A couple of weekends ago I enjoyed a glorious weekend on Eilean Dubh Mor as part of a ‘wilderness retreat’. I’ve been a part of them for several years (5 of the last 6) and they are something that I look forward to more than I ever did a Christian convention in years past.
There is something about the space, silence, laughter, raw honesty, prayer, swearing and whisky that never fails to move me or persuade me that there is still hope. My friend writes about it more beautifully and with better pictures than I do ( see https://thisfragiletent.com/2018/05/09/wilderness-retreat-photos-2018/ for example).
During one of the times when I wandered and wondered around the island, I came across this plant, high up on a rock and surrounded by rockpools. It is a small heather plant; how it lodged in such a fissure and grew is unusual and its presence captured me. In fact I circled back to take the above photo as I wanted the memory.
I wrote some words: kind of a prayer I guess. Parts of it mine from a rich seam of cliche, but other parts I like.
May the eddying wind,
Carry at least one small seed
Deep into the crevasse
Of the rock face of
May it find
Blown there by
the same swirling wind.
May that earth
be moistened by
Unlooked for rain.
And may that seed
Nervously advance roots
And start to grow;
frail at first
and then defiant.
And may that plant
By travellers in the wilderness,
looking for they know not what.
And may it give them
that they cannot articulate,
A wry smile,
A soul that sings again.
I took this nearly 2 weeks ago looking out to sea on a wilderness retreat. I think that shortly after I took this I fell asleep on the same rock and lost an hour. I didn’t fall into that same sea.
This is not the greatest photo in the world but it reminds me of the sheer unadulterated bliss of lengthy periods of looking out to sea and becoming lost in the sound of the crashing of the waves.
Each time I do this on a Scottish island retreat I can hear this music over and over again:-
..and each time I hear this music I am taken back to that still place…
This time last week I was on a far island.
I spent a weekend on a wilderness retreat: just over 2 days of surviving, deep and frivolous conversation, silence, prayer & whisky. It is the 4th time in the last 5 years I have taken part and many of the disparate group of blokes that go have become friends: some of whom I would share things with that I would with few others. Again, we were in the Inner Hebrides: in sight of the mainland, but also with the wild vastness of the Atlantic around us.
It sounds romantic and, indeed, this year the weather was glorious which made it easier than it has been in the past. It is, however, not easy- there is no ‘civilisation’ as much: no warm shelter, heating, water or toilets, although we take enough with us to survive. Daily tasks take longer, require more thought and cooperation.
We need each other: no retreating to warm, self catered rooms where we can upload to social media and facebrag about ‘having a #deep time. amazing room’ and subtly boasting about the ‘gorgeous’ place we can afford that sets us apart from the herd who can’t do so.
Each time I return, however, I return feeling better (initially by the use of the first warm shower and proper toilet...); there is something about a time where the normal barriers of middle class existence drop and we can’t hide behind any of the usual comforts that separate us from each other. Conversations seem deeper and intense enjoyment of the little things become more profound; staring out to sea in wonder and sometimes verbal or wordless prayer opens the soul to light a little more.
There was a time when big gatherings, exuberant preaching and loud music inspired me ; I know for the majority it still does. For me, however, it is the small, the stillness beyond words and the wild that nurtures me more than ever.
I am profoundly grateful and thankful for times like these.
I think the thing that hit me most this year is that there are many different ways to be Christian. Of course I already knew that: it just struck home this time. I do not have to follow the same path as I have always trod.
We are always a mixed bunch: a sprinkling of ministers, some ex church but still full of faith, some not sure, people who own no faith and a soupcon of holy rollers. It is interesting over years to see how stories shift and change. It is always heart-warming to see parts of my story reflected in theirs and to realise I am not alone. It is always good to have encouragement for the journey rather than straight lines and bounded sets.
I sometimes felt that (the straight lines and bounded sets)towards the end of my time at large Christian gatherings: the constant worship band and what I perceived as monochrome presentation. This island group is far smaller, far more diverse and -for me- far more ‘real’: I don’t think you can talk about a broken world and then launch into a long ‘time of worship’ (mainly guitar led and upbeat), but I know I am in a minority.
Give me an island, however, a group of diverse friends and personality types, structured honest conversation, stories, silence, laughter, whisky and crudity and I am more at home than in most Christian gatherings.
Our advertising culture talks about the ‘wild’ as a place of discovery and freedom. Yet, it is a freedom we can only enjoy if we have the right car or expensive ‘outdoor’ products. We need our consumer durables to somehow protect us from what we seek. Notice how many adverts use ‘the wild’ as a backdrop, with the (un) subtle message ‘If you buy this product, and another one, and another one etc, you can truly be free and ‘be yourself’.
I am not a camper- I loathe even caravans. Give me a clean toilet, a good bed, access to plentiful showers, fresh clothes and a well stocked kitchen and I am happy and me. Throw me into a wild place and I cannot survive easily.
Unless I am with others and we begin to share and rely on each other (and each time I go, I realise that I do a lot of relying- more than the average). There will be niggles, but there will also be a lot more sharing and relating to each other.
