10 years ago I went on a month long retreat in Northumberland close to the East Coast Holy Isle, Lindisfarne. The seeds of desire for change were slowly germinating during that very cold month of January, when show fell on the beach. I deepened my love of nature and oystercatchers being abundant they were one of the first birds I identified. And without knowing where I would end up, there was a clear call to start to surrender the tight grip of the ego and allow the soul a chance to take the lead.
10 years later.
I have just completed a retreat on another Holy Isle, this one off the West Coast of Scotland, close to Arran. The oystercatchers were here too, this time my slightly sharper eye caught sight of a young chick being loudly and fiercely protected by its parent.
I’ve spent many years exploring both professionally and personally, different expressions of spirituality. But at some point along the way, not that many years ago, I was challenged by something I read along the lines of “find a tradition and stick with it”. I chose despite strong reservations to return to my faith of origin, Christianity. Not long after that on the first night of a 2 year course I’d started in Canada, I asked a tutor what she was reading. “Cynthia Bourgeault” is your woman, she said, I hardly knew how to spell her name at the time.
The course was disappointing, but reading Cynthia’s books excited me, it was almost a reward for the decision I’d made. I managed to secure a place on a “wisdom school” retreat in the States in September 2012. That was equally inspirational. So when a place came up on a similar retreat with Cynthia in the UK, I signed up wondering all the while whether this would be “more of the same”. Despite these thoughts, I stayed faithful to my commitment to being there, all the time enjoying the wonderful wildlife on the island.
One of the first things Cynthia said, and it could have been directed at me personally, was “it’s not about learning more, but more of our selves learning”. Despite giving intellectual assent to this, I found myself at times thinking “oh, not that again” or “I’ve done this before”.
One of the subjects Cynthia talked about, that I didn’t recall from the previous retreat, was “ three centred knowing”. It’s a teaching from Gurdjieff, in a nutshell, and very simply, the idea that spiritual truth comes to us not only through our intellectual centre (mind), but also through our moving (body) centre, and our emotional (heart, not feelings) centre. To engage the moving centre we did manual work for an hour each day. My job was collecting seaweed off the beach for the compost “cake”, a very happy time, seeing more of the bird life as we worked. The emotional or heart centre is not at all about being in touch with feelings, they being rather a distraction, but developing through meditation, prayer, lectio divina, chanting, surrender, what she calls “the organ of spiritual perception”.
On return to Devon I was preparing for a small group that meets fortnightly here to reflect on a saying from the gospel of Thomas. I normally send out an email with the saying for the session a couple of days before. One participant emailed back to say we’d already looked at this particular logion, or saying. My immediate thought was that I’d lost the plot. And looking back I realised it had come up in the first session as part of the introduction. But instead of scrambling around to re-arrange the session, I knew instantly what to do. We would stay with the saying, and let more of our selves learn.