Every year I go on a silent Retreat with my Bede Griffiths Sangha community, usually to Ty Mawr in Wales. This year, because of lockdown, we stayed at home and did it online, from Wednesday to the following Monday, six days. This was a very different experience for me.
At Ty Mawr we are far away from the world in a remote part of the countryside. We stay in a guest house in the grounds of the convent Ty Mawr; it is slightly elevated so that we have a beautiful view over the Wye valley and the distant hills. We cannot get any connection for our mobile phones, so we are completely cut off from all of our normal communication. All our usual problems and activities fall away, and it is very easy to settle into the rhythm of our days, meditation, prayers and chanting. Apart from this we are able to sit in the beautiful gardens, go for long walks, read, sit and reflect – or just sit.
How to accomplish this in one’s own home. With difficulty, I was thinking. I was going to need a lot more discipline to refrain from looking at my emails, watch television or listen to the radio, or make phone calls. It was good to see the familiar faces on zoom, meeting up together over the years we have all become good friends.
I got into trouble on our first day, having mistaken the time of our first evening meeting, and so I was too late to join in. I was disappointed at this. However, things got worse as I wrongly thought we had a meeting at 8pm, so when I tried to join in I got the message that ‘the host was in another meeting.’ I tried again and and again, getting ever more frustrated. It was only when I was finally able to join our final meeting at 9pm and I was told that there was no meeting at 8pm that I realised that all my troubles were of my own making, which did not make me feel much better! Wonderful as the internet is, it does have its downside!
So I decided I would watch TV, if only to calm myself down, and I saw the third instalment of an excellent film called ‘Des’ brilliantly played by David Tennant. He played the part of a very troubled man who enticed young men into his home and then killed them. Not a very elevated subject, but psychologically very interesting. Then I watched the News, by which time I realised this was not a very good idea, switched off and went to bed.
Thus ended the first day of my retreat.
I rose early the next morning in time for our first meeting at 8am, with meditation, spiritual readings and singing of sacred chants. Our day is based upon the routine followed at the ashram of Shantivanam in southern India, presided over by Bede Griffiths for many years. Bede Griffiths was a Benedictine monk who went out to India to find, as he put it, ‘the other half of his soul.’ Many of us have been to Shantivanam and it was to continue his teachings that, after his death in 1993, the Bede Griffiths Sangha was formed.
Our next meeting was at 12pm with meditation.
We were fortunate to have very beautiful weather. every day a cloudless blue sky and sunshine, so I was able to sit outside in the courtyard surrounded by pots of geranium and my Buddha.
I was sitting outside having my lunch, and this was when I first noticed the spider. He was hanging suspended from a silken thread in the pot of geraniums next to where I was sitting. I was fascinated. He was quite small and delicate, with a translucent body, black down the the middle, and black down both sides. His legs were striped grey and black, two of them were above his body, two were out sideways, and four were hanging below his body. He was completely still.
Every time I returned to my chair, there he was. I became used to seeing him and studied him closely. Was he aware of me, I wondered. I felt his two little black eyes were looking at me. I must have seemed enormous to him. I kept very quiet so as not to disturb him. One time I noticed that the black part in his middle seemed to be protruding out of his body. Was he weaving his web? I tried to see the threads that were attaching him there in mid air. One line stretched right up to the top of the wall, more than 6 ft high, another line went to the garden ornament planted in the pot, and there were many, many more. I marvelled at the intricacy and skill. This tiny creature could accomplish far more than any human was capable of doing.
I decided to give him a name, so I called him Webster.
The days of our retreat were now beginning to unroll more smoothly. Every day in the mid afternoon we would have a sharing. I talked about my friend Webster. One morning he was not there. Had he died? No, at midday there he was again, hanging in mid air, completely still. Somehow he became the symbol for me of the inner silence we were all seeking.
The theme of the retreat was ‘to be in the world but not of it’. To be in the world but not attached to it. One afternoon some of us discussed the problems going on in the world right now, and how difficult it was not to get involved in them, but at the same time asking what could we do to help. Meditation seemed to be the key. Through meditation we could attain a state of calm and detachment which would enable us not to become emotionally overwhelmed, but to see clearly what action was needed by us.
The following day, Sunday, I got another answer. I decided to go online and watch the service from my church. Lore, our priest, gave a sermon on Jonah and the whale. God had asked Jonah to go and preach to the citizens of Nineveh doom and destruction if they did not mend their ways. But Jonah ran away, he boarded a ship which was wrecked, fell into the sea and was swallowed by a whale, where he stayed for three days. On the third day he was ejected by the whale onto the seashore and this time he did God’s will, went to Nineveh and warned them of their doom. But the people of Nineveh believed Jonah, repented and put on sackcloth and ashes. So God forgave them and they lived. At which point Jonah was furious and he said to God: “I did what you said and now you have not done what you said you were going to do.” God replied to him, saying “My ways are not your ways. Trust and believe in me.”
The message I got from this is that we do not know God’s ultimate purpose, and that we must keep faith and trust in Him.
Back to my spider, every day I looked for him, one morning I saw him curled up in the geranium leaf, then at noon there he was again suspended in midair! I was developing a relationship with him. How long did spiders live I wondered. I said a little prayer for him. Does it not say in the Bible that even a blade of grass is loved by God. This little spider was teaching me, qualities of patience, determination and persistence, of creativity. I started thinking of how we each create our own web, through our relationships, our thoughts, our aspirations, our actions, so we are not so different. From there it was a short step to envisioning the master spider of all creating the world!
By our final day I felt very settled in the rhythm we had established. Now it was time for our final sharing together, everyone’s was different, each one of us had experienced it in their own way, but we were all agreed that we had felt the benefits from it. We waved each other goodbye on zoom.
I shall always remember this retreat because of my spider. He came to represent the still point for me. Every time I saw him he reminded me of the still point; how in the midst of all our activity we need to remember to come back to that still point.
The day following the retreat it was raining. There was no Webster. I looked for him but I have not seen him again.