I have been coming here for a number of years now. My first spiritual director asked me once, where do you go on retreat? When I replied that I didn’t go anywhere he told me very clearly that this wasn’t good, and that I should make an annual retreat at one of the places about which he would be sending me information. One was a house belonging to his own order, the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM) in Durham, the other was St. Michael’s at Ham Common in Richmond, belonging to the Community of the Sisters of the Church (CSC). At the time my brother was living in London, so St. Michael’s was easy to get to and so I contacted them and asked if I could come.
As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, St. Michael’s is a large, sprawling house. It has a large garden, some of it orchard and the edges are woodland. The Community has been here about sixty years, but will soon move to another, more manageable location north of London. This will be my last visit here. I’m feeling nostalgic before I even leave. While the house and grounds are lovely, what really makes this such a wonderful place to make a retreat is the sisters themselves.
The order was founded in 1870 by Mother Emily Ayckbowm. In their early decades their work was in education and children’s homes. In the 21st century, the schools and children’s homes are no longer run by CSC, though I know at least one of the schools continues today. Many of the sisters at St. Michael’s are elderly and in the last year several sisters have died. Some sisters work outside the convent. There are other houses in the UK, but this is the largest. There are also sisters in Canada, Australia and the Solomon Islands, which is where the order is growing.
In everyday life the sisters don’t wear their habits, though for special and solemn occasions they do have them. They are distinguishable here by the crosses they wear round their necks. Their Daily Offices are simple. A lot is sung. The pace is always unhurried, calming, prayerful. There is no fuss, everything is done in a very matter-of-fact manner. As with all religious I have met, they are direct when they speak and astute. Nothing gets past them. They also have a keen sense of humour and a great love for one another and everyone here. As well as the sisters, there are a number of alongsiders living here and sharing their life, all with different circumstances.
This is a quiet place, a place where I have always felt everything fall away, so that I can pray, sit in silence, worship with them, walk around the grounds or read. This afternoon as we prayed the Evening Office I could see foxes in the garden, and after Compline I sat outside and prayed the rosary. A local Buddhist group meets here on Wednesday evenings and came out for the walking meditation part of their meeting while I was still in the garden.
Tomorrow I say goodbye to St. Michael’s. It’s always hard to leave, but tomorrow will have a finality and will be harder. The new St. Michael’s will be open in 2017, so I will see the sisters again then. Until then, they have a big move, big changes. St. Michael’s is closed during August, but will be open from September to December, when it will finally close its doors to visitors. If you have time before then to visit this wonderful place, I encourage you to do so.
My favourite memories of the sisters at Ham Common will be these:
On my very first visit here, most of the meals were taken in silence, but supper once or twice a week was a talking meal. At the end of my second day, I was in the dining room when one of the elderly sisters approached me and said, Are you on retreat? Because we’re TALKING.
One evening at supper, which was a talking meal, with some consternation they realised that Compline would clash with Midsomer Murders. They realised they couldn’t all hunker down in front of the television to watch John Nettles solve a crime and protect the good people of the picturesque Cotswold villages; someone had to be at Compline. Over supper they bargained attendance at Compline that evening and the following week; by the end of the meal everything was sorted to their satisfaction, while I was left a little goggle-eyed at the sisters and their viewing preferences.
Finally, four years ago, I was here a couple of months after my father had died. It had been a strange spring, first with the earthquake, tsunami and aftermath in Tokyo, and then my father’s death. I felt I wanted to talk to someone and so made an appointment with the Sister In Charge. I told her about my father, and about his funeral. I told her I had given the homily. When other people had heard this they had been perplexed, maybe, a little alarmed. The sister simply looked me in the eye and asked, Were you honest? Which of course was the most important point, but no one else had asked me that.
The Community of the Sisters of the Church. As another sister, a member of a different order, said to me last summer, They’re always good value. I am so blessed to know them.