Reflections from the ”Christianity in the Trenches” retreat

”There we were, Filmer and I, two young British Squaddies in jeans and t-shirt, with nothing in our pockets but our mobile phones and military IDs surrounded by 6 adults, each ready and prepared with bibles and notepads, most of them wearing giant crosses. We felt so out of place and embarrassed. ”We’ve missed something”, I thought to myself as I looked at their folders. ”Any second now, they’re going to see our empty hands and scoff at us”. Indeed, at that moment, I felt like I was insulting them by being so unprepared. Oh, and if that was bad enough, there, just on cue as if to make our embarrassment complete walked in the Monk, wearing his full, white Cistercian apparel, his head shaven and his beard so mighty, it would make Odin himself weep in jealousy.

By Jason Crabtree

A Day like Any Other
”Finally”, I thought to myself as the clock struck 4pm. As I lethargically packed my large (and worryingly thick) study book and (more worryingly still) larger yellow question and answer book into my black, army issue, no thrills rucksack, all around the classroom I could hear a lot of optimistic comotion. ”It’s good for some”, I could hear a voice half shouting from the desk just behind me, ”at least you have enough money to get away! Pay-days not until next Wednesday and I’m stint! Looks like another weekend at camp for me…so who’s coming out tonight for a bender!?” Across the room, far to the back, amid the rushing and dressing a voice shouted back, ”I’m a grand overdrawn. I fancy it like, but i gotta look after the pennies”.

”What pennies? You’ve spent a grand of the banks pennies already mate so whats another few quid?” the voice behind shouted back.

”Nah mate…”, replied the voice at the back, ”I’ve already been out every weekend this month so I might as well have a quiet one”.

With my books packed but still seated (the only one in the classroom) I continued to listlessly pack the rest of my work station into my bag but from the momentary silence, I could hear the playful disapproval from the desk behind me. ”Exactly mate”, he continued, ”you’ve been out every weekend so why not make it a full house, 4 out of 4, and come out, it’ll be a laugh”…The bustle continued and as I began to stand, my work station fully packed away and my desk clear, I started to but my shirt back on. I could see that the entire class were shirtless with only their military green t-shirts on. We had been in the middle of a heat-wave for the last 12 days and, if anything, rather than abating, it seemed as if the summer was only getting warmed up! With the heatwave thus seemingly going to continue, in their non-ending kindness and selfless love for us, our instuctors were told by our regimental commander that we were allowed to take off our army, multple terrain, camouflage shirts. And it was just as well, for our base, located in the county of Dorset in Southern England, was built in the 1980’s by the US Army. The Americans had occupied the base since World War 2, using it as one of their stopping bases for troops coming from the US and were getting ready for D-Day and when, after 50 years of occupattion, it was given back to the the British Army. So we took it over in the early 90’s and inherited a park dedicated to President Roosevelt where every day the US flag flies high (some say higher than even the British one), a memorial orchard which was forgotten about, if I had to guess, whilst Nixon was being impeached and a megastucture of rooms designed before air conditioning was even a thing. So there we were, day after day, 15 Phase 2 soldiers taking a Communications Systems Engineering course surrounded by circuits, wires and 30 degree heat and a lone fan stood at the back, working harder than we were to keep us from sweating to death. So hot was it that as I stood up and took my shirt from the back of my chair, I could see exactly where I had been sitting and could identify where my legs and butt made contact with the chair from the sweat that was left behind. All I could think as I looked down was ”wow…I got a big ass”.

As we all started to tuck our dry shirts into our rather damp belts, the ethusiastic chatter continued. ”Ok ok,” said Ireland who occupied the desk just behind me. ”If Clark’s too skint to come out, who’s up for it?..Anyone…anyone” As Ireland spoke, everyone continued packing and dressing, and half a dozen had started to walk towards the door out of the classroom. They were so eager to start the weekend that they chatted, put their packed bags on their shoulders, tucked their shirts in and put their berets on their heads all at the same time, all the while ignoring Ireland and his pleas for company this weekend. But if there is anything that can be said about Ireland its this: he doesn’t give up easily.

