Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
Apart from the hours in the upper room the events of Holy Week and Easter are all outdoors. This is true of a great part of Jesus’ ministry. It is especially true of his recorded life of prayer: the wilderness, the mountain top, the garden – these were his sacred spaces. There must be something in this outdoor praying to take note of.
Speaking personally, I would go quite barmy if I couldn’t spend a good part of the day outside. We live surrounded by fields with a forest and lake twenty minutes’ walk away. We also have a dog who is my companion on my daily walks – which I look forward to as a time of prayer and reflection. The rhythm of the walking aids the quieting of the mind and deepening of consciousness. However, there is more to outdoor praying than that.
‘Outdoor learning’ is now an important provision in schools. We have a son who makes his living by running a ‘Forest School.’ ‘The benefits of the engagement with environment’, he tells me, ‘are far-reaching.’ ‘It enables respect and knowledge of natural forces, it awakens imagination and stimulates emotions, it enables a growing awareness of self, and one’s place within the natural order – but most of all it’s fun.’ Some of these ‘learning outcomes’ ought to be part of our prayer life. But often they are not.
Very quickly our own prayer life can become ritualized and routine. It also becomes cerebral and does not engage our whole self. It makes very little impact on the senses. The old saying ‘You’re nearer to God in the garden than anywhere else on earth’ has a great amount of truth in it. But being nearer to God and engaging with God are two different things altogether.
At the retreat house at Edenham we have provided days of reflection which take Gospel events and then pray with them in outdoor context. We have had walks to Emmaus, breakfasts on a lake side, and outdoor Stations of the Cross concluding at the top of a hill. In these experiences light breaks into our understanding of the Gospel and new insights and direction emerge. We now have an ‘outdoor church’ with a stone table at the east end and a fountain at the west.
It is easier to pray for the world when one hears and sees it at work and at play. Holy places are exactly that – places. Our outdoor meditations, pilgrimages and liturgies help us to experience that all places are holy. We are able to say with Jacob setting up his stone by the river, ‘The Lord is in this place, and I never knew it…this is the gate of heaven.’
Our Lord, who is the Word through whom all things are made, speaks to us about the spirit being like the wind – it helps sometimes to pray with the wind on your face and its sound in your ears.