place is an oratory,
every moment a time for prayer . . .
Build yourself a cell in your heart and retire there
(Catherine of Sienna)1
IN OUR FAVOURITE
BOOKS special events often serve to launch the main story.
Such an episode occurs at the beginning of C.S. Lewis’
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when a picture of a Narnian ship
comes alive and draws the children into the ‘real’ Narnia.
Understanding what we call ‘Trysting Places’ has, for us,
been just such a moment of illumination.
Beyond the comforting knowledge that God can be known
everywhere, we were making the delightful discovery that He
loves to meet us in special ways in places that are dear to
both us and Him. It is clear from Scripture that there were
certain localities – such as the Mount of Olives – where the
Lord Jesus particularly enjoyed being with His Heavenly
Father and with His friends on earth.
The walk we went on meant far more to us than just taking
some exercise in a spectacularly beautiful part of the Lake
District: it was a step on the way to understanding how such
places can aid our spiritual growth. (The picture on the
front cover was taken on that walk.) Prayer thrives on open
horizons, and physical broad open spaces may help us to
enter the spiritual Broad Open Spaces. We go to such places
to talk and pray over things that are worrying us, and to
renew our strength in the Lord, so that we can return to our
everyday life more in tune with His heart.
By Still Waters
world knew our happiness, it would, out of sheer
envy, invade our retreats,
and the times of the Fathers of the Desert would
when the solitudes were more populous than the
(Madeleine Sophie Barat)1
When the Lord
Jesus said, ‘I go to prepare a place for you,’ (John
14:2-3), He was speaking primarily of our eternal home – but
this does not rule out there being implications for time as
well as for eternity. God has many places He wants to take
us to, as well as people He wants us to meet. The Lord is
ready to commune with us anywhere anytime, but we are not
always equally as ready, or as able, to meet with Him.
Certain places may therefore help to develop this life of
In our high-pressure high-expectancy age, we will all
benefit from going to ‘trysting places’ both as a break from
the daily grind, and in order to meditate and pray. I am
convinced that not only Christian workers, but businessmen,
teachers, parents and, indeed, people from every walk of
life would be blessed and strengthened if they could but
make the necessary sacrifices and get away to be with God.3
that has been consecrated to the Lord, and much
prayed in, often enjoys a special depth of His
presence. May He help us to find and profit from
Long ago, the
Lord ordained that the people of Israel should spend seven
days each year living in tents on the roofs of their
houses.4 In this precursor to the modern camping holiday I
detect a heavenly strategy. Wonderful though our home
comforts are, they can inadvertently obscure our pursuit of
God. A week ‘in the booths’ refocuses our soul on spiritual
was the first to call people to the lakes and
mountains of his beloved Cumbria. Living a simple
life himself, and inspiring others to do the same,
his words touched a chord in the heart of a nation
that had been brought up on a social code of do’s
and don’ts, but which was woefully lacking in true
spiritual riches. In the mountains, people came face
to face with truly majestic vistas and longed to
experience a corresponding grandeur in their own
The only danger
(which the poet himself did not perhaps successfully avoid)
is that some end up worshipping a pagan Mother Nature rather
than our Heavenly Father.
It is not so long ago that I would have been inclined to
dismiss such contact with the natural world as little more
than self-indulgent distraction from the real work of
serving God. Many such ‘indulgences’ later, I have come to
realize that they are central to God’s purposes for my life.
Things I would once have considered peripheral, such as
opening up our blocked fireplace to enjoy a real log fire,
and going for prayer-walks in the forest, have become a real
aid to our desire for a closer walk with the Lord. The
countryside is full of living matter, and it is good for us
to be closer to it. Our processed, packaged society has
become too far removed from the rhythms and seasons of life.
As one cow said to another, as she gazed at a lorry
delivering Pasteurized, Sterilized, Skimmed and Long Life
Milk: ‘I didn’t realize it was all so complicated!’
When the stillness of the open spaces calms our minds and
inspires our hearts, we will find it easier to enter more
deeply into the stillness of eternity. Time and again we
have set out into the nearby hills or woods bedraggled and
oppressed, only to return home a few hours later refreshed
and invigorated, having gained some new perspective on a
perplexing problem. Even the Lord Jesus met with His Father
more in the beauty of the hills than He did in the
||It is not that there
is anything intrinsically mystical or more sacred
about the countryside. Others may find just as much
inspiration in an urban setting. The important thing
is not so much the place itself but the fact of
setting oneself at some distance from the normal
routines and distractions of life.
