What happened to Julie Burchill on silent retreat

This isn’t one of those I-was-lost-and-now-I’m-found sob stories; I wasn’t looking to be ‘healed’

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

When I told my friends that I was planning to attend a silent retreat, they all laughed. It’s true that I am something of a convivialist; my idea of heaven is a big table in a warm restaurant, the table shimmering with the laughter of friends and the glugging of wine, and me picking up the bill.

On the other hand, I was a solitary only child and I look back on those days with great fondness. Before the long stagger up the primrose path of pleasure started, the only companion I needed was a book; I well remember my mother crying because I preferred to sit in my room reading rather than hang around on street corners getting drunk and/or pregnant like a normal teenager. Imagine my dismay on discovering that the nearest silent retreat to me was a Catholic one, St Cuthman’s, within an hour of Brighton. But at least my antipathy to the religion would mean that there was no chance of me trying to engage anyone in theological debate, which might not be the case under the care of Protestants.

St Cuthman’s offers both quiet and silent retreats, but I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it properly. I chose the 48-hour silent option on two weekdays in February; I didn’t take my laptop, just exercise books, my Hebrew textbooks and a carefully selected Iris Murdoch novel, A Fairly Honourable Defeat (hoping that the title wouldn’t be a self-fulfilling prophecy). In a Jacobean house smelling pleasingly of log fires, I found my monastic room — a single bed, a chair, a table — very restful. I sat down at the Catholic table and looked out over the Catholic lake with its Catholic swans, and felt pleasingly subversive as I tussled with Hebrew tenses.

After a while I went downstairs to be inducted, feeling mutinous. My mulishness grew as dishy blonde Mary-Jane, the director, told us over tea and biscuits that the house had once belonged to a community of Anglican missionaries and was ‘gifted’ to the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton when Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was boss. As one whose idea of a good read is Foxe’s Book Of Martyrs, I felt my hackles rise, though I couldn’t actually pinpoint them on a map; even more so when I recalled that in the 1990s, O’Connor installed a paedophile priest, Father Michael Hill, in the chaplaincy at Gatwick Airport. Hill was subsequently convicted of sex attacks against nine children, some handicapped. So when Mary-Jane told us that we would be silent apart from our time with individual ‘spiritual directors’, I was just about ready to break out into a hearty chorus of ‘The Protestant Boys Are Loyal and True’, an instinct strengthened when M-J mentioned ‘Mass’. It’s childish, but I can’t hear the word without seeing an image of a sinister hooded being mucking about with a nubile girl on the cover of the Dennis Wheatley novels of my wasted youth. It was time for me to speak up.

‘I’d rather not be spiritually directed, thank you. Or attend prayers. Is it OK if I just read?’

M-J looked slightly surprised but said, ‘Of course!’

I went upstairs and started on the Murdoch. It happened straight away; I returned to the reading trance of my youth — not skimming, not speed reading, totally in the moment. What a relief! I read for hours and fell asleep, and woke up feeling very words-I-don’t-usually-use-ish: clarified, vivified, tranquil. In the spirit of getting with the programme, I perused the information folder: ‘Please note that we are not allowed to provide you with any medicines, not even an aspirin! You will be encouraged to call NHS Direct.’ As Mary-Jane had informed us earlier about the yearly pilgrimages to Lourdes that St Cuthman’s was involved in organising, I was disappointed that we weren’t encouraged to pray for a cure. I didn’t just stay in my room reading; I read in the hall, in front of a blazing fire, and in the drawing room, ditto. Most agreeably of all, I read in the library. My dedication to self-denial surprised me. I sneered at the payphone, and raised an eyebrow on finding instructions on where to get the best mobile signal in the grounds, and the nearest supplier of sweets and newspapers. As someone who has been spending like a sailor on shore leave for the past 30 years, it was strange to want nothing; not even the Neal’s Yard organic aroma-therapy candles jostling for attention with religious tracts in the modest shop — Balancing, Calming and Uplifting, £34.80 a throw — tempted me. I was relying on nothing more than the act of staring silently at a printed page to bring balance, calm and uplift.

