Where to start? I was sitting cross-legged on a large quern stone in the long meadow behind Swarthmoor Hall in the Lake District. My two friends were facing me, listening expectantly. We’d ventured into the desert to experience something of the Mothers and Fathers when they fled from the modern cities of Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries CE to live in community. They spent time alone or with their teacher, living in caves and cells, in quiet contemplation. I wanted some of it. Looking round, it was a gloriously sunny morning in September. The sun warmed my back and flies and bees were whispering in our ears. It was now my turn to speak. Ufff.

‘I think I will start with the word ‘judgement’, I told my companions.  ‘I like being on my own and I like being part of a group. Sometimes, I choose to stay on my own when I ought to seek the company of others. And I also like being with others but there are times when I should have stayed on my own. So, the word ‘judgement’ is really important for me. I don’t always get it right. I think I need to sit with this and ask myself why.’ And I need to practise.

What was the point of fleeing to the ‘desert’? I thought it was about making ourselves available to God, feeling God’s presence, hearing his voice amid the clatter and persecution of Roman rule. Eighteen months ago, God seemed to me like a stern disciplinarian, a hard taskmaster with a wagging finger. Now, I feel God’s presence as a source of lightness and darkness enveloping me from immense depth, like swimming in a warm sea. If I’m lucky, this is where I experience the deepest connection of spiritual growth, support and, above all, love from a loving father. If only I could make the connection more often. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, I fail so many times. I fail each day. And that’s ok because, sometimes, I don’t fail. I’m learning to keep on trying, to make a fresh start.

While at Swarthmoor, I started reading Gerald Hewitson’s Swarthmoor Lecture, Journey into Life. In one passage, he likens the plainness and simplicity of the Quaker meeting room to the simple patterns of the desert, free from distraction. This seems so obvious to me now I’ve read it.

I have taken away a toolkit from my course to help me with establishing my contemplative life. It feels as if I have been to the garage and had my wheels re-balanced. I’ve come away with more tools to add to those I already have. For example, ‘Holy Reading’ or ‘Lectio divina’, where I can sit for a time reading a short passage over and over again till certain words jump out at me…This is a man. It may be 5 minutes practice or it could be an hour.  Whatever you have.  And I have journaling, which I already make time for on a Saturday morning, as often as I can.

I can use a ‘holding someone in the light’ meditation, especially for someone who is annoying me, my feelings seemingly changing from irritation to love by a blessing or lovingkindness practice. Or repeating a word or phrase to help me centre down. Breathing is so cool and I love the symphony of sound meditation.

Our teacher invited us to carry out a review of a typical day. ‘What spiritual practises do you have already? What other tasks stop you from joining with the spirit?’, she asked. As a result, I have decided to cut down the amount of time I spend on social media sites, particularly of an evening  – a great relief to lots of you, I know; they are quite addictive – to make time for reading and something I love and need to practise, playing my beautiful deep red bass guitar. This is in addition to my daily practices of physical exercises (Qi Gong, Earth Breath 1 and other odds and sods) each morning; walking regularly to or from work through the parks. These have sprung up at various times and grown, enabling me to open myself up to God, not always successfully. And five minutes peace…taking five minutes peace, closing my eyes at my desk or on the bus or the train to feel for what is important. (Note to self – do this more often!)

So, who were the Desert Mothers and Fathers? We know them only by their stories. Here are a few of them, which jumped out at me:

Amma Syncletica said: Just as a treasure exposed is quickly spent, so also any virtue that becomes famous or well publicized vanishes. Just as wax is quickly melted by fire, so the soul is emptied by praise, and loses is firmness.

Abba Poemen (fast becoming my favourite abba) asked Abba Anthony: What should I do? The old man said: Do not be confident in your own righteousness, do not worry about a thing once it’s done, and control your tongue and your stomach.

Abba Poemen said: Teach your mouth to speak what is in your heart.

Abba Elias said: Unless the mind sings with the body, the labour is in vain. And: Whoever loves tribulation will have joy and refreshment afterwards.

Abba James said: We do not want words alone, for there are too many words among people today. What we need is action, for that is what we are looking for, not words which do not bear fruit.*

We stood together in a rich and warm embrace for more than time, feeling our breath. And when we parted, we sang ‘hallelujah’ and threw up our hands in the air. Goodness knows what the bramble pickers over the other side of the wall made of us!

It was time to return to our community and our teacher to share what we had learned about action and contemplation. Barefooted, we walked back over the short, wet grass.

*(Taken from Desert Wisdom by Henry Nouwen, illustrated by Yushi Nomura)


A Tale of Ho

FireAdam sat by the path on his own and waited. He knew the King and his men would come along the forest track this way. He wanted to greet them. Most of all, he wanted to listen to their tales and, perhaps, learn something.

Soon, he heard drumming, louder and louder. They were almost on top of him. He stood up without fear, his arm raised in greeting. The travellers halted, dismounted and, on the orders of the King, formed a circle. And this is the King’s story.

‘There was once a group of men, holding and supporting one another, bearing inwards; their weight swaying under the hot, morning sun. When one man cracked and flexed, the others held him firm in the circle. In time, the men turned to face outwards, their arms still linked, their palms open towards the sky. Each one of them then called out a greeting to the world – ‘The Land’, ‘A blessing on you all’ and ‘Safe, be’ and ‘Prosper’. Soon, the wind came and swept them up, carrying them, like falling leaves in a field. They were kneeling on the grass, with arms entwined, straining to bear the weight of their King. Yet, they did. Their collective strength was far greater than that of any one of them. They raised their king high into the air, so high he could see to the far edges of the land and beyond. And the king was glad to behold peace and fecundity. The King and his band smiled at Adam Everman.

