One of my birthday presents this year was a night away on a retreat (I have excellent friends) and last week I finally got around to going to Penhurst Retreat Centre in deepest darkest East Sussex.
I went in need of some sleep, a morning without someone shouting at me from 6am to go down the ‘dairs and in need of remembering that there was indeed a God.
It was with some apprehension that I set out in Gracie last Wednesday morning, what if God didn’t show up? What was the set up like at the retreat place? What was I going to do for 24 hours on my own? Thankfully, as often happens, my fears were settled on arrival. As I opened the door I was greeted with a sign that said, ‘Welcome, Breathe, Be Still, You have arrived.’ I breathed in deep and pushed through my fears to embrace whatever was to come.
Penhurst is a lovely place, it has a fair few structured retreats throughout the year but also, if space allows, welcomes random visitors to come and go and use the house, gardens and prayer spaces as you like. I rocked up mid morning, was shown my room, told the times of meals and left to my own devices. I spent some time exploring the grounds, sitting enjoying the silence and a very beautiful hour lying under a tree in the sunshine, overwhelmed by the peace of the place and the slightly unnerving feeling that it seemed obvious that God was real, present and with me.
Lunchtime revealed that there were about 6 other people staying in the house that week (It’s a small place), I was uber grateful for amazing food that I didn’t have to cook or endure anyone whinging about the state of it in front of me. I was also grateful I have the ability to know that I didn’t want random conversation over food and so stayed pretty quiet and left swiftly. I think you can ask for food in your room if you want to be totally silent but I was fine with eating and disappearing. I shrugged off my desire for politeness and the introvert inside dragged me back to some space on my own.
After a nap, I made a cup of tea and headed out into the sunny Orchard behind the house.
I thought I was going on retreat to drag up the latest of my theological baggage to see whether I could get any closer to a nice neat worldview. I thought I might need to cry all day because of how hard life is right now. I thought lots of things.
As I wandered about my chat with God went a bit like this:
Me: So, I’m here (fumbles around in her brain, didn’t we have BIG things to deal with?)
God: Look at that amazing tree, how beautiful are those leaves? Look this pretty acorn case and this tree with a hidden nook in it. Isn’t the sun amazingly warm on your face. (Big silence as I appreciate all these things)
Me: Yeah but God what about…
God: Wait, have you SEEN how shinny these apples are, so red and delightful.
Me: Ok, I’m going to go and sit down in that summer house now. What is it that I’m doing here?
God: Well, I think you know don’t you, lovely one? You’ve been numbing the pain of life for a while now, you might just need to stop scrolling on your phone so much and filling your head with all that information from other people and other sources, you know it doesn’t really help with living a present life attentive to my love and the people around you don’t you…
Me: er. oh. yes.
God: And please remember that I’m the fount of living water, the best stuff to drink from, the one who loves you most, are you really looking for the red ‘like’ button more than basking in how much I love you?
Me: Um. Oh. I’m really sorry about that. Seems a bit daft when you look at it like that.
God: Kath, I forgive you, I love you, look at this beautiful world, how green the grass is, how blue the sky, hear those birds sing, I look after this world and that’s nothing compared to how much I love you and am looking out for you. Remember dear heart, I love you,
Oh and Kath, seriously, you aren’t as broken as you think you are. You’re tired and weary but also complete, whole, you can keep walking. I love you so much. You know I’ve got you don’t you? You can feel it here can’t you? Here is your green pasture, lie in it, enjoy it, you are known, you are seen, you are adored by me. You will always want to lose yourself in others but I am your source. Drink deep from me.
Me: Yeah, it seems odd that I’d ever rage against you when I’m sat in this place. (feels deep sense of peace and that everything might be ok after all, tries a few times to feel a bit angsty about theology or despairing about things with the lovely husbandface, gives up after it doesn’t work. Feels some more peace. Smiles. Laughs. Gazes at the sunny orchard in front of her and the shinny apples)
The rest of my time was taken up with reading the excellent Quiet by Susan Cain, talking to God in the freest loveliest way I have for a very long time, gazing at pretty things, ducking out of odd conversations over dinner, being glad God has to love us all however weird or odd our views on life are, grinning with delight at being able to go to bed at 8pm, drawing, noticing, resting, soaking in the wonder of being oddly full of belief that God was real and loving remembering all over again that God has got me and isn’t going to let me go. Being away from my phone and the endless scrolling I’ve got into the habit of was so refreshing and I am trying hard to change my habits now I’m back home.
I’m still smiling a week on and I can see hope again. My phone is less in my hand, I’m trying different ways of accessing social media and slowly remembering each day who I belong to. In the midst of my angst at life the call remains. To love as I am loved. This life with God can seem disarmingly simple at times…
Obviously my personality now wants to stamp on this joy and not write it down for fear it will disappear tomorrow, but even if it does it was still real, still meaningful and will return. I am enjoying these days of tasting hope, goodness, light and a weird unshakable feeling that someone has our back.