Weekend Retreat at the Dowry House, Walsingham
Francesca Flynn, Secretary, The Walsingham Association Sheffield Branch
I travelled to Walsingham for a weekend retreat led by Fr Matthew Blake OCD. Entitled “The Door of Entry to God’s Dwelling Place is Prayer”, it was based on 16th century Spanish mystic, St Teresa of Avila’s book, “The Interior Castle”.
Fr Matt gave five talks. Written at the request of her spiritual director and of the Canon of Toledo, the book compensated for the loss of Teresa’s life story, which had been retained by the Spanish Inquisition. She was 62, and had suffered physical and psychological (but not spiritual) breakdown. She offers neither prayer techniques, nor theories, but sets out her personal experiences. Prayer interested her from an early age, but she found it difficult throughout life.
The prayer journey to and fro through these rooms to the seventh does not make us inward looking; rather Christ shines out drawing us to him. Teresa judges progress in prayer not by spiritual comforts received, but by how someone changes and relates to others. The first “room” is where prayer leads to self knowledge. For Teresa, maintaining that one cannot pray shows lack of humility and of neighbourly love. In the second room change begins, leading to the third where we meet a crisis as great as that of the rich young man who seeks eternal life. The fourth, halfway, room brings the spiritual beginnings of love without self interest. The fifth room is where Teresa believes true Christianity begins. Whereas in the third room we met Christ on our terms, here we meet him on his terms, saying, “Yes,” to love of neighbour. The sixth room is one of great joy, but also pain, where it can seem as though God is absent: that “dark night of the soul” experienced by Sts John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Calcutta. Nevertheless, this leads to Teresa’s seventh room, where she has a profound sense of the Trinity.
Despite being a discalced Carmelite, Teresa led an active life and insists that prayer must fit with one’s situation and responsibilities; done amidst the “pots and pans”. She sees the greatest act of charity as teaching someone to pray.
The retreat was held at the 15th century Dowry House, run by the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham. This mediaeval house (formerly the Sue Ryder place) opened two years ago, proving popular with people seeking rest and spiritual rejuvenation. It is situated on High Street, opposite the 12th century Augustinian Priory, which used it to house pilgrims. It has bedrooms which are mainly ensuite, a sitting room, a conference room and the Julian Library with 3,000 books. There is a kitchen and dining room, although we ate in the Pilgrim Bureau. Outside are peaceful gardens, a small car park and a cloister leading to the lovely chapel, where we joined in the community’s offices and meditations. Daily Mass was at mid-day.
A varied programme runs throughout the year, including preached and individually guided retreats and courses such as the recent Icon Writing Week. I left for home remembering Teresa’s words, “Sola Dios basta”: “God alone suffices”.