Retreat Advance? Could a wise retreat be the beginning of a great advance in a Pilgrim's life?
This chapter is lifted from Bats in my Belfry by Bernard Preston. Get it as an e-book from Amazon for about $3.
This page was last updated by Bernard Preston on 9th June, 2023.
You may be wondering how I escaped the attentions of the black dog after that epic visit to our summer holiday chalet at Lake Pastel. Two years passed before my election to chairman of the local branch, during which time I eventually came to myself, not without considerable prodding by the good wife, and others concerned at my downward slide; but first a monumental time shift.
Of course, I know that depression and indecisiveness go hand in glove, where others are concerned that is, but I couldn’t see my own lack of insight. There are naturally none so blind as those who will not see, so Helen started making some decisions on my behalf; like sending me on the retreat. The journey inwards proved long and arduous.
I had, in the past, been very cynical about retreats. What I needed in life was advances, not retreats, and the shallowness of my own spirituality did not allow for the many paradoxes that make up the life of faith. So, shortly after our disastrous return from Lake Pastel, Helen booked me in for a four-day silent retreat with our priest, using the Old Testament book of Micah as the focus. Something snapped that day when our neighbour recognized my face in the newspaper he was about to use to start the barbecue. All the good work started by the bat seemed to have been undone.
Four days of silence! Who on earth was Micah anyway. Only a Bible and a note book, and a hymn book, if Bernie wanted, were allowed. He didn’t want. Not the hymn book, nor the retreat. For several days Bernie sulked and refused point blank to go: four whole days of going backwards in life. But, of course, ‘she who must be obeyed’ got her way in the end so, ten days after their Mount Pastel holiday, Bernie found himself driving to a hitherto unknown destination at the seaside.
The journey itself was a nightmare. Several times I nearly turned round and drove home but something drew me on and, in any event, the three other retreatants in my car were relying on me for the lift. I had reached rock bottom by then, so what was there to lose? The climb up the healing ladder had certainly begun at Lake Pastel but that final barbecue had turned it into a game of Snakes and Ladders. Unable to sleep I was again back at square one and I knew it.
The retreat house came as a surprise. Set high on a cliff overlooking the ocean, it was not a house but one of those la-di-da mansions with seven en suite bedrooms, all with spectacular views overlooking the sea. A narrow set of steps cut into the virgin rock led down to a sandy beach that was open only for a few hours on either side of low tide. The regular thud-thud-thump as the waves crashed into the cliff face far below reminded us, if we woke in the night, where we were. I did not miss the irony that our place of retreat should be named Voorwaarts. Forwards!
Standing on the wide veranda, the salt air fresh on my cheek and a hint of Frangipani in the air, I began once again to relax. I felt like a novitiate, a rank beginner in the matter of self-awareness, but the other retreatants I knew were rather more mature in the Faith. It was only years later that I was able to recognize the wisdom of Bertrand Russell, that it is only fools and fanatics who are so certain of themselves, the wiser being so full of doubts. This was no place for beginners.
We sat at the round table on that first night, the conversation quiet and apprehensive, each knowing that, the moment they left the table, they were going into four whole days of total silence, broken only for one merciful hour each day with our priest, Bob. Images of monasticism leapt into my mind. ‘Where is the bed of nails?’ I asked. There was a twitter of nervous laughter. ‘Fortunately no cold cloisters for us, but you could wear a robe of horse-hair,’ a fellow retreatant smiled. None of us were in a rush to leave the table, secure in its fellowship, knowing that we would be totally alone once we left. There was an unusual camaraderie; most of us were tense.
Suffice it to say that which happened in Bernie’s soul during the next four days cannot be readily recorded in a few brief pages. In the silence, dust of varying degrees of filth, that had been quietly swept under the carpet for decades and conveniently ignored, began to emerge in a disconcerting manner. In the prolonged silence Bernie could not avoid facing many issues that had long been sidelined. Undealt with issues, many of them long forgotten and deeply buried in his subconscious, were bogging Pilgrim’s progress through life, weighing heavily on his mind and spirit. He was to discover that human growth sometimes, perhaps even regularly, requires silence and solitude, painful though these might be. This was not going to be an easy four days. Tears would be shed.
