and contemplation, corporate worship, a little appropriate spiritual guidance . . . little wonder that the guesthouses are full. I musi get down to that monastery again.