Coming Home to Pleshey: A Memoir

by Kathy Staudt

Evelyn Underhill recalls how her first experience of a conducted retreat at Pleshey retreat house in 1922 transformed her attitude toward church and vocation, and began the process of clarifying her own calling. She writes to Baron von Hugel of the satisfactions of the daily regime of communion and four services a day, and reflects that “the whole house seemed soaked in love and prayer.” With that description in my memory, I made a two-day retreat to Pleshey last April.

And so I found myself, late on a Saturday afternoon, at the railway station in the distinctly unromantic London suburb of Chelmsford, being met by a tall, soft-spoken man in a worn tweed jacket! He introduced himself as Bruce Hollamsby, the assistant warden, and welcomed me heartily, saying, “You cannot imagine how delighted we are to have you here!”

As we drove into the Essex countryside, we talked about other American visitors who had come to Pleshey, and shared experiences as lay ministers in our parish churches. Both of us serve as lay chalicists, and both of us do some pastoral care among the sick in our parishes—he at the small church next door to the retreat house—I in suburban Washington, D.C. We found an immediate meeting of minds about the deep satisfactions that we find in our ministries.

Dizzied as I was by the romance of a pilgrimage to Evelyn Underhill’s special place, I also found myself oddly confused by the familiarity of what I found at Pleshey. Arriving just in time for dinner, I joined the members of a parish retreat from the village of Exling. We sat at a table, eating family-style, and I recognized these lay people, open to such innovations as the ordination of women and liturgical reform, yet also proud of the centuries-old traditions of their parish. The setting was not so different from suppers I have had on retreat at the Clagget Center in Maryland, or at parish suppers at other times. And when I thanked them for including me in their weekend, one of my companions said firmly, “It’s your retreat, too, now.”

I learned that the retreat house shies away from becoming or being perceived as a pilgrimage spot, a shrine to Evelyn Underhill, though they do draw some spiritual tourists from America and Australia. I was welcome, not so much as a pilgrim, but as a friend and guest—to be a part of this house of prayer, and to join with those who were there. This was, after all, exactly what Evelyn’s whole ministry stood for. Though her crucifix is there, and there is a plaque in her memory in the chapel, perhaps the best testimony to the everyday, consecrated lay ministry that she most cared about is the functional new building on the already crowded grounds of the retreat center. Called the Evelyn Underhill Center, it is a place for day retreats and quiet days.

As I joined in the readings of the daily office, I entered into the quiet, dignified spiritual life that goes on in the Anglican tradition at its best—deeply centered, without the expectation of drama or epiphany. The Eucharist in the chapel on Sunday morning was lovely, light-flooded, and we used a modernized version of the liturgy—much like our American Rite II.

I said to myself, reflecting and writing there, it feels like “home.” It could be in Maryland, or Virginia, or northwest DC—a spring garden, shouting songbirds, a family of cyclists passing by on the footpath by the stream, a lawnmower going in the churchyard next door—the same sounds heard back home on a Sunday afternoon, an ocean and thousands of miles away. Well, yes—the moat and hedge that passes by this place are over 600 years old, the village is much quieter than suburbia. These are differences. But the familiar outweighs the exotic. There is a sense that I have been here before, and will return again.

Perhaps, after all, this is a glimpse of eternity. Greeted with a welcome beyond our imagining, we find ourselves in a garden that we have visited before. Looking at a statue that stands in the garden, or gazing at the tower of a village church or a great cathedral—or in the quiet of a sunlit chapel—we know there are arms stretched over us in love. In the noisy quiet of chattering birds, or the luminous silence of a consecrated place, we seem to hear a voice that we have heard before, our of the depths of love: “Behold, all things are being made new. Enter and join in this great work. You cannot imagine how delighted we are to have you here!”

(This was first delivered at the 1995 Day of Reflection)