”Jordan”, he yelled, both him and Ireland still at their desks. ”You coming out tonight”. ”AHHHHHH”. The room erupted. Just as the hald dozen making their way out were about to leave the room, they all turned around and stopped. All huddled together at the door, with the biggest cheeky and most pleased grins on their faces, they all looked at Jordan.

”It’s not Jordan you should be asking”, said O’Connor. ”Wrong person to ask”, continued Fenwick. ”I dunno if Mrs Greener will let Mr Greener out to play”, ”and if she does,” continued O’Connor, ”she’ll be keeping a close eye on him”. With the opportunity to torment another person in the class too sweet to resist, everyone walked slowly back into the room and the torture commenced.

As the banter just got started, the sounds and noise of the classroom started to fade into a medium hum. My mind turned from listening to what others were doing that weekend to what I had planned that day. Today, in just a few hours time, I was to start a weekend retreat. As my mind wondered and the laughing of the room faded, I started to ask myself, ”what was going to happen exactly…who was going to be there…what exactly is a retreat anyway”. Soon, I was about to find out.

Only Monday of that week in the first period of class, the teacher had just told us it was time for our schedule 15 minute break as we had finished the first chapter in our work book we were slowly, but surely, trundling our way through. As almost everyone else left the room, Filmer came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder (I usually just sit at my desk as I don’t smoke and the only other place to go is the coffee shop. And at £2:70 per latte, if I went everytime we had a break I’d be spending more on caffine than rent. And my wife would have a few choice words to say about that. ”Well”, you may ask. ”Why don’t you just go there and not buy anything?” Oh, so naive and so hopelessly optimistic, thinking I can go into a place that serves nice, hot, frothy lattes and resist the temptation!).

”Are ya well?” he said in his Amerizanised Irish, his genuinly joyful and caring smile insulting to my grumpy Monday morning woe. ”You coming this weekend? he asked. Sitting down and letting out a huge (and pleasurable) strecthed and yawn, I asked with the cynical certainty that he was asking if I was going to yet another drunken get together by the troop, ”to what?”

‘You not heard?” he relied.
”Heard what”, just finishing off the second half of my yawn.
”About the Retreat?”
”What retreat?”
”With the Monk”.
”Monk! What Irish whiskey have you been on this weekend”, I scoffed.
”The Monk…you know…the one coming to Blandford”. He was obviously yanking my chain. ‘Ah, a nice little Monday morning prank!’ I thought quietly to myself. ‘We’ll see who winds up who’. I looked up at him, my eyes rolling into the top on my head, interested just to see where this prank was going. I mean, come on: a Monk at an Army Camp, one that is in the middle of know where (Google ‘Blandford Camp’ and you will see just out rural it is. Though, in all honesty, I love it! God created Adam and Eve to live in a Garden and not a never ending concrete city for a reason!).
”Ok? A monk. Start at the beginning. Where did you see a Monk?” I asked.
”I read it”, replied Filmer.
”Where. At the troop office?” (The troop office being where our Commanding Officers work and where we meet them for orders, information and instructions).
”Why would I read about a Monk at the troop office! Don’t be rediculous”.
”Me rediculous!”, I replied. ”You’re the one talking about Monks on camp!”
”At the church!”, Filmer shouted.
”What do you mean? You saw a Monk at the Church?”
”Noooo!”, he replied. ”I read about a Monk”.
”Well”, I said, shrugging my shoulders. ”It’s not unusal to read about Monks in a Church, that’s kinda where they live and work”.
”I didn’t read about Monks, I read about a Monk”.
”Oh, I understand now”, I said, raising my arms in relief at finally getting to the bottom of things. ”You read about a single Monk living by himself. That’s what you call Hermit”.

Filmer stared at me for a few moments, his annoying joyful smile still so full of cheeriness, thinking just howhe was going to exit the rabbit hole I had joyously brought him down in. ”I give up. I’m out”, he said and with that he turned away. But I couldn’t let him leave. I had had my fun and wanted to get to the bottom of things so I called him back, promised I’d behave and asked him to explain himself fully.

”Well on the Church is a flyer saying there is a visting Cisterican Monk. He is holding a retreat weekend where Friday night and over Saturday, there are going to be many talks and a lot of services in between”. Immediately, the Monday morning lethargy dissipated in an instant from the novelty of a Monk visting camp.

