After participating in Seek Me Retreats in 2013 and 2014, the following year saw me take a week out of my busy life for a guided retreat at Te Ngakau Waiora in Auckland – a work of Nga Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa, Sisters of Mercy New Zealand.
Their very name carries some of their story.
Ngakau means the heart, seat of affections and feelings;
Wai means water, the memory of things heard;
Ora means life and well-being;
Waiora means the place of life-giving waters.
With their mission to be a peaceful city oasis which facilitates and nurtures relationship with God and provides opportunities for personal renewal in harmony with creation – it was just what my entire being; mind, body and soul needed.
Sr Christina Cathro was my guide – someone I sat with and shared with and cried with for an hour each day then the rest of my time was spent silently contemplating, reading, crying out to God, soaking up the sights and smells of a wet Autumn in Cornwall Park and putting pen to paper.
Following a period of frustration and confusion, deceit and destruction which ended in feeling attacked, judged and condemned – their guilt messages instead of grace; I experienced an outpouring of grace like never before and I soaked it up like one lost in the desert for days.
Prior to the retreat I had sat with a pastor who was trying to give us the tools required to rebuild our shattered relationship. I said to him that if I didn’t connect with God in a real and tangible way then I was chucking the lot!
But speak to me he did! The very first moment my bible opened to Hosea 2:14-15, And now, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to start all over again. I’m taking her back out into the wilderness where we had our first date, and I’ll court her. I’ll give her bouquets of roses. I’ll turn Heartbreak Valley into Acres of Hope. She’ll respond like she did as a young girl, those days when she was fresh out of Egypt.
The search for love and intimacy from a man had crashed and burned all around, so for God to speak into the very heart of the matter got my attention – he totally wants us body, mind and soul – not just our bums on pews, ears half listening on Sunday mornings!
Feeling loved and accepted I began to contemplate the mess of the situation I had got myself into and all my fears seemed to flood my being and suffocate me then I read Isaiah 43v2-4, Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called your name, You’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there for you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place it won’t be a dead-end. Because I am God, your personal God. The Holy of Israel, your saviour. I paid a huge price for you.
The next day Sr Christina told me to stop beating up on myself and to be gentle and connect with God and then it would all become clear as I sought direction for my life and then she told me to go walk around Cornwall Park and talk to a tree and hear what it has to say! My journal entry reads: She wants me to go for a walk and talk to a friggin tree and then listen to what it tells me!!!! And then a little further on in my journal … Just got back from my walk around Cornwall Park – was gorgeous and interesting watching people. I didn’t like the first tree I chilled out on and the next one I spent ages with but she didn’t speak to me – she probably knew I thought she was gnarled and ugly on the side of the hill with her big roots all through volcanic rock!! Was relaxing though.
The next day I reported in quite proudly that the tree hadn’t spoken to me, feeling like it proved I wasn’t some sort of crack pot but she sent me back to have another listen!
Journal entry 5/5/2015 reads… Woah, my mind is blown – I went back and spent time at the tree – I walked around it, I leant over a branch and rested on it between where the trunk kind of branched off in two. I sat on knobbly roots in two different places, I prodded sticks into holes by the roots and even dropped a rock down one of the deep holes then I sat up against it leaning my head against the trunk and closed my eyes. I even apologised for saying she was ugly and gnarled!
The impression I got back was along the lines of wherever I am be the real me. I was thinking that it was stink for the tree to be stuck in a paddock on the side of a hill amongst volcanic rock and quite exposed to the weather, especially so close to a nice park! Then I thought about myself stuck on the farm when there were so many versions of myself that I want to be – happily married me, single me, me in a completely new relationship me, me in an orphanage in Malawi me, jumping on a plane and helping with the disaster relief in Nepal me.
Then I got “put down roots where you are, if there are rocks go over them or around them – it doesn’t matter if you’re on the side of a hill or exposed to the weather, work with what you’ve got – don’t wish you were a palm tree on a tropical island or a tall skinny tree or one with better, shinier leaves – be fully me.
I spent ages trying to find some sort of treasure or momento and got the impression it had been around a bit so anything exciting had been found a long time ago. I picked a twig so I could at least figure out what type of tree it was! There was sheep poo around it, cigarette butts, a broken CD and a smashed booze bottle so I certainly wasn’t the first person to have hung out there!
Then I looked up and could see straight up to the top of One Tree Hill and straight out to the Sky Tower and other high points in Auckland and Rangitoto and decided it wasn’t in such a bad spot after all! Then as I headed back to the path I noticed a wooden notice board. My tree was an Olive Tree Planted in the 1860’s by Sir John Logan and was originally one of 5000 as he tried to grow them for the oil but most of them ended up being sterile and only about 200 of them remain today so my tree may have been 150 years old! And it was happy where it was and didn’t wish it had been planted in the Mediterranean!