Bernie was not normally a tearful man but advance in his life first demanded remorse. Although not immediately evident, but before the retreat was over, a new peace touched his life as he gradually came to terms with himself. It brought with it a new wisdom too, though it was only others that would perceive it. Bernie was painfully aware of his shortcomings and self-doubt hovered not far below the surface.
The first breakfast was a nervous hour as we all faced the beginning of what was obviously going to be an arduous affair. Not for the faint-hearted and even the normally unflappable Bob was looking strained. Spending an hour with each of seven neophytes, searching the bottoms of their murky ponds, rather like police divers looking for a dead body, giving each direction and comfort, was going to stretch him too. This was not going to be a picnic for any of us.
Not a word was said, other than the grace we chorused together. Mostly, I found that my fellows were sensitive to my needs at table but once I had to get up and walk around to the far side of the table for the salt. It irritated me. At high school I would have kicked my neighbour on the shins but that did not seem appropriate at a retreat. What was I doing here? I was angry that Helen had cajoled me into it.
"Bernie, like the rest of Shafton, I know something of what has been happening in your life," Bob said at our first short session. "Helen has also been to see me, as you know, and she has filled me in with a few details. I also saw the tiny paragraph in the East Griqualand Herald, recording that the Board had found you not guilty of any misconduct with that schoolgirl. Today I would like you to read the whole of the book of Micah – it’s only seven pages in your Bible – and then read these two verses several times over."
He passed me a slip of paper. "Take your time with the passage, stay with it, and make notes of your progress. Okay? Any questions?" I had none. Half of me was irritated, that part which was used to giving the instructions and generally ordering people around, but the other half was slowly becoming more honest. Whilst I was a somebody in my professional world (or, at least I used to be), here I perceived myself as a nobody and I didn’t resent being directed. There was that word progress again and Bernie couldn’t help making a connection with Pilgrim.
Pilgrim had a difficult day of it. A restless creature, he strode several times up and down the ninety-two steps to the beach, walking the sandy shore, passing other equally stressed individuals, giving only a curt nod of recognition. The reading of the seven chapters of Micah took less than an hour, and the re-reading of the two verses given by Bob, several times over, only a few minutes. What to do with the rest of the day?
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The rest of the day was characterised by denial. Hadn’t the Board found him not guilty? Did his accountant not take responsibility for the grey areas of tax avoidance? The many hours spent soaring, away from family and patient responsibilities, weren’t they his right? He indulged in a few minutes of day-dreaming, thinking of his friends flying in their gliders high above the Midlands on that glorious Saturday. Resolutely, and not without difficulty, he dragged his thoughts back to poor Pilgrim and his progress. The beautiful men and women whose bodies he touched on a daily basis, was that not his work? What was this about a pardoning God? He hadn’t committed any serious transgressions. The odd thought, maybe.
‘Bernie, how long have you been a Christian?’ Pastor Bob asked me at our second session.
"Since I was nineteen. About thirty years," I answered resentfully. I was gatvol with the retreat. "Bob, I think I want to go home. I’m not cut out for this sort of thing."
‘Yes, it’s a bit scary, isn’t it? Did you ever sing that Negro spiritual" Run to the rocks, rocks won’t you hide me? Stay with it, Bernie, you won’t be sorry.’ I couldn’t see it then, but he was right. Later, I was not sorry.
"Oh, I don’t know Bob. I’m finding this very boring."
‘Yes, that’s where it always starts for everybody, Bernie, but there’s worse to come, I’m afraid. If yesterday was boring as you were forced to get out of overdrive, then today will probably be disturbing.’ He knew he had me. I couldn’t turn and run and today was going to be a crunch day. ‘Go back to verses 18 and 19 from yesterday for an hour or two. Then I want you to spend the rest of the day with these two verses from chapter 7.’ He handed me another slip of paper. ‘Make notes if there is any movement.’ We prayed briefly together and I went off with my Bible and notebook. Page one, day one was blank.