”Talks?!”, I relied, almost giddy. ”About what?”
”I don’t know,”, he said back to me. ”I just thought it would be interesting to go along for one and see what happens”. Poor Filmer, the poor boy got bombarded for the rest of our short break with questions I knew he couldn’t answer but needed to know such as ”what type of Monk? Who else is going? Are you sure you don’t know what the talk are on”, and on and on. He really could have used that extra 10 minutes to grab a tea and a rest before our next lesson…

So we decided there and then, we’d go along for one talk and if it was a dud, we could miss the other 3 talks the next day and do our usual thing. If we got bored during any of the talks, we decided that we’d tactically wait for a natural pause, politely make our excuses and kindly walk out and go along with our business. Little did we expect that it would the most important weekend of our time at Blandford Army Camp.

”Oh crap”. I looked down on my phone. It was Friday lunch time and my wife had just messaged me. ”I’m sorry”, the text began, ”but I’ve made a booking at the garage to get my air conditioning looked at. It’s tomorrow at 11 so we’ll have to go to Poole. But don’t worry, we can walk around and grab lunch whilst the mechanic does his repairs”. My heart sank. Monday lunchtime, after Filmer had told me about the retreat, I was walking home from class along a short-cut through the woods to my married quarters. The most exciting part of it all was the chance to tell my wife, Dora, of the visiting Monk. Since we had moved to Blandford Camp in April, we were walking one day, I forget where, we visit so many parks, gardens and woods that its hard to keep track. Anyway, we were walking and as I was contently losing myself in my thoughts when she suddenly came up with the idea of visiting a monestery.

”I want to see a Monk” she said. Just like that. Like a young child who decides, with as much certainty as the thought was spontaneous, that she will do something, that she needs to do something, she blurted it out. ”Ok”, I relied and just as quickly as the silence was broken, it returned and we carried on walking for a kilometre or two. As we came to a nice place to take in the view, we stopped and for a few more moments, we appreciated the silence, the thought of visiting the monastery totally forget as if it never happened.

”Urm”, I started as we continued to take in the view, not moving my eyes off it. ”Where do we find a Monk? Last time I checked, Henry the Eight in the 16th century kinda tore down all the monasteries down and kinda threw out all of the monks to Europe. And I don’t think England has seen a travelling Friar strolling from village to village for just as long”.

But there is one thing you need to know about Dora: once she has an aim, once she’s decided (for better or for worse) an ambition to achieve, she will do it. Come rain or shine, a second flood or a zombie apocalypse, nothing will stop her! And she always starts with a brain storm of where to start. ”Well”, she said as she paused to think, ”I will read up on it. I’m sure there are a few monasteries still around in this country”. And true to her word, that evening she already had half a dozen prospective working monasteries and their websites saved on her laptop.

And there it was, every few weeks or so, the conversation would return in the weirdest of moments. ”When are we going to see the Monks?”, she’d say. ”Well”, I’d reply as any man who doesn’t know the answer should (with certainty, confidence and the get-out-of-jail response to keep our reputation as knowing it all intact), ”whenever you want to. How about you organise it and we’ll go!” And so we’d talk for a few more moments, brain storming ideas, both resolved to get the cogs turning and then…nothing.

With every moment given by God, there is always a lesson to be learned. Every time we waste a moment to learn, to get closer to God and become closer to Christ’s Image, is a moment of waste. That is why we sin everyday. ”For there is no one who does not sin” 1 Kings 8:40.

If you confront a modern man or woman with the question ”do you sin? Are you a bad person?”, what is their response? ”I’m not a bad person! How can you say I sin everyday?! I don’t steal. I rarely lie. Sure, I can be selfish but not everyday! I don’t assault people or cause harm. No, I am not a perpetual sinner”. But this is the mistake: by focusing on the giant, big sins, we miss the thousands of minor ones we commit everyday. For each moment is given by God. And in each moment there is opportunity to do one of two things in them: use it, use everything God gives you in that moment, all the emotions you feel, all the suffering you are under, all the thoughts that pass through your head, to learn from and inspire you to do what you are designed to do, to pray to the Lord above and conform yourself to the Image of Christ, or ignore it and instead use that moment to do that which is the cause of all your isolation, all of your suffering and all of your despair: sink into pleasure and ambition. It is the later that we do. We let all the opportunities to learn and grow pass us by. All the moments to cry out ”Abba”, to read the Word of God and live out the life we are made for, the life of Love and Goodness we waste and instead squander it, discarding the thoughts, knowledge and understanding, given to us in each moment, that doesn’t help us fulfil our selfish ambitions and pleasures whilst keeping those that do.

