Intimacy and Eternity

The Trysting Place

 

Part One, Chapter Four

Every place is an oratory,
every moment a time for prayer . . .
Build yourself a cell in your heart and retire there to pray.
(Catherine of Sienna)1

The Trysting Place

IN OUR FAVOURITE BOOKS special events often serve to launch the main story. Such an episode occurs at the beginning of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when a picture of a Narnian ship comes alive and draws the children into the ‘real’ Narnia. Understanding what we call ‘Trysting Places’ has, for us, been just such a moment of illumination.

Beyond the comforting knowledge that God can be known everywhere, we were making the delightful discovery that He loves to meet us in special ways in places that are dear to both us and Him. It is clear from Scripture that there were certain localities – such as the Mount of Olives – where the Lord Jesus particularly enjoyed being with His Heavenly Father and with His friends on earth.

The walk we went on meant far more to us than just taking some exercise in a spectacularly beautiful part of the Lake District: it was a step on the way to understanding how such places can aid our spiritual growth. Prayer thrives on open horizons, and physical broad open spaces may help us to enter the spiritual Broad Open Spaces. We go to such places to talk and pray over things that are worrying us, and to renew our strength in the Lord, so that we can return to our everyday life more in tune with His heart.

By Still Waters

If the world knew our happiness, it would, out of sheer envy, invade our retreats,
and the times of the Fathers of the Desert would return,
when the solitudes were more populous than the cities.
(Madeleine Sophie Barat)1

When the Lord Jesus said, ‘I go to prepare a place for you,’ (John 14:2-3), He was speaking primarily of our eternal home – but this does not rule out there being implications for time as well as for eternity. God has many places He wants to take us to, as well as people He wants us to meet. The Lord is ready to commune with us anywhere anytime, but we are not always equally as ready, or as able, to meet with Him. Certain places may therefore help to develop this life of intimacy.2

In our high-pressure high-expectancy age, we will all benefit from going to ‘trysting places’ both as a break from the daily grind, and in order to meditate and pray. I am convinced that not only Christian workers, but businessmen, teachers, parents and, indeed, people from every walk of life would be blessed and strengthened if they could but make the necessary sacrifices and get away to be with God.3

A place that has been consecrated to the Lord, and much prayed in, often enjoys a special depth of His presence. May He help us to find and profit from such places!

Long ago, the Lord ordained that the people of Israel should spend seven days each year living in tents on the roofs of their houses.4 In this precursor to the modern camping holiday I detect a heavenly strategy. Wonderful though our home comforts are, they can inadvertently obscure our pursuit of God. A week ‘in the booths’ refocuses our soul on spiritual concerns.

William Wordsworth was the first to call people to the lakes and mountains of his beloved Cumbria. Living a simple life himself, and inspiring others to do the same, his words touched a chord in the heart of a nation that had been brought up on a social code of do’s and don’ts, but which was woefully lacking in true spiritual riches. In the mountains, people came face to face with truly majestic vistas and longed to experience a corresponding grandeur in their own hearts.

The only danger (which the poet himself did not perhaps successfully avoid) is that some end up worshipping a pagan Mother Nature rather than our Heavenly Father.

It is not so long ago that I would have been inclined to dismiss such contact with the natural world as little more than self-indulgent distraction from the real work of serving God. Many such ‘indulgences’ later, I have come to realize that they are central to God’s purposes for my life. Things I would once have considered peripheral, such as opening up our blocked fireplace to enjoy a real log fire, and going for prayer-walks in the forest, have become a real aid to our desire for a closer walk with the Lord. The countryside is full of living matter, and it is good for us to be closer to it. Our processed, packaged society has become too far removed from the rhythms and seasons of life. As one cow said to another, as she gazed at a lorry delivering Pasteurized, Sterilized, Skimmed and Long Life Milk: ‘I didn’t realize it was all so complicated!’

When the stillness of the open spaces calms our minds and inspires our hearts, we will find it easier to enter more deeply into the stillness of eternity. Time and again we have set out into the nearby hills or woods bedraggled and oppressed, only to return home a few hours later refreshed and invigorated, having gained some new perspective on a perplexing problem. Even the Lord Jesus met with His Father more in the beauty of the hills than He did in the synagogue!