It was indeed a disturbing day for Bernie. God came walking through his creation looking for a ripe fig and a bottle of vintage red wine – and there was none to be found. Godly men had perished from the earth. Bernie spent the day wondering what it meant to be a godly man and what it was that God expected to find in Bernie’s garden on that summer day? He spent the time alternately walking aimlessly on the beach, watching the rhythm of the waves, or carelessly sitting, Bible and notebook in hand, under one of the Giant Fig trees that proliferated along the coast. A pair of Knysna Louries kept him entertained for a while as they gorged themselves on the tiny figs. Obviously the beautiful model was still fresh in Bernie’s mind and, in general, his relationship with dozens of beautiful people came under the spotlight of that gaze that he was trying to escape.
My third session with Pastor Bob went a lot deeper. It is a disturbing fact that many doctors in general, and perhaps chiropractors in particular, because of our hands-on treatment, divorce the gentle does of their youth, who had supported them so faithfully through the tough years of training and the early stressful days of practice, only to go chasing after pretty nurses and patients. In their defence, sometimes it’s the doctor who is the prey.
‘Bob, when does a relationship become adulterous? What is adultery anyway?’ I started off with what appeared superficially a rather facile question.
Bob looked at me, incredulously. ‘Bernie, you have been a Christian for thirty years, married for nearly as long to the same woman, and you ask what is adultery?’
‘Yes, that’s what I’m asking,’ I replied, angrily, frustrated.He was nonplussed and didn’t know where to start. So I helped him, continuing: ‘Is it simply going to bed with another woman? Is it just a matter of sex?’
I suspected that he couldn’t see what I was driving at, but Bob, being the patient and intuitive priest that he was, gave me the credit for a serious question: ‘Go on, Bernie.’ He wasn’t being evasive but I could see from the way his dark brown eyebrows knotted together and the slight frown that creased his forehead that he was puzzled.
‘Well, if I enter into a relationship with another woman – or man, for that matter – or several people, where there is a deep touching of minds and spirits, but it is strictly non-sexual, is that okay?’
Bob pondered my question for a few moments. ‘Tell me about this touching of minds and spirits?’
‘Let’s say that a woman consults me with a condition that requires a course of treatment. Many spinal conditions are not going to be cured, and will require an initial course of treatment, often followed by years of maintenance and rehabilitation. During this time I become attracted to this woman’s ideas, her intellect, her spirituality perhaps and, yes, maybe even her body. Let’s just say that in some way or other she is a particularly beautiful person and we are attracted to each other. But, at this stage anyway, it’s strictly platonic.’
‘And then? What happens then?’
‘Mostly nothing, but it’s fertile ground.’
‘And what is the physical part of this relationship?’ Bob asked.
I thought for a moment: ‘I would be touching some part of her. Mostly an area that hurts, part of her shoulder or neck, or the buttock or back. You know.’
‘How would you describe this touch?’ Bob persisted.
‘It would be a healing touch. Sometimes it may be painful, often light and sensitive. Sometimes we would be very close, physically I mean, but mostly with her back to me. Occasionally it might be with an intimate part of her body, as in reducing a subluxated coccyx, which sometimes has to be done rectally, but then I always ask my secretary to come into the room, or reducing a rib which might have to be done through the breast tissue. Obviously the lingering touch is verboten but sometimes, Bob, occasionally this relationship is like intercourse, but with nothing but a layer of aromatic oils between us, and a flow of thoughts and ideas. Orgasmic in a non-sexual way, if you know what I mean.’
Bob frowned. He didn’t like the metaphor.
‘In all this, what is your relationship with Helen like?’
‘Mm, mostly pretty good. She is a good woman, a fine mother, and a wonderful cook. I love her but we know each other pretty well now, and I suppose meeting a new mind is stimulating. Perhaps we know each other too well and are a bit bored with each other but we are comfortable together and there is no embarrassment when we are alone.’
‘Do you still sleep together?’
‘Yes, we do but we’re not likely to empty the acorn jar!
‘So what’s really your question, Bernie?’ He didn’t ask about the acorn jar.
I thought about that for a while. ‘Well, I’ve been struggling with this meeting of minds. I don’t sleep with my patients obviously but I find their ideas and thoughts very stimulating. I enjoy their company, perhaps even more than Helen’s sometimes. I worry about it. You know, Bob, I feel I really get to know them? Deeply, intimately. There’s no conquering, no violation, no possessing, but I feel that I really know them. When it says in the Bible, Bob, that Abraham knew Sarah, does it just mean that they just slept together? Is it just something carnal? Or did he really know her? Is knowing just about sex? I almost feel that I have committed adultery with some of these patients, yet I’ve never even touched them indecently. Is that crazy, Bob? What does it mean to be a godly man? I’m afraid of myself, Bob.’ The anxious questions came thick and fast.
