Wherever you stand the space around you tells many stories. The loudest is written in the here and now, the buildings, people and nature forming the space. Others are quieter but more insistent, revealing themselves only if you look under the veil of the present and listen to the ancient voices echoing in the stones beneath.
Swarthmoor is a place that richly rewards investigation with open eyes and a listening ear, particularly for anyone remotely interested in Quaker history. That history had not formed a significant part of my journey into Quakerism, even after becoming the Friend in Residence at the ancient Meeting House in Airton; but I knew it held depths of meaning waiting to be discovered and the time would come when I would be drawn into its study. So it was with my first visit to the place where the fateful meeting of George Fox with the Fells in 1652: a grand pile seemingly on the edge of civilisation, in a country already resonating with dissenting voices, seeking new ways of constructing faith and society.
Today a comfortable retreat and conference centre with shop, gardens and café, Swarthmoor has an atmosphere at once lively and tranquil. In mid-September the air was still relatively warm and the gardens resplendent with late flowers and rose hips: a perfect location for a working retreat in fact. Together, eleven of us pulled weeds, cleared beds and pruned bushes over three mornings in the last of the summer sun, in the afternoons and evenings sharing thoughts about the meaning of pilgrimage and getting to know one another over convivial meals and in our free time.
As with any group with few previous personal connections, those present brought a rich diversity of experience and means of expression to our gathering. Nonetheless I was encouraged by how readily everyone engaged with the topics explored in the reflective sessions, being willing to enter into all of my suggested activities and to present contributions of their own. And this readiness to take part combined with a strong sense of individual character and volition struck me as entirely fitting for a Quaker retreat of any kind. In this week in which we came together for a common purpose, our unique approaches to the tasks in hand resonated firmly with the determination of Quakers from 1652 onwards to speak boldly from the individual’s own insights for the benefit of the whole community and society at large.
There is much of that history and character to discover at Swarthmoor and the numerous old Quaker places in the country around it. I left Swarthmoor with a stronger sense of connection with and understanding of the roots of our movement; and a greater determination to remain an individual voice in the ongoing search for light of which we are all a part.
We will be returning to Swarthmoor Hall for a working retreat in future. Check out programme for more details of upcoming working retreats!