Drawing from Our Well

‘What need is there for profundity; everything I need is here.’ – Kenneth Collier, Garden Zen

I spent last week in Derbyshire attending Hucklow Summer School. This is a retreat and programme for Unitarians (and others). The days begin with a talk and lead on to engagement groups, singing, walking, writing, dancing, eating, chatting, communing. Anything for which we are inspired, there is a space for exploration. This has been my fourth year, I always return in equal parts energised and exhausted. I found this year’s theme – ‘How then shall we live?’ with its emphasis on life and death, challenging. I shed many tears (for which I am unashamed), but also laughed (perhaps inappropriately at times). It was a chance to un-layer the accumulated expectations and roles I have worn and worn out throughout my life.

Upon returning, I am frequently asked ‘How was your holiday?’ – and I have guiltily responded with ‘it wasn’t a holiday; it was a retreat.’ This is somewhat understandable, because I would not want people thinking I was lazing about all day. At the same time, I try to check myself and remember than when we speak of ‘Holidays’ we speak of ‘Holy Days’ – time set aside, sacrificed to something greater than efficiency and profit. Forsaking fortune for the happen-stance chance of happiness. The word ‘holiday’ may evoke the field lain fallow, and bodies reclined, and both being filled with the elements, drawn in rather than ex-pelled.

Retreats are of course in-drawn periods as well, so maybe the whole exercise is academic. We may imagine retreats to be more structured, more purposeful, with clear expectations (if we arrive where we expected to arrive is another matter). The meaning of its origin – to ‘draw back’ may evoke a military, or it may speak of water being drawn from a well. A pencil drawn across a page, as we fill notebooks with thoughts and prayers. There can be a lot of writing, at least at this retreat, and as we draw out our challenges, they become clear. We may think of a retreat as a place to become withdrawn, but it is often necessary prevention that our spiritual capital is not ‘overdrawn.’

This is important for me personally; Catherine and I (and Thomas) have to leave the retreat a day early, to make sure we are back for Manchester’s Pride march. I have come to see that day as about the most stressful day in my year – not in a bad way, not at all – but the level of alertness I have to hold is greater than other times, pushing myself into a more extroverted self taxes my energy more – were I not to have a week of reflection those two days would be a challenge. This period of self-examination is followed by the most intense days of extroversion.

Let us take time to acknowledge those taxing moments in our lives – appreciating that this likely includes moments of joy and satisfaction. Good works require energy just as much as inspiration. The latter may build up through repetition, but the former needs its own space for renewal. So may we be able to give ourselves those ‘Holy Days,’ those ‘Retreats’ whereby we are rejeuvenated and re-energised for the tasks and dreams we set out upon.


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