Monastery retreat with ShivA

Article published in Positive News - april 2011 - by Peter J. Smit

The retreats organised by ShivA are starting to become a household name. They are an opportunity to spend some time for yourself, to contemplate who you are and where you want to go in your life. There are mixed groups and women's groups. It's a breath of fresh air. A personal account.

Of course I had thought about it before. But you know how it goes: no time, not in the mood, or just too busy. In spite of the fact that I knew I would probably thoroughly enjoy it. As it happens, I have been to a monastery before and it was a good experience. Back then — long, long, ago — I had gone together with fellow students to prepare for exams. This year, the announcement of the retreat organised by ShivA came into my sights at a suitable time. I received the announcement by e-mail and right away I wanted to participate. Maybe it was because of the theme: 'Set your course!' Or perhaps the catchy slogans such as: 'Changing your course', 'exchanging ideas with others', 'joining daily monastic routine', 'enjoying a beautiful park' and 'treating your body and gaining new energy'. These were all things I felt like doing at the end of January, but the days themselves fell halfway in March. That was probably because I had to make a few big and important choices regarding my life and career. So I quickly applied and resulted in being one of the lucky ones chosen to join; not ending up on the waiting list. Since I only celebrate my birthday every five years, it was also a good chance to escape that day. I thought. I didn't take into account my fellow participants...

Perfect organisation
The 'catchy slogans' turned out to be exactly what it was about. The retreat was held at a priory in Maarssen with the Kanunnikessen van het Heilig Graf (Canonesses of the Holy Grave). This order has offered hospitality since 1099. In those days for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. Today, for people searching for solitude who want to take some time out. But also for groups that want to focus on something specific. In this instance, the group consisted of four men and six women. The two supervisors were Inga Mielitz (spiritual counsellor for HIV positive people) and Marjolein Annegarn (body work shops and massages). ShivA organises and supervises the days. However, it was not an overcrowded programme. We had to fill in part of the day (the afternoons) ourselves. For the other parts of the day, we had a joint programme with all twelve of us. The variation between group activities and the rest was well thought-out. What is also encouraging is that you do not have to be associated with the Christian tradition or a church.
The organisation was perfect. For me the programme felt just right. Even the directions for travel by public transport matched completely. This time, the NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen: Dutch Railways) and the regional buses worked so well together that I was the first to step out of the bus at Maarssen. Further directions lead me to a stonewall, and after passing through a gate, I was immediately overwhelmed by the natural beauty. Even though there was a light drizzle on that 12th of March 2009, the grounds of the monastery were covered in snowdrop and crocus flowers. These were the first I saw in the year and for a moment I was engulfed by spring fever in that wintry cold of Maarssen. A good first impression. I continued to walk until I arrived at 'Doornburgh'. Doornburgh is a seventeenth century manor house with original squeaky floors (the group would stay here). A stunning ambiance in all. We each got our own room. We did not have to bring any bed linen. It was all provided. The towels could just have been more coarse and thick in my opinion. Also some participants had to adjust to beds with old-world blankets instead of duvets. I thought that was rather cosy for a change, that in itself gave me a feeling of being wrapped up.

Wrapped up
To a large extent Inga and Marjolein also imparted this warm feeling of being wrapped up. In all tranquillity and unemphatically, but also consciously. Apart from that, an optional part of the programme consisted of taking part in prayer and singing services, which the nuns held in their chapel, four times a day. The monastery turned out to be in a separate building, some 200 metres further on in the grounds. It was constructed in 1966. And although I am not a great admirer of most modern architecture, I thought this building (at least the chapel) was very beautiful inside. Later we were given a tour of the monastery itself, and that too turned out to be beautiful. Beautiful proportions, beautiful natural light, in very calming materials and colours. And including very remarkable furniture; designed by the same architect. An outstanding ensemble. The chapel felt like a warm blanket. Meals were served in the monastery's guest dining rooms. These meals were simple yet nutritious and diets were taken into account. What was also pleasant was that during free days, you could book a massage with Marjolein.