It is not that there is anything intrinsically mystical or more sacred about the countryside. Others may find just as much inspiration in an urban setting. The important thing is not so much the place itself but the fact of setting oneself at some distance from the normal routines and distractions of life.

A sanctified corner of your home (or a corner of a cornfield for that matter) is all that is needed.

Let me encourage you, then, to make the effort to go to places or parks that mean a lot to you; if need be to get in the car and drive in search of woodland trails and open spaces – as well as getting into the habit of slipping into the Lord’s presence wherever you happen to find yourself. Don’t waste precious time in futile inner monologues; talk to the Lord and wait for His answers. What you receive from Him at such times will distil like dew into your hearts, and from there pass on to water many other people’s lives as well.

Our Trysting Place

Early in my ministry, Alex Buchanan prophesied that I would always be alternating between ‘coming in’ to enjoy times of intense aloneness with God and then ‘going out’ again on specific missions for Him. It has been inspiring to see this word being worked out. Front-line service can be heady and exciting, but too little time with God means I have insufficient spiritual resources with which to feed others.

A friend once had a picture of a hurricane lamp hanging from a hook on the ceiling, consuming its paraffin sparingly, drop by careful drop. There was an implicit warning in this picture: that the Lord did not want me to burn out too young, and that He would often call me to one side, out of the fray of active ministry, in order to renew my spirit through time alone with Him. By God’s grace, I never feel so fulfilled as when I am alone and caught up with Him. But I am equally as content and just as fully in the Lord’s will when I am out and about on active service for Him.

Let me share with you how the Lord led us to a place that has come to mean a great deal to us. I was suffering one night from an acute earache, and sent for the doctor. (He was a newly qualified man on secondment to our practice). We struck up an immediate friendship and I resolved to invite him round for a meal. As is so often the way with good intentions, however, I did not get round to doing anything about it.

Some weeks later, the time came for our daughter Ruth to be born. The Lord gave me an overwhelming peace that He was in complete charge of the proceedings. I was not unduly worried, therefore, when a problem occurred at the moment of birth, which required the emergency doctor to come flying through the door. We were surprised to see it was the same doctor we had met before. This time we did get together for a meal!

We heard from him again shortly afterwards. He and his wife had booked a cottage in the Lake District, and invited us to come and join them there. This cottage became a place where heaven and earth meet, where we were refreshed in body, mind and spirit – and where much of this as well as other books were first written. But it is a long way away, and we can no longer afford to go there very often. More recently, some friends have lent us a cottage nearer home, where we have enjoyed special times in the Lord’s presence in a more complete way than ordinary life normally permits.

In both places, the weight of too much decision-making eases from our shoulders within minutes of scenting the familiar wood-smoke from the fire. The hours pass slowly by. The Lord, who knows how much we needed the break, makes every day rich and alive with His presence.

We are careful not to allow too much of the world to intrude. A novel to unwind with is good, but not if it introduces a discordant note into our spirits. We are glad, too, to escape from that invention which blesses us so much – except when it rings just when you are wanting an early night!

I find that it is especially when I am in ‘retreat mode’ that I am most consciously able to enjoy the simple things of life, and to dedicate whatever I am doing to the Lord. Whenever we come to the end of such a time and find ourselves immersed again in the daily round of urgent decision-making, we wonder how we can integrate the heightened spiritual awareness we have been enjoying back into our everyday life. It is an important question to ponder, and one which involves a number of factors, relating to the place, as well as the pace of our life. The more we consecrate our homes, our families and our friendships to the Lord – as well as our ministries – the fuller they will be of His presence.

Each time we returned from such places we found ourselves nursing the desire to develop a home in the country which would refresh others in the same way that we ourselves had been blessed. About two years ago we were able to acquire just such a property. It was the culmination of nearly ten years of prayer. It is set in exquisitely beautiful countryside, and is a truly wonderful place for people to spend some time ‘trysting’ with their Lord. Perhaps some of you will find your way here in the years ahead!

A Cherith Week

Prayer is the nearest approach to God, and the highest enjoyment of Him that we are capable of in this life.
(William Law)

Many of us will greatly benefit from spending time alone with nothing to do except to seek the Lord.

In Ravens and the Prophet, I termed these times Cherith weeks after the enforced period Elijah spent alone by the brook Cherith. Such an immersion in the Lord’s presence can have a revolutionary effect on our relationship with God, and permanently alter many of our perspectives and priorities.