Later when I was back in my room I googled and was surprised by all the symbolism and how ancient they are and how they are frequently mentioned in the bible and how they had an amazing purpose – to produce olive oil which is highly prized.
The Hebrew word for Olive means to shine and is related to another word to be brilliant and another Hebrew word for it means to be prominent and brightness. I also read, “They are ordinary in appearance and size, some might say a little bit ugly and during certain seasons a bit messy! When it becomes old the trunk acquires a unique pattern of twists and turns and protuberances and knots giving the tree a very interesting appearance. There are trees in Israel estimated to be 1000 years old that still produce fruit! Olive wood is very hard and beautifully grained and it was the most valuable tree to the ancient Hebrews.
The entire experience moved me to capture my thoughts in the form of a poem – the first of many I wrote during that week of contemplation.
I spent a large chunk of my week reading the women at the well story found in the book of John. Jesus broke through ethnic, social and cultural barriers, he always asks us to give to him – he doesn’t want to take from us, he doesn’t force himself on anyone – gives us the option to reject him, and once we’ve tasted living water the old wells leave you more dissatisfied.
Psalm 61:1-6 – God listen to me shout, bend an ear to my prayer.
When I’m far away from anywhere, down to my last gasp I call out.
Guide me up High Rock Mountain
You’ve always given me breathing room – a place to get away from it all
A lifetime pass to your safe house – an open invitation as your guest.
You’ve always taken me seriously God – made me welcome among those who know and love you.
That day saw me head off and climb Mount Saint John – that was my “High Rock Mountain” for the day!
On the walk home I bought an Expresso Magnum ice-cream then popped across the road to a booze shop and bought two little mini bottles of whiskey – didn’t really know what that was all about but felt I wouldn’t get unstuck with two minis! That night I was restless – I texted, read poems, listened to songs and googled lyrics late into the night.
My journal reads, Maybe I’ll hide my phone – I’m feeling scattered…… whatever that means – I guess the opposite of centred!
The next verse to speak to me was Jeremiah 17:4-10, Cursed is the strong one, who depends on mere humans, who thinks he can make it on muscle alone and sets God aside as dead weight.
He’s like a tumbleweed on the prairie out of touch with the good earth. He lives rootless and aimless in a land where nothing grows.
But blessed is the man who trusts me, God – the woman who sticks with God. They’re like trees replanted in Eden putting down roots near the rivers – never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf.
Serene and calm through droughts bearing fresh fruit through every season.
The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful. A puzzle that no one can figure out. But I God search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are not as they pretend to me.
The next day I walked around Cornwall Park again taking extra notice of the Ti kouka – the Cabbage Trees. They were ancient navigational markers and are a symbol of our roots – knowing where we came from and the wild beauty of finding out where we are going.
E kore e riro, he ti tamore no rarotonga – the Cabbage Tree is never carried away in a gale – which means a person of courage can withstand a storm.
I kept contemplating the women at the well story and Sr Christina kept challenging me and encouraging me to keep writing my poems.
My journal reads, Sister Christina says I’m a poet – a writer and I should nurture that side of myself. She says I’ve sought direction in my life, have made some tough decisions but I still need to meet Jesus at the well and hear what he has to say to me.”
I kept reading over it and found there is actually two women at the well stories in the bible – one in the Old Testament about Rachel which is also one of the most famous love stories in the bible but the main theme of the story was the consequences of sin – everyone was deceitful or deceived and then the New Testament story about the Samaritan Women with the theme of – we need to sit down and talk about your life – no shame or embarrassment but let’s get honest.
Jesus asks us to give without taking from us – he wants us to put stuff in his hands – our heart, our life, our past issues and our sin. Everything else except Jesus will leave us thirsty and material and earthly pursuits will never satisfy us.
The most we can hold is enough for one day – we have to go back to him the next. We like to go back to old wells but when you’ve tasted living water – old wells become more unsatisfying and leave you emptier than before. She didn’t realise that her deepest need was spiritual. We want God to fix our practical needs – like relationships and material needs but he says no, we’re going deeper than that – address the deep need not just the symptoms of that deep need in your life.
My last journal entry reads, God’s chosen me – he wants to sit down and have an honest talk to me. I need to spend time with him daily. I need to be faithful to the one who called me into his grace and mercy. Only living water will satisfy – even the watering can I got from Sister Christina at the end of the first session only held enough water for my Iris for one day because it leaked then I forgot to top it up and after a few days it died!
As I waited for my ride home I spent time watching a Monarch butterfly feeding on nectar and it was a nice symbol to end with – even Sr Christina walked past and thanked God for the sign of the Monarch!
The Monarch butterfly – a symbol of hope, restoration and renewal – maybe I’ve metamorphosed from a caterpillar and its now time to try my wings!
Mai i toku ngakau,