While I have been making annual individually guided retreats for nineteen years now, since I returned from the thirty day spiritual exercises three years ago, it has no longer been enough: a year between one and the next is too long to wait. My answer to this longing to be alone and silent with God is to spend a weekend, every three months, in a hermitage. At first I went to All Hallows Convent in Ditchingham, which was only a fifteen minute drive from where I live, but since the community was disbanded there, I started going a little further away to the Carmelite Monastery at Quidenham. I was there last weekend.
I said previously that we had studied a little bit about different spiritualities on the first year of my course when I was training to be a spiritual director, and Carmelite spirituality was one that we had a look at. I was amazed to learn about “Nocturnal” mysticism and “Solar” mysticism, and that these were different in their perception of how we know God. Nocturnal mysticism comes from the direction that God is unknowable, that we cannot know God, and the more we think we know, the less we actually know. Solar mysticism comes at it from the other angle, that we can know God, and we can come to know Him more intimately in our journey of faith: at least, this is what I understood of the distinction. St. Teresa of Avila, the founder of the Carmelite order, along with St. John of the Cross and the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” fit into the former category, while Origen and Gregory the Great fit into the latter. I would suggest that Julian of Norwich also fits into the latter, but I am not an expert. I read The Life of St Teresa of Avila by Herself some years ago, and I have to be honest, I do not think that I really understood much of what she was saying. I felt much the same about “The Cloud of Unknowing“, and I have not felt particularly drawn by St. John of the Cross. I used to keep a notebook of all the things that had struck me when I was reading, but these days my “to read” pile is so high I highlight and write annotations in my own books. It is easy to tell how deeply the book spoke to me by the quotations in my notebook, or by how much colour I have added to it. One point I did write down from “The Cloud of Unknowing” is:
For were the soul not strengthened by its own endeavours it would be unable to withstand the pain the awareness of its own existence brings.The Cloud of Unknowing
I remember reading this on retreat at Loyola Hall and being struck by it: it puzzled me, I did not completely understand it. The first part made some sense, I recognised that making the time to pray and go on retreat strengthened me and my relationship with God but the second part was outwith my experience. A couple of years later though, again on retreat, there was an imaginative contemplation I made with the Garden of Gethsemane, and the words I heard Jesus say in His prayer were:
May my will be in accordance with your will.
and I had the image of a mirrored box, both on its inside and outside, so that you were looking in a mirror through a mirror: infinity. And I heard Him say:
You can’t put my love in a box.
Then nothing: no images, sounds, movements, no sensations. I have no idea how long it lasted and I was overwhelmed by it. And I realised that this “nothing” that completely overwhelmed me barely scratched the surface of God. It was a drop in an ocean that was a drop in another ocean that was a drop in another ocean and so on. I was a barnacle on a ship becoming aware that the surface I was clinging to went on in all directions around me, and had no ending. Emily Dickinson’s poem reminds me of how it felt:
He fumbles at your spirit
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
He stuns you by degrees,
Prepares your brittle substance
For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer, then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten,Emily Dickinson: He Fumbles at your Spirit
Your brain to bubble cool, —
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.
After that prayer, I was exhausted and I slept a lot in the next two to three days. I knew something had changed in me, I had felt some sort of searing pain within me, and it was like my soul had simply been slashed with an instrument as precise as a scalpel, leaving a single, fine cut that would never heal. I do not know if it is what the Nocturnal mystics speak of, I’m not sure that it is, but it resonates with the quote from “The Cloud of Unknowing” and stands out as being different from my other “up close and personal” experiences of God.
Nevertheless, there is something perfect for me as a visitor at Quidenham. I have described myself before as a spiritual solitary, and the Carmelites are a closed order, so I am not invited into the monastery itself: I stay in the hermitage outside of the enclosure. I am not a part of the community. I am invited to their prayers, and to be in their visitor’s chapel, which is across the altar from where the nuns are. It is separate from both the enclosed Carmelite community, and on Sunday mass, the Parish community that congregates there, so I am not part of that community either. I am both alone with God and part of the bigger community of my church at the same time. When I was making the exercises, during the second and through the third week, I often appeared in imaginative contemplation as one of the unknown women described in the gospels, who followed Him, and provided for them out of their own resources. In keeping with the sixth – ninth additions, where we seek to keep our environment conducive to what we are praying:
I should rather keep in mind that …The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
I started to cover my head with a pashmina during my prayer, and have continued with this practice since then, when I am alone with Him in my room. I laugh at the irony in covering my head because as a child, there was pressure to wear a mantilla at mass, and I resisted furiously, and well as railing against the use, or misuse, of Corinthians when Paul answers a question form that gentile community by saying:
For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.1 Corinthians 11:6
When I do this in the intimacy of my room and in my prayer I am promising Him:
I will serve you in obedience and humility.
I do not pray like this in public. It would feel ostentatious and a bit like those pharisees beating their breasts, showing off how devout they are. Ignatius says in the exercises, with reference to position in prayer, in the fourth addition:
The fourth Direction is never to be followed in the church before others, but only in private, for example, at home.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
It is a personal thing, between me and God, and it continually confirms the choice I made and the path I walk when I made my election and it was confirmed in the Exercises. Somehow, in this space in the visitor’s chapel at Quidenham, I can be more as I am alone at home. I might feel a little shy about it, but it does not feel inappropriate when sitting across from those who have given their lives so generously to humility and prayer.
The first time I went to Quidenham I was moved by the simple beauty of the Church there, and by the Stations of the cross. My sense of God’s feelings about the community there was one of absolute joy and pleasure. Here is something that He treasures, something He takes pride in and holds close to His heart. It was like He was saying to me:
Here I want to show you something that is very special to me.
And I felt very privileged, like you do when someone has shared something intimate and important with you. The Carmelites at Quidenham, by offering hospitality in their hermitage, provide me with a sanctuary, a place where I can withdraw from the world for a short time and share quiet moments with God in a way that is different from day to day life: a weekend break, as opposed to a summer holiday. My question to you is where, how and with whom do you find sanctuary within your day to day life? How do you find and spend your quiet moments?Where might there be a desire in you for more? And how could you facilitate that desire?
As for me, I think I’m going to put some books about St Teresa of Avila on my reading pile, maybe even try reading her own story about her life again, this time with my highlighters and coloured pens, rather than my little notebook of quotations.