Although there are a considerable variety of retreats to choose from, what I have in mind here is primarily something less structured. Most of the ‘retreats’ we have made over the years have been planned or unplanned trips into the country, in response to our own need for time out and the Lord Jesus’ invitation to Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest (Mark 6:31).

Given the far-reaching blessings that come from such times, it is no wonder we face spiritual opposition trying to get away. Before we first went to the cottage we mentioned in the Lake District, all three of us went down with nasty viruses, from which we only just recovered in time. In view of all the blessings we were to experience there over the next twelve years, it is no surprise that there was considerable opposition to us getting there.

Our Lord, who was always so enterprising Himself, admired the determination of the young men who lowered the paralytic through the roof. We may likewise need considerable determination to overcome all manner of complicated circumstances, plaguing thoughts, and even illnesses in order to be able to get away. We have sometimes set off on retreat feeling as though there were lead weights in our shoes, and glue on the wheels of our car. We should not be surprised.

We had an amusing illustration of this one year. Rosalind and I had set off to pray at one of our favourite trysting places, only to find our pathway blocked by a huge beast. Because it was directly in front of us, we couldn’t tell whether it was a bull or a cow. After some hesitation we plucked up courage and proceeded (“After you, dear!”) We were relieved to discover that the ‘bull’ had udders! We had such a powerful time with the Lord that it made me ponder again how much Satan hates and fears our prayers. ‘The cow that looked like a bull’ is a picture of how the Adversary hinders our seeking after God by sowing our path with fears and distractions.

It is best not to leave it until we are completely exhausted before we go away on retreat, because the backlog of fatigue may take many days to clear. In an ideal world, it would also be helpful to avoid plunging straight back into a maelstrom of activity the moment we return home. I am aware that few of us will find this possible in practice, but it is still a worthwhile aspiration.

Should we choose to lead a truly simple lifestyle during this Cherith week, many of us may experience all manner of withdrawal symptoms: not only from tea, coffee and chocolate, but also from our ingrained dependency on books, television and other forms of entertainment. Such a week may be just the thing to show us how addicted to them we are. To fast occasionally from everyday features of life such as rich food, friendship and phone calls can do much to sharpen our spiritual life.

Even without such extreme measures, most of us will find that it takes our soul a while to unwind and settle in the Lord’s presence. After all, agendas supply most of the context of our lives, so it is hardly surprising if their temporary absence proves disconcerting. (Japanese employers have found it necessary to write manuals to help workaholic employees cope with their feelings of guilt at being away from their workplace for a few days.) Certainly, my most productive times of writing normally come later in the week when the backlog of stress and weariness has begun to wash away.

As a sign that I am making the change ‘from agenda to encounter’, I take my watch off. As the week develops, time can be consecrated in a more rarefied way than is usually possible. In such solitude, my whole attention is focused on the unseen. This is the time to push out the boundaries and to explore themes and studies I would not usually have the leisure to pursue. As the nights increasingly blend with the days, I am as likely to be having a time of prayer at two in the morning as at seven in the evening.

It is not hard to point to the benefits that come from taking these times out with the Lord: of insights gained and warnings shared, course-corrections effected and new ideas birthed; promises reiterated and reassurance gained. Life thus assumes a prophetic overtone once more as the Lord shares more of His wisdom and purposes with us.

But worry can rob us of our intimacy with God. It only takes one eyelash to blur our sight. Calm will develop, and anxiety be avoided (or at least be reduced) as we bring our specific worries to our Heavenly Father. Moreover, the very intensity of our desire to meet with the Lord can make us tense. Deep within us, and sometimes in the hearts of the well-wishers who were so eager to send us off on retreat, lurks the inner pressure that we ought to return from our trysting place bearing the gifts God has given us on the mountain top. The laudably high hopes we set out with that the Lord would speak to us mean that we begin to fret as the precious hours tick past: ‘It’s nearly time to go and He hasn’t spoken yet!’

It is easy to worry and complain when we do not hear what we think we need to hear. But God comes in surprising ways and at unexpected moments – and He never leaves it too late. Patience as much as omnipotence is the hallmark of His dealings with us. Our coming away is not in vain. Just through spending time with Him, our soul is being restored to peace, and our generous Lord will more than make up to us for the time that we have given to Him.

