paintingThe black, white and grey of City Winter:

Sometimes our retreats end up with experiments in paint. This time one trial with black and white ‘splodge’ artwork ended up looking very like birch trees in winter! The colours echoed what I’d seen myself earlier in the week: flocks of noisy black rooks on the grass in Potternewton Park, and a great swirl of mainly white & grey herring gulls circling low and loudly over Easterly Road.

Cycling en route to Wild City Winter retreat: black burka’d women shopping on Roundhay Road, robes billowing in the breeze, contrasted with a small crowd of white-clad and turbaned women worshippers (Eritrean Orthodox?) climbing the steps of St Aidan’s, some with grey or black coats against the winter chill.

Black and white echo much of our expectation of this season, but in parallel, some of us were amazed with the amount of colour we saw, and the way in which our expectations are so often challenged when we truly open our eyes to the physical world around us…

trees-winterThe Gaps between Expectations and Reality

It was lovely to have classic January pictures and poems to inspire the start of our meditations: visions of snow and ice, crisp frosty vegetation, sub-zero temperatures, stark silhouettes, clear blue skies and brilliant colours in winter sunshine.

But what we actually had was steady chilly rain, low hanging mist in unmoving air, lots of mud, dripping branches, a mainly brown/grey/beige palette.

So I started wondering about the gap between expectations and realities. Gazing at the bright snowy winter images I was first transported to experiences in my past, remembering both positive and negative times in frozen conditions and then to scenes current in Winnipeg, Canada, where I have family. Neither of those mental journeys helped me to be present in the here and now, open to the possibility of God speaking through my dank and murky surroundings on the soggy Urban Farm in late January 2017. But an hour outside under an umbrella opened my ears to an astonishing amount of upbeat birdsong and sheep bleating (do they care about the weather?) as well as the background busy rumbles and glass smashing of the recycling centre penetrating through the immediate sound of loud rain; opened my nose to the richness of assorted damp aromas; opened my eyes to the vivid red dogwood stems, the delicate pink viburnum flowers and the shocking pink and green of early rhubarb. Such a visual treat in the buff and grey landscape!

That made me ponder about other areas of life where I may miss the joy and potential of my actual present reality because I’m thinking about some ideal. Are there gaps between my expectation of the word ‘mother’ and the one I’ve got?

What about ‘husband’, ‘friend’, ‘teacher’, ‘retirement’, ‘children’, ‘holiday’? For some people, the yawning and sometimes tragic gaps between, for example, ideals of ‘leader’, ‘benefits system’, ‘justice’, ‘church’ and the heartbreaking realities actually experienced, can create stubborn barriers to sensing the love of God.

I was reminded of the disbelief of the oppressed Israelites in Egypt when Moses announces good news of freedom: the gap between the ideal of a good God and the slaves’ daily experience was too great. “they did not listen because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (Genesis 6: 9). But one day freedom came.

I value retreat Saturdays as a small way of deliberate listening out for signs of freedom wherever I am trapped in the gaps between expectation and reality.

Ali Phelps