Archive for category Spiritual Retreat
This entry is part of a series; to get the full picture, read the previous three entries…
This day was composed of three distinct parts; a morning meditation, a walk shortly before noon, and another in the early afternoon. My journal entries reflect the ongoing journey, starting from that point of emptiness that was the last impression of the previous day.
Morning: My Poverty and God’s Riches. I sat outside and watched the sunlight sweep across the firth, creep down the pohutukawa, and light up the rocks. After a while, thinking about my emptiness and poverty before God, I realised that I didn’t like the idea. I resented it. I want to be rich and full. Why should I be empty? The answer was immediate: so that I can enjoy God’s riches. Those things that I take to myself of my own accord and for myself become barriers between me and God. Those things which I receive with thanksgiving from his hand are truly his gifts; good for me and good for the building up of the kingdom – and most importantly they do not come between us.
Because they come to me from God, his gifts do not create any anxiety in me; I need not fear that he will see me with something I oughtn’t to have and take it off me. When I take something for myself without owning it as his gift, I become defensive of it, and afraid of losing it. Thanksgiving to God makes me more able to be generous and prevents me from becoming an anxious hoarder of gifts that were made to be enjoyed and shared. If I cannot give thanks for it, then it is probably not something I ought to have!
So my emptiness is God’s opportunity to fill me. Glory to God!
Noon: Hope and Despair. I walked again to the end of the second beach. Since yesterday my calves have been sore and inelastic. I took my time today, dawdling rather than striding as usual, but even so my pace was further reduced by the time I returned. I wasn’t hobbling – but I wasn’t far from.
The following poem describes the experiences of this walk:
At the end of the beach
is a long spit beside the stream
against the bank I came across the carcase of a cow
beginning to bloat, bones showing
where it’s been beaten on rocks
by the river that rolled it into the sea
and by the sea that stranded it in the sand.
Turning towards the retreating tide
I saw how on each side of the spit
the sea stretched out to elusive horizons
hidden by mizzling rain and morning mists.
This is our state, stuck
between death and the indistinct division
of earth and heaven.
"Come, Lord Jesus" I called out to Christ our King
over and again
to he who is our hope.
The first version of the poem, written shortly after my return from the beach, actually had the final lines,
"I called out, Come, Lord Christ,
and the blank blue sky, deaf and blind,
rolled over my head"
Of the two versions, the second one I wrote (the first one in this entry) is more correct; truer to my experience at the time and to the reality. It is also true that, at the time, the heavens seemed blind and blank to me, but it is more true that in calling out to Christ I was reminded that our present deathly, confused state is not permanent. He will come and make an end to this. And he comes to us now with signs of the kingdom. I went home and wrote both the despair and the hope, but hope is the last word.
Afternoon: Triumph. Having written the poems, I felt restless. I had recovered from my walk and now prowled my cell seeking distraction. I picked up a candle, thinking to light it and meditate a while on the flame – but felt (God saying) that I was just distracting myself by playing with fire. Apt that. I prowled again. In fact, I began to pace. Thinking about the fact that the four days of fasting was nearly over I wondered if it should have been more like Christ’s experience (of forty days) in which he was tempted by the devil…
At that my pacing got a little agitated as light began to dawn on me. After a couple more turns I threw on my boots and jacket again and went back to the beach – this time walking in the other direction for the first time. I was exultant! My bounce was back and phooey on my inelastic calves! On my very first morning of fasting, God had shown me that I was tempted by Satan. In that case by the desires of the flesh. The second day I found myself in a high place, putting God to the test. The third day… didn’t I seek to find divinity where it does not reside? Didn’t I learn that God cannot be made present by my art, but is free and alone worthy of worship?
In realising the reality of the life of Jesus recapitulated in me i was overjoyed. I practically danced all the way down the rocky coast-line, skipping from rock to rock, and roaring out the ‘Lorica’ of St Patrick over the crashing waves; a sort of battle song to place Satan on notice. Fasting is feasting.
