Retreat 2: St Michael’s Convent, Ham

It was an early start on the Saturday morning to make it in time for the Lent Quiet Day at St Michael’s in Richmond, the second of my 12 retreats this year. Although the quiet day lasted from just 10-4pm on the Saturday, I decided to stay the night and make a weekend of it.

Things have been so hectic at work and in life generally, that I half thought I wouldn’t make a retreat in February. I opted for something more convenient – a convent on home turf in London; just a short hop on the train from Clapham Junction station to Richmond and then a 10-minute bus journey to the small village of Ham.

I had been here before a couple of years ago, so was familiar with the place. I remembered it as being restful and homely, with lovely gardens to wander around.

I was joined on the day by three well-to-do looking women in their late forties / early fifties. The sister leading the day, Sr Annelise, was a tall, outgoing woman, wearing a long colourful cardigan.

The day was peaceful and meditative – we began with sitting in a circle, closing our eyes, and were encouraged to become aware of the body, to breathe in the beauty and stillness of the day, and breathe out the stresses and negative thoughts. I liked the frankness of Sr Annelise. Lent, she said, normally has a bad reputation – it’s all about giving things up. But how about it being a way of us appreciating God’s gifts to us, and the abundance of things we have?

She said she wasn’t into ‘doing’, and that today would be about receiving – receiving from God and the gifts he wanted to give us today. We all nodded affirmatively at this. Too much of life was about giving out, and doing things, and trying: me in my work lately, and in life generally come to that, and probably these women too – with their families or whatever burdens they were carrying with them that day.

We were encouraged to create space for ourselves to ponder the gifts in our lives and all around us. There were pictures and verses laid out that we could pick up and reflect on, or we could simply sit and read.

I was lured in the direction of the garden, which on a cold, February day looked pretty dead and lifeless, but on closer inspection was full of activity – squirrels jumping around, birds in the trees, spiders weaving their webs, crocuses poking their heads through the cold earth signalling the promise of spring.

When I arrived at the convent my thoughts were all over the place and I was mulling over to-do lists. I found the guidance given during the quiet day, with insights from Annelise and pictures to meditate on, really helpful in focusing my thoughts. We all re-grouped at the end of the day to share thoughts about the day, and Sr Annelise closed with some further insights on Lent.

Mealtimes were spent with the sisters in the main dining area. They were served buffet style and in silence. Although I had been before to the convent and experienced silent meals, they take a lot of getting use to. Your natural inclination is to make conversation, particularly in a roomful of people you don’t know. I remember bumping into a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while at the convent a couple of years back, during the mealtime. We sat opposite each other but of course couldn’t communicate during the course of the meal, which was really funny yet frustrating as we had lots to catch up on.

I enjoyed the interaction with the sisters at St Michael’s, which was different to the set up at Poor Clares Arundel, where you were separate from the sisters and only really saw them during services. Instead of wearing habits the sisters wore casual dress, and were identifiable by the Celtic crosses they wear around their necks. There were also far fewer services and generally it was all a lot more homely and laid back.

For quiet space there is a living room with books and games to dip into (even puzzles!), as well as a library where you can sit and look out onto the garden. The chapel has a quiet space too.

During the Sunday I started to feel much more relaxed. It can take time to unwind on a retreat and I found it hard coming to a sudden stop. I was a bit envious of my friend Heather who joined me later on the Saturday – she walked all the way from Battersea along to the river to Ham, which I later thought must be a perfect way to ease yourself into ‘retreat mode’.

I ended the retreat by taking a meander through Richmond common, just a short walk from the convent, in order to ease my way back into everyday life. It was good to re-visit St Michael’s, to get some space and peace, and decide – tentatively – on giving up chocolate for Lent.


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