Saturday, 20 January 2007

Back from Wales

This last week has been a journey in more ways than one. Rhyl in January - not the most exciting place, but it has a railway station built to receive packed twelve-coach trains of eager holiday makers ready for the 'thrill of Rhyl' in summer. Mind you, I don't think my idea of a thrill is a caravan by the sea in North Wales (even though my ancestors came from Anglesey).

The real journey for me was at St Beuno's (pronounced 'buy-nose') Ignation Spirituality Centre near St Asaph. An Ignation retreat, following the practice of Ignatius of Loyola (who founded the Order of Jesus - Jesuits) helps the retreatant note his or her feelings of moving closer to or further away from God, and noting the things that cause that dynamic ebb or flow.

Each retreatant is assigned a spiritual director - in my case a Sister called Louise. The director suggests passages of scripture to meditate and pray through during the day. Ignation spirituality is totally scripture-based and Jesus-centred, and for that reason, as a Protestant Evangelical, I felt I could easily embrace it.

My journey began with Psalm 139 and an appreciation of God's unconditional love in creating me as I am and then accepting me for the person I am. 'When I awake you are still with me' became a key verse for the week, speaking to me of the Father's constant companionship. The journey led from the child-Father relationship to the brother-Brother or friend-Companion relationship that I realised I value so much with the Lord Jesus. Gospel passages such as Jesus inviting the first disciples to spend time with him (John 1), calling Peter to follow (Luke 5), calling Peter to walk on the water (Matthew 14), sharing his glory of transfiguration with the three disciples (Matthew 17), washing his disciples' feet (John 13) spoke to me of companionship with Jesus - being included in his love, but also being shown the way to love others, and the call to risk all - walk on the water - to pursue that way.

I came across a picture by Rembrandt of the Head of Christ. After some searching I tracked it down later in the internet. It seems to me to be such a believable picture. The opening of 1 John 1 was a refrain I kept coming back to during the week - 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim...' The painting seems to capture that thought - here is a Jesus that could have been looked at, heard and touched. More than once I wondered what Jesus felt like, and that became a crucial part of the story of Peter walking on the water and experiencing the grasp of Jesus' hand pulling him out when he began to sink. Ignatius encouraged people to enter into the gospel stories in their imagination - and for me this involved identifying with Peter. The one in whom Jesus recognised such potential - 'You are the rock' - even though he got it wrong so often; the one in whom Jesus did not give up even though he denied his Lord.

The journey led me to the place of realzing God's great love for me, and in the light of that love my calling to show his love to others. The last gospel passage I worked with was John 21 where Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" It seemed to me that up to that point Peter had not done a very good job of showing his love for Jesus, but in the thrice repeated command "Feed my sheep" Jesus was showing him the way to demonstrate his love. In other words, 'feeding my sheep' is about building them up, seeking their welfare - the practical outworking of love. That was where my journey was leading me.

I remembered that seven years ago, on my previous sabbatical, sitting on a hill in Kenya used as a prayer and retreat centre - literally just a hill and a hut accessable only on foot or a rugged Landrover - the Lord showed me those same words from John 21 and I took them to be a confirmation of what he was calling me to do. Now, seven years later, those same of words of Jesus were just as full of meaning, and I came away from St Beuno's with the desire to put them into practice more and more.

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