Getting acquainted and tuning in
The participants came trickling in between about half-past four and six in the evening. On day two a participant arrived who was unable to find a babysitter for her children on Thursday. The first introduction was informal. We got to know each other's names and backgrounds. You did not need to reveal anything you didn't want to. After sandwiches and a warm snack, the group went to the chapel for vespers. The nuns sing during most of their services. And singing they do well; evening prayers were sung beautifully in Latin. For those sensitive to it, the mysticism of the Christian monastery was tangible for a moment. Immediately afterwards, we returned to our manor house and proceeded to 'tune-into the shared days'. We had all brought from our homes, one or two objects that had a spiritual or special meaning to our lives. This could be a photo of a loved-one, but also a religious object or a book that inspired in more ways than one. I brought a bronze statuette of Ganesha. Ganesha is the Hindu god of secluded knowledge, occult wisdom… but also of (good) unexpected things. The participants listened carefully to each other’s stories. The evening concluded with Marjolein leading a calming meditation. Since I was away from home, I could not sleep. Nonetheless, the next day I was clear-headed and full of energy.

Being under way
The second day began with a physical warm-up. Stretching exercises that you can also do at home and which help you feel better and put you in the here and now. Next we took on the main theme of the morning, a guided fantasy-exercise about 'being under way'. In our imagination, we walked through a landscape in which we encountered our strengths, sorrows, desires and hopes. You could put the images that presented themselves to you on paper in colourful frames using crayons. Afterwards we all went for a silent walk outside. The advantage of this is that you remained attentive to what had come to light during the guided fantasy-exercise. And this helped you discover what is going on in your life. I was, myself, quite occupied with this for some time. Therefore, it meshed with what I was doing. I believe that the idea that life is a journey is a good mental exercise. Sometimes we are all too focussed on result or on ‘our baggage’. We loose sight of the here and now; of the things we experience. These kinds of exercises make you more susceptible to that. So that you become more aware of the life journey and thus more prone to enjoy it. Even though you arrive somewhere other than where you thought you were destined for.
That afternoon was free. Some participants got to know each other better through conversation or by going shopping together for groceries in the village. I played the piano a little, since there was one inside the house.
In the evening we enjoyed music CDs as well as poems and texts that some had brought along. So many tastes, so many senses. Some music was emotionally charged and moving, some, on the other hand, was rather groovy.

Set your own course
The third day also started with a physical warm-up. Afterwards, we turned to the programme item 'set your own course'. The remainder of the morning we explored what life was like now and in a playful manner what we would want to set as a course. For the important things in life that you could put on a sheet of paper, we used large sheets and little signs. The signs symbolised work, money, health, family, relationships and a few other areas of life. This was in keeping with the guided-fantasy exercise. Afterwards all the 'projects' were discussed. It struck me how people were able to listen to each other so well and how they could question each other when not understanding something or when they had the feeling someone was avoiding something. This occurred in a very natural and nonconfrontational manner. And sure, heavy as well as lighter emotions and feelings came to the fore. But I was impressed by the ease at which communication was implemented within the group. And how the supervisors unemphatically guided us through this. Unemphatically... and yet clear, friendly, warm and structural. That felt very good.
That afternoon was free again. A friend picked me up and we went to Utrecht to visit some antiquarian bookshops and to have coffee and cake at the Coffee Company. The evening was again reserved for relaxation and energy. But part of the night was also spent with people who were absent from the morning session. Eventually it turned to a relaxed group conversation.

The coming Sunday was my birthday… someone found out. So Sunday morning, the whole group sang 'Happy Birthday' and I received a free massage from Marjolein. As well as flowers, a birthday card with kind words, and at the end of the day, a taxi ride back to Amsterdam with one of the participants. Unexpected and yet very nice. The morning programme was spent setting up a collective farewell ritual. I played a classical piece on the piano. We sang and went for a walk, thinking about some simple texts. In addition, we all received a beautiful personal message. As well as an individual, practical, gift with which we could warm ourselves at home.
After lunch, we were given a tour through the magnificent, tranquil monastery by one of the nuns, and everyone received a warm and heartfelt hug from her. Afterwards, everyone went his or her way home. Upon returning home there was a 'Welcome Home' card from ShivA. I can warmly recommend a retreat with ShivA.


Hiv Vereniging Nederland

Eerste Helmersstraat 17


020 6 160 160
>> directions



020 689 25 77

For questions about living with HIV. Available monday, tuesday and thursday from 2 PM till 10 PM

>> read more


Support the association and become a member
>> contact Servicepunt