A sanctified corner
of your home (or a corner of a cornfield for that
matter) is all that is needed.
Let me encourage
you, then, to make the effort to go to places or parks that
mean a lot to you; if need be to get in the car and drive in
search of woodland trails and open spaces – as well as
getting into the habit of slipping into the Lord’s presence
wherever you happen to find yourself. Don’t waste precious
time in futile inner monologues; talk to the Lord and wait
for His answers. What you receive from Him at such times
will distil like dew into your hearts, and from there pass
on to water many other people’s lives as well.
Our Trysting Place
Early in my ministry, Alex Buchanan prophesied that I would
always be alternating between ‘coming in’ to enjoy times of
intense aloneness with God and then ‘going out’ again on
specific missions for Him. It has been inspiring to see this
word being worked out. Front-line service can be heady and
exciting, but too little time with God means I have
insufficient spiritual resources with which to feed others.
A friend once had a picture of a hurricane lamp hanging from
a hook on the ceiling, consuming its paraffin sparingly,
drop by careful drop. There was an implicit warning in this
picture: that the Lord did not want me to burn out too
young, and that He would often call me to one side, out of
the fray of active ministry, in order to renew my spirit
through time alone with Him. By God’s grace, I never feel so
fulfilled as when I am alone and caught up with Him. But I
am equally as content and just as fully in the Lord’s will
when I am out and about on active service for Him.
Let me share with you how the Lord led us to a place that
has come to mean a great deal to us. I was suffering one
night from an acute earache, and sent for the doctor. (He
was a newly qualified man on secondment to our practice). We
struck up an immediate friendship and I resolved to invite
him round for a meal. As is so often the way with good
intentions, however, I did not get round to doing anything
Some weeks later, the time came for our daughter Ruth to be
born. The Lord gave me an overwhelming peace that He was in
complete charge of the proceedings. I was not unduly
worried, therefore, when a problem occurred at the moment of
birth, which required the emergency doctor to come flying
through the door. We were surprised to see it was the same
doctor we had met before. This time we did get together for
We heard from him again shortly afterwards. He and his wife
had booked a cottage in the Lake District, and invited us to
come and join them there. This cottage became a place where
heaven and earth meet, where we were refreshed in body, mind
and spirit – and where much of this as well as other books
were first written. But it is a long way away, and we can no
longer afford to go there very often. More recently, some
friends have lent us a cottage nearer home, where we have
enjoyed special times in the Lord’s presence in a more
complete way than ordinary life normally permits.
In both places, the weight of too much decision-making eases
from our shoulders within minutes of scenting the familiar
wood-smoke from the fire. The hours pass slowly by. The
Lord, who knows how much we needed the break, makes every
day rich and alive with His presence.
We are careful not to allow too much of the world to
intrude. A novel to unwind with is good, but not if it
introduces a discordant note into our spirits. We are glad,
too, to escape from that invention which blesses us so much
– except when it rings just when you are wanting an early
I find that it is especially when I am in ‘retreat mode’
that I am most consciously able to enjoy the simple things
of life, and to dedicate whatever I am doing to the Lord.
Whenever we come to the end of such a time and find
ourselves immersed again in the daily round of urgent
decision-making, we wonder how we can integrate the
heightened spiritual awareness we have been enjoying back
into our everyday life. It is an important question to
ponder, and one which involves a number of factors, relating
to the place, as well as the pace of our life. The more we
consecrate our homes, our families and our friendships to
the Lord – as well as our ministries – the fuller they will
be of His presence.
Each time we returned from such places we found ourselves
nursing the desire to develop a home in the country which
would refresh others in the same way that we ourselves had
been blessed. About two years ago we were able to acquire
just such a property. It was the culmination of nearly ten
years of prayer. It is set in exquisitely beautiful
countryside, and is a truly wonderful place for people to
spend some time ‘trysting’ with their Lord. Perhaps some of
you will find your way here in the years ahead!
A Cherith Week
|Prayer is the
nearest approach to God, and the highest enjoyment
of Him that we are capable of in this life.
||Many of us will
greatly benefit from spending time alone with
nothing to do except to seek the Lord.
In Ravens and the
Prophet, I termed these times Cherith weeks after
the enforced period Elijah spent alone by the brook
Cherith. Such an immersion in the Lord’s presence
can have a revolutionary effect on our relationship
with God, and permanently alter many of our
perspectives and priorities.
