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When is a retreat not a retreat? Some initial reflections on a trip to Sinai

Barry Hutchinson
4 August 2018

My usual experience of retreat is to have lots of “empty” space for prayer and personal reflection in a quiet, sedentary place, though there may be opportunity for some gentle meditative walking. There is usually some teaching on Christian spirituality and personal growth and the accompaniment of a guide. There will be opportunity for daily worship, prayer and sacrament and some aloneness, some shared silence, perhaps even non-speaking meal times with “good”, contemplative music. There will be opportunity in the quiet, steady rhythm of the day to confront personal weaknesses and insecurities as well as to identify more clearly strengths and gifts and graces. This has been, for me, the way to listen for the active, comforting and commissioning Word from God.

On November 5th 2009, 26 of us left for a trip to Sinai and this religious tour was almost none of these things. Based in the guest house at St Catherine’s Monastery there was a programme of daily visits to sites of special religious significance — to the summit of Mount Moses, into the valley of the forty martyrs (the traditional site of Moses striking the rock for water), some pre-Hebrew tombs (now in the middle of nowhere) and a long walk to some pre-Egyptian turquoise mines, to name but a few.

It was very busy and a number of our pilgrims found themselves stretched beyond what they thought they were physically able to do — and they succeeded. Seeing faces filled with joy and proper pride at accomplishment at such times was pure gift. Other people came to terms with physical limitations and wisely opted out of some trips into difficult terrain — sometimes omission is the courageous and Godly thing to do. Sometimes being alongside people we found difficult, some of us sometimes dug into reserves of patience and compassion and succeeded, often, in caring for the less socially able, thus helping them to feel wanted, perhaps even loved. At least one of us made a huge journey into the experience of God’s personal, warm and encouraging love.

One of my personal peak experiences was the joy my at being captured by a sixth-century icon of Christ Pantocrator during a private group tour of the monastery museum. A numinous sense, of being held in the thrall of the love of God through this icon, brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. Although I was as properly embarrassed as a British man should be [sic.] it was a long time before I could move away to enjoy the other riches of Byzantine and ancient Christian treasures. Perhaps now I’ll stop saying that I’m “not into” icons and instead see what happens if I explore their use a bit more? But what does all this say to a minister in a church whose forbears rejected any need of or use for iconography?

Another peak experience happened because I was not able to fulfil my ambition to get to the top of Moses’ Mountain on Remembrance Day. Dismounting our camels, most of our group left and just five of us sat at the final camel stop about 2/3 of the way up. It was a magnificent outlook and I was able to climb a little further to look down into Elijah’s basin, traditionally the site of his “still small voice” encounter with God. One of us remembered Remembrance Day and so at 11am, British time, we held the two minutes of silence. There were few completely dry eyes at the end.

In many ways I was challenged to listen again, often without coming to any conclusion or resolution of question or conflict, for underlying dynamics in other people, for weaknesses in my own personality which will require some work over the next few months, for the movements and words of God amongst us — operating sometimes in spite of what we did or didn’t do. And I was led to celebrate the hard work, successes and achievements of other people as well as to dig out some compassion towards the failings of others, which often reflected my own failings and are thus more difficult to come to terms with: and I benefited from other people’s acceptance and care for myself, not least the gift of a new inhaler when mine went on the blink!

So was this a retreat? Well, not in the sense that I usually understand retreat to be, but God did bless those whose desire was to be with him and perhaps that is our prime purpose when considering retreat; that we put ourselves into a place, geographically, mentally and emotionally, where God can meet us to work out his purposes.

What about a framework, then? In a sense it doesn’t matter what it is. It may be our daily Bible reading notes, some kind of office, the Church’s liturgical year, the lectionary, or something of one’s own devising. Whatever works… I have recently been finding “Sacred Space” web site (www.sacredspace.ie) particularly helpful, with its framework of the presence of God, freedom, consciousness, the Word, conversation with God/Christ, and conclusion. What I believe many will find helpful is finding the limits, a form, a discipline, a framework which enable them to be free to swing. In our own personal lives, and in the life of the Church, do we ever need to swing!