A new Christian retreat has been set up in Wiltshire as a place to rest, reflect, and take time out from the busyness of 21st century life.
Mays Farm is the home of Penelope and Kim Swithinbank, who are opening it up to individual guests and groups as a space for prayer and study.
Penelope is a trained spiritual director in addition to being an ordained Anglican priest, and wants to help women in particular to discover the peace and tranquility offered by the Lord.
"Women are so often stressed out or partied out or ministried out, busy or lonely, trying to have it all and be it all and do it all," she says.
"They can come to The Vine and discover afresh the peace that comes from the Lord, and which passes all understanding. It's what they need, and many of them are finding it here."
The space is offered both to those who work for the Church, and those who have chosen a secular vocation: "There is a real place and space of healing for [all of] them at The Vine," Penelope says.
Visitors are offered time alone, although Penelope knows an array of walking routes close by and often takes groups out to discover the countryside. Massages, facials and spiritual direction are all available from experts, along with home cooked meals and plenty of quiet corners to read, study or pray, including a cosy chapel.
Penelope explained her heart behind the new venture to Christian Today, and why she thinks time out is so necessary for the 21st century woman.
CT: What made you decide to open up your home for The Vine?
PS: We felt very much called to support other Christians, and in particular those who are in full time ministry. It's not exclusively for those in full time ministry, but it's a place where people can come and just be. It's a safe place, where it's alright to say 'Help, I'm not doing very well', or to come and say 'I just need some time to do nothing; I need some time to rest, to pray, and to think'. And we've tried to create an environment where it's easy to do that.
CT: Where does that need to rest come from? Is it symptomatic of 21st century life?
PS: I think a lot of people today are living lives out of tiredness, not just that we're a very tired culture, but that we are so busy and we have so many options and choices. I think actually to have too many choices can be quite tiring, it's emotionally exhausting. You go to the supermarket to buy a bottle of shampoo and you're faced with such an array of different shampoos and you've got to choose one, and that's actually quite tiring! Even when you come to read your Bible, we've all got so many different Bibles and so many different translations we say 'Oh goodness, which one?' and that's quite tiring as well. And so we are actually living quite tired, most of us don't get enough sleep, and to come to a place where it's quiet, you can sleep as much as you want, you can have your breakfast in bed if you'd like to, and spend the whole morning in bed just resting, is helpful.
I've seen a number of people who when they arrive are just so exhausted, and by the time they go home they look very different. Seeing people coming in a bad state and being able to help them to make the most of their time here, and then to help them be able to go home well rested and in a better place with the Lord is amazing, it's a great privilege for us.
CT: You cater for both men and women, don't you?
PS: Yes, we have men coming as well - two weeks ago we had three men here! We had no women at all. One was a canon of a cathedral, trying to figure out his next steps in life, one was a vicar who was completely burnt out and needed space and time to rest, and then we also had somebody who had lost his wife, and really appreciated time spent in the chapel.
CT: Do you see it as a need for women in particular to take time out, though?
PS: I think so. Certainly looking back over previous years, for many of us we feel that our Christian lives are defined by how much we are seen to be doing: how many prayer meetings we go to; how many wives groups we've been to; how many times we're in church. Now, all those things are good of themselves, but if they are used to define how mature our Christian faith is, then it means we're rushing around from one thing to another and actually subconsciously not doing it for the best of reasons. And again, that's exhausting. So rather than being defined by how much to do, we need to learn to be defined by who we are in relationship to Christ. Sometimes we need to have a couple of days away to put that back into perspective, and to realise what the most important thing is, which is our relationship with the Lord.
CT: Do you think there's a responsibility of those supporting people in leadership to give them rest?
PS: Yes. I think that often, particularly those in leadership don't realise that they are in that situation until they absolutely collapse, whether physically or emotionally, and they go on and on until they drop. One of the things we do is called 'Send your vicar away', and the suggestion is that people in the church should actually come together and pay for him or her to go on retreat. Actually, we all need regular time away, but sometimes those in leadership feel guilty about it. They feel they are needed in their work, but if Jesus needed to do it – he went away by himself quietly, morning or evening, both are mentioned in the gospels – how much more do we?
CT: You were previously in ordained ministry, how has that prepared you for this new venture?
PS: Both as a vicar and a vicar's wife, before I was ordained, I know what it's like on the inside, as it were. I know and understand the pressures that those in leadership are under, and sometimes people don't even need to say very much to me because I appreciate what they are going through. And though each person's situation is different, I think that for some people, to know that I understand what they are going through can be very helpful. We understand, we've been through it too, we've had all those years of experience – we've been in ordained ministry for over thirty years in lots of different churches!
CT: You're also trained as a Spiritual Director. How does that aspect of The Vine work?
PS: Spiritual direction is used as a term to cover a wide range of things: some people would call it mentoring, others would call it one-to-one sessions. What I mean by it is the privilege of accompanying someone on their journey with the Lord, whether that's over a long period of time or just for a short time while they're here, just to help them try to discern what the Lord is doing in their lives. Some people just talk and I say 'Well, do you think the Lord is doing this or that'. Sometimes I need to ask questions to draw things out from them, and sometimes we just simply pray together. But it's trying to help people to draw closer to the Lord and to discover where he is in their life and what they can do to draw closer to him.
CT: What's special about what The Vine offers?
PS: What we offer is quite wide ranging, some people come for their own individual time, but others come for specific retreats that we organise. For example, this coming weekend we have 'Hotel du Chocolat' – where we're using chocolate as an illustration of God's extravagant love and grace. There will be some chocolate tasting and hot chocolate around the fire pit! But we'll also be looking at some of the Scriptural passages about God's love for us, so it's just a great, fun weekend with some deep teaching there as well. We'll be repeating it two or three times during the year, but we can also do it to order, as it were. Because we're small, we can be flexible.
For more information about retreats at The Vine, or to find out how to send your church leader away, go to www.thevine-at-maysfarm.com