This article was published in the September to December 2016 issue of Rapport magazine.
Shaun Lambert considers the value of being still whilst on a retreat and ‘cleaning the windows of our soul’
Sometimes people say to me, ‘I’d love to come on a retreat, but it’s not for me … if I sit down in silence I fall asleep.’ Other times people tell me retreats or contemplation are not for them because they are practical or activists and they don’t like the idea of doing nothing.
You could sit in your garage and carve a wooden cross to hold in your hand and it is likely that as you get in the flow of carving you will find a contemplative state of mind. A contemplative state of mind can be arrived at naturally and is the opposite of a stressed state of mind, which is probably how you entered the garage.
You can go on a five mile run and as you come back to your body and senses again you may well find yourself entering a more calm and aware state of mind naturally. It is in these natural states of mind that it is easier for us to hear God or sense God, or feel God communicating with us.
There are a number of approaches to contemplation but I think if we go back to Jesus in the gospels we can find a natural, embodied, relational and ethical way of attuning to the Spirit of Jesus, and becoming aware of God’s presence – which is how I define contemplation. Contemplation exists for a purpose – to enable us to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus and to do the things He did, in the way that He did them.
Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 A.D.) poetically describes Jesus as ‘The Wakeful One’. We are to ‘put on the Wakeful One’ (Jesus) in our baptism. As we put on the Wakeful One, we ourselves can become wakeful, or watchful. As we go on retreat the aim is to put on the Wakeful One and become wakeful ourselves.
We live in a culture that numbs us, and blinds us to reality and tries to get our conscience and will to fall asleep so that we don’t notice either the hidden kingdom of heaven all around us, or the transformation we need to bring to a world in need.
Contemplation begins with prayer and in Mark’s Gospel Jesus models a life of prayer for us. He goes out very early in the morning to a solitary and silent place (Mark 1:35-39). He makes Himself radically unavailable in order to be more completely present where He is actually needed. If Jesus as the Son of God needs to do this, how much more do we?
We don’t know exactly how He prayed, but we do know that when He was being tempted in the wilderness He answered Satan with scripture (Luke 4:1-13). Jesus wasn’t carrying scrolls around with him, so I believe, like the Jewish psalmists, Jesus meditated on Scripture in such a way that it became part of His inner library.
Within the Christian contemplative tradition this form of reading became known as lectio divina, a slow meditative reading that enabled the Words to become part of us, so that they could be prophetically remembered in ethical moments of choice that we have put before us.
Jesus, like the psalmists, also asked us to contemplate the works of God in nature in order to arrive at a place of wisdom. In His teaching on worry in Matthew 6, when He says in verse 25 ‘do not worry,’ He knows we will worry but the Greek here is present continuous.
What Jesus is saying is don’t get into a continuous state of worry which is what causes stress and anxiety. He gives us a way out of worry when He says ‘Look at the birds of the air’ (verse 26), or ‘consider’ the birds of the air. This is not a casual looking but a contemplative looking. I believe that Jesus here, as a Jewish rabbi, is giving us the same practice as the psalmist of Psalm 8, who says in verse three, ‘When I consider your heavens …’
For the psalmist this contemplative examination of nature as creation leads to the wise insight that God is ‘mindful’ of him, that God remembers him, cares for him and will actively work in his life (verse 4). Considering the birds and the lilies, as Jesus teaches us, can lead us to a similar insight. The beauty of coming on retreat to Lee Abbey is that we can both consider Scripture and nature as creation around us. We can do this in an embodied and natural way that involves our bodies, our souls, and our minds in an integrated and holistic way.
I think one of the reasons it is so important to use our God-given senses in the way Jesus commends is that the body and the senses are always in the present moment, it is our minds that are constantly in mental time travel, and often not in the reality around us. This natural form of contemplation is for everyone. Through it Jesus can transform our senses so that we become spiritually attuned to Him.
We can benefit greatly in this by remembering Jesus as a Sage, as a wise person. His words about worry are words of wisdom. This can help people find their way to Jesus as Saviour.
Jesus was also a Seer, a prophet. One of the recurrent themes in Mark’s gospel is the phrase ‘Jesus saw.’ For example, at the beginning of the gospel in Mark 1:16, it says, ‘As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew …’ This is a prophetic seeing, he sees their potential in their kingdom, as well as the times they will not walk as followers of the Way, betraying and denying him. This clear seeing is something we can learn to cultivate on retreat, as we let the mud of our lives settle down.
Jesus was also a Storyteller, a creator of riddles and parables. The meaning of parables is not immediately obvious. In fact this sort of language teases us out of rational critical thinking, into a place of awareness. Paradoxically through a parable we can step out of our automatic cultural and religious scripts and see the world in a new way.
In Western culture we have focused very much on trying to persuade people into the kingdom. I think Jesus, through the living Words He spoke and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, wants people to reperceive the world. When our eyes are opened the insights we receive are much more stable and transforming than an argument that has persuaded us, and we can easily be persuaded out of.
To paraphrase Evelyn Underhill, on retreat we are cleaning the windows of our soul in order to let in the Light!
Join us at Lee Abbey Devon for…
THE MINDFUL CHRISTIAN
14–18 November 2016 (Mon–Fri)
Join Shaun as he explores mindfulness in its different aspects and in relation to Jesus’ teaching on watchfulness in Mark’s gospel. Developing our God-given relational and ethical attentiveness can only happen ‘from the inside out’ and so there will be opportunities to develop mindful and contemplative states of mind through spiritual practices as well as engaging with the natural beauty in which Lee Abbey is set.