‘To answer all those questions, Bernie, I want you to spend today with chapter 6, verse 8.’ He passed me another of his little slips of paper.
I left my third session with Bob angry. I felt he had just dismissed me but, looking at my watch, I realized that the hour had sped by. My time was up. Why didn’t he just give me a straight answer? It was only some months later that this new life coursing through my veins enabled me to see that, just as I had given no simple question, there was no straightforward answer. Wise man Bob wanted me to work out my own answers. With fear and trembling.
Justice and kindness and walking with God. Bernie walked angrily up and down the steps and was nearly caught by the incoming tide on the beach in his distraction. Gradually the thoughts crowding through his mind settled in a new cohesion: the only wrong-doing in his relationship with his patients was that gradually, simultaneously, as some of these intercourses with beautiful patients developed a new richness, his knowing of his own wife was fading. Was she being excluded? Were they becoming bored with each other? Had they fully explored their own partnership? Were they still growing? Together, apart, not at all? The matter of two women with whom Bernie had become just a little too intimate also came butting into his thoughts, disconcertingly, uninvited. One had slapped him, the other had started insisting on the last appointment of the day, until Bernie’s prim and proper secretary cottoned on.
We shall here leave Bernie’s ‘progress’ over the next two days. Suffice it to say, there were tears of remorse shed and a new weighing of the intersection of his private and public life. The passage given by Bob for the fourth day directed him towards a new ‘looking to’, and ‘waiting for’, to be added to the previous ‘walking with’ God. It was here Bernie realized that Bob was directing him for the answers he was seeking. He also revisited the passage from the first day and the ‘casting of our sins into the depths of the sea’ took on a new meaning.
One other seminal event occurred that should be mentioned. Whilst Bernie was floundering in a sea of despair one of the other retreatants began quietly singing that great hymn of the Faith, ‘Amazing Grace’. Bernie knew about John Newton. Captain of a slaving ship for some twenty years, Newton penned the words one stormy night at sea. Newton became one of the great champions of the Faith, and the anti-slavery movement. The hymn could not have come at a better moment for Bernie.
Retreat, or no retreat, the late evening cup of Milo was violently disturbed. There was a screeching of brakes and a very loud crash on the street outside the mansion. We hastily donned our day-clothes again and headed for the gate. It was not a pretty sight: a large, strongly built, old tank of a car had smashed at high speed into the back of a tiny papier-mâché car that had stopped at the traffic light outside the mansion. The little car and its occupants had been violently shoved thirty metres down the road into a brick wall.
I rushed back to my room for my emergency bag, shouting over my shoulder for Bob to get a wheel spanner or a heavy wrench. I saw one of the others rushing to the phone.Bob and I raced down the street together with others close behind. The door of the car was locked and we couldn’t open it. Peering through the windows we could see a young couple, obviously badly injured and unconscious.
‘Petrol, Bernie. Can you smell the petrol?’ shouted Bob.
‘Use the wheel spanner, Bob. Smash the window!’
Using first a quite timid tap and then a mighty crashing blow Bob targeted the side-window which shattered, and I was able to put my hand through and unlock the door. Using the wheel spanner, and all our combined force between us, we managed to pry the door open. I heard a cry from one of the women behind me. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The young man’s head was badly crumpled and it was with great difficulty that we managed to drag him from the car, desperately disentangling his feet from the pedals. His right leg was obviously broken just above the ankle.
Bob by this stage had gone around to the passenger door, which I had managed to unlock from the inside.
‘Careful, Bernie. The airbags could spring at any moment.’ I hadn’t thought of that. They were obviously faulty.
The girl had a safety belt on, which saved her life, and I managed to release it through the driver’s door, but I could see her head and neck were at a strange angle. I could hear sirens wailing in the distance.
