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Just me and God

Rachel Giles

Rachel Giles, a first-time retreatant, finds the ancient site of Glastonbury Abbey a place to connect with God.


I ARRIVE at Abbey House, in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, in pitch-black darkness. The house's gothic windows and castellations are slightly spooky, but the greeting at the door could not be friendlier, and I am ushered in to the grandly elegant diocesan retreat-house.

I am here - among the high ceilings and muted colours of this former country gentleman's retreat, built in 1830 - for two days, on retreat with God: no structured programme, just daily meetings with the resident chaplain, the Revd Simon Small. "Don't have any expectations," he says to me after a delicious meal. "A retreat is about connecting with the truth of the moment. Come with an open mind."

I say that I would like to go a bit deeper with contemplation, which I have been exploring recently. He explains that, when we make time to be still, things can bubble up: "You might find that lots of stuff surfaces." That is my biggest worry: how much "stuff" have I got lurking? I'm pretty sure there is plenty.

I am also, I explain, at a crossroads in my life. I am 42, and face a possible future without children. At times, I feel that I am carrying an unresolved grief; at others, I see vistas of child-free adventure opening up. It is a confusing season of life to be in. I hope that this retreat does not reduce me to a gibbering mess.

It feels odd confessing all this to a stranger, but also, in saying it aloud, it is strangely liberating. Simon assures me that I will be supported. I hope, however, that all that "stuff" stays in its box.


REST is important, he says; so I am in bed by nine. They have put me in the newer wing of the house, alone, and away from a group of meditating Finns. The silence settles on me heavily.

In the morning, I am not ready to sit still. The house has spectacular views over the abbey ruins. I wander around the melancholy skeletal structures, soaking up the echoes of ancient belief. Some say, of course, that Joseph of Arimathaea and the young Jesus built a chapel here. It is somewhat more likely that there has been a church in this place since the second century.

The abbey was founded in the seventh century, and grew to become one of the most powerful monasteries in England. It was torn down in 1539, and the monks were driven away; the Abbot was executed on the Tor.

Next, I encounter the spiritual smorgasbord that is the high street. "Glastonbury attracts people who are seeking something," Abbey House's warden, Liz Pearson, says. Wicca, witchcraft, shamanism, goddess worship, tarot, regression, sound-healing - it is all here. As the taxi driver who dropped me off said: "This is the one place in Britain you can walk down the street in Arthurian costume and no one will bat an eyelid."


SIGHTSEEING over, it is time to knuckle down. There is a cellar chapel in the house; so I head there. Built from stone purloined from the abbey, it has a charged atmosphere: you could almost touch the silence. I sit on a sheepskin rug and wait. Now, it is just me and God.

I offer silent apologies for ignoring him so spectacularly, and for treating him like a divine Father Christmas. God, can I have a better job/more money/a good day/a baby? Instead of an angry response, I seem to hear a small voice responding with kindness and love.

Later, I try a spot of lectio divina with a passage from Sue Pickering's retreat guide On Holiday With God. Despite the terrible title - I picture me with God, a British beach and buckets and spades - it has a great deal of helpful advice and ideas if you are alone on retreat.


The Retreat Association has a listing of retreats and quiet days around the country. See for a full list. The site also has resources and an explanation of what retreating can do for you.

The next such event at Abbey House this month is Awakening on Monday 24th June. The day will be led by Meg Johnson and shaped around shared silence and short talks. Meg will also be available for individual conversation.

Meg Johnson is an Anglican priest, formerly of St James, Piccadilly. She has a special interest in the mystical traditions of the world.The cost is £30 including all refreshments and lunch and here is the house's event preamble:

When all the mental noise fades away, who is it that looks back from the mirror? Can we begin to glimpse the Self behind the mask we wear?

Words from some of the world's major religions, philosophy and poetry will help us on the journey.