That is one thing I miss when I return. We live in these big castles called ‘houses’ and often live fairly solitary lives- real interdependence is rare; indeed is often seen as weakness or somehow ‘lacking’.
But I am beginning to think it is a better way..
It wasn’t a proper wilderness: it is hard to go anywhere in the British Isles that is truly remote- traces of human habitation are everywhere. Also, we bring our own equipment and food and know that we will be travelling back at an appointed time.
But it feels like wilderness: the weather is wild and unpredictable, there is no shelter apart from that which we make , no power supply or plumbed water supply and nothing which we are used to in our normal ‘civilised’ lives.
That is the whole point of it: wildness, exposure, reminder of how narrow the border is between developed civilisation and wilderness.
People sometimes ask: ‘Do you hear God?’ I guess I do: but not in the same way as you would in a warm room, filter coffee at your side and a pristine Bible open as you read passages about the wildness of God and the unpredictability of life.
I also feel, initially at least that everything is out of control. That is simultaneously wildly liberating and also unsettling.
And that is good.
When it is siling it down, the temperature drops to what can only be called ‘nithering’ and the wind reaches gale force, who you are and what you believe becomes less important: you just want survival and warmth.
Actually, the same happened when we were well fed, warm and the sun was out: diversity and different points of view did not become something to be argued about. Rather we became stories to be listened to.
Over time I have become less and less enamoured with theological arguments or ‘faith v atheism’ arguments. It is not that examination of different points of view is unimportant, rather that face to face argument over ‘the issues’ (whatever they are) often becomes an excuse not to listen or avoid any kind of intimacy with the other person. I have written many times about how I became a better Pool player at theological college; I actually got to talk with people rather than join the argument at the other end of a Common Room.
I guess that being on the island confirmed what I already feel: someone’s story and why they believe what they do is far more important than arguing about them. And that is another reason why I like this island time.
I think one of the things I have valued most about the three weekends I have done for a ‘wilderness retreat’ has been the practice of temporary community.
Sometimes the place where you live can be anything but: at worst a group of people who happen to live in the same geographical locale and separately consume products without really relating to each other. Times when we really connect (aside from comparing said products) can be rare, or for some; hardly ever.
But when we connect around a shared purpose, however that happens, it can be a rare and precious thing. Life feels different, brighter and more full of hope than it was before.
Apart from social media, I connect with these people only once a year and share more deeply and intensely with them than I normally do with most people. It is a precious and lovely thing.
Of course the cynic could say ‘But you’d get fed up with each other after a while’. That would be true, I guess: some I easily connect with and others less so. That is not the point, however: the connections that we do make are sustaining and bring life.
And when that happens it is worth hlding on to.
If life had worked out differently this weekend, I would have been on an uninhabited island off the West coast of Scotland. I have done this on this weekend for the last 2 years and was hoping to do it today. Owing to an impending house move, this has not been possible.
This has not been a ‘holiday’ as such, but a retreat with a group based in Dunoon that now draws contacts (like me) from across Britain. I have really valued this: a weekend of refocussing, stillness, prayer, silliness, swearing, whisky and honesty.
I used to be a big fan of Christian festivals: the noise and excitement of several thousand people together for a week of teaching, celebration, activity and seminars was enervating. Now I don’t do them: it is the little gatherings, the exercises of ‘temporary community’ that reach me the most. In other words, I will really miss this weekend: I needed the community.
Next year then….
‘So what did you get out of it?’ ‘Was it worth it?’ Questions like that are easy to answer if you have had a meal or a car serviced. It is hard to answer questions like that when someone has had some kind of experience (the best gigs I have been to have been one that have grown on me, sometimes for weeks afterwards). In fact, I would generally distrust someone who can evaluate an experience fully, immediately afterwards. If you don’t believe me, watch interviews with footballers immediately after coming off a pitch & note the difficulty describing what happened.
Just as the journey there was preparation, so the journey back offers a chance to begin to think, although usually I am so tired (it is hard to sleep in a tent when the rain is pouring down…).
What I have learned is that the effects are not instant and I keep returning again and again to what happened. Writing this is part of it. I did take a notepad; words and impressions strike me during the course of every day and I also write bad poetry. I wrote precisely nothing. I wasn’t suprised at this; usually the experience takes days, weeks to mediate. Sometimes the sound of birdsong at dawn or dusk brings it back, sometimes the smell of rain or even a moment when I stop and turn off. I generally find that I talk less in the days afterwards; talk is cheap and I want to value it.
One of the biggest things is a new appreciation of ‘stuff’ that I have: having had just a short time when day to day existence had to be consciously thought through, I tend to value even the most battered of my excess of possessions to be more valuable. After all: being cast adrift with little gives me a keener appreciation that all this- everything- could pass at a moment/
I also find that I try to build ‘retreat’ into my life more. Although I use social media a lot, I do have moments when I turn it off. In addition, sometimes I consciously walk and breathe slowly; it is not necessary to rush at everything- why try and answer the phone after 2 rings if it involves sprinting through the house, why not walk slowly and be in a better state to listen?
So; ask me in a few weeks….