This is part of a series; to get the whole picture read the previous entry and the next two.
Going out with Joy / Returning with Temptation.
On the first day of my retreat, I enjoyed the freedom of the Sabbath rest; I slept until I woke (about 10.00!!), then (after ‘breakfasting’ on Psalm One and prayers of praise) lay in bed reading, not getting up till I’d finished the book and it was time for a ‘lunch’ of another Psalm. Somewhere between the previous evening and this morning I decided that I would fast, and, for the rest of the retreat, replaced meals with Psalms.
The early part of the afternoon I went for my first walk, north along the rocky coast-line. These walks are alternately rock-hopping and strolling along the beach. At one point I have to leave the beach, follow a river upstream to the road bridge to cross, and then I can come back down onto a second beach. AS I walked I had a delightful sense of holiday in its original sense: ‘Holy Day’. This, despite the rain, that only intensified as I walked until I took shelter beneath a huge old Pohutukawa. When I emerged a little later and returned to the beach, I came across a stone, shining in the sand. It was flushed with deep red veins and striations, and along the back of it was a shimmering blue-white seam of quartz. If it hadn’t been wet as it was, it would have looked very ordinary. As it was it took my breath away.
My mind immediately leapt to the analogy of our being washed by Christ in Baptism; that when he cleanses us he doesn’t just wash away the muck, he also brings out the beauty that God has made to exist in us. I was filled with a deep gratitude, and burst into praise as I continued to walk.
It was a good beginning to the fast. I thought that if it was all going to be like this, then I have been wary of fasting for no reason. It was a very ‘light’ discipline. Perhaps I found it to be so because I felt under absolutely no compulsion to fast; it was very much a free offering, rather than a tax or tribute paid to a tyrant. Even my own ‘internal’ tyrant was silent about the need to fast. I was still free to fast or not as I chose throughout the retreat. The food was there if I wanted or needed it. I just didn’t want it.
It was as if, in my sabbath rest, I was resting also from food; as though I was trusting God with responsibility for my nutrition as I trusted him with all the other responsibilities that I had laid down to come on this sabbath retreat. There was a real joy and a feeling of release rather than any sense of burden. For this too I praised God.
Then, as I made my way back with the wind behind me, I found my thoughts drifting to old temptations, and had to consciously wrench my mind back on track. Before I could resent or even begin to despair the intrusion of ‘the old man’ into this holy-day, my attention was caught by a pair of black sea-birds flying past me from behind and on down the beach, one pursuing the other, squawking, dodging, diving and harassing it out of sight. It was a perfect visual illustration of my experience in which the Joy of God was so swiftly followed by the temptations of the flesh. No sooner do I spread my spiritual wings and soar into praise and the delight of God, than I am pursued and hassled by evil.
Taking it as such, however, raised a problem. The two black birds were the same species. Does this mean that the joy I celebrate is as fleshly as the temptation I struggle with? It wasn’t until I came to write about it that I saw the other possibility: It is true that, like temptation, my joy is a fleshly thing in that it exists in me bodily; but it is also true that the Joy has a spiritual source and a spiritual end and works to make me spiritual. Just so the temptation I struggle with is as spiritual as the Joy I celebrate – certainly in its ultimate effects, probably in its origin and currently in its working in me.
How easily I discount the spiritual nature of evil! I prefer to think of it as being entirely under my control, beginning (and potentially ending) with me. I prefer not to involve myself in the embarrassing possibility of a ‘Satan’ figure, with its comic-book or ‘B’ grade movie connotations. I want to disassociate myself from Christian charlatans and showmen who use superficial and silly talk of spiritual warfare to attract and use the anxious, the confused, and the violent. And yet, those con-men and fools are dragging down to their own level a reality that existed before they did. At the deepest level of revelation there are the stories of our Lord and God confronting the evil one. Who am I to put myself above scripture?
The result of this realisation was two-fold; one, I was able to reaffirm and celebrate the inseparably bodily and spiritual nature of the Joy of the Lord. It was a relief to remember that the human experience is not discounted merely because it is completely human. That is part of the meaning of the incarnation. But also I found tremendous relief in realising fully, for the first time, that my experiences of temptation were not simply because I was a sinner. I found myself emerging from a sub-conscious self-condemnation… self-condemnation? Isn’t that Satan’s job? Maybe I actually emerged from a cleverly disguised satanic condemnation?! But certainly, I felt freer and more comfortable with both myself and my God because of the clearer picture I had been given. I don’t conceive of myself as any less responsible in my dealing with temptation, rather, I feel far more like dealing with it. It no longer feels like a hopeless process of beating myself up. I can instead engage in the biblical process of "submit yourself to God, resist the Devil, and he will flee from you." (James 4.7)
Not a bad start to the retreat. What would happen next?