Many years ago, a Redemptorist friend of ours told us about Hawkstone Hall, a Redemptorist conference centre and retreat house in Shropshire, England, and encouraged us to go.
Time and circumstances didn’t allow the trip to happen until September when we winged our way to England.
Many things stood out for us about Hawkstone Hall. The beauty of the huge Victorian mansion that was the home of the retreat house, set among the gently rolling, misty hills of Shropshire and wonderfully situated away from any village or town, made for a feeling of peace and serenity that enveloped us as soon as we arrived.
We were met by the amazing Sister Laurice, a diminutive Irish nun who greeted us warmly, gave us the grand tour of the bewildering maze of rooms and hallways at Hawkstone, then sat us down for hot tea and cookies to revive our trans-Atlantic tiredness. We quickly learned that petite Sister Laurice was a non-stop powerhouse of energy who kept her finger on the pulse of the house and was the go-to lady if we had any questions. So too was Father Maurice, the Irish rector and course director of the house, always ready to help with a smile. The other retreat house staff, Father Kevin, Sister Carol, Sister Jackie, as well as the friendly office staff and the great chefs in the kitchen, made us feel welcome and cared for from the very first day.
The course instructor for the week was Rev. Denis McBride who made the topic The Beginning of The Gospels come alive. McBride took us on a journey from thoughtful listening to howling with laughter as he brought the people of the Bible to life, introducing us to the names that penned the Gospels, but allowing us to see that they were often as confused, tired, discouraged and bumbling as we all are at one point or another in our lives. Our classes took place in a sunny, peach-coloured room on the second floor of one of the Hawkstone towers.
Guests could take three-month courses, comprised of a different session each week, or join for just one week of the course (which is what we did). Some came for their own self-directed retreats or quiet time. We had 16 other classmates, most of them at Hawkstone for the full three-month program. They came from all over the world: Australia, Ireland, England, Nigeria, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and the United States. Out of the 16, only we and one other were lay people, but everyone treated us like just two more students, there to learn and be enlightened.
Over the week, other people came and went from Hawkstone: a retired Methodist minister and her daughter looking for peaceful time to re-connect; a young RAF chaplain taking a short break from his stressful duties; a woman making a repeat Hawkstone visit, her story known to God alone. All of these were welcome, making their own unstructured retreats in their own ways.
We quickly became accustomed to the daily rhythms of Hawkstone: mass each day, (either in the morning or in the evening before supper); a delicious breakfast with our classmates in the beautiful dining room; our session with Father McBride; then a short walk on the scenic estate before lunch. One day, we were out for our pre-lunch walk, and caught up to several other strollers on the same country lane. We all continued our walk together, and I looked at our group and realized the blessing of the moment. Where else could we walk and visit with someone from Nigeria, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Ireland? Companions on the journey indeed.
Afternoons for us were usually free time and we used the time to explore the beautiful gardens and take photos, or walk along the country lanes on the property, past fluffy sheep or sleek cattle grazing in the pastures. One afternoon we took a taxi to Shrewsbury and another day we took a taxi to Ellesmere on a genealogy pilgrimage to try to find the birthplace of Keith’s grandmother, and final resting spot of his great-grandmother. Success on both counts.
Evenings were quiet. After supper, everyone dispersed to their rooms and suddenly Hawkstone was silent and its halls deserted. We enjoyed browsing through the library, writing in our journals or reviewing the notes of the day’s class, or just savouring the peace and quiet of the house and the grounds. Our lengthy walks during the day usually caught up with us, and we slept deeply and well every night.
The one exception was a “social” evening when, after supper, we all assembled in our classroom, got divided into teams, and played “beetle drive.” Then we headed downstairs to one of the luxurious common rooms for “nibbles” and beverages. The room was warm with soft lights, bubbling conversation, and impromptu singing of the national anthems of each of the countries present. My eyes welled when Keith and I stood up to sing O Canada, touched as the others in the room stood up with us and sang whatever words they knew. A round of applause followed each anthem. Then Sister Cecilia brought out her guitar, and in short order Sister Maura from Ireland and Sister Magdalene from Nigeria were up doing an Irish jig. Sister Uche from Nigeria got up to sing a haunting song from her homeland, followed by Sister Rosita from Sri Lanka softly singing a lovely song that sounded like a breeze in the trees. Those who wanted to sing or dance did so, taking turns, while the rest of us relaxed in the over-stuffed sofas and chairs and showed our appreciation with applause after each performance.
Saturday was Road Trip Day. There were no classes, and for the three-monthers, Saturday road trips to various sights were planned, available for whoever wanted to go. The Saturday we were there, the destination was Liverpool, so we were delighted to join our new friends on a little bus that zipped toward the city. We toured the large, contemporary Roman Catholic cathedral, then visited the beautiful gothic Anglican cathedral. Next we went to Albert Docks, a once run-down, rough part of Liverpool that has now been revitalized into interesting shops, restaurants, and trendy art galleries.
Sadly, the next day was Sunday and our week was over.
You have heard of “life-changing” experiences. I would easily say that is what we experienced at Hawkstone Hall. Not a lightning-flash life-changing experience that may be fleeting with the passage of time, but a deep and profound experience in the heart.
It was the experience of tranquility and spirituality, the likes of which most of us never have the chance to enjoy in our busy lives. To get up each morning and know that nothing more was expected of us than to listen, to learn and to meditate on what we had absorbed that day is truly a unique occurrence.
It was the exhilarating experience of learning with a wise and insightful teacher like Father Denis, who breathed new life into the biblical names we had heard all our lives. The people, the time and their struggles became real. It was the experience of meeting interesting and diverse people from all over the world. Their calling in life, and the total acceptance of going next wherever God was calling them, with hope and without complaint, was truly inspiring and humbling to see. While chances are that we will never be fortunate enough to see these friends again, we will never forget them. Nor will we forget God’s hand in bringing this unique combination of people together, at this time and at this place, for us to experience.
For those who are ready for a “thoughtful vacation,” we recommend Hawkstone Hall. The speakers are selected with care and consideration and are all excellent. The topics they bring to the classroom are insightful and thought-provoking. But what also matters is the atmosphere of Hawkstone: the quiet spirituality within its walls; the expert talents of the staff; the peace and beauty of the grounds. All combines to provide an enriching, life-changing experience. We hope you will add Hawkstone Hall to your own list of “things to do someday.” It is now on our list of “things to do again.”
For more information about Hawkstone Hall, visit www.hawkstone-hall.com
Hayward writes from Yorkton, Sask. She and her husband Keith visited Hawkstone Hall in September 2014.