Last weekend I was on a ‘first-time retreat’ at Ham Convent. It was a wonderful weekend. There was just the right amount of input from the sisters suggesting different ways to pray creatively, combined with hours of uninterrupted silence to explore the beautiful grounds in the presence of the divine. I slept a lot, went to some of the services in the chapel and received numerous grace-filled encouragements from my Creator.
One of the activities I always find helpful in hearing from God is to walk a Labyrinth. For the uninitiated this is following a circular path mapped out on the ground which, unlike a maze, has only one possible route. There are no dead ends and you are led to the middle and out again without missing any section out. However, you don’t start on the outside and systematically work your way to the centre. As you begin you find yourself part way in and then you are suddenly on the edge, before you are unexpectedly right at it’s heart!
Previously, I have always thought of a Labyrinth as like a brain. As I’ve walked and meditated before, I have imagined revisiting thoughts and memories stored in my mind and inviting God to revive or reframe them. However this time, I had an experience of the Labyrinth as lungs. It was as if I was being breathed into the heart of God to be refreshed with Her love and affirmed in my personhood, before being breathed out into the world to be a partner in Her mission of restoration and transformation. It had even more significance when I found out that Sunday was Pentecost. This is the day in the church calendar when we celebrate the Holy Spirit as God’s breath being poured out on a frightened band of women, fishermen and social outcasts to empower them for sharing the good news of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection.
I found this idea of being breathed in and out also echoed in Brueggemann’s interpretation of the Psalms that I read this week. He says in ‘Psalms of the Life of Faith’, “The Psalms reflect the difficult way in which the old worlds are relinquished and new worlds are embraced…The psalms of disorientation and reorientation are songs of scattering and gathering. The laments of Israel, like the hermeneutic of suspicion, are an act of dismantling and scattering, for sheep without a shepherd (Ez. 34:5, Mk. 6:34). The hymns and songs of thanksgiving in Israel, like the hermeneutic of symbolization are an act of reconciliation, of consolidation, or new formations of wholeness, when the shepherd is with the flock (Ps. 23:1, Jn. 10:10). As such, the Psalms are very much like our lives, which are seasons of scattering and gathering (Eccl. 3:2-9)…(they) reflect the human experience of exile and homecoming.” (p. 65-6)
However, as I engaged with the Labyrinth I also had a reassuring reminder that God’s presence is with us whether being gathered or scattered. A few weeks ago, a friend prayed I might have a new and personal vision of God as my strength and protection. A vivid picture of a large, solid and mature oak tree immediately came into my mind. As I journeyed at the outer limits of the Labyrinth, I complained to God of feeling abandoned, exposed, vulnerable when stepping out and pioneering with spiritual seekers. The tears flowed as I expressed my sense of isolation in the risk taking and the pain of being misunderstood. Yet through my tears I began to become aware that oak trees actually encircled the Labyrinth! It was a physical reminder that either in the safety and comfort of home or alone at the margins – God is with us. Before leaving his friends and ascending into heaven, John records that Jesus said, “‘As the father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Jn. 20:22) I pray that, like me, this Pentecost you might sense Jesus doing the same for you.