It occurred to me that there may be one or two people who had read my previous blog post who might be wondering what happened to me on the retreat. Some of it is very personal so I won’t share it here, but here’s what happened in the gentle little adventure from which I returned several weeks ago now…
The days leading up to it were incredibly dark and scary for me. It felt as if I was being led into some horrible place where all of my worst thoughts about God and myself were being collected together, and that there was no way back, only straight towards them. Dramatic, I know, but I am a very exciting and dramatic person, as you know.
When I arrived at the retreat centre I burst into tears and begged Housemate to either stay there with me or take me straight home again. She hugged me and laughed nervously (which is what she tends to do when I behave like a hysterical psycho), told me I was going to be OK, and left me. I cried a bit more and then fell asleep until it was time for dinner.
Later, I came up to my room and arranged two chairs so that I might imagine Jesus in the other one. It had been so long since I’d prayed, I figured I’d need some kind of visual help to remind me there was someone there listening. I tried to pray but it was as if I had been gagged. More than that though, God was not there. I didn’t want him there; I was terrified of him. I didn’t want him close enough to take anything away from me. I cried some more. In my tears, after a long time, I managed to say ‘God, I’m so tired’. I meant not just now, but after all those years and all the fighting and sadness. I felt a voice reply tenderly: ‘No wonder’ and a sense of arms around me and immediately I pushed it away. Getting close is dangerous. That’s how hearts get broken and things get taken away. It was 7:30pm and I went to bed, exhausted. I heard a voice somewhere in my head say ‘Come to me all who are weary, and I will give you rest’. I put it down to my imagination and slept for twelve and a half hours.
The next day, Good Friday, I had breakfast with a friendly South African couple. They asked why I was there and I told them I hadn’t been able to pray for a long time and I wanted to see if I could address that. They advised me to start with what came easily: one verse, a worship song; start with Jesus. This seemed good advice.
I went over for morning prayers in the chapel. I listened to the stuff about Jesus dying and felt numb. They blew out the candles, turned out the lights, turned on some annoying Christian music and told us to stay as long as we wished. I wanted to stay to see if I could pray there. Most people left straight away. One other person remained and I wanted her to go in case I cried again. She stayed, resolutely and noisily breathing through her nose. I prayed ‘Lord, please can she bugger off?’. The woman got up and left. I felt slightly encouraged. I addressed the problem of the horrible music and put on some sensible looking hymns instead. I listened to around 7 in a row, trying to feel something. Then a song came on I had never heard. I could tell by the chord sequences and the non-congregation-friendly (but very, very beautiful) melody, that it was an old one. It is called O Love That Will Not Let Me Go, and was being performed by Martyn Joseph with just an acoustic guitar. He sounded heart-broken. And the words were my prayer, though I wasn’t able to say them myself:
1. O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
2. O light that foll’west all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
3. O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
4. O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
I went back to my room and downloaded the nearest version I could find (it’s this one here if you’d like to hear it) and listened to it over and over again. My soul was weary, and my torch was flickering. In particular, the lines ‘I cannot close my heart to thee’ and ‘I dare not ask to fly from thee’, felt like everything I was able to say at that point. I longed to move forward and towards him, but all I could manage was to say I could not, dare not, move away.
I tried again to pray. I tried writing, walking, talking out loud, waiting. I couldn’t get past that feeling that God was muffled and distant, and of me being too leaden to move and approach him. I read the whole of Mark’s gospel. Jesus seemed everso grumpy and impatient with his disciples to me. I started to read a book about Jesus. I tried to write out some of the things I want wanted to wrestle with God over. I felt very tired very quickly. I went to bed, deeply discouraged and surer than ever that God was either absent or unkind.
I woke up the next morning with a very heavy heart at the thought of another whole day with nothing on the agenda except failing to pray all day long. In desperation, I arranged to have a one to one chat with the lady warden of the retreat centre after breakfast. She had strikingly kind eyes. I tend to think it’s only terrible writers who attribute emotion to people’s eyes, but hers really were. So much so that I trusted her, even though she was a stranger and a Christian: a combination that usually guarantees distrust in me. She was also named Storm. What an improbably cool name for an apparently ordinary lady in a cardigan and pearl necklace.
I met with Storm, and of course, I began to cry immediately before we’d even begun. I told her I was here because I couldn’t pray, and that I couldn’t pray because I didn’t like God and didn’t trust him. She asked me to tell her about the god I didn’t like by starting at the beginning.
I told her a lot of my story and she told me a lot of truths about God in response. She asked me what I’d learned about Jesus in Mark’s gospel and laughed when I said he was grumpy – she said that showed he was fully human. She asked what else. I said I could see he was Lord. And I wanted him to be Lord: I wanted to live in a world where all of this chaos is looked over and looked after by someone. Someone powerful and someone who cares. The alternative is terrifying and I don’t want to entertain it.
Anyway, she said a lot of other things too. She listened to me in an unhurried way, she got angry about the right things and sad at the right points, and pointed me again and again to the authentic, living Jesus.
And I went for a walk and I sat on a log and I prayed. Not for a long time, and not about any of the angry things I had thought I was going to pray about.
But that’s because I was praying for probably the first time, to a different god. The one I saw in Jesus and not the punitive, greedy, spiteful god of my own making. The other things belonged to a different time and a different relationship.
I read some more, cried a little more, and slept a lot more. Then it was Easter morning. I had a cooked breakfast, went to the local church where they read out profound truths by rote and sang Alleluia like a yawn. And then I sat down again to talk to Storm. I told her I wanted to start again, like a baby, because that’s what I probably am spiritually. I wanted to learn what my own unique relationship with Jesus looked like. I wanted to learn about Jesus with fresh eyes. She told me that that’s when I would really grow, when my faith was really my own. I prayed and committed myself to God as if for the first time, but this time with hope for a new life. A new birth. A genuine trust in a gentle God. A God who loves me, individually, uniquely and unconditionally. A God who is kind. All new things for me really. The beginning of a new adventure.