Last weekend, me and Richard ran a writing retreat at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire. And far from finding my best self before we went, I ran slam dunk up against my worse the day before, just when I wanted to feel holy. The self where I forget all about being a caring and compassionate Christian and instead morph into a snarling, hissing, self- righteous old witch.
A year ago, I had gifted my daughter-in-law a voucher for a creative arts workshop. She is an extremely hard-working member of our NHS who has given her all through the pandemic and exactly the heroine we all stood and clapped for, Thursday night after bleak Thursday night. She also has two small kids, but finally managed to surface long enough last week to ring up and ask if she could book herself onto a class. Her version of a retreat. Something where she wouldn’t be making life and death decisions or helping small people tie their shoelaces. (My son is involved in all this by the way – he just doesn’t figure in the story.)
The response from the owner was ungracious and peremptory. The voucher was three weeks out of date. No negotiation. Hasta la vista, baby and on your bike.
After hearing my daughter-in -law recount this story, somewhat shaken by being on the end of such obvious hostility, I decided to pop into the studio and have a quiet word with the owner, who I felt sure would respond to my obvious warmth and integrity in equal measure.
I think I can safely say she didn’t.
Now I like to think of myself as a good person. (Don’t we all.) I like to think of myself as the decent sort who would take a stray puppy to the vet and pay for all its injections or who would help an infirm aged lady across the road on a bitter snowy day. (I tried this once, noting she was struggling with a heavy shopping trolley and she said, ‘I’m alright duck. Just delivering me papers.’) But I did try.
But, you know, when someone you love feels hurt, it’s the maternal instinct to fly to their defence. Even though we were technically in the wrong (the voucher was out of date), my pleas of looking out for our beleaguered NHS soldiers to whom we owe so much fell on very deaf ears. As did my suggestion of going halves.
And reader, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t harness my best self in this conversation. To be fair, neither did she, as she ranted about how hard business was, but I expected more of myself. Especially when she started to cry.
I hadn’t been aggressive or threatening – just persistent - but it pushed her over an edge which I didn’t know was there, and I watched horrified as she disappeared into the depths and out of sight.
Back home, I felt grim. Far from basking in the sweetness and light that comes from preparing to lead a bunch of people on retreat whilst we all draw closer to God, I felt hollow. I felt a fraud. I felt disconnected from myself and from God and very wretched.
So, I wrote her a letter. I said how sorry I was that she was so stressed. I said I was sorry that her business was so precarious. I said I would not breathe a word of this to anyone else because I just might have mentioned I had arty friends who would not be impressed with her customer service.
I know. I told you how horrible I was.
And I took the letter in to her and left it saying, ‘Let’s draw a line’ and while she didn’t exactly invite me to stay for coffee, the atmosphere softened.
And I went away and prayed for her and prayed for myself that somehow, I might live a more integrated life. Being a Christian is about being all of me in all situations and not just those where I am scrubbed up and wearing my best clothes. And about me as a novice in the Third Order signing up to spread the spirit of love and harmony even when someone is hanging onto your forty quid.
And I went away the next day with my dear husband and we led the writing retreat and I was healed by the privilege of being with these wonderful, gracious people who taught me so much about acceptance and creativity and love and warmth, that I think I should have paid them for coming on the weekend.
We are so fragile and so broken and so imperfect and so lacking in so many ways but at the same time we are also redeemed and healed and restored and forgiven.
Someone on the retreat quoted this, ‘It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ (Marianne Williamson).
And I think maybe that God wants us to say sorry, start over and be the light.