I’ve just returned from a retreat – 2 weeks of sunshine on the Black Isle in Scotland, doing the first half of the classic Ignatian 30 day retreat. During that time lambs were being born in the field next door.
I got off to a rocky start, having forgotten that it would be a fairly heavy immersion in reflective readings from the bible. That’s simply because I’m used to following my own lead on retreats these days. I’ve long wanted to make the full 30 day retreat, as people have told me how life-changing it can be. Not that I was looking for my life to be changed, but I was looking for a deepening of my spiritual life. The Exercises were devised by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, in the 16th Century, a soldier turned Christian seeker. The language is dated, militaristic, heavy at times. But for some reason it has stood the test of time, and I can vouch for its efficacity (there are two updated versions of the exercises to use alongside the original).
One thing that struck me from the outset, as I contemplated my “blessed history” (times in which I felt a deep sense of the numinous), was the pivotal time in my late teens, when I left the family home and embarked on an independent life. Through a close and still dear friend, I learned about being “saved by grace”. I prayed for the experience, and in the end pretended it had happened, so keen was I to join the ranks, to keep the military theme going. Despite being drawn somehow to have a deeper Christian experience, the medium didn’t for me match the message. I spent a long time saying my faith was theocentric rather than christocentric (focused on a god who I could at least relate to albeit at a distance, rather than Jesus who seemed far removed from my experience).
It’s a long story in the intervening years, enjoying exploring all faiths and none, and holding Christianity lightly from my 30s onwards. But the search never stopped, and in my 50s after quitting publishing, I was introduced to the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault and others, (including Marcus Borg). Her description of Jesus as a wisdom teacher, her insistence on the importance of spiritual practices such as (centering prayer) meditation and other “surrender” practices, in order to fully grasp his teachings, and the way in which she draws widely from other traditions and teachings (Gurdjieff for example), was a breath of fresh air for me.
Someone told me around that time, that to really grow spiritually we need to stick with one tradition and go deep within it. It rang a bell with me, simultaneously with my reading of new ways of understanding the Christian tradition. And so I came full circle.
My struggles with the Spiritual Exercises paid off, and I was rewarded in a lovely way. I found my own way to understand the subject of the first week – sin. It was a humbling experience, in the true (not Uriah Heep) sense of the word: discovering some fundamental ways in which I allow myself to be separated from God, the Source, the Centre, the Mystery of Life. Finding an image for it helped – a closed clam shell which I found on the beach.
The second week took me through the early years of Jesus’ life, up until his baptism. Again I had times of resisting some of the readings – invited to work with them in an imaginative way, I sometimes couldn’t get beyond my limited mind – can I really give myself a part in the nativity story, so clichéd has it become. But I didn’t give up, I knew that this was the path I had chosen, and I was blessed to have a wonderful location in which to make short and longer walks along the shore, up the hills into the woodland, and around the labyrinth in the garden.
My reward was simply the gentlest of a close encounter with Jesus in an imaginative exercise on his baptism. The previous day I’d had a sense of part of me being like a frightened animal; this went back to the first non-encounter. At the time I had just emerged from what for me was a very restrictive family “cocoon”, and having moved out of the family home and embarked on an independent life, I felt the way Christianity was presented to me was similar – a long list of do’s and don’ts, none of which I found very appealing.
I wrote in my journal last week “It occurred to me that what happened (when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism) was a tearing or rending of the veil between two worlds, the physical and the spiritual, and the invitation from Jesus was simply to step across the threshold between those two worlds and join him. It was as gentle and tender as the touch of a feather. A moment of pure recognition.
I no longer believe in individual salvation, I never really did. But I do believe that if we truly want to enter into a deeper relationship with God – the Creative Source, the Mystery of Life, the invitation is always there to join in that great Cosmic Dance, however tentative, afraid or shy we might be.
I’m excited about where this is taking me. I have wanted to go deeper, explore further without fear. The resistance to an invitation that was badly presented 40 years ago, found a resonance in me as it came in the gentlest of ways – hardly a whisper of movement, the gentlest of beckoning, as I step quietly and softly over the threshold.
A final note of humour. As this imaginative journey went on, I said “I must be the first disciple then?” (since my encounter with Jesus immediately followed his baptism). “Er, well there are others too”, came the reply, with a smile on his face.