My journey with God seems to be a hike of a huge mountain, consisting of an endless series of false peaks. Yet, instead of dashing my hopes or inducing feelings of failure, as one would assume happens to mountaineers very frequently, my heart only grows fuller with love and excitement for the immensity of a God that knows me so deeply, a God that will never cease to run after me.
Arriving to the depths of Scotland in Dalmally for the festival, it seemed there was already a sense of expectation. The wild natural landscape and the Narnia décor emanated a feeling of anticipation, that an adventure was about to begin. Though, I think that at the beginning of almost every retreat, there is always a nagging feeling in everyone’s hearts, of mistrust or even self-doubt. The persistent phrase to the lead up of the festival was “God is going to do big things this festival!”. I’m sure a common thought among people when this vote of confidence was declared on a regular basis was, “Oh, that’s so great that God is going to do things for other people! It’s fine, God, I’m not expecting any big things for me!”. Certainly, for me, this is a feeling I experience very frequently in life let alone in retreats. This thought inevitably crept into my heart at the beginning of Stronghold. These thoughts are subtle and can begin to create lies in your heart.
On the Friday night of Stronghold, I was given a self-awareness and a light into why this thought was so persistent. That night, Max Ford gave an inspiring talk about how, as broken people, we tend to build our own Strongholds against God. We create walls that prevent God from entering that part of our lives and healing us with the deep love of Jesus. At the end of the talk, he proposed we ask God to reveal to us what it is that is stopping Jesus doing his work in us, what our own strongholds are. He gave us a few moments of silence to listen; he was so certain that God would speak to us, a certainty I lacked; again, came the moment, “That’s so cool that God is going to speak to everyone! Don’t worry, God, I’ll be cool if you’re not going to reveal anything to me!”. However, after these few moments, a light soon came to me. It was as if, someone had started to open a window to release the first gush of fresh air to a dust filled, stuffy room. I realised that I had a crippling fear of suffering. And because I was scared of the prospect of suffering, I was scared that if I let God into a certain part of my life, or asked him to do something huge for me, then maybe nothing would happen. This had indeed led to these persistent ideas of a God that was not ready to give; to a of blanket of doubt that I had often hid under to protect myself from any sort of disappointment. I think it is often easier to expect very little from God, maybe people are used to situations where circumstances or people have disappointed them. Thus it is easier to consider a God who regularly disappoints rather than a God that regularly delivers. They reflect their own broken perception of the world onto their perception of God.
Having this revelation on the first night of Stronghold was such a blessing, yet, this is not to say that I did not still struggle with the idea of a reluctant God. I was part of the team at Stronghold, serving, so the idea that the festival was a time where other people would receive, and not me, still lingered. However, I have learnt that feelings and thoughts are not the dictators of our being and our unity with Jesus. They certainly can help or hinder us, but as Paul declares in Romans, we can be sure that “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love” (Rm 8:37). And so, I felt encouraged to entrust my whole experience to God, trusting that his love was so much more powerful than any sort of thought or feeling I had about the retreat.
I think that the Sunday night of Stronghold was the pinnacle of my experience. Yet I am sure to find that this was yet another false peak of my journey with God! This was the “Holy Spirit Night” led by Fr Antoine from Holy Spirit House. The idea of the Holy Spirit as a Person has recently started to make a profound effect on me, the fact that I can have a relationship with Him. The Holy Spirit has often been referred to as the forgotten Person of the Trinity. I too, seem to have been a culprit of having forgotten Him, or just seeing Him as a fun accessory to the Church. But the Holy Spirit is integral to our growth in relationship with God. This importance was shown to me so profoundly on the Sunday night when I saw Him working so lovingly with the people at the festival. He was so visible and detectable, and it was so beautiful to see people’s encounter with His gentle working hand. I myself felt that I had encountered the Holy Spirit, however I felt that maybe God wanted to give me more, and that I was being prompted to ask for some prayer over me. The lie of doubt in God’s deliverance had been somewhat reduced yet seemed to resume its role near the end of the night, when the service was coming to a close. The feeling that God didn’t have anything else to give to me that night started to dishearten me. However, I really felt called to act on this desire for prayer; the story of the woman with the haemorrhage came to me, and how Jesus responds with such love when you make an act of faith to reach him. Then, suddenly I found Fr Antoine by my side, and I decided to ask for prayer. It’s amazing what happens when you act in faith, the fruit that bears from faith is so much more than you can expect. I had a huge experience with the Holy Spirit and encountered the saving touch of Jesus. This just showed me how much God wanted to meet me, yet He was not imposing or controlling. He reacts to a heart of faith and expectancy, and I am sure, delights in the thought of even one of His children turning to meet His loving touch. When the woman with the haemorrhage touches Jesus’ cloak among the hundreds of people around him, he notices it. He scans the crowd for her; he wants to know her. Jesus does the same with us. He so wants us to meet him, and to fill our lives with his deep and powerful love. My experience in Stronghold revealed so many new truths to my heart. I know that the Lord has even more to show of himself, and that prospect is so exciting.
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