For that is the first lesson I learned on this retreat: Man, if he does not have the Spirit of Truth in his heart, it will be filled by another Spirit: the Spirit of Avarice and Greed, the Spirit of Power, or Fame, Popularity, Comfort or Pleasure. And thus, as it is the Spirit within our hearts that we wish to Actualise and fulfill, such a heart will not search for the Truth. No, in the pursuit to fulfil their dominant desire, man creates systems of belief and opinions that aren’t True, but are useful: useful to the fulfillment of the guiding desire and Spirit of their heart. They will create in their minds beliefs that first Justify their pursuit and then secondly provide Utility. They create beliefs that convince them that their selfish pursuits, their End, as well as all of the means to get that end are justified and a belief structure that helps facilitate the achievement of it.

All the several moments where Dora and I discussed visiting a monastery and speaking to a Monk were wasted. In that moment, our hearts, yearning for God as all hearts are, prompted us to do something that would have communed us to people who would help us in that aim. And what did we do? Did we spend the simply 10 or 20 minutes it takes to ring a few monasteries or visit their website to book a visit? No, satisfied with the thought of doing something, we returned to our regular lives. We returned to the TV, to our mobile phones, to ‘life’.

As I read Dora’s text, it seemed so strange. For months she had desired to see a person married to God and here was one coming to our very doorstep. So what does she do? She books an appointment on the very day of his visit to get her car’s air conditioning fixed!

Why are humans so stupid? Our priorities in life are so stupid and dumb (I know that using the word ‘dumb’ after ‘stupid’ is redundant grammatically, but I just want to emphasis the point of how idiotic we are!) There we have a man of God, a Theology and Philosophy teacher who dedicates his life to God, so committed to spreading and strengthening people’s faith in Christ that he is coming from Sweden for the weekend to our middle-of-no-where Army Camp and Dora decides to book her car in for a repair.

All moments are given by God to learn from and, when we don’t, we waste this gift and thus sin. What can I learn from this. What can we learn from this? There is a lot to learn and if I am lucky enough, maybe I shall be able to share it with those who read this. For now, all that was revealed to me over the weekend retreat is more than enough for 3 articles so I shan’t waste any more time!…I promise…Well, I’ll promise to try to and that’s good enough.

How did I respond to seeing Dora’s text message? Was I angry? Was I frustrated? Was I disappointed? In that moment, as I read the words, all I could say to myself was ”such a waste…”. I genuinely thought, knowing how conscientious my wife is and knowing how great her memory is (she remembers the date of the first day we met!) that she knew about the retreat and fully remembered about the visiting Monk and had merely decided not to attend. I don’t know why but, without thinking of it, I text back the short and simple (unlike this article!) message ”it’s so strange that you’d choose Saturday, the day of the retreat, and not a day off like Monday or Tuesday to get your car repaired”. The Enemy works in so many ways. Always, in those moments of silence, so tragically short and far between in our modern lives, when we start to contemplate the state of our heart, we see it for what it is: hollow. That is why so many in the Western world fill every moment with a party, every spare second out of work with entertainment, indulging in endless hours of computer games, Netflix binges (I’ve had more than my fair share of them), cinema visits and social gatherings. For the last thing they wish to do is be alone for it is in the silence where our heart can penetrate the noise of modern society.

”Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the LORD rescue you today.” Exodus14:13. ”Now then, stand still and see this great thing the LORD is about to do before your eyes!” 1 Samuel 12:16. It is in moments of silence we can hear our heart and all the Spirits, the desires, within it, both angelic and good, and ugly and demonic. And what would the heart of most Western people reveal to them in a moment of silence? Would they find that the Spirit of Love and Goodness dwells within them and is driving their modern lifestyles? Or would they discover they are being driven by things they don’t care to admit, and are terrified to confront? And when we do, when in our silence and moments of despair, we cry out ”Abba”, when we cry out for salvation from the isolation and misery of our self-centered, empty, consumer lifestyles where we go from one pleasure to the next, one soul-destroying shift at work to the other, using and discarding and being used and discarded by others for money and sex, what happens then? In that moment, the enemy goes to work. For remember, it is in the silence God is found and that’s the last person the enemy wants you to hear. So he quickly speaks into your head, suggesting many things you could be doing, ‘productive’ things, ‘urgent’ errands to run, too urgent to continue in this wasteful silence and so, in the moment of hearing God, just as the silence is to reveal his Spirit knocking on the doors of our worldly, selfish hearts, we go back to our lives and find something more important to get along with.

This is what I thought had happened to Dora. Yet, to my unending surprise and joy, by the end of lunch she had cancelled the appointment and was adamant she was coming! ”He shall call upon me, and I will answer him” Psalm 91:15. All we have to do is be silent and God will call. Then it is up to us to either listen to get on with more ‘important’ things.

”Awesome”, I thought as lunch time finished and I made my way back to work. I only had a few more hours of training and then, 19:30 that night, the retreat would begin! ”It will probably be a dud”, I thought as I disappeared into the woods on my way back to the camp, ”but I have no other plans so what do I have to lose?’…


”How’s she cutting?”. It was Filmer. Sitting on a bench in the centre of the Army Camp just outside the mini supermarket and around the corner from the church, I almost missed him, We were due to meet up in the Church in 10 minutes for it was a little over 19:20 and I thought I’d grab a quick fizzy drink before it began.

”I’m good”, I replied as I sat next to him. I had just been to the church and, looking through the large windows, I could see it was empty and dark. As I looked and the sheer emptiness of the Church hit me, I looked at my watch. It was less than 10 minutes until the first part of the retreat started, yet the darkness and lack of even the littlest sign of preparation was a good sign that nothing was going to happen. ”Maybe it’s cancelled”, I thought, standing in front the church doors as I skimmed over the sign in the window with the time-table and information about the retreat, making sure I hadn’t mixed up my timings. ”Maybe it was a dud! No one turned up so they canned it! Even Filmer didn’t turn up!” But, on the cusp of leaving to go home, I decided to walk to the shop and give it until 19:30 proper before I made my way back home. I was quite excited and even relieved at the thought of the retreat being cancelled as I had just started watching ‘Better Call Saul’ on Netflix and was half way through the first season. So if the retreat was cancelled, I’d have the whole evening and Saturday to watch it!

To my surprise, in the middle of the concrete plaza on the way to the mini-supermarket, there Filmer was, sipping his mandatory canned Iced Americano, slouched over as he sat on the bench seemingly bored. ”I’ve just been to the Church and no-one’s there”, I said. ”Is it still on?”

”I dunno, I was thinking that myself”, he replied as I sat down next to him relieved I wasn’t the only idiot to turn up to a retreat that wasn’t going to happen. We were both strangely silent. Especially Filmer as if there is one man who is hard to shut up and needs to read the passages of the Bible about the importance of silence, it is him! But he was different. I was different and almost at the same time we both said, ”Shall we go in, wait for 10 minutes and if no one turns up, we’ll leave?” We agreed it was a good plan so Filmer finished off his (disgusting) canned coffee and we made our way around the corner to the church, talking about our training, having a little gossip about what the other people in our troop were getting up to not really prepared, as we talked so small and shallow, for what was to come…

”There’s two others”, Filmer whispered as we entered the church, him leaning into me. We both stopped for a moment and I realise now just how embarrassed I felt and Filmer looked! It was happening, the Monk was here and the only thing we both thought was ”what the heck are we doing here?”.

Embarrassment: I realise now that is the most natural feeling in the world when one enters a retreat for the first time. But why? As I think about it, I think we are embarrassed for one simple reason: exposure. Entering a new place for the first time to meet people you’ve never met before, especially theologically trained priests and monks is a daunting prospect. Well, it was too late now, we had crossed the Rubicon.

As we sat down near the front, we purposely went to the right side of the aisle away from the sitting couple. After a few moments of (very awkward) silence, me and Filmer plucked up enough courage to give the most timid of ‘hellos’ to the couple and just as quickly as we turned to wave hi, we turned back again, facing the front, hands on our laps hoping no-one will notice the two, very out of place, young men in the front.

