Friday, April 23, 2010

Bellfry, where it is easy to talk about God

Mimi Saayman, a team member of the Centre, and I returned from the United States last Monday, having attended a retreat that turned out to be a very unique experience. Shalem, a contemplative community in Washington, had invited us to attend a 7-day workshop on personal spiritual deepening with a view not only to our own personal enrichment, but also to being introduced to their course built on material developed over the past 15 years. The idea or long-term purpose is to bring it back and present it in our own community in South Africa. So, even if I relate personal impressions first – eventually what we received will be moulded into a programme that will be shared and passed on to others.

What a rich and special gift it has been! Besides being overwhelmed by the novelty of an American spring – a first for me – there was a further surprise waiting for us when, after almost 4 hours on the road to the south west of Washington, we arrived at the Broadway Bellfry Retreat Centre in Virginia where the workshop was to be held.

Words cannot really do justice to the beauty and splendour of this venue, but I’ll try to give an impression: the Bellfry, set in magnificent surroundings, welcomes one into loving spaces, inviting silences and has colourful symbols that represent the concrete embodiment of a poetic and imaginative God-given dream – one which Anne Grizzle, the current owner, had nurtured for many years and which eventually materialised three years ago. Entering this small paradise I was taken back to John Denver’s celebration of the country roads that he loved: “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains, Shanandoah river…”. These were all there, or at least very close by.

I will remember this special course/workshop and especially the Bellfry for a number of reasons. First, one was brought to a standstill that enabled new awareness and reflection. As Kendrick, one of the other participants, observed: “here the vital sense of slowing down and becoming centred inevitably begins to grow”. And then there were special moments with special people, kindred spirits, a contemplative tribe – the opportunity for deep sharing of our doubts, fears, joys and passions, at night in a small circle, or during our walks in the forest; the singing and celebrating together during the sessions which made us “part of the flow”. Perhaps Ann Dean described the mystery and joy of such communion best when her first letter after our return reminded us: “Should you or I ever feel alone or isolated, let us remember we are eternally connected in soul and purpose”.

Bellfry took me back, after many years, to a special moment in my life when I experienced myself a true child of the earth – probably for the first time. It triggered a wonderful memory from my teenage years, when a schoolfriend and I swam naked in the upper stream of a waterfall in the mountains close to our hometown in the Northwestern Cape. The question that was gently posed after I shared this moment of vulnerability, still lingers: “Where is that place today? Where is that boy?”

Looking back on the remarkable time of becoming quiet, systematically exploring one’s own spirituality through carefully directed, rich experiences, barely a week on, I realise that perhaps the most significant shift that took place in me, is manifest in the subtle, almost obscure way it became easier than before to talk about, and even with and to God.

When we arrived at Bellfry after a very busy term I felt fragmented and blocked, almost like Thomas when he was tormented by nagging questions and doubts. When we left however, it was with the song of Job in my heart: “… I knew only what others had told me, but now I have seen you with my own eyes”. Because for me, anew, God was – is – undeniably there; I met Him/Her in the splendour of nature, in the birdsong at daybreak, in the amazing stories of the Bible, in our shared brokenness and joys as children of God, in the warm embraces of appreciation, hospitality and love and then most of all…in the silence which is, so it seems, always God’s first and most clear language.

Carel Anthonissen.

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