I am composing this letter high up on the cliffs overlooking Whitby – in a guest-room of the Anglican nuns who inhabit this modern priory. On the opposite side of the river mouth is the ancient ruined abbey of St Hilda, founded in 657AD as a double monastery of men and women, presided over by Hilda herself – an amazing woman with an international reputation for wisdom. Between us and the ruined abbey is the bustling seaside town of Whitby, stirring itself into summer life and no doubt hoping that Brexit will rejuvenate the fishing industry, once so strong is this port…
All clergy of whatever denomination are expected to say their prayers. Annually, Anglican clergy are encouraged to take time out on a retreat to charge up their spiritual batteries. So important is this exercise deemed to be by the bishop that he offers us a reasonable grant to go away and pray for a few days! I to think that it is important – not because I am a dreamer but without that prayerful compass, ministers are nothing more than ‘sounding gongs and clashing cymbals’ (Corinthians 13.1).
So here I am, away from the madding crowd of the Whitby High Street down below and the normal demands of domesticity and responsibility, to consider who I am in front of God and what he might want of me – and all against the backdrop of history, His and ours, on the opposite bank, smiling down on the bustle of 21st century life.
The politics of retreat – really and advance in the spiritual life if all goes well – is as old as the biblical record itself. Think, if you will, of the example of Jesus in the wilderness before his ministry began (Matthew 4) directly after which he chose his disciples, and then in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26.37) where he summons strength for his final ordeal.
So often prayer is the first casualty of a bust life. We throw ourselves into the High Street, the job or the hobby, without much thought for God. To re-connect with our prayers is important for all of us and not just in a crisis. Clergy car insurance is more expensive that the average because the are always making that retreat behind the wheel. That is not a good idea! Take yourself away for an hour, a day, or make that retreat in your own quiet corner to concentrate on God – but do make it!
Very Reverend Christopher Armstrong