I am in the orchard in the gardens of Glastonbury Abbey, which as a guest at Abbey House Retreat Centre, you are allowed to enter. It is 11.40 a.m. And the scent of the apples is so heavy, it hangs in the air like a mantle. It is overwhelming and intoxicating.
I feel overwhelmed with wonder and tears, a garden has become Eden, nature has become creation. As I look around I wonder what century I am in, it could be 700 A.D. So timeless and English does the orchard feel.
I am reminded of other times when it feels like I have been clinging to a cliff edge, the edge of a ruin, but stubbornly hanging on, like a little plant blown to the edge of life by the wind.
Even there it is possible to blossom in the face of difficulty. The tricky thing is not to cling to the radiant moments or push away the more difficult ones. The key is to experience them as they are.
Afterwards I am often aware that God was there in the difficulties, as He is so abundantly there in the moments of epiphany and wonder.
Going on retreat enables us to see more clearly, and respond with gratitude to life and to the Giver of Life.
I am sitting in Abbey House, the Diocesan Retreat Centre for Bath & Wells, overlooking the ancient ruins of Glastonbury Abbey,that look like something from Tolkien’s imagination.
This afternoon in the space and time set aside for practising the presence of God, I walked up to Glastonbury Tor, for the panoramic view of Somerset. As I write this someone is walking in the grounds of the Abbey ringing a bell as it is closing time.
It reminds me why I am here teaching on mindfulness of God. The first time I came across the phrase mindfulness of God in the writings of 5th century Greek Bishop, Diadochus of Photike – the words rang me like a bell. But not a bell to leave but a bell calling me into the exploration of ‘mindfulness of God.’
The presence of God magnetically calls to my senses, to our senses as human beings. As an analogy we can talk about the way we are called magnetically to other people. At the top of Glastonbury Tor, by the tower, there is a helpful little map that points in the direction of different towns.
Twenty two miles in one direction is the city of Bath, where my son is studying at the university.
Fourteen miles in another direction is Yeovil, near where my parents live. I could feel the magnetic pull in these directions – so close to them and wanting to go and see them, but unable to. I could physically feel the tug on my heart.
Prayer remagnetises us to the pull of God. That’s why I’ve come away. As we become remagnetised to the presence of God, so we become more attentive to others, to creation, to our own self…we feel the relational pull – the interconnectedness of our lives with all that is around us. But so often we live in an unaware state. Stress and busyness demagnetise us.
As we are remagnetised we begin to live life in all its fullness. And our senses become once again instruments of grace.
There are grooves in the driveway at Penhurst Retreat Centre where the gate drags, like a scar.
We are here on retreat to help open the doors, the gateways into awareness, relational, embodied, spiritual. What we often become aware of is that the capacity for attentiveness is there, but that there is resistance, the door, the gateway drags as we begin to open it.
That can stop us opening the gate into our awareness and attention fully. But it is quite normal. We might be trying to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings – we might be trying to escape or bypass reality. But in mindfulness and Christian contemplation we are turning to face reality – and bring that reality into God’s light so that it can be reexamined and reperceived.
And so gently we work on the opening of the gate, the doorway. The contemplative and mindful practices begin to oil the hinges, and straighten the gate posts – and the groove left behind, the scar reminds us of our human vulnerability and that becomes a mark of grace rather than shame. The knowledge that self-awareness, that attentiveness to others costs something – it does not come automatically or easily.
I was teaching about mindfulness at a conference earlier this week and someone asked if there were other meditations like the compassion one that begins…May I know happiness. I have written a compassion one called the Ananias Prayer but what came to mind was to write one about ‘wonder.’
One of my favourite verses in the New Testament Gospel of Mark in the Bible is chapter nine and verse 15, ‘As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.’
This came to mind as a good inspiration for composing a meditation about wonder.
May I know wonder.
May I see with wonder.
May I hear with wonder.
May I touch with wonder.
May I taste with wonder.
May I sense with wonder.
May I feel with wonder.
May I be overwhelmed with wonder.
May I run with wonder to greet this world.
May I walk with wonder.
May I be still with wonder.
May I know God and resonate with wonder.
May all my senses resonate with wonder.
May I fly in my imagination with wonder.
I have been staying at Clowance Estate in Cornwall, where there has been a mansion house since 1380. Some of the original features are still there like a silt trap.
This silt trap is a small pond into which a stream runs via a control gate and a control exit. The control gate is used to determine how strong a flow of water from the stream comes into the pond. Most of the particles coming into the pond, soil, sand and silt, settle in the silt trap.
That means much cleaner water flows out of the pond – in this case to stew ponds where fish for the kitchen table were reared. In the photo below you can see the stream, the control gate and the silt trap pond.
Seeing this in operation gave me an analogy for the way our minds can work. Attention is like a control gate which works with the stream of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that are constantly flowing. Through mindful awareness practices we can find and enhance the pool of open awareness into which this stream can flow, where we can learn to let the thought particles settle, just as in a silt trap.
I think the thing that struck me, is that these capacities we have are natural, but can be enhanced with practice. The silt trap enables cleaner water to flow to the stew ponds where fish can be reared. But in the same way in our minds we can filter out the reactive thoughts and in the cleaner stream within our mind cultivate wise responses and creative thought-fish.
Here you can see the cleaner water flowing from the silt trap into the stew ponds. In the case of our minds we also can find we access stew ponds, a wiser and more creative ‘stew’ of mindful responses, rather than fearful, automatic reactions.
The other thing I like with this analogy is that it recognises that the stream is always flowing, and also at times the flow of the stream will be higher in winter and spring, with more particles that need filtering, because of increased rain fall.
When we are stressed there is a higher level of rainfall in our minds and bodies, with an increase in the number and speed of reactive thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Instead of being a victim of these we can learn to witness them, and allow them to settle in the pond of open awareness that works like a silt trap in our minds. This allows us to access the more creative ‘stew’ ponds that also exist in our awareness and minds.
A link to my video on You Tube about creativity, mindfulness of God and my new book Putting On The Wakeful One – attuning to the Spirit of Jesus through Watchfulness.
On retreat at El Palmeral Retreat House one of the beautiful things was having all the swifts, swallows and house martens flying around you.
One of the intentions of this retreat was to notice the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations flying around in the sky of our minds. Often our focus, usually out of our awareness, is on a narrow threat-based band, full of birds of fear, worry and anxiety.
We were trying to expand from the narrow threat band to a wider more expansive awareness where you can pick up a bigger picture view, and also see happy thoughts, creative thoughts, responses rather than reactions. These are also flying in our minds, but are less noisy than the birds screeching ‘what if….’ We are not denying the existence of the threat birds, or trying to avoid them. What we were learning to notice, though, was to distinguish between the real worry and the hypothetical worry.
Just now I had a flock of swallows, swifts and martens swooping around me, surfing the winds and breezes…I realised in that moment that I have swallow thought-birds, swift sensation-birds and housemarten feeling-birds surfing the breezes in my inner landscape – and just for a moment I was aware of them.
These are the joyful, creative, happy thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. They have always been there…in my mind-scape they swooped around me, glad to see me and looping the loop with the fact that I had come into the larger house built by them, just for me to visit.