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The Power of Retreat

The Power of Retreat

Wednesday August 28

Thomas Baldwin shares his experience of a day of solitude in Perthshire


I’m on retreat, but I haven’t retreated very far.

If you take the motorway to Perth and turn left, within five minutes you find yourself at The Bield at Blackruthven: a large house and converted farm steading, set in 30 acres of lawn and woodland.

There’s a large wooden cross near the entrance, decorated with Celtic knotwork. While the Bield is open to everyone, it is an overtly Christian space.

Lovely as the surroundings are, I’m a little apprehensive. I’m here for a one-day reflective silence, which will be a completely new experience. I have no idea what to expect, but I have come armed with questions about what God wants from me right now.

There are seven of us on the retreat. I’m the youngest, and the only man. Our facilitator, Fliss, shows us round - we have the run of the steading (including library and art space), the formal garden and even a swimming pool, as well as the grounds – and then we’re taken to the chapel, which is housed in an old carpentry workshop.

“This day is a gift from God to you, but also from you to God,” says Fliss. She reads from Revelation 21 plays some music and leads us in prayer. We’re invited to be aware of our breathing, and to tense and relax each muscle in turn. Then we wander out into the grounds.

I spotted the labyrinth earlier – the familiar pattern mown into a small area of grass and trees near some chicken coops – and decide to head there first. I catch a glimpse of a red squirrel in the undergrowth. The chickens wander tamely about my feet, but stay out of my way – until I come across a beautiful, enormous cockerel who makes it quite clear that he likes the spot he’s in. After we’ve eyed each other for a few seconds, I meekly go around. I may be imagining the smug tone to the clucking behind me as I resume the path.

It’s peaceful, of course, but I find this intentional silence is a curiously vulnerable space to be in. Silence gives you nowhere to hide. All the things you try to distract yourself from - the parts of yourself you’re uncomfortable with, the decisions you’ve been putting off – are laid bare.

This is magnified further when I go inside the steading. Outside there were the sounds of nature, and noises from the distant road; in here any noise at all seems alien. I park myself in a corner upstairs with a book of meditation exercises, and start to work my way through them.

It’s here that something happens, and it’s obviously the key moment of the day but the one I find myself least able to describe. An extraordinary pressure seems to bear down on me – not in an unpleasant way – and almost forces me to my knees. There’s no message, no voice, no instruction, much less any answers to my questions: just a presence that envelops me completely and leaves me with a sense of floating in absolute peace.

I have absolutely no idea how long this lasts for, and I’m quite shaken when I come back to myself. Whatever happened, it was without question the most intense religious experience of my life.

After that, lunch is weird. It’s one thing being silent when there’s no-one else around, but it’s another not talking when I’m sat at a table with other people. Even when those other people are also in silence, it feels rude – especially when I drop some food on the floor and have to almost put my head in my neighbour’s lap to retrieve it.

I go outside again. Past the manicured gardens, a gate leads through to a mature wood with a network of paths I could happily wander about in all the day. Slips of laminated paper with religious poetry hang from many of the branches, and I become obsessed with reading every one of them – to the exclusion of watching where I’m going. While reaching for one of the slips I scrape my shin painfully on a protruding branch. I’m quite proud that I manage to remain silent at that moment.

It’s with disappointment that I realise time is up and make my way back to the chapel. Here, Fliss leads us in a reversal of the earlier ritual. I have a sense of returning to the real world from somewhere ‘other’.

Over a cup of tea, we make small talk. Even a group of nine feels like a crowd, after several hours alone. A couple of people share their experiences, but there’s no pressure to do so.

So what did I get out of it? On a bodily level, I’m pretty sure my blood pressure is lower for a day of aimless wandering in the countryside. Spiritually, I’ve had that experience of presence, which is something I’ve never felt before, at least not that strongly. And, while I haven’t got the direct answers I might have hoped for, I have a better understanding of the questions.

As I pull out of the car park, I reach for the ‘on’ button on the radio. Then I decide to leave it off.


This feature first appeared in August's Life and Work. Subscribe from £12 or download from £1.99