How to survive a week in a Christian retreat, unscathed

IT TOOK HER mother three years to finally convince her to attend a Christian retreat. Dilna Johnson, 32, still single – a fault her mother always emphasizes on – says she wasn’t convinced at all.

“I knew it was pointless to argue with my Mother. So, I ignored her for the last three years, until the moment came where I had no choices”

Her mother wanted Dilna to plead for a seven day paid-leave and join her in a retreat-centre inside a sleepy town in Idukki.

“It was like a commune” Dilna recalls “a commune of, say, 600 people, all clueless”

Mother wants to cure Dilna, of her reluctance to marriage, penchant to unorthodox wardrobe, habit of breaking into impromptu travel to wherever budget-airliners are flying.

The Possession

When a pastor called love-affairs a sin, Dilna reached for her mobile phone. She wants to record it. But her mobile phone, along with the 600 participants, was taken away from her and they won’t be giving back her phone until the last day of the retreat.

She handed over her mobile phone at the reception counter. It was the first thing they wanted her to do. Then, she was given a list of instructions by a volunteer about the dos and don’ts inside the institution. Among the instructions, one looked formidably strong to break – She can’t talk to anyone but herself during the seven days to come.

Then she heard the word Possession. Driven by a temptation of the Satan people are stuck in state of being possessed. People are tools of Satan. But, thank god. Retreat centres like this one has been opened for the rescue of people or lambs, as they call it.

On day one, a pastor, probably in his early thirties began his sermon. He was pale and full of life. His shirt was tucked in perfectly into his black trousers. He was standing upright, unlike every other mortal being in that semi dark room. Then he starts to speak in a fashion that would grab all our attention even though Dilna felt a major portion of what he said was bollocks.

“Homosexuality is a sin, infertility is a sin, love-affairs are sin” He paused for a moment before adding “Love-affair, certainly is a sin”

This shouldn’t be surprising as almost 90% people in Kerala marry and live in the close lines of their caste and religion. In a State like Kerala people belonging to different castes can marry only surviving the shit-storm of tradition.

When a Pastor, someone who claims to be a man preaching for God, says you can’t love another person, no second thoughts are necessary to understand the crass, cultureless political milieu of Kerala.

And here sits a dumbass among 600 headless chickens, ready to get barbecued at any moment God prefers.

Pastor said all these – love affairs, homosexuality, and infertility – happen because they are possessed by sin or in broader term, Satan. Pastor calls the witchcraft, Paishachika Peeda in Malayalam, which could loosely be translated as, an act of mischievous-pain inflicted by Satan.

One after another Pastors and Priests addressed the gathering. They all repeated the importance of evading the sins in life. Dilna calls this encounter an attempt to brainwash people of their understanding of the world.

In fact, she believes, that whole week can be summarised in a sentence – Everything except breathing is a sin.

The survival

As the days passed, the noose becomes tighter. One day she was stopped by a volunteer on her way to lunch. The reason; her skirt was too short to wear in such a place of worship. She got a warning.

“Holy spirit won’t visit you”

“Hmm. Least of my concern” she retorted.

She wasn’t finished with it. She came back to confront the lady again, and spoke like professor; “If the holy spirit wants to judge people by the length of the skirt they are wearing, that’s unfair” The woman never talked to her after that.

Every day begins at 5.30 am. They have set an alarm without snooze button. Once the trumpet is blown, you have wake up. Then everyone makes a beeline to the bathroom.

There are only 10 to 15 functional toilets. For 600 people this looks dreadful, but that’s how you accept reality. When you choose retreat as the path for spiritual highness you should be willing to renounce some comforts.

The judgement day

On the penultimate day of the retreat, Dilna was invited by a nun for a counselling session. This is one-on-one session where almost everyone in the commune will be counselled by brothers, nuns and priests.

Dilna adds a spoiler; “This was the single most horrendous counselling session I attend in my life. People attend counselling because they need some kind of relief from their problems. But, this experience was exactly opposite”

The Nun was sitting in a chair. She placed her hands in the table before her. As Dilna walked in, the nun kept a close watch. Even before asking Dilna her name, nun jumped the gun and fired this question;

“Do you watch porn-films?”

“Yes, I do”

“Dou you masturbate?”

“Yes, I do”

“You are into illicit relationships, aren’t you?”

“Probably, yes”

“Do you know all these are sins?”

“Actually I’ve this complete understanding that all these are not sins” Dilna said.

“Well …” The nun paused for a moment. She took a deep breath. Then, slowly she opened the drawer of the table, pulled out a single sheet of white paper from a large stack. She wrote down everything Dilna said. After few interrogating, sharp stares she snatched an envelope from her table. She folded the sheet of paper and put it inside the envelope, creased the end and placed it like a canvas.

Then with trembling heart and shivering hands she wrote two words – VERY SERIOUS

When I asked Dilna why did she say YES to every question when a NO can save her from this drama, she replied; “I want to express my feelings. I just want to let them know the BS they are doing to me. That’s it”

The cure

Very serious ‘inmates’ like Dilna were sent to the head priest. His office looked like doctor’s consulting room. People waited outside for his Darshan. When Dilna was allowed to enter she saw the priest consulting another inmate. He seemed half hysterical and half sombre. When the conversation is finished, he would raise his right hand above the head of the inmate and draw a cross in the air as he shouts, Bandhikkinnu (locking-up). The very next moment the believer collapses on to the ground and fell unconscious. He remains in the Shavasana for a few minutes until a volunteer in the room step up and sprinkle water on his face.

When Dilna’s turn came, she prepared her mind to fell unconscious. The priest’s spell however didn’t go well with Dilna. As the head-priest finished his spell and shouted Bandhikkunnu, Dilna stood before him like a rabbit exposed to the torch-light.

On the last day, when the service is finally over, she got her Smartphone and belongings back. She took her backpack and fled. From the bus station she got a bus going to Kochi. She hoped in to the bus, untangled her headset and plugged it in her ear, browsed through her playlist and chose a Pop song that sounded like a sin.

(Featured Image: A small, wooden table-clock on my office table. Inscribed a verse from Bible, “From this day will I bless you”  – (Haggai 2:19). This was a gift by Bibin Babu given to Albin, I guess)


(Name of the survivor is changed to protect identity. I’ve edited certain portions of this non-fiction for clarity. This is part fiction and doesn’t warrant against anyone.)

[My love for Christianity began in the early 2005 as an antagonist to the faith when I was in the seventh grade. I renamed myself Franco, an apparent reference for an anti-Christ character I found in a TV Show. Later, I come across this beautiful traditions in paganism and the finest christian book of literature, The Bible. And my Christianity is  very much bonded in the the Bible, not as a book to interpret the daily lives of people but a document of historical and aesthetic record. This is the same reason why Catholic church want to edit certain pages of Bible and I want the world to re-read them.]