A few more reflections on our wilderness retreat…

Looking down on our camp site

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of the things I really love to do is to immerse myself in wild places and for many years (along with some old friends) I have been taking time each year to make what we call ‘wilderness retreats’.  These usually involve camping on small uninhabited islands and following a deliberate rhythm of silence and community- with a lot of laughter in between.

Increasingly we have enjoyed being hosts and have been joined by friends, friends of friends and contacts from the assortment of church contacts and networks we are connected to.

This year, Crawford (a friend who has been coming for a few years now ans our go-to source for all things avian) described how it was usually only quite a while after we had left the island that its full impact was felt- almost as if we take a little of it away with us.

This year I felt very privileged to take some people who had never camped before and certainly never managed to get out to a wild west island. I always worry about the shock to the system that camping wild can be to those who have never done it before- particularly when (as happened this year) the weather is bad. It requires a methodical stoicism and can result in real lows as well as highs.

Half way through for example, I was convinced that my mate Graham was in some kind of stupour induced by wet waterproofs and fear of the poo-trowel. I would have taken odds on him chalking all of this camping in the wild stuff to experience and deciding that, if he were to survive, it was an experience he would never repeat.

Graham- "What have I done?"

Which just goes to show how wrong  I can be.

Graham is a blogger too, and his blog has had a series of reflections on the retreat- the last of which is here.  I loved this;

What I loved about retreat on that island was trying to discover a male spirituality that did not rely on dominance and aggression but had a measure of strength and vulnerability. It was ok to pray, share deeply, lose the mask of invulnerability and at the same time banter, fart, make toilet jokes, swear and build fires. Realising you are male, a Jesus follower and you don’t have to pretend/assume false piety is a very powerful thing.

I don’t claim to have discovered ‘a model’: there isn’t one, but the route of honesty is good for the journey…

It occured to me again that one of the most important spiritual disciplines is the attitude of vulnerability. We normally armour ourselves against this in a thousand ways, but in wilderness, on a tiny island, in silence, this armour falls away. For those like Graham who experience this for the first time, it falls with a loud clang.

There have been a couple of other lovely things that have been inspired by the retreat which I wanted to mention here- firstly Andrew wrote a lovely poem on his blog- which is here. A quick excerpt- but please go and read the whole thing;

Steel grey skies darken,
Hidden rock spires, deep depths, whirling, roaring tides and waves.
Wind and waves grow,
Deck lurching side to side,
A rocky shore, but his plan, not ours.
Safe upon a new shore, an unknown glen, not known for generations passed.
Rocks, prayers,
The rough-hewn blackness sinking into waves,
Rocks, prayers,
Held, carried, prayed over
Are you there?
Finally, Andy- who has been a friend of mine for about 25 years, and a companion on many of these trips, wrote a song. More than that, he recorded the song, and made a video using clips and photos taken on quite a few of our trips- I recognised Scarba (x2) Jura, Coll, Eilleach an Naiomh, The McCormaigs and man more. It is quite lovely, and so here it is;

Aoradh wilderness retreat, 2013…

Andy in contemplation above the Grey Dogs tidal race

I am back!

Sadly, we did not manage to get on to Eileach an Naoimh, our planned retreat venue this year- the weather made a landing (via small inflatable from larger boat) rather dicey. Lindsay, the skipper of Sea Leopard II (highly recommended if you are in the need of a boat charter in these parts) had a good try,  from a couple of different points, but a storm was approaching, leaving only one sensible choice.

We had the choice of loads of other venues in the area, but opted for the northern end of Scarba- offering shelter from the approaching south west storm in the old birch trees in the hollow of big hills.

It was stunning, despite the weather being a challenge- made all the more special by two sea eagles who were our constant companions- huge birds, with 9 foot wingspans riding the winds over the raging tides of the Grey Dogs.

This year there were 11 of us who traveled in the end- a really great bunch of blokes from all parts of the country and many different walks of life. We had lots and lots of laughter, times of deep silence, prayer, fireside conversations and experienced the close camaraderie of sheltering in a rudimentary shelter rigged expertly by Sam and Neil.

There is so much I could say (and probably will) about our days together, but for now here are a few photos;

Message in a bottle- Scarba…

On the last morning of our recent trip to Scarba, I made this little video clip.

The Whiskey bottle was emptied around our fire.

The message inside was one of the meditations we used, with our names on the back. I threw it as far as out into the Gulf of Corryvreckan as I could, in the knowledge that the whirlpool could spit it out as far as it is possible to imagine.

Was this a terrible contribution to the pollution seen in these wild places? We had a philosophy of taking only pictures and leaving only footprints. The beach that we camped next to was already littered with plastic of all colours and shapes…

Perhaps- but the romanticism of the action seemed beautiful to me. And a glass bottle- despite the risks if broken- seems to me to be more easily swallowed by the sea and made into beach glass.

If you find it, let us know!

Scarba- Aoradh wilderness trip…

(L to R) Simon R, Nick, David, Andy, Simon M and me

(L to R) Simon R, Nick, David, Andy, Simon M and me

I am just back from our visit to the beautiful Scarba

6 of us went out on Saturday, via a chartered boat from Ardfern. The intention was to find some space inside and out, and try out some of the wilderness meditations we have been working on (see here for a selection.)

Scarba is a small island Between Mull and Jura in the Inner Hebrides off the Argyll coastline. It is surrounded by some of the most dramatic tidal waters in the world. To the east is the Gulf of Corryvrecken, with it’s famous whirlpool. On the other side, the Grey dogs tidal race.

The forecast was rotten, but we had two glorious days, with the occasional shower making the sky and sea all the more dramatic. I have a sun burnt head as I forgot a hat!

We were camping, but had the use of a bothy for evenings and shelter- thanks to the owners of the Island for their generosity in letting us use it!

So we abseiled down cliffs, explored caves, scrambled over heather and bog, set up meditation walks, sat around fires, walked ancient mysterious flagged pathways, and stood on places where early Christian monks worshiped. The deer and wild goats watched from a distance, and overhead a Sea Eagle wheeled in the wind.

Oh and we laughed. We laughed a lot. Whiskey was shared and bad jokes honoured.

Single malt, smoke, sharing

Single malt, smoke, sharing

Part of my motivation for visiting places like this should be obvious from what I have already written. For me, however, there are other things driving me.

Men and spirituality.

Not easy bedfellows.

Men do lots of theological arguing, and perhaps like a nice new project. But setting time aside to seek God- this tends to be a rather alien thing. A huge generalisation I know- but one that may well have some truth.

So I set to wondering whether the problem was not we blokes and the curse of trying to be masculine in the post modern age, but rather the problem was the way the Christian church has anchored and shackled spirituality to a narrow set of activities within organised structures.

What if there are other ways- old and new ways that seek God in small adventures, and in wilderness, and in communing around fires with a good bottle?

Here are some photos from our trip (click to enlarge)…