On the pilgrim way: Listening for Christ in the silence
That’s a bit different,” said the man beside me on the Gatwick flyer at 5.30am on a dark January morning: “I’m off for a bit of cycling in the sun in Lanzarote and you’re off to silence in snowy Norway.” The silence at Lia Gard, the retreat centre, for the next six days was almost complete. Outside in the pine woods it was complete; inside, daily prayers and a half-an-hour talk with a wise companion were the only breaks in silence.
To add to the emptiness, we were discouraged from reading books apart from the Bible. Our text to start us off was Jesus saying to his disciples: “Come away to a deserted place … and rest awhile,” (Mark 6:30-32) and, with a wry smile, my companion suggested it could take six days for me to cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat with Jesus.
It may sound daunting and rather like one of those purging diets on offer at some health cure spa, but in fact I felt warmly welcomed and cocooned – kept safe for a few days while I let all my various roles go, trusting that there would still be something of me left there. To begin with, it was my senses which became heightened as I spent hours just watching the blazing logs in the fires, the eager birds on the bird feeder, the deer tracks in the snow, the changing sky. I knitted and waited, and on the third day (!) Jesus spoke to me and said: “You matter to me, you know.” Of course, I have testified to God’s love many times over the years and endlessly preached that Good News, but somehow, those understated words had an integrity for me which more conventional, religious words often do not. I felt embarrassed – the way I often feel when my husband tells me he loves me. It took another “empty” day for me to hear myself reply, even more embarrassed: “And you matter to me too.”
That day, the reading at midday prayers had special meaning for me:
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8).
I knew I was one of those trees, planted many, many years ago by the living water promised by Jesus, and I had just had a rush of that water. I was ready now to leave my “safe house” and re-enter the good life of relationships, responsibilities and activities with which God has blessed me.
My Norway retreat experience was, indeed, “a bit different” but, for all I know, God may also have done some business in Lanzarote with my cycling neighbour from the Gatwick flyer.
Sheila Maxey is book reviews editor for Reform
This is an extract from the April 2015 edition of Reform.