Every two years we run a Dark Angels masterclass at Merton College, Oxford. I am there now. Three nights in a medieval Oxford college is in many ways a retreat from the world; but it’s also a sojourn in one of the great cradles of knowledge and, for us, a spell of intense engagement with ideas about language and story, and so a reconnection with the world by other means.
It’s also an opportunity to reconnect with old friends. People who come on the masterclass tend to have been on two previous courses with us, either the full or intensive foundation course, followed by the advanced course in Spain. We all know each other well and have shared a journey together – one that we’re still on, furthermore. The connections grow stronger at each stage.
In my experience, through Dark Angels and increasingly also through The Stories We Tell, the idea of retreat is as much about replenishment and reinvigoration as it is about withdrawal. On arrival the cup is often close to empty; on departure it can be close to overflowing.
A few years ago, during a sustained period of daily personal writing (the ‘daily pages’ as the American writer Julia Cameron calls them), I found myself spontaneously describing a descent through a deep shaft at whose foot, in the centre of a cavern, bubbled a small spring of pure, clear water. I was moved to tears as I realised that it was my own life force, unsullied and unquenchable. That is the source that is there waiting to replenish the empty cup, if it’s only given space and time to do so. And retreats of the kind we’re involved in create that space and time by engaging tired hearts and minds with unfamiliar activities and means of reflection.
For 2016, Sarah and I have been accepted to run one of our life stories courses at Cortijo Romero, near Granada. Cortijo Romero describes itself as ‘Spain’s leading centre for alternative holidays’. We have been writing course descriptions and biographies, with reference to material that the owners provide about the place. On one page they talk about seeking to offer ‘holidays in the original and full sense of the term, embracing a journey, celebration, healing, restoration, learning and the greatest possible expression of human potential, individually and together with others.’
As a description of what is taking place here at Merton, that would take some beating. In our frantic lives we sometimes need other people to set an agenda for us to follow obediently and unthinkingly – so that we’re free for a short while to enter the cavern and fill our cups at that spring that bubbles away patiently in its depths. It’s ours, it’s free and it’s better than any tonic devised by man. Try it some time.