'Songs of Praise' and silent retreats at St Beuno's

Aled Jones in north Wales for 'Songs of Praise'. Courtesy: BBC
Aled Jones in north Wales for 'Songs of Praise', Courtesy: BBC

Broadcaster and singer Aled Jones stopped off at St Beuno’s Jesuit Retreat and Spirituality Centre recently, when he visited north Wales to film an episode of Songs of Praise. He was following the pilgrim trail to Bardsey Island, reputed to be the resting place of 20,000 saints.

Bardsey Island (Welsh: Ynys Enlli) lies less than two miles (3.1 km) off the Llŷn Peninsula in the Welsh county of Gwynedd. Saint Cadfan built a monastery on it in 516, and it has been a major centre for pilgrimage since medieval time. The monastery that belonged to the Augustinian Canons Regular was dissolved in 1537 and its buildings were demolished by Henry VIII; but the island remains an attraction for pilgrims to this day.

En route to Bardsey Island, the Songs of Praise team visited St Beuno’s, near St Asaph, which was built in 1848 as a place of study for Jesuits. Originally a "theologate" (a place for trainee priests to study theology), it was unusually dedicated to a well-known local abbot, St Beuno, not to a traditional Jesuit saint. When the theologate moved to Heythrop College in Oxfordshire in 1926, it became a place of study for the last year of Jesuit training, the tertianship, also serving as a place of refuge for Jesuit novices who were sent from London during the Blitz of the Second World War. In the 1970s, it started developing its current role as a retreat and spirituality centre; and the 19th century building that had been designed by Joseph Aloysius Hansom (best known for the Hansom cab) was categorised as a Grade II* listed building and a Welsh Historic Monument in 2002.

Silent retreats in the Welsh countryside

The Songs of Praise production team say they took a slight turn off the pilgrim path to visit St Beuno’s. “Aled [Jones] explores the exercises of the Society of Jesus’ founder, St Ignatius, and finds out why many people, of Catholic faith and none, still come to silent retreats in the Welsh countryside,” explains Production Coordinator, Lauren Hodgkinson.Aled Jones filming with James Potter at St Beuno's. Courtesy: BBC

Among the people that Aled Jones met and interviewed for Songs of Praise was St Beuno’s Director, Fr Roger Dawson SJ who described the BBC One team as “very pleasant and respectful” and James Potter, Chaplain at Wimbledon College. "I think the whole concept of a silent retreat was quite unusual to them," says James. "I tried to convey some of the understanding I have now, having experienced silent retreats, that the silence isn’t an oppressive vacuum, but a surprisingly fruitful and ‘filled’ experience; and that Ignatius’ exercises give you a real structure and direction to enter into the silence and, through it, to discover how to find enrichment and connection with God and your deeper self." Also interviewed for the programme, which was broadcast on 12 February, were Deputy Director and member of the retreat-giving team, Sr Anne Morris DHS, and Heather Ann Batterbee, who helps cater for retreatants and was interviewed in the refectory.

Although St Beuno’s most famous resident probably remains Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ (1844-1889) who studied theology there between 1874 and 1877, the Welsh retreat centre has been in the news recently because actors Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver undertook a seven-day silent retreat there, in preparation for their roles in the Martin Scorsese film Silence. In an interview with Graham Norton, Garfield described St Beuno’s as “a beautiful Christian retreat house” and said that the experience of the retreat was “gorgeous”, although it was emotionally draining.

Songs of Praise from north Wales, including the interviews at St Beuno's, is available on the BBC iPlayer until 14 March 2017.