Soon, they were on their way, drumming still. Adam ran hard after them till, entering a glade, he ran into an encampment. Tired and thirsty, he needed food and shelter for the night. A warrior, holding a shield, came towards him and the warrior’s men encircled the pair.They started drumming.

The warrior looked at Adam, taking his measure. Adam Everman faced him, eye to eye, toe to toe. Suddently, the warrior called out, ‘You will.’ Adam responded, ‘No, I won’t.’ ‘Yes, you will!’ ‘I won’t!’ ‘Yes, you will…’ And so it went on…as time passes. Neither would give way. Adam noticed the quieter his voice was, the more unsettled the warrior before him became. The drumming grew fierce, then stopped. All was quiet, save for the evening call of the birds, high in the trees’ canopy.

‘Welcome, Adam.’ The warrior invited him into the circle. He invited him to eat, drink and warm his heart next to the fire. Adam looked at the warrior’s shield, made of four colours. ‘The brown represents the earth from which we all come. The blue is for water, river and sea, without which we cannot survive. The green is for the trees and grass from which we have air to breathe and food to grow. The yellow is for the warmth and energy of the sun, on which everything depends.  And the cabbage white is my animal spirit. So, what’s new?’

‘I must leave you now, Adam, but stay, eat, sleep. You are safe here.’ And soon the warrior departed, taking his drummers with him. Night fell and Adam, though on his own in the forest, felt safe. He ate some more and quenched his thirst. As the night cooled, he drew closer to the hearth, wrapping himself in a blanket.

The flames and smoke spoke to him of travellers’ tales, of the oracle answering life’s great mysteries and song; of a three-headed man, engaged in learned discussion. The log in the centre of the hearth glowed brightly. Adam yawned and, pulling his blanket close round him, lay down on the earth’s floor and fell into a deep sleep.

He woke to feel the warmth of the sun streaming through the branches and a symphony of birds. He breathed calmly under the canopy, till it was time to leave. Adam took to the path again. He’d not gone far when he saw a man walking towards him. The path was narrow and , as they closed, Adam stopped to allow the stranger to pass. The man paused and wished Adam a good morning. Adam returned his salutation. ‘What brings you here?’, the man asked. Adam replied that he was travelling in search of the answers to certain questions he had. ‘That is a fine thing you do. I have been travelling myself for fifty years or more, doing the same and am still finding questions.’ ‘Strange,’ thought Adam, ‘how young he looks, barely old enough to be a father.’ The man asked, ‘Have you time? Will you help me find holly and oak?’ ‘Of course,’ said Adam without hesitation. He did not sense any danger from this man; more a sense of wellbeing. It didn’t take them long to find holly. Oak proved a little more difficult. The stranger bid Adam follow him to the lakeside, where two long tree trunks lay side-by-side on the ground in front of a latticed fence. There was a gap between them. The man set about decorating the fence with the white feathers and colourful flowers, like a rainbow, he’d brought with him.

The man invited Adam to step inbetween the trees that lay on the ground, letting anything troubling him come to the fore; and when he was ready, then to step over the second trunk into the space at the edge of the lake. Adam bent to pick up a golden leaf liing in a circle on the grass. He placed the troublesome thought on the leaf and watched it fall, like a boat, onto the water and float away. He wasn’t sure how long he stood there in stillness but when he returned, his companion had gone. Adam felt lighter, as if something had lifted. He wished he could have thanked the stranger.

Adam wandered far along the tracks and paths of the land, walking around lakes and over mountains and hills. Once, he came over the crest of a hill and looked straight into the eyes of a buzzard, perched on a rock. The bird looked straight at him before rising into the air and circling overhead, hovering metres away in the wind. Some people stopped to talk to him, a few even inviting him in for food and a bed for the night. Others rushed past without a word or a nod, intent on their own private business.

One morning, he came to a lake where the water was lower than usual under the baking hot sun. He leant back against a large oak, seekng the shade. His palm pressed downwards onto the sticky mud. He had trouble taking his hand away. But when he did, he realised he’d made a perfect copy of his palm. The lines crossing his palm and the indents of the joints of his fingers stood out. Adam marvelled at the beauty of his hand. This was him. In a way, it was all of him.

A flash of blue from the edge of the lapping pool caught his eye. He moved nearer and stooped to pick up a ball of blue glass. He knew the glass had formed over millions of years, from a time when the stars collided. And here he was now, holding it in the palm of his hand. The same palm that lay in the clay. He took the ball over, pushing it gently into the middle of the palm. It rested there.

Adam stepped back and wondered about his own journey from meeting the king till now. He noticed his reflection in the water. He looked the same, he thought but inside, he felt different, unafraid, stronger. He clapped. The clap rang out over the lake, startling a heron bathing in the sunshine. He started clapping, rhythmically, louder, then softer, louder again till his hands stung. And he kept on clapping. It felt good. He felt his energy flowing within him. He looked out across the water. The warm sun was shining on his face and hands. Bees buzzed from flower to flower and birds flew all around. The breeze lifted for a moment and caught the branches of the trees. Adam felt ok, ready to move on.