‘Careful with her head, Bob,’ I shouted, racing around to the other side. We were faced with a terrible dilemma. The smell of petrol was getting stronger all the time and I knew we could have a conflagration at any moment, but we had to be very careful with the girl. Gently cradling her neck and shoulders on my chest, one of the women stabilizing her head under my direction, we managed to drag her from the wreck just in time. As we laid her across the street on the pavement, the car exploded with a ‘whump’ and a flash of heat rocked us all back.
‘What about the driver of the other car?’ I shouted.
‘I’m okay,’ said a voice from behind me. I turned and saw a young man with a nasty gash on his forehead that was bleeding profusely, but otherwise he looked all right. I could smell the alcohol on his breath and had difficulty not reaching for the wheel spanner.
The paramedics arrived with their flashing lights and stretchers. I was glad to step back and let them take over. Within minutes they had gone with a roar of engines, their drips in place, sirens shrieking. We slowly made our way back to the retreat house. Two of the women, realizing they couldn’t help, were on their knees. Several others were sobbing. Those directly involved were too shocked to say anything. I saw my hands and clothes were covered with the young man’s blood and I took myself off to the shower. Fool, I thought, you didn’t even take time to put on your surgical gloves, Bernie. I carefully washed myself again and again, washing out not only the dirt and blood but trying to erase the images seared onto my brain. I wept for them, the tears coursing down my face along with the hot water, knowing that the news was not going to be good. It wasn’t.
The final breakfast was a silent affair. Encouraged to talk normally again, prior to re-entering the real world, we were all lost in our thoughts. A call to the hospital had confirmed our fears: the young man was dead on arrival and the girl had a ruptured spinal cord. She would never walk again. Who was the most unlucky of the two? I was grateful that Bob didn’t go through the ‘God has given, God has taken away’ routine. A drunk had violently snatched their lives away, not God, but He had allowed it. The only alternative is a world of robots unable to make choices, to please or disobey Him, a humanity void of the precious capacity of free will.
Bob invited each of us to each spend a weekly hour with him for the next month, to bring the retreat to completion. ‘Bernie, I realize that human sexuality is something you are faced with on a daily basis, but was there something more behind your questions. I had the feeling you hadn’t told me everything. Was it simply that girl and your other patients, or was there something else?’
I gulped. Was I so transparent or had he been given special insight? I wondered whether to talk about it. Would it set me free from my anger and fear?
‘I once had a friend – he’s dead now – whose wife developed the kind of relationship with our minister that I have with some of my patients. They were both wonderful people, intelligent, full of ideas and very spiritual. I knew them both well. My friend was in some ways a bit of a plod. None of us in the church would accept what was happening in front of our eyes, blind fools that we were, and gradually my friend and the minister’s wife were excluded from this exciting new relationship. They were so spiritual, praying together and counselling those in difficulty. There couldn’t be anything wrong with it, surely? Well, the inevitable happened.’
‘They all got divorced and the minister married my friend’s wife.’ Bob wasn’t so unshockable after all.
‘When did the adultery actually happen, Bob? When did it begin? Assuming they only slept together after they were married, was it an adulterous relationship from the beginning? I’m afraid, Bob.’
‘You already know the answer, Bernie. I don’t have to tell you.’ He stopped, thinking. I too was pondering his words. He was throwing all the responsibility back onto me, making me work.
‘I have two questions for you this week, Bernie. First, is there a place in your heart, as there is in the heart of God, for the people who are not so beautiful? For the plods, and the drunks, and the adulterous ministers, and that girl who is going to be a paraplegic? What about them?’
I cocked my head, thinking, desperately trying to escape.
‘Secondly, what are you going to do to enrich and re-inflame your marriage with Helen? That’s the only way to conquer your fear of the beautiful people you have to touch on a daily basis.’I left humbled by the wisdom of the man, thinking that, whilst Helen and I still went to the theatre, sometimes watched television together, read books and listened to music, we almost never spoke meaningfully to each other.
A wise retreat can sometimes be the start of a great advance.
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On average, about 60% of my time at the coalface is taken up with the management of lower lumbar back conditions. One of the problems is that the pain recedes much faster than the tissue heals, making your spine very vulnerable when you have 50 percent less pain. What's this got to do with retreat advance?
Extra vitamin C from citrus and peppers helps to speed up the healing of collagen.
Very little except I was questioned on the subject once we were allowed to converse again. A set of daily lower back exercise would be a great advance for all of us.
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