Report on the LIFE Women’s Retreat
The Quadrangle, Kent – 31st July to 1st August 2010

The mini LIFE retreat was a culmination of a series of LIFE gatherings held throughout the year, with the aim of building a bridge between women of different faith groups and activities exploring the local environment in the London borough of Lambeth.

Launched as a pilot in the autumn of 2009, the name LIFE was chosen, standing for Local Initiative for Faith and the Environment. Then, over the spring and summer of this year, a small creative core of women from Muslim, Christian and Ecological backgrounds has taken root and emerged from the urban soil. A web of connections and friendships has started to form, while our monthly themed events have introduced a widening circle of women to an interwoven range of topics, from recycling to reforming old tetrapaks into colourful purses to the fascinating history of common land, as well as visits to existing food-growing projects and community gardens.

The ‘bridge’ we have created is one worth visiting. It’s both functional (we’re keen on the practical applications of what we’ve been learning and, for example, hope very soon to find a plot of land to form a LIFE garden). And it is also spiritual, providing a space from which to view the flow of life, to reflect, feel uplifted and realise the true value of the two landscapes on either side and the ever-moving mystery of truth that brings them together.

All this was very much played out in our 24 hours together. A colourful combination of women from the local Muslim Sisters Jamaat, Transition Town Brixton, Lambeth Council’s Sustainability Team and the Master Gardeners initiative gathered at Herne Hill Station on the Saturday morning to catch the train to the village of Shoreham. Thanks to an unusually kind train-driver who held the train on the plaform for a good couple of minutes, most of us managed to get onto the train following some excitement (last minute arrivals!), much to the entertainment of the other passengers.

Having arrived in Shoreham, we walked from the station along country lanes, across a golf course and cricket pitch, arriving at the Quadrangle, where we had a tour with our hostesses, Deborah and Jessie, and a fantastic picnic on the sunlit grass. This was followed by a walk down to the river, led by Ceri Buck whose project Invisible Food teaches the joys of wild food foraging. Everywhere was abundant! From the rush and noise of London, we were so quickly engulfed by the late summer vegetation that time took on a different pulse. We ambled back to the Quadrangle for yoga and cooking, before eating a feast made from locally-sourced vegetables and fruit, gathered along a tressel table under the cavernous rustic ceilings of the barn.

As darkness fell, we retreated into the cosy comfort of the smaller Shepherd’s Barn for a time of discussion and reflection led by Wasi Danju from the group Wisdom in Nature. Each woman shared the significance of an object brought from London that represented for her a sense of depth and connection. And then texts from the Koran and eco-poetry were pondered over and voiced before some time for silent meditation. Inspired and weary we climbed the steps to our sleeping space – a dormitory of fifteen beds in the loft. The Muslim women gathered meanwhile for the last prayers of the day, prostrating under the stars to the sound of owls and wind in the trees. Observing the personal gestures, listening and sleeping alongside those you normally meet in the buzz of work and events in London is interesting and enriching. So here were the nuts and bolts of getting to know each other!

Sleep or no sleep, it was wonderful to see a group tumbled out into yoga stretches on the floor of the barn the following morning. With meditation to the sound of birdsong before breakfast, there was a feeling of restoration and exceptance, a thankfulness and acknowledgment of the value of each person, as we then participated in making Oystercard holders out of old fabric. This was under the inventive instruction of Maggie Winall, an artist working with the Remade in Brixton group. It was then lunch and time to walk back to the station for the train back to London, a journey full of laughter and stories and renewed energy.

The results of LIFE and the ripples from this retreat in particular have been manifold and indeed life-giving: the grounding of friendship and the spacious horizon of new, shared vision. Faith in action, maybe. But, perhaps more importantly, a fresh realisation of the seamless fabric that binds together our everyday actions and prayers with ecological insight and persevering towards a common good – one that we often can’t see, but choose to trust.

So, our LIFE weekend in converted barn in the pretty, undulating hills of Kent could be translated into ‘Lovely Invention for Flowers and Eating’ (the surroundings and food were simply delicious, in equal measure)! And then again it could just as easily stand for ‘Lucid Insight into Friendship and Each other’: Experiencing difference through relationships with those of different backgrounds and beliefs, and treading barefoot and honestly into the concerns of the planet and its link to our own everyday lives – both are a double-edged sword of reward and challenge, beauty and exposure of our vulnerabilities. But this is the deep ecology we seek to discover and share through our lives and our diversity.

If you would like to find out more about future LIFE activities, you can email Rebecca Brewin rebecca@handtoearth.net or Saadat Yusuf saadat_yusuf@yahoo.co.uk or call the Christian Muslim Forum on 020 7820 0444. You can also find out more about The Quadrangle by visiting their website http://www.thequadrangletrust.com.

Rebecca Brewin
August 2010

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