Snoring, belching and farting: the stuff of koinonia – Retreat 2016: Glenstal Abbey

In Spain, in 1559, vernacular books on the spiritual life were forbidden. Teresa of Avila wrote:

“When they forbade the reading of many books in the vernacular, I felt that prohibition very much because reading some of them was an enjoyment for me. I could no longer do so since only the Latin editions were allowed. The Lord said to me: “Don’t be sad, for I shall give you a living book” (Life 26.5)

My retreat this year has been in Ireland, ending with a visit to St John’s, Sandymount in Dublin and I am grateful to the community at Glenstal Abbey, my friend, fellow Old Cicestrian and member of the Sodality, Fr Paul Barlow and his wife and congregation, for being ‘living books’. I hadn’t been to Ireland since childhood holidays and visits to family. I completely fell in love with everywhere I went and will, God willing, be back.

I’m writing a blog entry about my retreat as a way of passing the ferry journey back to Liverpool but also because, like so many aspects of the Christian life, we often assume that we all know what we all do on retreats. Often, working with individuals, I find there is an anxiety that retreimg_0483ats have been wasted or are not spiritual enough. I’m not suggesting that I am good at retreats, or being spiritual, just that sharing what I do will contribute to the conversation.

Like Teresa, I am much given to reading spiritual books and would be distressed to find them banned – it might even do me some good! This year I had decided to continue re-reading Teresa of Avila and books about her (Rowan Williams and Peter Tyler). She has long been a good friend and top of my list for a fantasy dinner party, closely followed by Thomas Merton. Although I suspect she would give him a run for his money. I managed to complete the re-reading of Williams and Tyler, re-read Teresa’s Life (which is an easy read) and get a little way into the Way of Perfection.

I’d booked to travel to Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine community near Limerick city in img_0405what feels to me like south-west Ireland but is, I think, on the edge of the Irish Midlands. Fr Martin Browne of the community had preached the first Sodality retreat earlier this year. It is an easy drive from Dublin on Ireland’s wonderfully quiet motorways. Travelling to a retreat seems to me to be an important part of the experience, what Bruegemann describes as ‘orientation – disorientation – reorientation’. I got that in spades not just by going to a foreign country but also on the overnight P and O ferry from Bootle to Dublin. The truckers’ boat, I had bought the cheapest ticket which meant sharing a cabin with a stranger. Unlike the abstract love of neighbour there is nothing like the snoring, belching, farting, presence of a real human being (and that was just me) to illustrate the limits of one’s spiritual development.

img_0400As well as books to read, I always take a notebook to use as a Journal on retreat. I am not given to journal writing in normal life but I have 34 years’ worth of retreat Journals – a good account of my failure to progress in holiness. I tend to keep a somewhat detailed account of the retreat’s events, Mass, bath, supper etc. Since paying attention is a crucial spiritual practice this doesn’t seem to be a totally wasted practice. I also try and write down reflections on the reading I am doing. One of the best things for me about a retreat is to be able to spend time with Scripture. On a normal day I get through a lot of Scripture in the Office and Mass, and try and have a period of lectio each day (I probably achieve this 4 days out of seven), but it is all too often a rushed recitation. On retreat it’s good to savour the readings and psalms. In my daily lectio I try and find a single phrase to use throughout the day, writing this on an A6 white card to carry around with me. On retreat this happens several times a day.

I think it is important to distinguish between being on retreat and being on rest. A retreat img_0339is work. Although, if calling something a retreat is the only way to get rest, the rest should take precedence. I love work and can’t get enough of it, I have also learnt (the hard way) the amount of rest and solitude (I am strongly introverted) I need and to give it precedence over everything else; on retreat I keep my normal pattern of rising early. But I do have a nap after lunch most days.

So, first of all, place. Glenstal is all I had been led to believe it would be. Rowan Williams paints a delightful picture of the Teresian community in which human affections lead to divine experience,

“The ‘living book’ is in effect identical with the life of a healthy community and the lives of Christianly mature persons within it.” (Teresa of Avila, p.84).

I am under no illusion that the monks of Glenstal live anything other than the challenges we all face when rubbing up against our fellow human beings. The question is not whether it is difficult to live with each other or not; it is. The question is, what the fruit of those difficulties will be? I may have been fooled by their outward show but my perception of the community at Glenstal over four days was one in which there was a good degree of maturity, this was a community of people seeking to be adult in their relationships with one another and with the many people who visit them. I was particularly struck by the visual aesthetic of the community which displays a rich coherence – not design by committee – with the use of the individual creative talents of community members.

Established (in the 1920s) around a fake Norman castle the site works well in separating img_0401the school, to one side, the monastery to another and the guest house behind. The guest house works very well. The arrangements for guests are slick, well managed, but warm and unfussy. Rooms are very comfortable, spacious and with ensuite facilities, mostly single but rooms for couples too. There is a fine sitting room with wood burning stove (lit on one night while I was there – it was very mild). A meeting room where there is fast wifi, dining room and kitchen. Lunch is a talking meal in a separate guest room in the monastery, supper is a silent meal in the monastic dining room with reading. Breakfast is help yourself in the guest house with Fr Christopher, (former abbot and current guest master) and Fr Lino present. Fr Christopher creates a gentle, house-party atmosphere without leading to too much chatter. There are good walks in the extensive grounds and remote countryside, a pub and shop in the village at the bottom of the hill for any needs. Limerick is a 20 minute drive away with an Anglican cathedral and the usual supermarkets. For tourism Cashel, an hours’ drive, is a good stop on the way there or back. If you need to use public transport there are buses from Dublin to Limerick and taxis cost 20 Euros or so to the monastery. The community have a long history of ecumenical relationships and there is genuine warmth to Anglicans, if a little amusement at the contrast between Anglo-Catholics and the Church of Ireland.

img_0329The guesthouse is extremely busy, almost full most of the time I was there, significant numbers of members of religious communities. I met a Franciscan, Charity, Mercy and Presentation sisters. Normally I am quite anti-social at these sort of things but found myself happy to chat; a side effect of being in a foreign country, I suspect, and away from Anglican gossip.

