Echoes from a Retreat

“You are beautiful but fallen.”

Words echo across more than twenty years; I’d never forgotten them and in fact I have probably seamlessly incorporated them into my personal philosophy. It came up in conversation with J a few nights go, about the idea of a mantra repeated to oneself about liking and approving of oneself. I said I had tried it and it simply didn’t work. It made me sad every time I have tried it because my instant response was simply that it wasn’t true and saying it wouldn’t make it true. I hasten to add that this is purely personal. It works for many people and is a good method. But just as from my teaching experience I know that there are always more than one way to explain something, I also know that since people are unique, one method will not work for all. Indeed, when I consider all the self help books I’ve seen or read, this explains why even successful authors of such books are obliged to write more, putting the same stuff but in a  slightly different way. The cynic in me thinks too that it’s about making even more money out of people’s desire for wholeness and healing but I will give some the benefit of the doubt. One size does not fit all.

Reel back the years then to March 1989 and to the North York moors. Ampleforth Abbey, home to the famous boys’ school where lived Cardinal Basil Hume, then the Abbot and one of the few truly holy men I have ever come across(once in Westminster Abbey for the enthronement of the archbishop of York, and once in a tiny village on the moors where Hume was directing traffic after a massive influx of pilgrims clogged the one main street and left it gridlocked) I went on retreat, seven months pregnant and I remember being about the only woman there , where most of the men were either ordinands(those preparing for ordination) or like my husband, firmly on the way to becoming such. It struck me then as surreal, a heavily pregnant woman at a silent retreat and it still does now.

A silent retreat is pretty much what you think it is; a weekend of silence. After the initial meal, and the first talk and finally Compline, talking was forbidden. The experience was extraordinary. You might imagine that little communication went on and you’d be wrong. People communicated on other levels and by other means and while talking was forbidden, laughing was not, and a lot of laughing went on. For those who needed to talk, we were permitted to talk outside the building. March on the North York moors is cold, and the talkers(I did join them) huddled like the smokers today to exchange a few words  before scuttling back inside. I will never forget someone miming the sequence from Fawlty Towers “Duck’s Off!” during lunch on the Saturday.

I cannot remember the speaker’s name but I remember a lot of what he said but the thing that is relevant to this post is the sentence I started with. “You are beautiful but fallen.” Translate “fallen” in this context and I get, imperfect, incomplete, work in progress, damaged. For me the fact that this mantra starts with the positive and then qualifies it is why I can’t say, “I love and approve of myself”. For me, I can only go so far because I can’t tell myself lies and make them truths. I am beautiful. I know this; it’s my own personal beauty, internal and external. I’ve come to accept it over the years even when at times I reject it because of despair . But I also know that I am far from perfect or even complete and so the two statements are ones  can live with. I live better with duality than I do with singularity; for every night, there is(and must be) a day. Yin and yang. Light and dark.

One day I may be able to say I love and approve of myself but until that time I will say, I am beautiful but fallen.