We were instructed to experience the afternoon in complete silence. I’ve experienced times of silence before, but it had been awhile. There was also instruction to slow down and listen, to pay attention to our surroundings and (hopefully) hear the voice of God. As I thought about it, and decided to lay aside any skepticism I had and enter into the experience, I became quite expectant. This was going to be a profound experience. God was going to speak to me!
During this time I had the opportunity to kayak along the shore from our cabin, exploring the contours of this small Pacific island. Again, I thought to myself, God will surely speak to me in the amazing beauty of this place!
As I paddled I was drawn towards a small outcropping of rocks. I got to the small barren island only to see and sense nothing profound at all. I explored around a corner. Still nothing. “Okay God, why am I here?” Nothing. Profound silence wasn’t what I had planned for.
Then I saw it. Well, I’d already seen it, but I realized why I was drawn to this rocky place. The tree. Out of one lone rock away from shore a scraggly coastal tree carved out its existence. “Why this tree?”, I wondered, expecting to have some special meaning become clear. “God, I’m ready to hear your voice,” I silently pled.
I pondered my options:
- Is there meaning in the contrasts of this sight (life in barrenness)? Nope.
- Is the mix of colors somehow significant (green amidst gray)? Nope.
- Ah, is this a message about rootedness and faith, one of my favorite themes for spirituality? Nope.
I felt a desire to hop out of my kayak onto the rock itself to take a closer look. I scrambled closer, checking for some detail or mark to signal God’s voice. Still nothing.
This spiritual exercise began to feel more like what the poet in Ecclesiastes describes as “chasing after the wind.” We strive for wisdom and understanding only to find nothing. And we can conclude, as the poet summarizes, that all our searching is in fact “meaningless.” This is how I felt on that rock.
But then a thought struck me. A profound thought. WIthout words or even great clarity, I got the sense that my striving was the problem. I needed to stop trying so hard to find meaning or explain the profundity of everything I see and hear. I risked fabricating an experience of God without actually experiencing God. Our retreat guidelines came to my mind, so eloquently put: “Shut up and relax” (this phrase was actually printed on the guidelines for the retreat, not to be crass, but to communicate the imperative to slow down).
And then I received clarity as I sat in silence under this little tree that until then had only brought me confusion and frustration. While no audible voice of God came - and no, the bush didn’t start on fire! - I did sense this from God:
“Just enjoy this tree! Isn’t it a cool tree here on these rocks? It’s beautiful. I made it and I like it. Enjoy it with me. Just enjoy it with me.”
I was looking for the voice of God. I was chasing a spiritual experience. And when I was ready to give up, it wasn’t a literal voice or a clear message with profound meaning for my life that I found. Instead, I encountered plain beauty - a tree and the simple presence of God.
(This story took place during a recent silent retreat on Pender Island, BC with the Mark Centre)