And then, just as we thought that it couldn’t get more embarrassing for us, in walk four men, priests no less, looking at us with shocked faces. There they were, dressed in priestly black, their dog collars visible and giant Nordic, catholic crosses dangling down from their necks, giant notepads and folders in hand looking at two, totally empty handed, jean wearing Army Privates who’s highest education was a few years at college. ”Oh my goodness”, I thought, ”this is going to be humiliating”.

There we were, Filmer and I, two young British Squaddies in jeans and t-shirt, with nothing in our pockets but our mobile phones and military IDs surrounded by 6 adults, each ready and prepared with bibles and notepads, most of them wearing giant crosses. We felt so out of place and embarrassed. ”We’ve missed something”, I thought to myself as I looked at their folders. ”Any second now, they’re going to see our empty hands and scoff at us”. Indeed, at that moment, I felt like I was insulting them by being so unprepared. Oh, and if that was bad enough, there, just on cue as if to make our embarrassment complete walked in the Monk, wearing his full, white Cistercian apparel, his head shaven and his beard so mighty, it would make Odin himself weep in jealousy.

I felt so exposed and so guilty at that moment. I felt like I was ruining their retreat before it had even begun. As the Monk sat down and I looked around, there they were, seriously prepared and organised, their heads bowed in pray and silence echoing throughout the church. There was a Monk who had flown all the way from Sweden to be here (in the middle-of-no-where) and I turned up wearing jeans, with only a mobile phone in my pocket and not a single clue of what to do! ”Well”, I thought, ”it’s too late to go back now”…


”Will everyone please stand for our first hymn”. To describe the embarrassment and absolute feeling of alienation and isolation is difficult to put into words. As I stood up to lip mime the first hymn, every muscle and nerve in my body was boiling with a heat. I was sweating from every pour. A sudden, absolute gloom and depression over took me. I wanted to get out and go away and leave these people I had insulted. As the hymn began all my mind could think about over and over again that once the talk begins and Filmer and I have to speak, then the true extent to how stupid and pathetic we are compared to them will be revealed. As the second line of the hymn started, every muscle in my body jerked towards the door and I was ready to leave but I was frozen. I couldn’t turn. I had insulted these people enough and would not add to my humiliation and their offence by storming out in the middle of their liturgy. So I stayed. And depression turned to anger. And anger to rage. ”What a mistake…what an idiot I am”.

And then, after the Psalms had been spoken and the vigil ended, the mightily bearded monk stood up, looked at Filmer and I, and with his softly spoken voice pronounced, ”now, we are going to talk about Isolation”..

As Dora and I walked out of the scourging, mid-summer sun into the cool, fresh shade of the trees, I looked at my watch. ”It’s just gone 18:00. It’s time for dinner soon”. It was Sunday evening and usually we would have had dinner by 13:00 but the retreat weekend had run on until that time. As we returned home after it had finished and after spending a few hours talking to her mother over Skype, we left the house and, still not hungry despite the fact we hadn’t eaten anything that day (unless you count comunion bread!) we went for a long stroll into the countryside only half a mile from our house.

”I feel quite sad”, I said after a few moments appreciating the cool air underneath the trees. ”Me too”, she relied. But we both looked at each other and for the first time since we knew each other, there was no stress in our eyes. As we walked, I kept catching sneaky glance of her face, and her of mine, without the other knowing and all I could see was peace. For 6 years we had known each other and there was always a wrinkle, always crease of anxiety, worry and distraction on our minds. For the last 8 years of my life there was never a moment I able to just to be present, to be just there with my wife. I was always distracted, always concerned and my mind always racing with a thousand thoughts. But now, for the first time I could remember, I was finally at peace.

The world is different when you are happy. When the heart is finally fulfilled, the feeling is almost impossible to describe. When the memories of the day, all the little arguments, the little insults and embarrassments and all the thoughts of stress and worry aren’t constantly bombarding you, you can finally just see what is in front of you. And as we walked, as I looked at her and countryside around me, I could see exactly what I was meant to see.

Read more about the retreat here:Report from the trenches


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