As you read this, I, with ten other expectant people, will be heading into the silence of our pre-ordination retreat preparing for the first steps into ordained ministry in the Church of England. Before this retreat I spent a few days at the Mother House of the Northumbria Community, a dispersed New-Monastic community of which I am a novice.
What is interesting about the act of retreating is the response people give when they learn that you are about to do it; ‘Oh, that’ll be nice,’ ‘It’s so important to rest,’ or ‘I hope you enjoy it.’ There’s nothing wrong with these pleasantries but it does give the impression that our culture views retreats as a holiday or short break; do a quick Google search for “retreat” and you’ll get thousands of results for spa treatments, etc. My experience of my retreat with the Northumbria Community (and I presume at Wydale Hall on my pre-ordination retreat) is one of hard work.
Before you spurt out with, ‘Oh yeah… really hard work. Sitting with your eyes closed, walking in the countryside or reading a book… really hard, Ned!’ Let me explain…
The monastic tradition of retreating stems from the Desert Fathers and Mothers who ‘fleed’ the cities of their day to find solitude in the wastelands of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia. What was the purpose of such fleeing? It is easy to suspect that the Desert Fathers and Mothers were extreme introverts who enjoyed their own company and didn’t want to be disturbed by other people. Nothing is better than escaping all those people asking you questions and needing your attention… Rowan Williams (amongst many other commentators) believes it was the complete opposite,
…the surface pattern of ‘running’ or ‘fleeing’ from human contact is in fact a much more nuanced affair than it seems. What is to be learned in the desert is clearly not some individual technique for communing with the divine, but the business of becoming a means of reconciliation and healing for the neighbour. You ‘flee’ to the desert not to escape neighbours but to grasp more fully what the neighbour is – the way to life for you, to the degree that you put yourself at their disposal in connecting them with God. (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes)
Williams explores the nature of the monastic desert as a place where we struggle to rid ourselves of the imprisoned impression of self that we all hold. The desert is a painful place; a place of exposure to nothing but the truth. The problem I faced was I could not sit still. I needed constant stimulus, I read a copious amount of books, walked a twelve mile round trip and engaged in conversation with lots of fellow retreat-ers. All of this forced me to realise I am scared of facing up to what I will see if I sat in the presence of God for too long.
In one of the books I read it highlighted the precise problem I faced,
If you go to the desert to be rid of all the dreadful people and all the awful problems in your life, you will be wasting your time. You should go to the desert for a total confrontation with yourself. For one goes to the desert to see more and to see better. One goes to the desert especially to take a closer look at the things and people one would rather not see, to face situations one would rather avoid, to answer questions one would rather forget. (Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand)
As I set out to my ‘desert’ I had one aim to sit in the presence of God and listen for His voice. As I began the task all I heard were the multitude of voices clambering for my attention. The advice I read:
If memories of your past keep coming between you and your God, or if any new thought or sin arises, tread heavily over them… cover them with a thick cloud of forgetting… when it gets really difficult, use every trick in the book, every spiritual device, to overcome them… Keep working hard and as fast as you can, I pray. If at first you don’t win through these ploys, suffer the pain humbly. Truly, it is your purgatory. (Anon, The Cloud of Unknowing)
Whilst I battled with these distractions, thoughts and images that flooded my mind there was the pattern of checking Facebook and Twitter.
Should I have not turned away from social media? At first I wanted to. But then the words of Williams and Pronzato came through; The desert is not about being cut off from others its about being brought closer with others by the eradication of my self built barriers between me and God and them.
I wanted to watch those I was in relationship with in order that I could pray and bring them before the God I sought to be close to. I wanted to come before God, not with self-interest, but the understanding that self-awareness (the goal of contemplation) is actually other-awareness. Thomas Merton suggests,
The more we are alone with God, the more we are united with one another. (Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation)
But in the cell of your own heart, this is harder than you think. It’s not easy to be in the desert, the vast wastelands, cut off from everything but God. His awesome presence is frightening, overwhelming and it takes a stronger person than I to find it, to dwell in it and to receive the sustenance of such a place.
I’m heading into the silence of this next retreat more aware of my sinfulness, my weakness and my failings; ready to stand at the precipice of the desert and call out in the confusion of my head and heart,
“Lord have mercy on me a sinner!”