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franciscan - January 2002

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

Retreat from reality? The retreat in fiction

by Rowan Clare CSF

Characters in novels do all sorts of things these days. No human experience is without its fictional equivalent. Reading teaches us more about ourselves – it needn’t be escapist, but enlarges our vision of the world. We can become involved in a murder investigation (very popular among Religious, for some reason!), study at a wizards’ boarding school – or engage with God.

Many contemporary novels tackle spiritual themes. Perhaps this reflects a general hunger for

spirituality. After all, we want to read about experiences which mirror our own. Yet religious experience is so personal that it often eludes description – like sex, religion is often the victim of bad writing. But it is possible to find convincing fictional characters whose experience of prayer, retreat and spiritual direction might even encourage readers to try it for themselves. One famous example of the ‘religious novelist’ is Susan Howatch. Her ‘Starbridge’ series spans sixty years of Anglican history. We are repeatedly told that the clergyman must remain in top spiritual form in order to serve God well. Retreat and direction are essential to maintain one’s ‘fitness’ for ministry.

However, Howatch undermines this view as the series progresses. Men we know to be a mass of messy, unresolved emotions are nevertheless able to be pastorally effective in their dealings with others. This is a useful reminder for aspiring retreatants: directors are only human, and God does most of the real work. Howatch tends to depict retreat as the spiritual equivalent of a visit to casualty. She often resorts to dramatic imagery: launching lifeboats, calling in the cavalry, the director as personal exorcist. Glittering Images’s description of Charles Ashworth’s sessions with Jon Darrow (‘My soul was screaming steadily but soundlessly for relief’), and Darrow’s own discussions with his monastic superior in its sequel Glamorous Powers, bear more resemblance to intensive therapy than to most retreats I have experienced; this trend continues throughout the series. Of course, the boundary between direction and therapy can be very thin. But it is not always the case that retreat has to be a rescue mission. There’s also the ‘10,000 mile service’ approach, which also assumes a need to remain ‘fit’ for ministry, but without waiting for a crisis. Our community rule, too, requires an annual retreat, and every member is advised to seek appropriate direction. The aim is to continue to grow in self-knowledge and relationship with God. Fictional retreatants cover enormous ground in a short time, but we are not required to keep a reader’s interest, so our pace can be slower.

The retreat-as-crisis-management approach may inhibit people who want to spend time with God, but assume that their need is not urgent enough. Charlotte M. Yonge’s Three Brides (1876) gives a calmer picture: a preached retreat at an Anglican convent is ‘like water for the thirsty’, offering ‘much-needed strength’ to a young woman with many questions on her mind. Howatch gives little room to ‘the quiet communion of the individual soul with God’ – indeed, her directors tend to get pages of lines, and God very few! This may well be because it’s difficult to convey private prayer convincingly in writing, but it is not the way most retreats work. It would be a shame if people felt they were not making spiritual progress because their retreat doesn’t mirror revelatory fictional encounters with a gifted director. However compelling the dynamic between director and directee, the focus should be on what God is saying. Howatch’s characters do admit this. But readers need to see how characters reach new insights. This means that conversations are described at great length, while the retreat’s real meat is compressed into terse phrases: ‘I went to my room and prayed’. In an actual retreat, the weight given to these two aspects would probably be reversed.

Retreat directors are seldom wonder-workers, however skilled at posing the right question at the critical moment. Jon Darrow’s ‘psychic’ insights may give the contrary impression of impossible wisdom, raising a real-life retreatant’s expectations too high. But Howatch’s novels describe, very effectively, the kairos moment when desperate souls encounter exactly the person who can meet their particular needs. Even the less desperate want someone to trust with the things that really matter. Howatch accurately pinpoints the need for the right person: Ashworth’s regular director has become utterly inadequate to his needs. When he meets somebody ‘sympathetic, but tough’ he feels safe enough to be himself.

Howatch’s directors often are directive, even obtrusively so – because that is what her retreatants seem to need. By contrast, Yonge’s Dr Earnshaw ‘would not judge, or give decided direction ... he would only bid her wait, and pray for guidance’. Catherine Fox’s novels take another approach. Here, realistically, the true work of retreat centres on the struggle with the self, or rather between the self and God. Retreatants don’t all want direction. Some may prefer to spend time alone with God, or simply away from everyday pressures, to ‘sort themselves out’. Fox’s first novel, Angels and Men, provides a good example. Like Howatch’s characters, the heroine, Mara, comes to a Religious house at a time of personal crisis. However, the brothers at the (immediately recognisable!) Franciscan friary where she is staying take a much more detached approach than Howatch’s: ‘The monks (sic) had left her more or less alone, letting her sleep and eat and wander as she chose, but she knew they were keeping an eye on her’. Mara finds a measure of peace not in prolonged discussion, certainly not in a programme of Bible reading and meditation, but in the opportunity for unvarnished honesty with herself; lack of distractions enables her at last to confront painful suppressed emotions, and healing begins. In Fox’s other books, brothers are often present in times of great need – but their intervention, though sometimes as striking as Jon Darrow’s, is unglamorous. When Mara does come face to face with a brother, it is at her own request: his response echoes Jesus’ own question to those seeking healing: ‘What do you want?’ Fox never shies away from letting God speak. She describes prayer unembarrassingly, complete with boredom and distractions.

It is perhaps worth asking why so much ‘religious’ fiction neglects retreat. Perhaps it is because far too many real religious people think of it as a luxury, the preserve of the super-holy, or accept the Howatch model: retreat as crisis management. Even if they acknowledge the ideal, they may be ‘too adrift’ (the Bishop of Starbridge’s phrase to Charles Ashworth) to recognise their need for appropriate spiritual support. Ashworth reaches breakdown before admitting he needs help. Other characters never do.
Joanna Trollope’s books do not deserve the label ‘Aga-saga’. Her characters may live in beautiful surroundings, but their emotional and spiritual meltdown rivals anything in Starbridge. They believe in God, but can’t communicate with him, any more than with their spouses. Like Howatch and Fox, Trollope understands that Christians are poor at admitting their needs and failures. We are bad at being ourselves: even with God, the most intimate relationship we’ll ever have. In The Choir, both the Dean and his wife are in spiritual crisis. It infects every aspect of their lives, yet there is nobody to point out how ‘adrift’ they have become, from each other and from God. Peter Bouverie, in The Rector’s Wife, is also sadly convincing. An ordinary, decent priest, he goes to pieces when denied preferment. His family disintegrates around him. His archdeacon does offer help, but Peter’s response is all-too-familiar: ‘Perhaps, when I’m not so committed’. His misery is so all-embracing that even God cannot reach him. In Howatch and Fox, that is precisely the point at which God gains access – Good Friday opens up the possibility of resurrection. That same hope brings many to retreat houses, seeking their own Easter, but Trollope’s characters have no such outlet. Bleak fishing holidays take the place of retreats; the wounds don’t heal.

In real life, as in religious fiction, retreats are too often perceived as luxury by exactly those who need them most. If more people saw them as an aid to right relationship with self and God, we might have fewer distressed and burnt-out clergy, fewer frustrated seekers, and a healthier church. f


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