Doing a Nun-ly Thing

On Friday, 5 June, feast of St Boniface, apostle of the Germans and Frisians, and incidentally a very sensible monk, blessed with the friendship of many Anglo-Saxon nuns, nearly all of whom ended up as saints, we begin our annual retreat.

All most people are likely to notice is that we are not online, and those who haven’t yet discovered scheduled tweets or Facebook posts probably won’t even notice that. However, because we are not online, we shall seem to many to be inactive, silent, invisible. Some may see this as an opportunity for rest and recuperation (which it is) but we shall also be engaging in the spiritual struggle St Paul writes about. It isn’t fashionable to refer to such things. It isn’t fashionable to admit that sin and malice have warped our understanding of God, or that we need times when we plunge deeper into the mystery of grace; but we shall indeed be praying, or at any rate, trying to pray, with an intensity we can’t sustain at other times. That is, by its very nature, an interior work no one else can know much about. Our silence, our lack of presence, may seem like nun-ly negativity, but they aren’t.

I must not give the impression that we shall emerge from our eight days of retreat with a new and saintly persona. I know I won’t, alas. Exposure to prayer and scripture tends to reveal a lot about ourselves before it shows us anything of God. It can be uncomfortable, disconcerting, thoroughly unpleasant, as our remaining illusions about ourselves are shattered one by one. The moments of light relief, the holiday aspects we also enjoy during the retreat, can never distract for very long from that rather searing experience. Is it any wonder we approach the annual retreat with mixed feelings?

I take heart, however, from one very obvious fact. God is not a destroyer. It may be a long while after the retreat has ended before we see any positive good coming from it, but we can be confident that, however much we may shrink from the self we are forced to confront during the retreat itself, God doesn’t. His love never changes. Doing a nun-ly thing like making a retreat is a powerful reminder of that.


God’s Holy Mountain

They do no hurt, no harm,
on all my holy mountain,
for the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters swell the sea.

These words, taken from Isaiah 11, express the dream of every religious person: a world at harmony with itself because it is filled with knowledge of God. Not, you notice, a purely secular society, a socialist paradise of the kind that has never yet been achieved but which briefly captured the imagination of many in the twentieth century; not a world which is merely ‘free from’ but one which is ‘filled with’.

Why do I insist on the difference? The answer can be found in that same passage from Isaiah and the gospel for the day, Luke 10.21-24. Quite simply, the world was created by God, redeemed by God and is incomplete without God. That is why our hope is not for this time only. Only God can fulfil the deepest longings of the human heart. That doesn’t mean we can ignore our own part in bringing about the completion to which we look forward. Notice how Isaiah again speaks of integrity. The Shoot of Jesse will judge with integrity; integrity will be the loincloth round his hips. In other words, the wholeness we desire we first find in God but must cling to, must wrap ourselves in, so that it is unthinkable we should ever discard it.

The mountain is an ancient image of the holiness of God, his otherness. We go up to the mountain of God, it is surrounded with fire and smoke, cloud and mystery. Sometimes its holiness is such that we may not touch the mountain itself. It is set apart, holy ground where God and man (it always was man) might, on occasion, meet. The Incarnation has changed that for ever. The whole earth has become the mountain of God, the place where God is at home among his people. Now we are privileged to approach God in human form, to touch him, to know him as simultaneously God and one of us. If we have eyes to see, if we see as God sees, then indeed we know that ‘the country is filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters swell the sea’.