By Isaac Withers
Heading down the mountain from a peak spiritual experience always feels slightly strange. Especially if it’s as good a retreat as the Youth 2000 Summer prayer festival.
You feel as if you’ve just seen how the world could be, if everyone was their best self. You've uncovered a little slice of heaven, in the far corner of England they call Walsingham. A peak behind the veil. You’ve met people who want God with a passion, who enter into mass with a sincerity and a fixation. And you’ve been part of many great choruses of praise. The stuff we were made for.
And then, over the journey, you revel in the memories, chew your service station takeaway of choice, and before you know it, you wake up at home for the first time, and you’re back. Stood in your kitchen, looking at your parents. And it feels fresh and good… and fresh and… bad? Because who knows how far you will make it… before life bores you again? Or before you fall into the stuff you just found freedom from in a field?
Let’s call this the Post-Walsingham Blues (PWB). As someone who’s been there a few times, here’s a few words, as much to myself as to you, on how to face them.
1. Figure out what on Earth just happened
When I was in A-level, I’d just come back from the prayer festival and was in a car with friends going to a house party. One of them had seen photos of me at the festival and had asked me what it was. I wasn’t ready for that question, so I talked about music and talks and camping and friends. All pretty unspectacular things you can find elsewhere.
And then one of them dealt it the death blow. ‘”Oh, so like bible camp?”’ And that was it. I cringed. Bible camp. That wasn’t Youth 2000. I’d barely looked at a bible, and yet that was the closest I had got them. Wordlessly, it was sectioned off into the weird pile of conversation topics. Because I wasn’t ready for that simply curious question from genuine friends.
Being prepared for ‘what did you do last weekend?’ is important. It’s so easy to dodge or downplay, but it’s maybe our only opportunity for someone to prompt you into telling them about our faith. Keep it simple. If you felt free after confession, tell them that (they’ve seen that in films before). If you thought the praise (‘music’ is no big deal) was great, tell them about it. If you loved seeing so many other young Catholics, say that. They’re simple lines, and they bring the world of the retreat, and your home into the same reality. Sharing is a great way of beating PWB.
'Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’ 1 Peter 3:15
2. Get a rhythm of prayer
Often, my prayers can take place in that final seconds of the day, in bed. That thought flies in, ‘I forgot to pray’. So in that semi awake state, I make it a couple of lines into a conversation with God, and then I’m out. Which isn’t really good enough. If I treated my mum that way, she'd have reason to be annoyed.
Walsingham was the ‘social media desert’, the distractions were minimal (there’s only so much football you can play, and only so many coffees you can go for). So at home, prayer becomes the challenge, and it really is the only way of keeping that spark alive. The advice I’ve always been given, is to bookend your day with it, before the distractions even start in the morning, or when everything’s done and Facebook is suddenly empty of interesting stuff, before bed. Being in perpetual struggle with the hours before 10 am, one of those has always been harder for me, but it’s still my aim.
It's the rhythm of the retreat you can take home. If only we could all live in a monastery with a nice bell, huh?
3. Don't let shame get to you
Matt Maher, the Catholic worship leader (writer of ‘Your Grace is Enough’) begins a song with the lyric, ‘let no one caught in sin remain, inside the lie of inward shame’. It sounds better with the melody, but it was a ground breaking lyric for me. The struggles are still out there, and we are all definitely going to return to the festival next year, as sinners. Definitely. It’s sadly part of life and us.
And eventually comes the moment when I feel furthest away from the mountain top experience. It's peak PWB. When you fall back into one of those ways that you shrugged off with a victory at Conquerors. That moment is the Devil’s playground. It’s when it’s easy to think we were foolish for trying, that staying down is better, that the call to holiness is impossible. And this is the most important thing to take with you home: that’s. Not. True.
My favourite thing said at the whole retreat was from Monseigneur John Armitage:
”’It’s impossible for me to forgive my brother’, no it’s not, it’s just hard.It’s impossible for me to stay chaste.' no it’s not, but by god it’s hard.Hard means we can’t do it without the help of God. Hard means we turn to the God who loves us.”’
So I'm also not saying that that moment is inevitable, if we can remember to seek that grace out. The grace that is always there, the sacraments that are always there. And all those people you met at Walsingham? They're just a message away. We can’t go this alone.
If you can’t make it to a retreat throughout the year, then from all the team, God bless your seeking and your pilgrimage forward. God go with you. And take courage in the Lion of Judah.
'Do not weep. See the lion of the tribe of Judah… has conquered!’ Revelation 5:5