This is part of a series; to get the whole picture, read the previous two entries and the next one.
One of the Key elements of every retreat has been the sharpening of my desire for God’s presence in a setting which emphasises his absence. This year was no exception. The following quotes from my journal illustrate this:
Retreat 2008: Day 2 (Morning) The weather is blustery and there is a good deal of rain. I attempted a walk in the late morning but turned back when I got to the river. I don’t feel weak, but easily tired and a little depressed. Very mild hunger. I want warmth more than food. I dislike the sluggishness and torpor I feel and I dislike being trapped by the weather. Where is the clarity that is supposed to come with cleansing? Where is the room in which to stretch my legs and enjoy Christ’s presence – his horizons and heavens, and not this dull little room? I feel imprisoned.
(Later) Sitting, making a desultory attempt to meditate, I became impatient and said, “I know you are here!” – meaning “Why don’t you show yourself?!” A shaft of sunshine caught my eye. I could finally go outside. But where? The tide is up and the waves are beating across the road. Up the trail I hacked last year through the bush to the old Pa site. Off I went, through mud and tangles to the top. Carefully; the track was slippery, the stream was roaring beside me, and I was alone.
Finally to the top; what is there? Sky and horizon. Trees obscure my vision in every direction. Mud. Where is God? Where is his Word? In nature, in the scriptures, in the gurgling of my guts I can, by faith, pick out God’s voice. But what I want is the immediate presence, the un-interpreted voice of God.
I know, theoretically, that this is foolish. I could not stand in his unmediated presence; his splendour, his Holiness. Also, I know in my head that he has chosen incarnate revelation, coming to us as bodily presence; discernable by faith – and rejectable by unbelief.
It is my unbelief, my doubt that desires the completely clear, unequivocal experience of God.
And yet, there is in it also that good hunger for God that has brought me here in the first place. Yes, I want the benefits of Sabbath rest and obedience; but more than all, I just want more of God in my life!
Retreat 2008: Day 3 (Morning) The sun is out. I walked to the far end of the second beach, heading into a strong wind, and re-consecrated myself to Christ, in his death and resurrection. Came back with sun and wind behind me. I am tired, as though I have worked very strenuously, and my limbs ache.
Before I went walking I read Zechariah. Why have I never noticed before how much of Christ is in there?!! I asked for him to reveal himself. He has shown me my need for repentance (this, last night before sleeping), shown me himself in the scriptures, and come to me today in wind and sunshine. If there is no more of Christ, this is already a feast.
(Later) The power went off for about an hour. The sun is gone and the light is going. Tide’s in, wind’s up, may be rain later. I ache a little and have occasional very mild stomach cramps, but can’t really call myself uncomfortable. I feel bright enough, if not exactly bouncy.
(Early Evening) There is a big mirror over the bench where I keep my bible and paper. I was looking around for something to draw when I caught sight of my own face. Ok then; self-portrait. As I sat and studied the face in front of me, I became aware that I had been avoiding that mirror up till now. Why? Dislike for narcissism? Or I don’t want to face myself? If I can find Christ everywhere else, is he to be found in my face too?
(Night) Fell asleep very quickly, then woke again around 11.00 p.m. After some hours lying awake I thought to write a letter to God. Got no further than the date and “Dear God” before I stopped. Felt that it would be merely another layer of conceit and deceit on my part, when I know he is here, even though I do not see him. For a similar reason much of my praying has been silent, so that I am not distracted to merely admire my own voice.
God, I am empty and alone. I need you. That is the whole truth.
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?
