Sacred Places Journal
17 October, 2001: Glastonbury: Silent Patriot
I have been invited to join a silent retreat. Last night, before the group which had just arrived at Abbey House went into silence, I was seated next to the bishop who is serving as speaker and spiritual director for the retreat. The bishop was splendid in his violet cassock and silver pectoral cross which had once belonged to the Tzarina of Russia, but he was also very warm and welcoming. And the lady across from me was side-splittingly witty, telling about another retreat she had been on where the food was so awful, "The nuns made blanc mange from the leftover shepherd's pie."
After dinner we meet in the lovely chapel, once the elegant lounge of the Edwardian mansion. There are the necessary announcements, then we are quiet before the bishop begins the official silence which will last for the 3 days of the retreat, by reading the story of the crucifixion. I focus on the silver crucifix on the wall behind the altar. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Abbot's fish pond
Bishop Colin is speaking on the Seven Last Words of Christ. "We are drawn to Christianity not by a sense of our sin, but by a sense of God's love. The love Christ showed when He said, 'Father forgive.'" Then we say the office of Compline. Monasteries keep the Lesser Silence during the day, when only needful conversations are engaged in, and the Greater Silence between Compline and Lauds. Here all is Greater Silence.
At breakfast the next morning the clatter of cutlery is amusing. Afterwards I walk in the abbey grounds. By the fish pond a goose, not on silent retreat, gives me a sharp scolding. At ten O'clock I go to Eucharist in the chapel where the bishop serves as deacon to the vicar. Then I sit in the elegant drawing room of faded rose and moss green overlooking the abbey and write. What a wonderful combination of an English country house weekend and life in a medieval monastery.
Glastonbury Chair in Chapel of Abbey House
I hear the clatter of the trolley and the bell rings for morning coffee. Then the next address. (Later I am told that preached retreats are becoming more rare in England, but I find the preaching a highlight of the time.) The bishop, sandals and jeans showing beneath his formal cassock, begins each address by kneeling at a Glastonbury Chair placed in front of the altar and praying a hymn. Last night it was "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," today "There is a Green Hills Far Away." The hymns make wonderful meditative prayers.
Last night the subject was forgiveness; today, judgement. "It sorts people out," the bishop says. The cross is not about self-preservation. It's about self-sacrifice. Without the cross the church is powerless to win the world. If the Gospel were to save us from terrorists Christ would never have been put on the cross at all. That we might be in heaven--that is the promise of the cross to all who die penitently--"Today you shall be with me in Paradise."
At lunch, the vicar having worked out how to play CD's, we have background music, and we are getting good at gestures for "please pass the salt." I find we all seem to smile more when we can't communicate with words. And we break out in giggles when the vicar puts a cucumber slice in one glass lens. "I suspected he was naughty," I whisper to my neighbor.
"It's a beauty process," she replies.
I take a quick walk into town to buy film, then settle down in the Abbey House library to read a study of the history of the Glastonbury Chair which bears an inscription to one of the monks executed with Abbot Whiting. . .The bell for tea rouses me. It's a strenuous pace, this.
Tonight's prayer hymn is "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling." Bishop Colin has a wonderful voice. Sitting in the Glastonbury chair he opens his small notebook, "Woman, behold your son; behold your mother." Those who loved most suffered most. We are all involved in others' lives. The cross began the creation of that new family we call the church. The basis of it is mutual care for each other. Jesus commits us to each other. The choice is His, not ours. The cross binds to each other."
The day ends with Compline. "Save us, Lord, while we are awake; guard us while we are asleep; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep may rest in his peace."