Although there are a considerable variety of
retreats to choose from, what I have in mind here is
primarily something less structured. Most of the
‘retreats’ we have made over the years have been
planned or unplanned trips into the country, in
response to our own need for time out and the Lord
Jesus’ invitation to Come with me by yourselves to a
quiet place and get some rest (Mark 6:31).
far-reaching blessings that come from such times, it is no
wonder we face spiritual opposition trying to get away.
Before we first went to the cottage we mentioned in the Lake
District, all three of us went down with nasty viruses, from
which we only just recovered in time. In view of all the
blessings we were to experience there over the next twelve
years, it is no surprise that there was considerable
opposition to us getting there.
Our Lord, who was always so enterprising Himself, admired
the determination of the young men who lowered the paralytic
through the roof. We may likewise need considerable
determination to overcome all manner of complicated
circumstances, plaguing thoughts, and even illnesses in
order to be able to get away. We have sometimes set off on
retreat feeling as though there were lead weights in our
shoes, and glue on the wheels of our car. We should not be
We had an amusing illustration of this one year. Rosalind
and I had set off to pray at one of our favourite trysting
places, only to find our pathway blocked by a huge beast.
Because it was directly in front of us, we couldn’t tell
whether it was a bull or a cow. After some hesitation we
plucked up courage and proceeded (“After you, dear!”) We
were relieved to discover that the ‘bull’ had udders! We had
such a powerful time with the Lord that it made me ponder
again how much Satan hates and fears our prayers. ‘The cow
that looked like a bull’ is a picture of how the Adversary
hinders our seeking after God by sowing our path with fears
It is best not to leave it until we are completely exhausted
before we go away on retreat, because the backlog of fatigue
may take many days to clear. In an ideal world, it would
also be helpful to avoid plunging straight back into a
maelstrom of activity the moment we return home. I am aware
that few of us will find this possible in practice, but it
is still a worthwhile aspiration.
Should we choose to lead a truly simple lifestyle during
this Cherith week, many of us may experience all manner of
withdrawal symptoms: not only from tea, coffee and
chocolate, but also from our ingrained dependency on books,
television and other forms of entertainment. Such a week may
be just the thing to show us how addicted to them we are. To
fast occasionally from everyday features of life such as
rich food, friendship and phone calls can do much to sharpen
our spiritual life.
Even without such extreme measures, most of us will find
that it takes our soul a while to unwind and settle in the
Lord’s presence. After all, agendas supply most of the
context of our lives, so it is hardly surprising if their
temporary absence proves disconcerting. (Japanese employers
have found it necessary to write manuals to help workaholic
employees cope with their feelings of guilt at being away
from their workplace for a few days.) Certainly, my most
productive times of writing normally come later in the week
when the backlog of stress and weariness has begun to wash
As a sign that I am making the change ‘from agenda to
encounter’, I take my watch off. As the week develops, time
can be consecrated in a more rarefied way than is usually
possible. In such solitude, my whole attention is focused on
the unseen. This is the time to push out the boundaries and
to explore themes and studies I would not usually have the
leisure to pursue. As the nights increasingly blend with the
days, I am as likely to be having a time of prayer at two in
the morning as at seven in the evening.
It is not hard to point to the benefits that come from
taking these times out with the Lord: of insights gained and
warnings shared, course-corrections effected and new ideas
birthed; promises reiterated and reassurance gained. Life
thus assumes a prophetic overtone once more as the Lord
shares more of His wisdom and purposes with us.
But worry can rob us of our intimacy with God. It only takes
one eyelash to blur our sight. Calm will develop, and
anxiety be avoided (or at least be reduced) as we bring our
specific worries to our Heavenly Father. Moreover, the very
intensity of our desire to meet with the Lord can make us
tense. Deep within us, and sometimes in the hearts of the
well-wishers who were so eager to send us off on retreat,
lurks the inner pressure that we ought to return from our
trysting place bearing the gifts God has given us on the
mountain top. The laudably high hopes we set out with that
the Lord would speak to us mean that we begin to fret as the
precious hours tick past: ‘It’s nearly time to go and He
hasn’t spoken yet!’
easy to worry and complain when we do not hear what
we think we need to hear. But God comes in
surprising ways and at unexpected moments – and He
never leaves it too late. Patience as much as
omnipotence is the hallmark of His dealings with us.
Our coming away is not in vain. Just through
spending time with Him, our soul is being restored
to peace, and our generous Lord will more than make
up to us for the time that we have given to Him.
