“Oh, you’re going on a retreat! How relaxing!”
How often do we hear this comment when we tell others where we are going?
A retreat can be many things – illuminating, boring, restful, confronting – and all of these rolled into the one day – but it can seldom be described as relaxing. Time spent alone permits the inner turmoil to swim into view; dropping into the silence, with no escape from the issues that have stubbornly hidden themselves beneath the activity of everyday life.
It is challenging, painful and exhilarating. The way forward seems so much clearer, and yet there is the lurking fear that once life has returned to its normal round, all that appeared to be self-evident may be swept away by the routines of the everyday.
For everyone who undergoes this process of quiet reflection, of withdrawing from the world to contemplate, to listen and to wait, the experience will be different. It would serve no purpose to tell you of the toils of my sojourn and what they revealed in my own life; but what I would like to share is a simple exercise which arose spontaneously one sunny afternoon
A labyrinth is set out in a grove of trees, its pathway delineated by large, white pebbles. At intervals, someone has dropped faux stones like tiny gems in pale, celadon green.
This time, as I pace the outermost reaches of the path, I notice that some of the stones have fallen completely outside the boundaries.
I pick up one of the escapees and walk on. Some minutes later, I find another, directly in the centre of the path. Not wishing it to be trodden into the soil, I pick it up. Finally, I approach the centre of the labyrinth. One of the stones I had placed there on my previous walking meditation has fallen to the ground. I pick it up.
Holding the three stones, I make my way slowly back to the entrance, ruminating, as I retrace my steps, on the significance of what I have found.
Each stone, although the shapes are irregular, is essentially identical to the others in substance and texture. Each is bound in relation to the whole, to the labyrinth, the only variable being its location.
It seems to me that they are metaphors for our inner humanity – our spiritual sense. Some are drawn to the centre, some languish on the path, awaiting a force that will impel them forward, others put themselves outside the journey that draws us to the heart of Being. But we are all somewhere in relation to one another and the journey – and we are all a part of the Whole.
I feel tempted to take them with me, as a reminder of what the labyrinth has taught me, to keep them in my room until I leave the monastery – but I throw them back. I realise that we cannot cling to moments like these. They manifest unasked, much as a spring wells up from a subterranean river through a fissure in the rock . We cannot hold onto the droplets that gather rainbows in the sunshine – we need only watch them play.