WIDE SKIES AND OPEN HEARTS RETREAT – CAMPFIRE IN THE HEART, MAY 2013.
When you’re traveling around and traveling in, weaknesses and inadequacies soon become red raw away from roles, work concerns, securities that collaborate in their cover up. The illusion of having addressed them is seen on the outback track for what it really is and the defences that were supposedly dismantled have a deeper layer of subtlety exposed. Old wounds, healing still, bleed their pain as we come face to face yet again with the reality that the healing of life’s hurts is beyond our solitary effort just when we thought it close to hand.
Yet from such wounds and through our fears comes a new way that opens out to a landscape of rare beauty still largely unexplored that runs through the fierce rugged terrain of unconditional love. Noel Davis.
The five-day Wide Skies and Open Hearts retreat I attended opened with this passage. Having spent a week travelling around remote Aboriginal communities, I was ready for some stillness and reflection so the words traveling around and traveling in caught my attention. Little did I realise that the rest of the passage would also be prophetic in the coming days.
The retreat was hosted and mentored by Sue and David Woods who run Campfire in the Heart, a five acre property about 7km from Alice Springs. They have been committed to intentional community life their entire adult lives and offer retreats to people from all walks of life seeking wisdom and solace in the desert.
Campfire’s setting is wonderfully spacious and tranquil offering many quiet areas for reflection including a purpose built Prayer and meeting room, a labyrinth, a swimming pool (yes!) and, of course, a Campfire. I had my own cabin and the food was excellent.
There were three other women on this retreat, all at different stages in their lives and there for different reasons. Mine? Well I wanted to explore the desert and its paradoxes; to become spiritually deeper and, being on the Eremos in the Desert (EID) committee, I wanted a taste of what we might experience next year.
Landscape and Aboriginal spirituality were key themes underlying the retreat. For Aboriginal people everything comes from the land. Our language-land is like a root or a tie to us. It holds all of us…The roots of the country and its people are twined together. The Land is us, and we are the Land. Iwenhe Tyerrtye – What it means to be an Aboriginal Person by Margaret Kemare Turner.
Until last week, I had no idea that the Aboriginal term for Alice Springs was Mparntwe, or heard the term totemic topography which means that all parts of the landscape have a name and totemic association with one or other of the ancestral beings e.g. caterpillars are the major creative ancestors of Mparntwe and they created Emily Gap or Anthwerrke.
During the retreat, our daily rhythms included morning prayers, twice-daily meditation and the sharing of scripture, stories, external ‘retreats,’ songs and blessings plus lots of silence including at meals. Our ‘hub’ was the Prayer Room which exuded calmness and stillness, assisted by the beautiful and authentically replicated bush scene around which we gathered.
Here we were nourished, nurtured and blessed. Each day we focused on a different theme: earth, water, humanity, fire and air.
Also on offer was the lovely labyrinth, wonderful to walk any time of the day or night. Our even and slow steps aided our contemplation – helping us (me?) to gently unravel some of the tangled threads of our busy city lives. One of the highlights was sitting quietly in the centre of the labyrinth on the final night, accompanied by smoking leaves and fire.
Lectio Divina was offered daily. The passages were always well thought through and delivered mostly by David, whose spiritual fluency and broad knowledge always shone through. Sue led one session: her thinking engaged me differently but equally positively. Both encouraged us to be imaginative, not my forte! Some of the Gospel passages I knew but not their context.
Sometimes I walked the labyrinth to inspire me; other times I sat outside my cabin gazing into the hills beyond pondering on a passage or word. Occasionally, I drew a blank and panicked! Slowly I became more in tune with the process. Group sharing was always interesting, and sometimes fun!
Often there were other passages, besides the Gospel, to encourage us e.g. Wendell Berry, Rainer Maria Rilke and Alexander McCall Smith (AMS). Everyone has a map in their heart of their own country and the heart will never allow you to forget this map. (AMS). I kept coming back to this: the essence of ‘belonging’ until finally I felt compelled to draw my ‘map’ – a creative and liberating experience.
