When I think of retreat centers, the images that come to mind are draughty convents with sparse rooms and stodgy food. Places to meet God, but not necessarily somewhere that allows you to relax fully or feel pampered. But recently I enjoyed a week’s retreat at El Palmeral in Spain, which blew away any preconceptions of a retreat entailing suffering for the Lord. It was more of a “holi-treat,” a delightful fusion of a retreat and a holiday (or maybe even a “holy-treat”!). We certainly encountered God, but we also soaked up the Mediterranean sun, splashed in the pool, feasted on glorious Spanish cuisine, and even hooted with laugher during a group film night. (The Blues Brothers – after all, they were on a mission from God.) I hasten to add that the introverts were free to escape to their room or to a quiet place in the grounds for their needed space.
Our focus for the week was “Adventures in Prayer,” so we engaged with different types of communication with God – confession, listening prayer, practicing the presence of God, and walking the labyrinth among others. I may have been leading the retreat, but I gained so much, not only from the guests, but from the Lord as I received peace, love, affirmation and direction during the times of individual reflection.
One of the unexpected gifts was the rhythm of Celtic Daily Prayer (as produced by the Northumbria Community) in the morning and evening, led by our hosts, Julie and Mike Jowett. I loved meeting in the outdoor chapel, sitting before the simple table with its cross, candles and intricate lace tablecloth. Praying the lilting words and listening to the sung liturgy was rich and meaningful. I especially appreciated the added aspect of community that the Prayer Pot afforded. Each morning we’d select three slips out of the pot, which was filled with the names of those who had journeyed with Palm Grove Community as a volunteer or a guest. We’d pray for them, trusting that God knew their needs. Interestingly, some of the names kept being selected again and again. Julie said that when that happened, they would contact the person to see if they needed prayer for something specific. More often than not, the timing was amazing with something significant going on in their lives – as we experienced several times during our week.
The beauty of the Mediterranean surroundings fed my soul too. I came downstairs on the first morning, camera in hand, eager to capture the some of the interesting plants in the grounds. As I left, I heard Julie say to Mike, “Look, they’ve bloomed! We have three blooms!”
I didn’t know what they were speaking about, and went off wandering in the garden to take some photos. I especially enjoyed snapping close-ups of the date and olive trees as I marvelled at the interesting patterns in the cacti and other vegetation. But I was most taken with the gorgeous flowers on the tall cacti trees, and shot them from many different angles.
Later I showed Julie the photos. When we came to the cacti, she said, “You know those flowers only last a day!”
I was stunned. What an image of God’s extravagance – that he would create such a thing of beauty that remains only for a day, on a plant that might flower just once a year. As I pondered this bountiful yet fleeting gift, I thought how it reminds us to live in the present moment. Not to squander the majesty or wonder or delight of what surrounds us, but to stop and be fully present. And to give thanks to the One who created the beauty, who is our source and life.
Now when I think of retreats, El Palmeral comes to mind. I think of warming sunshine and the sparkling water of the pool. Swimming in the morning before the activities of the day. The neighbour’s cats coming over to be fed. The rustic outdoor chapel for worship and communion. The well-stocked library for intellectual stimulation. The dry air that warms the bones of a chilled dweller of the UK. The garden sporting its labyrinth and rendition of Golgotha. And not only the physical features, but the love and community that El Palmeral exudes in the warmth of the welcome and the feeling of acceptance it offers. The bonding through the sharing of good food and drink – the tasty Mediterranean dinners with the space for meaningful conversation. And above all, the setting which affords a deep communion with God.
The perfect place for a holi-treat.
I’m leading my “Adventures in Prayer” retreat again: 16-20 September 2013. Click here for more details, and for information about the retreats by such stellar speakers as Adrian and Bridget Plass and Jeff and Kay Lucas (currently taking place).
I’ve adapted this post from an article that appeared in Woman Alive, April 2013.