Parliamentary interns - joy, peace and good food at St Beuno's

POST BY TByron

I arrived with five other recent graduates at St Beuno’s Jesuit Retreat Centre in North Wales, a short taxi ride from the Welsh town of Rhyl. The six of us had been sent to St Beuno’s as part of the induction process for the faith and politics internships offered by Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. After a week of meetings all over central London, the second week was a silent retreat. The contrast on arriving at the centre was palpable.

We had all looked forward to this experience with a mixture of curiosity and nervousness. Every time we had met a previous intern from the years above, we asked them endless questions about their experience of Beuno's. “Is the food good?” “Is it really weird?” “Do you really not talk? Like… at all? Why not?” None of us had ever been on a silent retreat before. Most of us had never been on any kind of a retreat before, and we had known each other for only a week.

It turned out that we had mostly been put on the same corridor, so to claim that we had had a silent retreat would be dishonest as we frequently ended up chatting all piled into the one room trying to figure out our surroundings. The meal times and times of adoration proved to be the real times of silence, which wasn’t always easy. As interns in politics and faith, we were already having wide-ranging conversations on everything from Church teaching to Brexit. To put all of that on hold to go deeper into prayer together was very new for us and an extraordinary thing to do with such recent friendships.

As St Beuno’s is a Jesuit Spirituality Centre, our daily inputs were on Ignatian Spirituality, something I had heard lots about but had never attempted before. As someone with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, I found myself taking to it very naturally. The memorable moments for me were being guided through two scenes, one of arriving in the barn at the Nativity and then another of being present at the healing of Barnabas the blind man. In both, we were given the freedom to fill in the details with our imagination and to take time to interact with those around us. In the Nativity scene, we were asked to take hold of the baby Jesus and to examine how that made us feel. I had not expected to like this kind of spirituality, but I found that when you inhabit the scriptures, you had to treat them much more realistically than if you were simply reading them. I have to say that I really loved those sessions. The rhythm of spiritual direction in the morning, meals, mass and adoration started to take us deeper into the retreat and there was something about the routine that was very calming. We also took the time to explore the Welsh countryside and take in the views from the surrounding hills. 

Coming from all over the country, three from the North, two from the South and myself from South Wales, I think the setting gave us all different things. For some, a break from London was already needed (it was amazing how noticeable the change in the air quality was) and for others, city dwelling is so natural that it was missed. But for all our differences, when we shared our highlights on the final night, we all came down to common themes of the joy of bonding together, the peace discovered in silent prayer and reflection, and the quality of the food (it was really quite something).

On returning to Newman House, a Catholic student residence of sixty-five on Gower Street, I was amazed to find myself struggling to talk to others at mealtimes. Much like the air quality, it took some time to fall back into the practices of socialising and eating, things that at the time we had missed pretty desperately before. I think we were all really grateful that as members of a Catholic internship programme, this week of spiritual retreat was given real priority for us. Going into our places with Catholic MPs in Parliament or in the various Catholic organisations, the rhythm of prayer that we experienced and the peace that came with it will be a resource to remember whenever working life or London life gets too much. It was a really blessed experience.

Isaac Withers