Though I had fully intended to swerve the Papist hijinks in the nearby chapel, when the bell for morning prayers rang I found myself following the others; it seemed churlish not to give it a try. There was something moving about the plain trestle table with a candle at each end in front of a plain cross etched on a plain window — none of the frocked-up misogynists prancing around in thousands of pounds’ worth of bling and titfers I had expected. There were just six of us in the congregation, and Mary-Jane led the service sitting behind us rather than standing in front like a big old show-off: as we sang hymns, I thought of what Christians in the Middle East were going through, and I began to cry. (Silently, of course.)

This isn’t one of those I-was-lost-and-now-I’m-found sob stories; I wasn’t looking to be ‘healed’ and I’m not ‘stressed’ — my life is easy and enjoyable. The only ‘journey’ I was expecting to experience was the one from Brighton and back. In a way, this being a religious retreat, I wasn’t there for the ‘right’ reasons — it had been a sort of joke, a dare, a snook-cocking to the loved ones who tease me for being a chatterbox; I had prideful intentions, if you like. Whenever I read about some pampered hack bigging up some soppy old spa, I wonder why it is that the people who could use such ministrations the most seek them the least, and why the softer people’s lives are, the more ‘pampering’ (ick!) they appear to need.

But I did feel that being alone had steam-cleaned my mind. Because I had swerved smartphones, I thought I was smart — but I had in a way become my own smartphone, ceaselessly entertaining and distracting myself, never sticking at anything for long. I wasn’t seeking a ‘safe space’ but a quiet space, where I could get lost — and it would feel like coming home. And by Jove, I got it!

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Julie Burchill’s most recent book is Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philo-Semite.

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Show comments
  • wycombewanderer

    Can you talk Toynbee, Valenti Hyde and a whole host of harridans from the Guardian to take a similar vow of silence, preferably for several years.

    • Feminister

      What a gift to the world it would be if the misogynist hoards of male Internet commenters were locked up without the power of expression. Can you imagine the peace and tranquility that would blossom? Like a soothing balm cleansing the toxicity of endless droning, gossiping and sniping of gobby men who think the world cares what they have to say and hasn’t heard it all before.

      • wycombewanderer

        i have no problem with intelligent articulate writers such as Julie and many others.

        ‘Fact free’ Toynbee, ‘all men are rapists’ Valenti and poor little rich girl Hyde aren’t either!

        • Feminister

          I like them. Vive la difference.

      • John Lea

        Methinks you need some lessons on grammar and punctuation, ‘love’.

      • Frank Marker

        Good evening Feminister, or can I please call you Fem, as I feel I almost know you due to your many appearances on this board.

        Why don’t you just own up and admit that you love coming on this site? Let’s face it has to be more fun than your natural home, the dreadful and drear Guardian. You know we will always welcome you here with open arms.
        See ya, again.

        • Feminister

          Likewise. You’re very welcome to my Spectator board.

  • Cymrugel

    Why go to an RC retreat centre just so you can give them the finger?

    There are any number of completely non religious options – particularly down your way Julie.

    Surely going to the place in the first place with a yah-boo-to-you attitude sort of defeats the purpose?

    What next ; go to a Jewish centre and bellyache that there’s no bacon rolls for breakfast?

    You’re an awful one for finding conflict in a straw.

    • AugustineThomas

      Perhaps she has a desire for the truth that she’s not ready to admit.

  • John Lea

    Burchill navel-gazing as usual (yawn).

    • Feminister

      Man thinking he’s the article police again. Zzzzz

  • edithgrove

    “I had in a way become my own smartphone, ceaselessly entertaining and distracting myself, never sticking at anything for long. I wasn’t seeking a ‘safe space’ but a quiet space, where I could get lost — and it would feel like coming home.”

    because at heart your an artist, dear, and you returned to your solitary childhood and the joy of solitary persuits.

  • ardenjm

    Next time – when you’re ready – try a monastery.

    Here, for example:


  • BoiledCabbage

    Going on 48hrs just to read a novel is totally cretinous. A cell with nothing, so that you are faced with only yourself, has a point. So does being walled up in a cave for a few months [or several years] as happens at Pso Tema or similar places. But what else can we expect of this lightweight ‘journalist’?

