Last week I was on retreat in the Trough of Bowland. Stunning! I hear you cry, and yes, that’s precisely why I went to the trouble of booking that particular place, schlepping all the self-catering shopping, organising Spiritual Drection and a pattern of prayer, worship, Ashing and the Eucharist, not to mention the dogs and all of their kit and kaboodle up the motorway.
‘When I sit and look out of the panoramic windows (yes, on three sides of the lounge) and think on God, it will all be worth it,’ I sighed as I pulled into the drive in brilliant sunshine on Sunday afternoon. The view down through the valley, across the neighbouring farms in the low afternoon sun was indeed, stunning. Smokey white clouds barely grazed the azure sky, the grass was dry enough for a spot of cricket practice and running to and fro fetching the balls brought more fresh air into my lungs than I’ve experienced in a long time. Bliss!
I went to Christchurch to share in one of my old Area Dean’s said Eucharist’s. He has such a way of making you feel that every word has been thought up with you in mind, embodying the presence of a priest who still inhabits sacred spaces in the everyday and the mundane, making them meaningful in ways you hadn’t noticed before. His wife – about to have their second child – was pregnant with laughter as usual, and his daughter the delight that she always is. She later introduced me to Roger, the hamster, showing me how to hand-feed him. I was suprised by how long it had been since I’d spent a long, slow moment with a child, listening to them and sharing in their delight.
Reflection, challenge, direction later and my first night of going to bed at a reasonable hour without a single email to check felt like absolute heaven and I could not wait for the week to unfold. Walks and views and vistas beckoned to me from all around and I shivered with delight at the potential for meeting with God amidst such beauty, enjoying long uninterrupted conversations, one-sided as they might tend to be… Oooh transcendence was on the tip of my spirit!
The next morning, sweeping the curtains with glee from the virtually all glass lounge I was met with a wall of white. The fog was so dense I could barely see the church outlined like a charcoal drawing by an amateur; more smudge than line.
I can’t tell you how my spirits sank as I realised that not only was the fog not lifting, but that it was thickening in a curling brew like a head of steam from some invisible dragon whose lair I had accidentally gate-crashed. Winds buffeted the bungalow and I needed my ski-jacket to brace the weather outside of any door. I couldn’t drive anywhere, I couldn’t walk anywhere, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The dogs were walked around the bungalow day and night for their toilet trips and even they pulled to get back inside – my two! On some days the Lychgate was no more than a suggestion, walking smack bang into the church a distinct possibility. When I saw Fr. Phil at the end of the week he laughed and said, ‘It’s unbelievable! Lancaster is fine, but it’s like the end of the world out here!’
So I spent a week in the cloud of unknowing. I didn’t know when it would lift. I didn’t know what lay before me. I didn’t know what I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t ‘see’ God, not in the way that I usually do. I was absolutely forced to be still. And yes, it’s a silent place out there, but during the days of the fog, not even the birds sang which I hadn’t realised until – yes, you guessed it, on the day I packed up the fog faded into clouds, and they scurried off sheepishly as I re-packed my car in the sunshine, – a robin alighted on the fence and sang to me with all her heart. It reminded me of Phil’s reading on the Sunday evening of my arrival,
‘And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of silence. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.’ (taken from 1 Kings 19)
So for once, I haven’t come back from retreat having walked for miles, exploring and singing my way through well-known wildernesses. I haven’t got a journal full of prayerful listenings and revelation. I just have the memory of being still in a cloud of unknowing, and knowing that that was alright.