I was away for a few days last month on a silent retreat. It was wonderful. When I’m away on a silent retreat I become aware of God’s presence in ways that I usually miss when I’m at home. My senses become tuned in to the things around me - the colours, the landscape, the plants, the birdsong but also to words on a page - and this might be because I limit the number of them, only taking a Bible and some short suggestions of how I might pray.
I mentioned to the students who live in Chapel House (a Christian residential community for students in Bath) that I was going on a silent retreat and they were interested and so I suggested that we could give it go. A few weeks ago 7 of us went to a retreat centre near Bristol and spent 4 hours in silence. We agreed we’d do our own thing, spending time with God in any way we felt drawn - enjoying the beauty of the garden and some space inside. All of us really enjoyed it (which was the point) and said that the time passed quickly and that it was something we would like to try again. The students commented that it helped them to focus to be able to see the others around them, also setting the time apart.
As I’ve been thinking about their reflections, I’ve been realising that my most profound moments of experiencing God have been both when I am alone and also when I am with other people. I know that sounds like I must be aware of experiencing God all the time, but that’s not true either, so I will try to explain!
When I am alone, whether on my sofa on a weekday morning or away in a beautiful location on a retreat, becoming aware of God’s loving gaze and the power of God’s word and the beauty of God’s creation sometimes takes my breath away. The difficulty at home is trying to free myself enough of distractions to notice.
But I also experience God when I am with others. No doubt we’ve all reflected over the last year about what exactly we do and don’t miss about meeting together physically with others for worship or sharing life. For me, I think what I miss is the spark of God that you can sometimes sense in Christian community. There’s nothing quite like seeing new gifts emerging in others and the confidence to share them, when you see people caring for one another and serving each other. (These things, of course, haven’t been absent in the last year but maybe harder to notice.)
We need one another in order to see God’s presence in community. Jesus’ answer to religious teachers who ask him how to spot the kingdom of God and how to know when it arrives is simply to say ‘it’s among you’ (Luke 17.21). How precious and simple that is.