Well, I’ve just returned from this year’s retreat, and am still in recovery! What a mind-blowing experience! My journal from the four days covers fifteen pages, so I’ll post snippets from it here over the next week or so, as I can snatch a few minutes from my other tasks. This first post is just an outline of how I prepared for the retreat, to provide some context for what follows:
There were two primary motivations for the retreat. They aren’t really completely separate, and I found it hard to keep them distinct from each other in my mind as they feed into each other. The first motivation was simply to be with God; to renew my relationship with him and allow him to speak into my life. The second motivation was to enjoy a Sabbath; a time of obedience, of focus on God, of celebrating his gifts, of rest and renewal, of trusting that He can care for me and my responsibilities even if I don’t do anything about them for a week.
To achieve these aims I took myself to a cabin on a rocky coast, without contact with anyone else from Monday evening to Saturday morning (I did have a brief conversation Friday evening with my hostess, who came to offer me a ride back into town the next morning). The central idea is to eliminate as far as possible all the distractions of activity and leave me open (vulnerable?) to the presence of God – and my own self. This is never, however, a simple denial of material reality, as though we can’t experience both God and the concrete world of creation together. Biblical faith has always strongly affirmed the goodness of the material world and God’s self expression in and through it. So I wasn’t trying to reject ‘life’ in order to find something ‘spiritual’ but rather I needed to simplify things as far as possible, to slow down and quiet myself, and to reduce the number of elements available to me as defences against myself and God.
So I took my bible, some reading material, some drawing materials, enough warm clothes(!) and bedding, and some food. The food was debatable. I try to go into these times open to what God wants, so try to prepare for a number of eventualities. On the one hand, I had become very aware during last year’s retreat (and on previous retreats) how, in the great gaps of emptiness created by the lack of activities and tasks, I had tended to use food for its comfort value; a means of giving myself pleasant feelings, stimulating and distracting me. Also I had used the food to provide structure to the day – I’d hang out for midday and tea-time. I’d find myself thinking forward to the next meal, beginning to plan it and anticipate it, and so lose my focus on the present, and the openness to God that I was trying to cultivate. Food, and the enjoyment of it, is an important part of our life with God – He invites us to the feast of his kingdom, calls us to communion with him through bread and wine, and we are to be thankful for the goodness of food. Nevertheless, I decided that I would probably fast for this retreat; partly to deal with the problem of distraction that had emerged on previous retreats, and partly as an experiment. I’d never previously fasted for more than a couple of days. I wondered what four days would be like? Because I was unsure if this was the right thing to do, I also took along enough food for three simple meals a day, meals that could be prepared and eaten without undue thought; simple, plain, repetitive. Thus I could fast or I could eat as I chose.
The reading and drawing materials were also debatable, but both had proved themselves very valuable in previous retreats. The books were all of some value in providing and provoking spiritual reflection. They filled the place of a ‘spiritual director’ such as one might meet with on such a retreat – only I could close these books at will and choose to ignore them should I wish. The drawing materials last year had provided a means by which God had focused me on his voice in creation; teaching me to ‘see’. The danger of these, of course, was that they were potentially more potent distractions than food could ever be. I could only eat so much a day, but I could read forever. I had to be disciplined in my use of them.
The bible, God’s revelation to me, was absolutely necessary as the compliment to creation. In the one I felt the hand of God, in the other I heard His voice.
On previous retreats I had planned some tasks; some physical labour to do and some study to complete. This time I deliberately planned neither. I was fasting from work in order to be open to God. It was a sabbath. It was God’s time. I wondered what he would do with it? I wondered if he would show up? I wondered if I would recognise him if he did, and I wondered how I would cope with the emptiness until then?
From my diary…
Finally began to sketch view with the thought of going over it in ink.
Pohutakawa are a nightmare of detail and I stuffed up the dimensions of the bridge barrier behind the flax.
God creates by fiat. We labour with wrong turns and misplaced strokes to employ our creativity. It’s hard work! The more like God we aspire to be the greater the effort we must put in. And were it not for his Spirit, gathering all our labours into himself, it would all be useless! I believe Tolkien got it right with "Leaf by Niggle."
Had another go and inked in top branches and flax stems. Result is very pleasing. Stopped, read Isaiah 35.
