Mental Health, Wellbeing

What I Learned From Being on Retreat – a Spiritual Reflection

Whilst reading Dr Kate Middleton’s Refuel book about managing stress and avoiding burnout, one piece of advice really stood out. She talked about taking some time out, even a few days, to rest and recover.


Fortunately, I’d been watching an online retreat from the Royal Foundation of St. Katharine’s and discovered that they were open for overnight stays. Swiftly I decided to book a two-day retreat for the following week. I couldn’t wait! After several months of being unable to find any respite, (I am a carer to one of my sons with special needs), I had become quite desperate for some space to myself. It gave me something to look forward to, kept me motivated for the wait I had to endure.

I was quite busy beforehand and didn’t really have time to plan ahead as to what I’d do whilst there. I started packing the day before but kept it to a minimum so that I could practise some simplicity whilst there. However, I include some items to pamper myself with, such as nail varnish, a face pack and an uplifting shower gel (to name but a few items!)

Statue of St. Katharine
The garden at the Royal Foundation

On the spiritual front, I also packed some Christian books to help me to destress and focus more on God. I was able to finish ‘If Not Now, When?’ by Fernando de Paula: a really helpful book, showing me how to better live in the moment and value each day that God has given me. I started reading this during lockdown but wasn’t in the best place to receive it. Over time my improved mood has meant that I have been more motivated and hence more open to completing the activities at the end of each chapter. On some level I’ve been able to let go of the past, feeling more positive and looking forward to what God has in store for me.

I have continued with Refuel and the chapter on staying calm that discussed practising mindfulness and introduced an exercise to try out really stood out. Previous chapters had looked at 1 Kings 19: where Elijah has just defeated the prophets of Baal and was experiencing a low period after the adrenaline rush of this event. I reread this passage and contemplated how God refuelled him – Kate made the point before there was any healing for Elijah God made him rest, eat and drink. I was thankful to be in the tranquillity of St Katharine’s that was already providing these things. The food there was amazing, not having to cook, having healthy, gourmet dishes, really helped my mood and physical body. I felt challenged to be more mindful of making healthier and appetising meals on arriving home, increasing my fruit and vegetable intake that I’m sure my family will appreciate the more appetising bit!

Slowing down my daily pace also helped and I’m aiming to maintain this in even small ways, now too. I was kind to myself about relaxing my quiet time in the mornings so that it didn’t feel so rushed or a tick box exercise. The first morning I attended Morning Prayer in the Chapel and focussed on the liturgy and just being present in the moment. It felt so good to just breathe and ‘be’ a bit. No agenda, no plans apart from breakfast, lunch and dinner! I decided to do some writing for my mental health memoir around the theme of retreats!

The weather was beautiful, so I could sit out in their garden in the afternoon to eat lunch or read a book. I loved just enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. I found journaling my thoughts really helpful, sometimes turning these into prayers for the issues I was grappling with.

I’d planned to meet up with an old friend living nearby and we met over a coffee at the Yurt Café, also run by the Foundation. It was a glorious sunny day to be sitting outside. It was wonderful to catch up on the past 2 years or so and how our kids were doing. In fact, it was a Spirit-filled time where we were able to share and pray for each other, picking up our friendship where we’d left off.

From the library I’d borrowed a few books: a meditation with art book by Sr Wendy and Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis, the first part of his autobiography. It was interesting to read about his childhood and where his Christian beliefs had started from. It was useful to see his writing style to feed into my own memoir writing too.

Canary Wharf

There was also plenty of time for solitude too: I woke early each day and took a walk down to the River Thames, a short walk from the Royal Foundation. One day I walked via Shadwell Basin to Wapping, whilst the next day I walked in the opposite direction to Canary Wharf , giving me the space to enjoy God’s natural and manmade creations which were awesome and quite overwhelming with the towering buildings! I saw the sunrise on Day 2 and caught some great light for my photos, including views into the City, across the River and of Canary Wharf. Sometimes I listened to worship music on my way but at other times enjoyed the silence and beauty around me.

I found the liturgy comforting in the Chapel services. Isaiah 43:18-20 leapt out at me:

“I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert

To give drink to my chosen people.”

God often speaks to me through water imagery and these verses gave me hope, a sense of being refilled and refreshed, ready to return to the real world.

My time away may have been different to previous retreats but one that blessed and uplifted me, restored and renewed me. As I assimilate back to family life, I intend to keep some of these practises alive to remind me of how God spoke to me and how to daily live this out.

Is there some way or some place you can get some quiet time to be with God? What does that look like for you? Perhaps diarise some time to make this happen in the next week or so.