Annual Heartsong Retreat Promises Food, Laughter & Relaxation

By: Nicolette Richardson

Every year, Nine Circles’ clients are given the opportunity to attend the retreat Heartsong put on by St.Benedict’s Monastery and Retreat Centre.

“When I first went, I was in a whole different place so when it was suggested to me, I was resistant. I eventually got around to going and it was a revolutionary experience. It helped me change a lot too,” says Ken Bristow, a Nine Circles volunteer who has been attending Heartsong for 15 years.

The term “a song in your heart” usually refers to a feeling of great happiness, and this is exactly what Heartsong – a spiritual retreat for people living with HIV (PLHIV) – provides, according to Ken.

“The biggest thing I get out of it is time to refocus because everything that I live with everyday disappears for three days and I get a chance to focus on me. I have energy, I feel good about myself and I get energized for the year ahead. The food, the friendships, the place, the camaraderie – it’s a combination of everything, it just puts you in a good place.”

The three-day event, which is held at the St. Benedict’s Retreat and Conference Centre, offers PLHIV and their caregivers a neutral space for discussion, relaxation and learning. Since 1994, the retreat has been providing “fun, good food, a time of singing and meditation, confidentiality [and] care, while being in a safe place indoors and outside” says one of the organizers, and Director at St.Benedict’s, Sister Mary Coswin.

She added that the retreat simply allows attendees to know “they are not alone, [it provides] some wisdom for their journey, time to meet others, healthy conversations and sharing, and ultimately time to just be themselves.” These are a few things that Ken loves the most about the 3-day retreat (which will run from 5pm Tuesday, May 28 to Thursday, May 30 at 6 PM).

“There are a lot of activities but you’re not committed to every hour of every minute. If you want, you can just take it easy and enjoy the grounds. You also get to meet people (even all the way from Saskatchewan); it’s not just people you see every day and these friendships last beyond the three days. I still speak with friends I made years ago. The retreat helps you to create a community”.

But, what can you expect from this spiritual retreat? First of all, for those wondering, the word “spiritual” is not referring to religion.

“The word spiritual is dependent on the person attending; for me, because I live by Aboriginal traditions, I get grounded back to Mother Earth. It is a very spiritual place, no matter what is going on in my life, when I step on the grounds, all my problems just go away,” Ken explained.

He also outlined what the three days have in store for anyone who attends:

First day: we are assigned rooms, there’s supper, then a group get together, and we go over what will happen over the next few days. There’s a lot of singing but you can opt out at any time. Second day: there’s a movie; then it’s a self-care afternoon, usually with some spa treatments; in the night we have bingo, with lots of prizes and if the weather is good we have a bonfire on the first and second nights. Third day: can be tougher (emotionally). There is a review of the movie (every year there is a theme and the movie will be based on the theme and it’s usually related back to living with HIV); then in the afternoon we have time of remembrance. Some time to reflect on the people we’ve lost whether recent or not. (If you want to reflect you can, everything is voluntary you’re not forced to do anything.) Then there’s a break and following that is the wind-up ceremony so people can talk about what they got from Heartsong”

All expenses are taken care of, so you worry about absolutely nothing over the three-day period. The only things expected of attendees is “that they adhere to the safe space policy and come ready to participate” Sister Mary says.

Ken, who is going for the 16th time, said attendees can look forward to these three things at every Heartsong retreat:

    1. A lot of laughs (there might be a few tears, but mostly laughs)
    2. Very good food (there is something for everyone to enjoy)
    3. Three days of complete rest and relaxation

If you have not attended before, you must fill out an application available at Nine Circles, from your nurse, health care team at Health Sciences Centre or online. If you’ve attended before, you can call 204-339-1705 or email to register. Transportation will be available from Nine Circles to the event site; see application form for details. Application deadline: May 14.