Uphill to Damascus
After reading that Crosby Hall, the Jesuit retreat house in Sunderland will shortly close due to lack of support. I was surprised to learn that the Vincentian Fathers had just opened a new retreat centre in the North London suburb of Mill Hill. Is there really still a demand for retreats?
To find out. I walked uphill from the nearby underground station to where a notice proclaiming "Damascus House" pointed to the office of the retreat director, Fr. Brian Doyle, C.M.
Fr. Doyle. 31, who worked as a curate in Dunstable. Beds., before becoming chap lain to a comprehensive school in Luton, told me why his congregation, founded by St. Vincent de Paul in 1625 mainly to give retreats and hear confessions, had decided to open a new retreat house.
He said: "The Vincentian Fathers are doing a lot of thinking about the needs of the Church. We thought the retreat house was a 'good work' and we decided London was the best place for it it was needed most there."
The site of Damascus House, only 10 miles from the centre of London, helps to explain why over 1,000 people from schools, parishes and other organisations have made a retreat there since the house opened in February, The Vin centian Fathers have a panel of speakers who are specialists in various topics or widely experienced in certain areas, so that all groups are supplied with a speaker suited, to their needs.
I asked Fr. Doyle why retreats were proving so popular. What did they offer that the normal parish environment could not?
"People are looking for a spiritual renewal," said Fr. Doyle, "but it's difficult • to solve everyone's problems in parish churches.
"It's better to take groups with a common background. By forming a community you follow up problems better."
What were the main prob. lems?
"Lack of faith, of spiritual awareness, and, amongst young people, confusion about God. God, faith and prayer are all 1 speak about to young people. am trying to make them aware of a spiritual dimension. On one-day retreats 1 say 'You've got to be more aware of God ai four o'clock'."
It has cost the Vincentian Fathers £R0,000 to renovate the sturdy stone building, formerly an orphanage run by the. Sisters of Charity. Children's playrooms have been converted into conference rooms, tastefully decorated in soothing shades of green and blue.
For the keynote at Damascus House is relaxation. Retreatants are not terrified into repentance by Joyceian sermons on the horrors of hell. Instead, they are brought to a deeper knowledge of God through shared prayer, sound advice and plenty of time for reading and meditation.
A group of nuns from different orders were making a retreat with Fr. James Rafferty C.M. (like Fr. Doyle originally from Ireland) during my visit, and it was clear that they appreciated the atmosphere of freedom.
I spoke to some of them during a coffee break in the modern self-service dining with its orange chairs and yellow carnations.
Sister Miriam, from St..
Joseph's Convent in Hartlepool. Co. Durham, said: "1 like the timetableit's very relaxing. And I find Fr. Rafferty talks in a clear, wellthought-out way: modern but sound."
A nun at the same table. Sister Margaret of the Daughters of Charity, commented: "It's the first time I've made a retreat with nuns of other orders. Maybe it's less structured than other retreats I've been on. In choosing a retreat I would be looking for more time for personal prayer, and this retreat gives you a choice."
On retreat with the nuns was Bro. Jost Schranz, a Marianist from Zurich, who heard of Damascus House while staying with an English family. He was very enthusias• tic about the retreat style and said:
"The conferences are very modern. I never thought the Irish would be modern in such a way -I thought they would be conservative.
Bro. Schranz went on: "This morning I heard a conference on poverty. Now I'll go back and tell my superiors about these new ideas. Fr. Rafferty said that poverty must be related to the time in which we
live these are practical ideas which can be realised."
Was the retreat very different from others he had experienced?
"Formerly we had silence all day long," said Bro. Schranz. "Here it's very relaxing: the programme encourages relaxation. Perhaps this seems natural to laymen -but
have to get up every day at 5 a.m. you get 'chapel Phobia'!
"There's relaxation, but at the same time new ideas in a less compulsory way. In the old retreats you had to be punctual. But you are free here. If you are relaxed this helps you to pray.
"i've talked with the sisters and that's nice too -the exchange of ideas. I feel at home here and like the family atmosphere."