Lunchtime meant swim time! (how many retreats offer this?) and rest til mid afternoon. Maybe it was the long distance travel from the previous week but I appreciated the afternoon rest time or was it the constant thinking, writing and contemplating?
Every day we ventured outside to a place which mirrored the day’s theme. Olive Pink Botanic Garden echoed the land – a small garden near Alice full of central Australian plants and walks including to Annie Meyers Hill. The latter had terrific views in all directions and was wonderfully stimulating for writing poetry and sketching.
On day two, with water our theme, we visited Simpsons Gap where we sensed the power and majesty of the ancient rocks, the strong earthy colours and immense silence.
Psalm 42: As a doe yearns for running stream so I yearn for you my God. We were encouraged to ‘look at your reflection – who do you see? Look below the surface, what do you see?’ My diary quote: ’Quite frankly I did not really like what I saw….A still small person trying to find her way in life…. How small are we in the overall realm of time? I began to think of my life as trivial and insignificant.’
The street ‘retreat’ in Alice Springs township, the next morning, compounded my thinking. Our ‘brief’ was to watch and observe people there. I visited the law courts, local shopping malls, parks and bus stops. This visit was unexpectedly challenging – I saw many broken ‘black fellas and ‘white fellas’. I had a strong sense of ‘there for the grace of God go I’. My vulnerability made me feel helpless but it also gave me a strong desire to be more compassionate – yet how? The initial reading was spot-on: weaknesses and inadequacies soon become red raw away from roles, work concerns, securities that collaborate in their cover up. I knew that there was little between me and those who I saw: we are all flawed, we are all in this together and are all loved unconditionally by God.
The weekly Wednesday Evening Campfire gathering followed with local Arrernte personality, Margie, who sat around the fire with 15-20 white people. David led a Lectio session and I met some interesting people involved in housing, sexual health, hairdressing and TEAR fund!
Thursday’s theme of fire inspired and awakened some creativity in me – at last! We were all individually blessed by Sue and David which was beautiful. After my mini-blip, I had a renewed sense of being, we are all children of God, all flawed but all equally loved. I spent one-on-one time with Sue, explaining my vulnerability. She gave me some useful tips for Lectio and suggested resources such as Frank Anderson’s book: Jesus our Story. Our afternoon visit was to Emily Gap, Jessie Gap (unusual rock art), and the enormous family of Ghost Gums.
Our last day began with a partial eclipse of the sun! David began with a passage from Margaret Kemarre Turner’s book about names: skin names – which are sacred and come from the Land itself. Names become a template of life with obligations and responsibilities. The Bible passage, John 21, included a description of the disciples with many names. It inspired me to finish my ‘map’ – highlighting my own responsibilities – and share it with the group. Sketching the sunset at Undoolya Hill was special.
Now I am home and reflecting on the week. The long periods of silence, the wide open space and the displaced humanity I saw in Alice somehow combined together to help reveal my true self and allowed me to become more open to the source of all meaning found within me. I have a greater awareness of my limitations and strengths; more trust in myself and a confidence to be more courageous in my spirituality and creativity. Our story is best done at our own pace. We can be stripped of our masks and our identity yet we can still receive God’s love and grace with gratitude. Who are we? Well, we are all children of God. All spiritual pilgrims. In the desert, we can accept the red weather of our destiny.
O young White Gums:
O young White Gums
What secrets do you share
As you stand so tall and still
Around your ancestry?
Shedding your bark and leaves
Ripening buds and blooms
Whispering the mystery of faith to all who listen.
Wide open skies
Harsh silent elegance
Ancient rises, rocks and bones
Red weather of destiny
Speak powerfully to us city folk.
Telling us your story, Mparntwe story
Encouraging us to open up
Away from our street chatter and dizzy lights
Seeking clarity, solace and hope.