Continued by inking in background. Now it’s just a mess.
Five o’clock. The picture now has enough foreground that the background doesn’t much matter. Time to cook tea!
Am thinking a lot about going home and also the things I want to do first. [Am thinking a lot about heaven! – especially the delight it will be to meet Lewis personally – and Tolkien! But also thinking about things to finish first..] Its not so important to finish my picture – it was a pleasure for today and it’s sufficiently well done that it stands for itself, but also it was only ever a brief appreciation of the far greater art of God.
Time for an evening service and a book. Jones’ ‘Art of Prayer’?
Evening service very moving. The psalm was 104 – the praise of creation. I didn’t twig then, but when it got to the prayers of thanksgiving my first thought was just that the day had been so good – it seemed to me that God was pleased with me for enjoying this day with him. And when I said ‘thank you’ for the where-withal to wash the windows – to frame the view – it came to me again that God is pleased with my enjoyment of his creation. All this time he has been touching me with his creation. He has been speaking to me constantly and I have been too deaf to hear. Only now do I begin to understand.
The evening collect read:
Loving Creator of all
Watch over us this night
and keep us in the light of your presence.
May our praise continually blend
with the song of all creation
until we come to those eternal joys
which you promise in your love;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
There could have been no better way to summarise all I have been contemplating these last few days. God’s goodness and Mercy are extraordinarily more than I can believe them to be. It cannot be coincidence that this prayer (on a weekly rotation) and that psalm (on a monthly rotation) should be set for the day on which I become conscious of the links between the desire for heaven and the love of creation and the way we stand between both with praise in our mouths. That which I have laboured at today, the ‘framing’ of God’s creation for the purpose of praise, is a life-long work. It is the whole of life!
eating, walking and praying, I also set myself a substantial portion of
scripture to read each morning and afternoon. I read Isaiah, Romans and
Revelation. You’ll notice that much of that reading is what’s called
"eschatological;" that is, it looks forward to ‘The End,’ the ‘Day of the Lord’
when all evil will be extinguished and justice and righteousness will rule. In
every case these eschatological texts are the Word of God to a people whose very
existence is threatened. They are very political messages, and they carry a
grim warning for anyone in power – but that’s not what I’m writing about here!
that we are a people-in-waiting. Just as the people of Israel waited for the
glorious day of the Lord when they would be freed from the tyranny of the
Babylonians or the Assyrians, and the first Christians (and all Christiains
since) were waiting on the return of Christ to free them from imperial Rome,
we’re still waiting. And we’re actually pretty well protected here, in our
western democracies, from tyrants and empires, but we still wait, and we still
look for freedom.
eye-opener. I prefer the life of achievement – of getting things done and
sorting things out. I prefer to think of my life with God as one filled with
his presence. And yet which of my achievements will be remembered in the
generation after I’m gone? And as I noted previously, when I take out most of
the ‘things’ that fill my life, I discover, not an abundance of God, but a
proved to be a turning point.
gorse I cleaned the windows that over-looked the sea; they were covered with
sea-spray from the last storm, and it was like looking out through stippled
glass. After half an hour of satisfying work they were invisible. And the
glorious ocean, framed by pohutukawa and flax, shone in at me. So, to
celebrate, I broke out my inks and brushes and, throughout the day, tried to
capture the shape and texture of the view. When I went for my walk, I walked in
the opposite direction, and sauntered instead of strode. My bible reading was slower and more contemplative. It was a day of
Douglas Adams laughingly called it "the long, dark tea-time of the soul;" but he
perfectly captured that sense of niggling dissatisfaction that happens on an
empty Sunday afternoon. That experience, repeatedly endured, reminds us that we
are, in fact, a people in waiting. We are unsettled here because here is not
our home. Sabbath reminds us of this. Work-obsessed people like me regain perspective on the meaning of our lives. It’s not all about being
productive. It’s about waiting on God.