  • gerontius redux

    I’ve tried that being alone with myself thing.
    My enemies seem to find me more interesting than I do.
    Disappointing really.

  • 5Rozel

    It says a lot for the Catholic retreat house that they welcomed a mean spirited anti-Catholic. Burchill’s language of ‘from-on-high’ disdain is a perfect example of the belittlement which Michael Gove writes about in the same issue. Interesting though that the service moved her – into feeling compassion.

  • Something Less Controversial

    And this could have been such an insightful account. I know many honest atheists who would have approached this entirely differently and written something much more informative and helpful. This was, in my view, an opportunistic and shallow attempt to trash Catholicism at a time of year that is so close to the hearts of believing Catholics. I think we [Catholics] are the last bastion of publicly acceptable prejudice.

    I was almost not going to write this, but blow it, my saviour died today for me:

    Will you now go on Hajj along with 3 million other Muslims and approach your 12 days visit to Saudi Arabia with quite the same level of mockery ?

  • Robertus Maximus

    Lovely article, Julie. In response to the flack you have received here from, I assume, Catholics, one has to have been raised a Protestant a few decades ago to understand the lingering distrust people had for Catholicism. When I was growing up, the tales of brutality meted out by nuns towards the pupils they ‘taught’ were common – in fact my great aunt took her son away from the local Catholic school due to the Irish nuns’ predilection for regularly beating pupils. Catholics in my area (West London) wouldn’t even say hello to us – probably due to the priest informing them that we non-Catholics were going to Hell. To us the Catholic Church was a gloomy, forbidding, intolerant, domineering tyrant which was to be treated with the utmost distrust. Recent revelations as to its record during those years, particularly in Ireland, haven’t helped to dispel that feeling.

    • ardenjm

      So let me get this straight:

      you’re saying that the distrust that you had instilled in you as a Protestant was, in fact, entirely true and justified.

      Way to go.

      I don’t doubt there were spiteful and vicious nuns then as now.
      I’m guessing that the Catholics in your area didn’t say hello to you because if they were Irish then the collective memory of 600,000 deaths under Cromwell’s Puritan Armies and then the Famine and a further million deaths, and, oh, I don’t know, the Penal Laws maybe, and the indentured labourers sent off to the Carribbean and the criminals sent off to Australia and then the Easter Rising and the Black and Tans and the Orange Lodges ALSO had something to do with their attitude towards you, no? Not just what they might have heard from the pulpit.

      Nothing will dispel your feeling, Robertus Maximus, because it’s called bigotry.

      • Robertus Maximus

        The appalling treatment of the Irish by the British was inexcusable, just as the Catholic Church’s activities in South America and elsewhere were often appalling – one does not blot out the other. As for bigotry, I notice you posted the following comment just a few days ago.

        “I wish growth in numbers were a sign of God’s blessing.
        But, of course, as you know full well, it isn’t necessarily the case: Evangelicals are spreading like wildfire across Latin and South America for example.’

        It seems when you mentioned bigotry you were looking in the mirror at the time.

        • ardenjm


          Is that it?

          If you REALLY think there is a moral equivalence between regretting the loss of Catholic South America to North American Televangelists within the context of a discussion on whether growth in numbers are a sure-fire indication of God’s blessing (a context you make no reference to, I note) and your:

          “brutality meted out by nuns… the Irish nuns’ predilection for regularly beating the young children in their ‘care’…The nuns in the Hammersmith Convent ‘spiteful and vicious’…The priest informing them that we non-Catholics were going to Hell. To us the Catholic Church was a gloomy, forbidding, intolerant, domineering tyrant which was to be treated with the utmost suspicion”

          then, trust me, not only would I not greet you in the street – I’d make a point of crossing over the street to avoid you – not because of bigotry, mind, but in order to avoid the toxic cloud coming from your blinkeredness.

