Kirsteen MacLeod refers to herself as “a serial retreater, creating islands of space and time, a week here, a month there, to answer a faint call, barely heard above the din of the everyday.” Wondering why she is so interested “in retreat and its yin companions, solitude and silence,” led her on a quest to answer the question for herself and readers. I’m so glad she did as her book is insightful and educational with delightful doses of good humor.
MacLeod describes her own experiences on retreat in Canada, the Bahamas, and India, and on pilgrimages in Scotland and Brazil. From the research she has done, MacLeod adds the “wisdom of hermits, monks, pilgrims, naturalists, writers and artists, solitary thinkers and other independent spirits, living and dead”—all of which makes for a fascinating read.
At a hermitage in Scotland’s northwest Highlands, MacLeod learns the Gaelic word cuilidh, meaning “a retreat, or a quiet place that affords privacy.” The “leaseholder” of the hermitage is Sara Maitland, who is a hermit and the author of A Book of Silence.
In Quebec City, MacLeod spends time in a “secular wellness hotel” called Le Monastere des Augustines, a former convent. A retreat such as this one is “far more accessible than finding a hermit’s hut, and they come with structure and routine already in place,” she says.
MacLeod walks the Hastings Heritage Trail in Ontario; and in Scotland, explores the pilgrimage route of St. Ninian with Sara Maitland. While the Candida Casa, or White House, was “more museum than place of power” for her, MacLeod did learn about “the historical foundations of our current fascination [with] the medieval pilgrimage.”
It was pleasing to learn about places I hadn’t heard of before, as well as pieces of information that were new to me. For instance, Henry David Thoreau, from his garden of “bean rows” at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, influenced William Butler Yeats’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. The poem is included at the end of the book.
“Artist, Writers, Creative Thinkers, Dreamers” go on retreat, alone or in community, for the “silence, solitude and simplicity” offered. MacLeod makes note of Michel de Montaigne as well as modern writers such as Kathleen Norris, who has spent time with the Benedictines at St. John’s Abbey, Minnesota.
There are various retreats offered for artists and writers around the world and MacLeod attended one in Scotland: Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers.
Not all retreats have idyllic settings. MacLeod attended yoga teacher training at an ashram on an island in the Port of Nassau with a popular casino nearby. She makes the best of it, as she does when she goes to India to study with Mani, one of the first yoga teachers she studied with in Toronto. While the extreme heat, lack of drinking water, and a canal full of eels in front of the yoga school makes any sort of study a challenge and a disappointment, MacLeod’s good humor and her fellow students get her through.
This is a wonderful book full of the gifts of retreat and pilgrimage as well as their challenges, with insightful passages on which to reflect—all of it, it’s own sort of sanctuary.