Since I am known for my liturgical geekiness I suppose I should say something about the liturgy at Glenstal. The community were leaders in the renewal of the liturgy in Ireland (and beyond) following Vatican II, so, as a Vatican II sort of Catholic I fully appreciated the work they have done. Matins (recto tono psalmody) and Lauds are celebrated together at 6:35am, all in English except the Benedictus and antiphon. Vespers is at 6pm, all in Latin except the short reading and img_0383Collect. Mass is at 12:10 with Latin propers and Ordinary but otherwise in English. Compline at 8:35pm is in English. The community sing well and confidently, the English antiphons at Lauds are particularly good. The liturgy has an unfussy feel, embodies the ‘noble simplicity’ called for by Vatican II but is properly monastic. The only oddnesses: the lack of even one daytime hour, intercessions at either Lauds or Vespers and the procession into and out of Vespers but no procession into or out of Mass, leaving concelebrants and other monks wandering in and out before and afterwards. Compline has good tones and is well sung but I am always surprised that none of the communities I know that sing a substantial amount of Latin at the other hours chooses to sing Compline in Latin when it is so beautifully repetitive and such simple and well known music.

So, some themes for me personally in the retreat:

Unusually, I stuck with my reading plan. Often I take a whole load of books and then find one in the bookshop or library that dominates my reading and replaces everything I have brought. Not unusually, some key Scriptures were central to my thinking. Particularly the reading at Vespers on my first day, 1 Cor 1:7-9.

“God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The sense of ‘calling’ kept coming up in the Scriptures of the Office and Mass. It is, of course, fundamental that all Christians are called, (ek-klesia – called out), chosen. The chosen-ness of the chosen people is now the chosen-ness of each human being. To be baptised is to be chosen, called. But it is the second highlighted word that really stood out for me, fellowship, koinonia. I think it stood out because I so often think of fellowship as something horizontal, between human beings but St Paul makes it clear in this passage that our fellowship is with Jesus, which is obvious really, the whole theology of the Body of Christ relies on it. I was also struck that some translations (ie CEB) use the word ‘partnership’ for koinonia. My bishop (Paul Bayes) often talks about ‘partnership in the Gospel’, I ought not to be surprised at the deep theological origin of this. Koinonia/communion is also important to me because it was such an important word for Brother Roger of Taizé, and that sense of deep communion in the church, deep beneath our divisions, is something that sustains me constantly in my experience of diversity. Whatever we might like to think, none of us – Pentecostal, Anglican, Roman Catholic, whatever –  is more the body of Christ than any other part.

Rowan Williams in his book on Teresa gives a marvellous commentary (pp 90-91) on her comments on the Lord’s Prayer, which relate directly to koinonia. This koinonia, solidarity, is expressed in the very first word ‘Our’:

“If we say ‘Our Father’ without some grasp of the magnitude of what is said, we are not merely uttering a truth we do not fully appreciate, we are – at the very least – in danger of uttering a lie. If God is our father, we have no ground for making distinctions of lineage, and should boast of no parent but God.”

Two other Scriptures stood out for me in the week. On the first day, the first reading at Mass, Isaiah 40: 1-11:

“A voice commands, ‘Cry!’

And I answered, ‘What shall I cry?’”

img_0353I love preaching. It is a great privilege to try and process my thoughts and prayers, my reflection on Scripture in a way that might just draw others to the love of Jesus. But none of us who preach in this age can fail to be aware that what we say is not connecting with people, that we draw so few to faith in Christ, that so many of our friends, neighbours and family members do not know and love Him. ‘What shall I cry?’ is a reprimand and a challenge. The challenge is to try and understand what is going on. At the moment I am wondering if some of the ideas about our language that Don Cupitt and John Robinson expressed might be more valid than the neo-orthodoxy will allow. Not that they had the right answers but that they asked the right questions. Is there some philosophical key that would make our language understandable? It seems to me that this might particularly be around human nature. If people don’t believe that we share a fundamental human-ness, if they believe that we are free floating individuals (the existentialist nightmare) how can they believe that we need saving or that Jesus can share in our human-ness?

Finally, the Gospel at Mass on the second day of retreat was the wonderful Matthew 11:28-30, known to Anglicans in the comfortable words of the Prayer Book rite for Mass.











There is so much to say on this, some of which I tried to say in my sermon at Sandymount.

I have written far too much already – and we are only half way across the Irish Sea.

img_0464I hope I have indicated something of the method of my retreats. It has been a refreshing time, capped by visiting Fr Paul Barlow and his wife in Dublin and preaching at his church, St John’s, Sandymount, this morning. Fr Paul and I trained together at Chichester 23 years or so ago. He and I are both now members of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests. Paul is a faithful priest, faithful to crossing the Irish Sea for every meeting of the Sodality. Faithful to the public celebration of the Office, morning and evening, in his church. Fellowship, partnership, koinonia. Knowing his fidelity, knowing the fidelity of the community at Glenstal, of our Sodality, is immensely sustaining for me. It is good to know that this partnership is rooted in “our koinonia with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).



In the first online version I conflated Peter Tyler author of Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul with James Finley who gave this marvellous talk on Teresa here.




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