12-PAGE PULL-OUT SUPPLEMENT
RETREATS AND PILGRIMAGES
From Martha to Mary
In the deep desert of the Sinai, Jill Langford samples the eremitic life of the early Christian Fathers and finds an inner contemplation as a foil to her busy everyday life
In my daily life I am a Martha, constantly on the go, rarely sitting down. The demands of seven children, many animals, a husband, parents and many visitors keep me on the trot. The truth is, I enjoy it. Yet, every now and then a small voice comes to the surface and I make it known that I need to be alone, somewhere quiet, lost in contemplation like Mary. In the past I have made pilgrimages to Iona, where St Columba dwelt with his fellow monks. One year I took off with my oneman tent and pitched it on the deserted Galloway coast, close to home, and spent a few days alone, wandering its windy shores. This year I signed up for a week in the Sinai desert to sleep out under the stars and wander in the region where Moses led God’s people out of Egypt. My trip, entitled Adventure into Silence, was organised by a company called Wind, Sand and Stars and co-led by the Tablet columnist Sara
Journey into solitude: retreatants in the Sinai desert
Maitland, whose book, A Book of Silence, has proved an inspiration to many, including several of my travelling companions who had come to the Sinai to experience the “deep silence” of the desert that Sara describes so beautifully in her book.
The idea was to follow, loosely and in a non-denominational sort of way, in the footsteps of the Desert Fathers, those early Christian, pre-monastic men and women who attempted to live out the message of the Gospel as truly as possible, away from the immediate demands of the family, society and church organisation. Retiring to the deserts of Syria, Palestine and especially Egypt, these ordinary men and women were free to concentrate on exploring the motives of conduct and thought within themselves, so that what was disordered could be brought to light and redeemed by encounter with the forgiveness of God. Whether believers or non-believers, it was clear that everyone in the group of 15 who were to be my companions for the week shared a strong desire to “get away from it all”. Some were at what they described as “a crossroads”, wondering what direction to take in the next bit of their journey through life. Others, perhaps, came to make time for prayer, or simply to respond to the invitation to “ad-venture” into silence. I suppose that what we all wanted, as well, was to listen, intently, to the sound of silence and to make something out of it.
Only one member of our group, a Londoner and the youngest at 49, confessed that he had come along only because “it sounded mad”. I found his simple honesty refreshing. He contributed little to the discussion but bore quietly and without fuss a painful eye infection. When asked, at the end of the week, whether it had been sufficiently “mad” for him, he smiled his quiet, shy smile and made no reply. His silence spoke volumes.
Nobody could have been under any illusion that a week sleeping out on the desert floor with temperatures of 40 degrees by day and no water to wash with would be comfortable, but perhaps this was another reason why we came. Perhaps we needed a little physical discomfort. Our
(Continued on page s-2.)
INSIDE | A silent retreat | The revelation of Patmos | California’s mission trail
26 November 2011 | TABLET Traveller | s-1