‘On Seagull’s Wings: Reflections on a Retreat in Dublin’, by Alan Eustace

The entrance to Manresa Retreat House

From the Editor: For today’s blogpost, a reminder of the beauty to be found in the natural world – something you hopefully explore more when free from the dreaded Oxford deadlines!

‘Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals.’ So instructed Jesus of the seventy-two disciples in that morning’s Gospel (Luke 10:1-12). I was halfway along Dollymount Strand beach on Bull Island in Dublin when I wish I had taken the spirit of His advice and left my coat behind. Having gazed nervously out the window of Manresa Centre of Jesuit Spirituality all morning at the characteristically temperamental Irish weather, our small group of plucky retreatants had ventured outside an hour earlier in a motley assortment of raincoats, scarves and jumpers … typical for a trip to the beach in Ireland, even on the last weekend in June. But the sun came out as we scaled the sand dunes, and were rewarded with a view across the sparkling Irish Sea to the sailboats in the distance, and the ferries bound for Holyhead.

Without wanting to sound like an estate agent, Manresa is enviably located overlooking Dublin Bay, tucked away from the main road that separates the suburb of Clontarf from the sea amidst a rolling meadow of wildflowers and grasses, ringed by venerable trees. It backs onto St Anne’s Park, where we began our ‘Clontarf Camino’ by dropping sycamore ‘helicopters’ into the burbling Naniken River to symbolise letting go of any troubles we were carrying. Then we proceeded across the bridge onto Bull Island. The island developed as silt began to pile up against a wall built in the early 19th century to protect Dublin Port. Eventually this became large enough to hold a nature reserve and bird sanctuary, two golf courses, a bathing area and various other amenities. And, as I found out on Sunday, to feature in a pilgrimage walk as part of the retreat programmes at Manresa.

I had never been on a retreat before (apart from a vaguely-remembered school trip). I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Pilgrim Ways day retreat at Manresa; I just knew I was looking for some peace. Pilgrim Ways hit the spot. I won’t name names here, but the leaders and spiritual directors at Manresa (a mixture of religious and laity) were wonderful. We prepared for our ‘Camino’ with guided meditation and reflection on that day’s Gospel, a stroll around the meadow to practice focusing our attention on nature, Mass in the cosy chapel, and a slap-up meal thanks to the busy kitchen staff. The celebrant’s sermon had discussed the process of letting go and travelling lightly – including in our own minds, and in our Church. Though I’m sure not everyone will agree, his suggestion that over its many centuries, the Church has accumulated a lot of ‘baggage’ that some people – both practising Catholics and others in our societies – cannot see past to the underlying message of Jesus underneath, resonated with me. A similar message was conveyed, I thought anyway, in that day’s reading from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:14-18). And as Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium, even Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine recognised that sometimes, the laws of the Church should be insisted upon only with moderation, ‘so as not to burden the lives of the faithful’, and risk transforming obedience to God into ‘a form of servitude’. Sometimes, to hear God’s call, we need peace and quiet inside – and being too hard on ourselves, as individuals and a Church community, doesn’t always help with that.

The sermon and our earlier reflections had set us in the frame of mind and spirit to let go of whatever was troubling each of us at that moment, and let it be washed away by the river and the waves. Our walk across the dunes gave us ample opportunity to contemplate the beauty of Creation, as we encountered several species of native orchid among the grass. These tender flowers reminded me of our Christian duty to preserve the Earth, God’s free gift to mankind and our common home, from environmental degradation. Bull Island’s very existence, of course, is an example of the mixture of nature and human endeavour resulting in a place of beauty and great enjoyment – of mankind working with nature for the common good. Our walk didn’t take us all the way down the pier, but we could see in the distance the Réalt na Mara statue (Our Lady, Star of the Sea) keeping watch over Dublin Bay and the city. 

Back at Manresa, I noticed that where a path had been cleared through the tall grass of the meadow, bunches of tiny clover could be seen growing. Maybe my Irish brain is just hard-wired to see shamrocks everywhere, but it reminded me that in human society, as in nature, sometimes we need to clear the ‘big guys’ out of the way to let the ‘little guys’ flourish. Moreover, from time to time we need to clear our minds of worries big and small, to clear a path for a little peace and joy to find its way into our lives. I certainly felt the retreat at Manresa helped with that, evidently a common experience – all of my fellow retreatants had visited many times before and intended to keep coming back. Manresa is a wonderful place, both aesthetically and spiritually. Unfortunately, they are suspending their in-person retreats for a while (though continuing online, I believe), because of some building works. I very much look forward to returning – and in the meantime, both Dublin and Oxford are blessed with places of natural beauty to make our own little pilgrimages, in the same spirit.

Alan Eustace, Law Fellow, Magdalen College