My husband Mike and I have been providing space for individual and group retreats here at El Palmeral in Spain since 2012, and we are often asked: “So how did God call you into this ministry?”
As we reflect on this, relaxing by the sapphire blue swimming pool, our skin soothed by the rays of the sun that blesses us 300 days every year and perhaps sipping on a chilled white Rioja, we are reminded of Mrs Merton’s famous interview with Debbie McGee. The sadly departed Caroline Aherne asked: “So Debbie, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”
With the idyllic setting and the visible advantages living here brings, the answer to ‘why El Palmeral?’ may appear to be equally self-evident superficially, but understanding the journey that God leads and accompanies us on is far less clear and simplistic.
In 2011 I was the national sales manager for a chain of Christian bookshops, which involved providing bookstalls for conferences and events such as Spring Harvest. Mike’s role as an education consultant led to him working with dozens of schools and local authorities, looking to transform young people’s lives through school improvement. Both of us enjoyed our work immensely.
We had become regular visitors to Spain through our use of a holiday apartment, and had gradually fallen in love with the area, the people and the culture. Of course, many folk from the UK move here to retire, spawning a network of British small businesses, bars and restaurants that can be very separate from the local Spanish community.
This is one of many schisms and divisions in Spain, as the recent discussion with Catalonia highlights. The Spanish Civil War claimed nigh on a million lives from the 1930s until General Franco died in 1975 and, unlike other countries, Spain had largely brushed issues under the carpet, rather than building bridges and reconciling differences. So we felt drawn to pray into the area, for both the healing of historical wounds and a narrowing of the Paella and Fish and Chips divide!
If we were going to make Spain our place to settle down in, we wanted to have sufficient time to be able to learn the language a little and integrate ourselves as much as possible. Our five children were now young adults, and we discerned a restlessness within us while we still had the energy to do something different!
I have a passion for a good read, and enjoy helping people find what they need. Mike had often led residential programmes where school leaders were given freedom to reflect, think and plan outside the daily routines. We had also been journeying with the Northumbria Community for many years, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne is a very special place for us. The symbolism of ‘temporary separation’ from the mainland is a powerful metaphor for retreat away from daily life, and the immersion into a daily rhythm of prayer at the heart of a worshipping community is something we really valued.
So there was no single ‘Road to Damascus’ moment in the call of God, but a combination of factors began to shape our thinking. Our ideas drew on our love of hospitality, our desire to reflect and make changes in our own lives and also to offer space to others to do the same. A number of close friends confirmed their prayerful support for our suitability in creating a place where guests could relax, refresh and renew.
After a lively discussion with Mike on the prospect of leaving our five adult children and ageing parents in England, I googled ‘six bedroom villa Spain’ and our house was the very first one on the list. The price was higher than we could afford, but that changed as we investigated and made an offer. It was only on our first visit that we realised how absolutely perfect it was, with facilities that included a swimming pool, home cinema lounge and spacious bar with room for live music and concerts!
We are in an area of Spain that is renowned for date palms, so our choice to name the house El Palmeral (The Palm Grove) was straightforward. And the house itself has moulded and shaped the resources and activities we can offer.
The aviary quickly became the open-air chapel, with an inspirational mural on the wall from one of our artist friends. The garden was waist-high in grasses and unmaintained citrus and palm trees, some diseased beyond recovery. Over the years, we now have the Labyrinth, garden paths and lighting, three separate seating areas for personal or group reflection, flowers, shrubs, a fountain and water area.
Most recently we have added a custom-built ‘poustinia’, a cabin for personal reflection and prayer. As the practice is grounded in the Way of the Desert, from early hermits, we have named it ‘La Ermita’ – the hermitage, although we don’t have any long-term hermit resident in it!
From the beginning we focused on led creative, teaching and reflective programmes, as well as what we call ‘TimeOut Breaks’, where there is no set session other than the underpinning rhythm of ‘daily office’ worship, based on Celtic Daily Prayer.
We also quickly adopted ‘House in Quiet’, a two-hour afternoon slot after lunch that invites guests to share in the gift of silence – a reflection of the Spanish traditional ‘siesta’ when the day is at its warmest.
Every morning we use a ‘prayer pot’ (a practice borrowed from the Northumbria Community) which contains the names of our guests, and we feel very close to those friends and supporters as we ask God to direct our requests on their behalf. A number of our guests have adopted the idea and pray for us regularly.
Over the years, a Palm Grove Community has developed, as many of our guests have become regular visitors and true friends. We have had a number of amazing volunteers from this wider community who have supported us by donating their skills, expertise and time to help us with the ‘Forth Bridge’ of never-ending maintenance. We also have local English-speaking friends who join us for prayer and social events, and provide much needed links with surrounding churches.
The welcome we have received from the local Spanish community has been overwhelming and humbling. They insist we are ‘family’, which brings its own responsibilities on special days such as Christmas, Easter, Father’s Day, Mothering Sunday, First Communions etc. They have forgiven our sluggish progress in learning their language and have helped us out in many a crisis. Equally, we have been there in illness, divorce, family tragedies and disagreements. Nobody ever said life was going to be easy, however sunny it is!
After seven years of welcoming people, we are taking a sort of Sabbatical this year. We encourage others to take time out and, having reflected on our progress in becoming part of the community here as well as being available for our family back in the UK, we feel this is something we need to personally model. So, we have taken the decision to open the doors less this year. It’s not a strict ‘Sabbatical’ in that we are still open for business, but it’s more than just a ‘rest period’. We are also offering all retreatants the seventh night free in any week stay!
In our own strength we realise we’re going to struggle with the enormity of the task: dealing with the administrative systems in Spain, balancing the books, keeping the place polished and painted, and serving and hosting. In his hands, however, it’s a different economy and we need to adopt practices that are flexible and keep things as simple as possible, so we can respond to his leading.
God seems to be working his purpose out as he continually reveals new opportunities, challenges and directions for us. We need to be unfurling the sails and willing to ride the waves!
As the old shaker hymn puts it: “When simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed. To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come out right.”
To find out more about retreats at El Palmeral visit www.palmgrovecommunity.com, Tel: 07957 304101 or write to: Mike & Julie Jowett, Poligono 1, Partida 67, La Foia, Elche, Alicante 03294 Espana