We must be sure
to keep the shield of faith firmly in place as we finish our
retreat and put our watches back on. It is not uncommon to
find our joy being sharply tested by unexpected difficulties
and confusions in the days following a retreat. We should
not be surprised. The devil is desperate to snatch away the
spiritual realities we have experienced. This again is why
it is so important to record at the time the insights the
Lord gives us.
Advancing through Retreats
It is not so long ago that the concept of retreats appeared
to be in danger of terminal decline. Mercifully, much has
now changed, as more and more Christians wake up to the
enormous strategic value of going on regular retreats.
Over the past few decades there has been a marked, if
partial, reduction in the role of the monasteries. In the
light of this, it is all the more interesting to see that
the Lord is raising up a new generation of lay retreat
centres to fulfil the same role the monasteries have
fulfilled since time immemorial as places to which people
come for prayer and spiritual refreshment. In part we can
attribute the popularity of these ‘quiet houses’ to a
reaction against the ever-increasing stresses and strains of
life. With most people’s workloads soaring into the ‘red
revs’, it is vital that we compensate by taking time out.
always alone with the Lord, however, would lead to
an unbalanced diet. The power of God flows when we
are together in fellowship with others in a way that
cannot happen on a private retreat. We need the
input of inspired worship and teaching, where we
experience the rubbing, as well as the joy, of
take huge strides forward when they go away on retreat
together. More progress can be made in the life of a church
during the course of a weekend than in a whole string of
consecutive Sundays. This is not surprising when we consider
that the church will have been praying for their time away,
and that others will also be committed to praying for the
work of that particular retreat house. Those who visit such
places are thus in line to receive a double blessing!
My only concern is that many church weekends remain too
firmly fixed on the cerebral level of teaching and sharing,
rather than on seeking God’s face. My longing is to help
bring people who do not have much time in everyday life to
wait on the Lord right through into His throne room.
are in a position to have any say in the running of
a retreat, try to leave plenty of space in which to
meet the Lord. The temptation may be strong to fill
every space on the timetable, but such attention to
detail may inadvertently prevent the time together
from becoming the true spiritual encounter that both
you and the Lord were hoping for.
To summarize the main theme of this chapter: it is good to
go away periodically on retreat to rest and to recover both
our physical and our spiritual energies. It is even better,
if our lifestyle permits, to tryst as well as to rest, for
these occasions provide marvellous opportunities to
experience more of the Lord’s power and creativity.
The more we pray in a house, or a region, the fuller it
becomes of God’s presence. Perhaps we will find it
especially helpful to seek the Lord in one particular room
(in our own or someone else’s house). Many of us pray best
out of doors, or while pursuing some relaxing hobby. But
whatever outward form our seeking takes, the Lord will
reward our eagerness to meet with Him.
Turn away from your daily work,
Hide yourself for a little time from your restless
Give yourself a little leisure to talk with God,
And rest awhile with Him.
Enter the secret chamber of your heart,
Shutting out everything but God,
And that which may help you in seeking Him.
And when you’ve closed the door, seek Him.
Now my whole heart says to God: ‘I seek Your face,
Your face, O Lord, do I seek.’
I will seek You by desiring You,
And desire You in seeking You.
I will find You by loving You,
And love You in finding You . . .
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
But believe that I may understand.
For this I know to be true,
That unless I first believe I shall not understand.
(The Proslogian of St Anselm)
1. Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints, Jill Haak Adels (O.U.P.).
2. This is in no way to deny the omnipresence of God. We can
be close to the Lord in any setting, just as we can be
lonely in the midst of a crowd or in a place of great
3. Secular surveys show that women are generally more
prepared to allow themselves time off than men; that they
look forward to holidays more, and that they make better use
of them. It seems to me that women are better at waiting on
the Lord. Here’s a challenge for us men! It is also
interesting that some of the fastest-growing churches in
America are those which set their pastor aside to spend
quality time thinking, praying and preparing. They are then
able to feed their congregations with the spiritual wisdom
they have gained.
4. The week long ‘Festival of Booths’ or ‘Tabernacles,’
looks back to commemorate God’s guidance and protection
during the forty years in the wilderness, as well as forward
to the coming Messiah. It is full of symbolic meaning for
Christians and Jews.
5. Many find the Taizé model helpful, because the regular
meetings combine worship, silence, teaching and prayer. We
can explore many such variations in our fellowships.