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)