Retreat is a painful thing. I’m on the second of my new monthly rhythm of retreats. I don’t go very far, but I am alone for 36 hours with a few books, my thoughts, a journal and my restless ego.
Last month I read Tim Keller’s book ‘The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness’. It has its origins in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 4:3. Paul, he says, does not care what others think of him. Neither does he care what he thinks of himself. All that matters for Paul is what God thinks of him. Keller makes the point that his ego is quiet, it’s working properly, it’s not drawing attention to itself like a swollen, distended organ or limb. I was reading this acutely aware that I was alone, without anyone to impress, and on retreat, without anything to do to give myself value. My ego certainly wasn’t quiet.
Today is equally painful. Strangely perhaps, I feel intensely lonely. Over lunch I looked at a beautiful photo of my daughter that a friend had emailed to me. I am missing her and its only been six hours! I also feel restless and unsettled. My mind and my spirit are all over the place. It is easy when you are alone to feel defeated and depressed. You feel like your thoughts and feelings are out of control, untameable. Certainly there is frustration and a touch of despair. It may be the extrovert in me but I fear solitude as something inherently destructive. My temptation is to flee, to escape into fantasy, or simply to do something, to get busy, to be appreciated.
The Psalm for Morning Prayer today was Psalm 42. Verse 1 jumped out at me as I read:
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my souls pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
As I read I felt a still small voice say to me that my sense of desolation and restlessness was not something to flee or escape from, rather it was an expression of desire, in this case, desire for God that could only be satisfied in prayer and contemplation. This sense of longing and lack is a recognition in my spirit that God alone satisfies. It is possible to drown out this yearning with the white noise of the world around me, to momentarily gratify my ego with gifts or experience. But it never lasts and the real state of my ego, my self, becomes all too apparent when all of that is stripped away.
My aim today then, is to get to a place of contentment and peace; to simply hold myself in God’s presence; to remain alert and aware in the stillness. If I can do that, it will be progress indeed. If not, at least I have a stash of chocolate to turn to!
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water…My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1,8)