We must be sure to keep the shield of faith firmly in place as we finish our retreat and put our watches back on. It is not uncommon to find our joy being sharply tested by unexpected difficulties and confusions in the days following a retreat. We should not be surprised. The devil is desperate to snatch away the spiritual realities we have experienced. This again is why it is so important to record at the time the insights the Lord gives us.

Advancing through Retreats

It is not so long ago that the concept of retreats appeared to be in danger of terminal decline. Mercifully, much has now changed, as more and more Christians wake up to the enormous strategic value of going on regular retreats.

Over the past few decades there has been a marked, if partial, reduction in the role of the monasteries. In the light of this, it is all the more interesting to see that the Lord is raising up a new generation of lay retreat centres to fulfil the same role the monasteries have fulfilled since time immemorial as places to which people come for prayer and spiritual refreshment. In part we can attribute the popularity of these ‘quiet houses’ to a reaction against the ever-increasing stresses and strains of life. With most people’s workloads soaring into the ‘red revs’, it is vital that we compensate by taking time out.

To be always alone with the Lord, however, would lead to an unbalanced diet. The power of God flows when we are together in fellowship with others in a way that cannot happen on a private retreat. We need the input of inspired worship and teaching, where we experience the rubbing, as well as the joy, of corporate unity.5

Many fellowships take huge strides forward when they go away on retreat together. More progress can be made in the life of a church during the course of a weekend than in a whole string of consecutive Sundays. This is not surprising when we consider that the church will have been praying for their time away, and that others will also be committed to praying for the work of that particular retreat house. Those who visit such places are thus in line to receive a double blessing!

My only concern is that many church weekends remain too firmly fixed on the cerebral level of teaching and sharing, rather than on seeking God’s face. My longing is to help bring people who do not have much time in everyday life to wait on the Lord right through into His throne room.

If you are in a position to have any say in the running of a retreat, try to leave plenty of space in which to meet the Lord. The temptation may be strong to fill every space on the timetable, but such attention to detail may inadvertently prevent the time together from becoming the true spiritual encounter that both you and the Lord were hoping for.

For Reflection

To summarize the main theme of this chapter: it is good to go away periodically on retreat to rest and to recover both our physical and our spiritual energies. It is even better, if our lifestyle permits, to tryst as well as to rest, for these occasions provide marvellous opportunities to experience more of the Lord’s power and creativity.

The more we pray in a house, or a region, the fuller it becomes of God’s presence. Perhaps we will find it especially helpful to seek the Lord in one particular room (in our own or someone else’s house). Many of us pray best out of doors, or while pursuing some relaxing hobby. But whatever outward form our seeking takes, the Lord will reward our eagerness to meet with Him.

Selah

Turn away from your daily work,
Hide yourself for a little time from your restless thought;
Give yourself a little leisure to talk with God,
And rest awhile with Him.

Enter the secret chamber of your heart,
Shutting out everything but God,
And that which may help you in seeking Him.

And when you’ve closed the door, seek Him.

Now my whole heart says to God: ‘I seek Your face,
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.’

I will seek You by desiring You,
And desire You in seeking You.

I will find You by loving You,
And love You in finding You . . .
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
But believe that I may understand.

For this I know to be true,
That unless I first believe I shall not understand.

(The Proslogian of St Anselm)

References
1. Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints, Jill Haak Adels (O.U.P.).
2. This is in no way to deny the omnipresence of God. We can be close to the Lord in any setting, just as we can be lonely in the midst of a crowd or in a place of great beauty.
3. Secular surveys show that women are generally more prepared to allow themselves time off than men; that they look forward to holidays more, and that they make better use of them. It seems to me that women are better at waiting on the Lord. Here’s a challenge for us men! It is also interesting that some of the fastest-growing churches in America are those which set their pastor aside to spend quality time thinking, praying and preparing. They are then able to feed their congregations with the spiritual wisdom they have gained.
4. The week long ‘Festival of Booths’ or ‘Tabernacles,’ looks back to commemorate God’s guidance and protection during the forty years in the wilderness, as well as forward to the coming Messiah. It is full of symbolic meaning for Christians and Jews.
5. Many find the Taizé model helpful, because the regular meetings combine worship, silence, teaching and prayer. We can explore many such variations in our fellowships.