Recently my family and I had the opportunity of travelling down to the new Retreat and Training Centre in the St Lucia Estuary. The retreat centre is built inside a world heritage site, and is wonderfully positioned to take advantage of the natural beauty surrounding it. St Lucia is an extraordinary part of the country. It has an abundance of wildlife from birds, including kingfishers and eagles and herons, through to its famous hippopotami and crocodiles.
The protected nature of the estuary, and the relative lack of human development and disturbance in the area, allow for an unusual environment where people live in close proximity to some of Africa’s largest animals.
Driving into St Lucia, the first thing I noticed were the signs warning us about encountering Hippos’ at night. At the retreat centre we were also told about a particular hippo who likes to walk up from the water at night and graze in the garden.
This proximity to nature, and especially to some of the larger animals, is an amazing gift to experience, and makes this particular retreat centre unique.
Currently the centre is in the care of the Ursuline sisters. There will be readers who remember the Ursuline sisters from their work in schools in Krugersdorp, Brescia House, Sacred Heart College and in Bezhuidenhout Valley. With a long history in schools, the sisters have now embraced a new apostolic work and are simultaneously running the retreat centre, but also doing community development work in the surrounding areas.
In addition to being an idyllic natural setting, St Lucia is in an impoverished part of the country. Some of the rationale for building a retreat and training centre is to provide a resource for this impoverished area. There is a lovely balance, in that the beauty and slower pace of the rural lifestyle is exactly the antidote for the stress many of us living in the urban areas most need, and conversely by going somewhere like this on retreat we add to the sustainability of the local community.
I was invited down to the retreat centre because of my work in retreat direction and Ignatian spirituality and took the opportunity to take with me my family (my husband and three children aged 9, 7 and 5). For me there was something profound in watching my small children enter into this different rhythm of life. Each morning we went for a 6 am walk in the forest, and on returning my husband and I offered our children the choice of coming to mass with me or of staying with Daddy before breakfast. What astonished me was that my two older children, were drawn to coming to mass.
My seven year old son came each morning, and sat quietly in the church. This is in stark contrast to his normal behaviour at our local parish, where he fidgets and often whispers ‘can we go home now?’ It was intriguing to me that he was choosing to come to mass each day. When I asked him why, he said he had liked the silence, and looking out from within the church at the animals. This was true, as we sat at mass we could see duiker coming up to eat the grass near the chapel window, or watch birds swooping for insects. One morning a family of mongoose were playing not more than a meter from the window, unaware of us sitting quietly at mass on the other side.
Watching my son in that time I realised that in this experience, he was discovering the love of the Creator made manifest in Creation. He was having the sort of foundational spiritual experience that I hope will shape his relationship with God and with the church for life. It was striking that during those days in himself he became much quieter, and more reflective.
I am reminded of the insight of William Barry SJ that after scripture, nature is the most privileged place of encounter with the wonder of God. What is unique about this retreat centre is that we are offered a place to stop, to recollect and to see more clearly the love of God in the world around us.
To people like myself who live immersed in the urban environment, our normal experience of nature is both set at a distance and mostly tame. I might walk in the garden, or be struck by the beauty of the sunset over the cityscape, but I am not immersed in the natural environment. Even going to a park is experiencing a very tamed and controlled encounter with nature. In a place like St Lucia, I can look out and see crocodiles, hippos and fish eagles living freely. There is something profoundly liberating in witnessing God’s work of creation first hand, as it were, and not mediated by human control.
This experience of going into the wilderness is in tune with the long history of the retreat movement in the church. When we go on retreat we are consciously saying to ourselves that we are setting aside time for God. Like walking into a church and making the sign of the cross, stepping into the silence of a retreat centre, is an emotional and physical cue that I am consciously about to put God at the centre of my awareness. One day when I walked down to the jetty, and sat looking into the water, I was struck by how my inner spirit easily became still. I could feel myself becoming calmer and quieter. In that deepened awareness I was more receptive to a sense of the love of God underpinning all things.
In the Gospels we are told how Jesus, when he was tired, would retreat into nature. He climbed mountains and he escaped from the crowds across the lake of Galilee. He offers to all of us who are busy the example of taking time out, time to go away, to be alone with God and to reconnect to the deepest roots in ourselves.
Sitting quietly waiting and watching the world around us, we can be moved by the majesty of a hippo, the silent grace of the eagle, the brilliance of the king-fisher, or like my small 5 year old, watching giant snails move slowly about their own business.
I know from years of work as a retreat director how difficult it is to help people to become quiet, to centre and to enter into the slower rhythm required for the inner prayer work one does on a retreat. I was so moved to see how, in a context where nature works with the movement of silence and contemplation, even noisy small children can still and become contemplative.
For us who are adults, and who are accustomed to holding in mind multiple responsibilities and the burdens of adulthood, the beauty and silence of nature helps in the process of letting go, and so being able to more deeply ponder the mystery of life.
As Christians we need to take some time in our lives for deep reflection. Time to reassess our lives more deeply from the vantage point of God’s love. We need time to re-engage with the love of Jesus in a real and intimate way, so that we can return to our busy lives with renewed purpose and vigour!