Ok, so six days later I write more about the retreat. Why the delay? It’s got a lot to do with the nature of spiritual reality. It’s spiritual. It ain’t actually ‘sensual.’ I can’t write in terms of concrete experiences and actually capture everything that happened, because so much that happened happened at a different level. It’s no surprise that both Hebrew and Greek words for ‘spirit’ also mean ‘wind’ or ‘breath’. And that the English word ‘spirit’ also applies to an explosive liquid that evapourates when left in the open air… Spiritual reality is so hard to capture for us earth-bound creatures. That doesn’t make our earthiness a bad thing; just a limitation.
Nor does it make the spiritual a vague or unreal thing. When we think of ‘ghostly’ we usually think of qauzy, insubstantial phenomena; so the risen Christ can walk through a locked door because he’s just a ‘ghost’ and not real enough to be stopped by concrete reality. But what if the greater reality is the spiritual, not the material? Remember that as soon as Jesus had walked through that door, he immediately let the disciples find out for themselves if he was a ghost by inviting them to touch him – and his wounds. And then demonstrated his reality by eating a fish dinner. No flimsy-bedsheet-draped ghostliness here, but something with a very material existence. But not bound to the material conditions of existence. He ate, but did he need to eat like we do? He walked through the door. Could it be that the door is the insubstantial thing to an eternal being?
But when it comes to describing spiritual realities and spiritual events, we’re stuck with our earthly perceptions and descriptions. CS Lewis complains about this in his book on prayer, Letters to Malcolm, saying that putting words around his experience makes it sound so much more vivid and concrete than it really was. I’m afraid to do the same; that my words will mislead and sound much more definite than anything really was at the time. And yet I know that things did happen.
I’ve often said that I barely know God; I’ve just caught the faintest scent of him as he’s passed by, captured the fleetingest glimpse of his royal procession through the crowds, felt the barest brush of a loving breath in the hurly-burly of life. But that least of experiences has made such a difference to me, has meant so much that every other event pales by comparison. It has become the most precious of memories and the keystone of my existence. Such is the nature of contact with God. It is infinitesimally ephemeral – and yet it turns the world on it’s head and sets us all to rights in an instant. It is power and glory beyond our imaginings, and every description falls far short of the One we worship.
So what happened on this retreat?
The first noticable thing is that I learned something about what it means to be in the desert…
but more about that next time.