    • Violin Sonata


    • beaumontman

      Funny that: There are many non-Catholics who have nothing but good things to say about their convent education – Barbara Windsor, to take a random example. As for “recent revelations”: as Brendan O’Neill of this parish noted at the time of the Magdalen Report many of the women in those institutions had very positive memories of their times in those institutions. Recently an American Protestant website Awkwardmomentsbible did a random internet search of clerical convictions in its locality and found that Protestant clerical convictions outnumbered Catholics by 24-1. In his memoir written in the 1950s C.S. Lewis recalled that at his (Protestant) English public school buggery of the young prepubescent boys by young adults was pretty much institutionalised. His brother Warnie took him to task for slating their old school, but only on the grounds that when he went to Sandhurst he discovered that all English public schools were much of a muchness in this regard.

      • Robertus Maximus

        Naturally, I have no personal experience of convent life but my grandmother and her siblings were put into one in Hammersmith on the death of their mother and their first-hand accounts of the Irish nuns are what I go by as well as the truly dreadful revelations from Ireland regarding the treatment of unmarried mothers who were packed off to them. Also my great aunt, still loyally Catholic despite the convent experience, having to take her son away from his school. I personally found the Italian nuns I met, when I lived near a convent in West London, kindly and very friendly, and I found their company delightful.

        Although I was baptised C of E, I have no allegiance to any church and used to choose Ealing Benedictine Abbey to visit and say my prayers. I have sent numerous letters to Lambeth Palace slating them for their obsession with Tory bashing whilst remaining silent on the treatment of the Christians in the Middle East – something the Pope regularly speaks out against to his great credit. I am no apologist for either Protestantism or the actions of Britain, believing all iniquitous acts should be condemned irrespective of the perpetrator. Also, I do not believe any church has a monopoly on the ear of God and think all Christians should circle the wagons against the real enemy – militant Islam.

        Your details regarding English public schools do not surprise me, having always thought that parents who send their children away to those places are almost a guilty as the abusers themselves.

        Thank you for your polite comment and, if I may add, God bless you.

        • beaumontman

          Thank you and God bless you too. All I can say is that my experience and that of my family differs markedly from yours. My mother and my two sisters attended convent schools run by Irish nuns and have nothing but good things to say about them. Ditto most of my female acquaintances who attended such schools – even those who are in most other respects very hostile to the Catholic Church – for reasons of sexual politics and so on. I myself attended a Christian Brothers school, and the only physical violence I saw there was from two lay teachers – one of them an extremely right on liberal-left art teacher, who liked to show how hip and down with the kids he was by making smutty comments about the female teachers. Once, in a violent rage, he viciously assaulted a 13 year old pupil – knocking him to the ground, and then kicking him. The pupil had provoked this extreme anger merely by informing him that the class was running over time.

  • Uncle Brian


    You evidently have an aversion to (or possibly from) the verb ‘to gift’. I shared your aversion until quite recently, when I spotted this: Grateful as Humphreys was to the memory of his uncle, he could not quite forgive him for having burnt the journals and letters of the James Wilson who had gifted Wilsthorpe with the maze and the temple. It’s from an M.R. James ghost story, ‘Mr Humphreys and his inheritance’, first published in 1911.

    • grammarstalin

      Precedence doesn’t make it good. Gift sounds like an alternative spelling of gived, meaning implicitly what is gived (given). Therefore ‘gifted’ would have the original form ‘giveded’, enough to make any language-loverer quite annoyededed.

      “No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth. [Heywood, 1546]

      The modern form perhaps traces to Butler’s ‘Hudibras’ (1663), where the tight iambic tetrameter required a shorter phrase:

      He ne’er consider’d it, as loth
      To look a Gift-horse in the mouth.”

      From http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=gift

      It’s fair to take use of the verb ‘to gift’ as an indicator of the illiteracy and syllabic diarrhoea found in tabloid football reports. The verb is to give; a gift is that given.

  • Chamber Pot

    What happened to the ” Flaming Prole ” famous for her prickly and wickedly funny iconoclasm ? Julie, where is the awkward squad when the settled establishment consensus needs a good kicking ? What’s next Rishikesh ?

  • captainknowitall

    Substitute Jewish for Catholic in this piece and you could expect a knock on the door from Plod seeking a Please Explain

  • A real waste of good silence.

  • rockylives

    Well that was a wasted five minutes: no insight, no humour and not even well written.

    • Feminister

      Where’s your comment. Now that was worth 3 seconds.