Well, today it’s my turn. I’ve been working at Minsteracres for four years now, and apart from the friends’ weekend some years back, which I enjoyed, I haven’t been on another retreat and it felt like time.
Retreats aren’t for everyone, and my experiences as a child definitely didn’t warm me to the idea. I’m not a fan of sharing confidences with people I don’t know, and I’ve never been much of a joiner. However, I am a walker, and having met lots of people who have been on the walking retreats at Minsteracres, I thought it might be more my style.
So, with some trepidation, I joined a happy band of walkers on the last of their three day walking retreat this July and I can tell you now that I loved it.
We started with coffee where I got the chance to meet the others and hear what they’d been up to so far. Then Ann Darlington, who with her husband Jim leads the walking retreats, set the background for the day.
Using Pope Francis’s year of mercy theme for 2016 and a painting featuring the feeding of the five thousand by the Italian painter Tintoretto as a focus, she and Minsteracres’ rector Fr Jeroen set the scene for the day’s reflection. Then it was into the cars and off to our starting point in the local village of Corbridge.
Now I’ve lived in Tynedale for seven years, and walked with my Labrador Jasper over countless miles of it, but I had not yet done the walk up from the village, past the ruins of Aydon Castle, via the simple chapel next to another castle in the delightful hamlet of Halton and up to Hadrian’s Wall, so I knew this was going to be a treat. Added to that though was the new experience of walking with other people and the chat along the way.
We were a group of 15 and you might think that too many to get to speak to each, even over a walk of nearly nine miles. Wrong. Conversations ebbed and flowed, the participants changing along with the scenery. By the end of the day I felt I’d made a connection with each of the other walkers and it had been a pleasure.
As we stopped to eat our packed lunch with our backs to Hadrian’s Wall, sharing a field with the sheep and a view to the south across Tynedale and the North Pennines, I asked what others were reflecting on. “On a walk like this, I’m always reflecting on how far it is to the end!” said one. “I’m reflecting on where the nearest toilet is!” quipped another, proving that contemplation wasn’t drowning out the practical.
There’s a particular satisfaction at the end of a long walk and mine, contemplating the nine miles I’d walked, must have been small compared to the 24 miles the others had completed over three days. As many of them were returnees though, I suppose this is part of the pleasure for them.
We arrived back at Minsteracres to freshly made fruitcake and a welcome cup of tea, then joined again in reflection on the day.
Anne, who had led the group, said she had been thinking about compassion and how there is always someone reaching out as we had seen in the painting. In her case, it was some thoughtful soul who had packed antihistamine cream for the painful wasp sting she had suffered. She was also delighted that we had completed the round we sang at lunchtime as we set about our sandwiches. She told us she had waited many years to hear it work properly, and thanked us for that joyful moment.
Others talked of how even in the pouring rain the day before, umbrellas were shared and no one had grumbled, and how the three day retreat quickly begins to feel like a small community, sharing a common ground.
And me, I had been thinking as we walked about the pleasure I get from the exercise in a landscape that speaks so strongly to me. That when we took a break I had food to eat and water to drink. That I walked in stout shoes, with protection from the rain and the sun and when I got home if I wanted, I could have a long, hot soak .
But what was haunting me as I walked was images I had seen repeatedly over recent months of huge numbers of people fleeing from war and violence, forced to walk hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles wearing only what they stood in, carrying their young, sick and elderly and relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter – often going without either.
It’s hard to disagree with Pope Francis – the world needs more mercy in 2016.