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'Fifty Shades of Grey?' - Retreat Reflections

Updated: Jan 10

It was a typically grey and dreary November day back in 2000 when I penned this short poem:



Mediochre, in-between, ambivalent,


Longing for vibrant blue, verdant green, dazzling sun.

But not today

Just Grey.

And I confess, as I travelled to my place of retreat this month I had similar thoughts. I invariably find that God speaks to me through nature on my retreat days but I found myself challenging God to speak to me on a day like this when the forecast was for flurries of snow driven by strong winds and temperatures peaking at 3 degrees celsius. Nature would be dormant and in semi-hibernation under grey skies and biting winds.

A little later, as I sat in my car on Farthing Downs, it seemed as if God was failing to rise to my challenge. The blizzard was blowing horizontally from East to West across my vision, reducing visibility to a few hundred metres and obscuring the valley below. Not enough snow to carpet the landscape with its pristine beauty, but just enough to keep nature obscured and wrapped up against the cold.

I settled down to continue my reading of Ruth Haley Barton's excellent book: 'Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership'. I had reached Chapter 8, entitled 'Spiritual Rhythms in the Life of the Leader' and the author was extolling the virtues of retreat:

"...on retreat there is time and space to attend to what is real in my own life - to celebrate the joys, to grieve the losses, shed tears, sit with the questions, feel my anger, attend to my loneliness - and allow God to be with me in those places."

I looked out over my grey vista and pondered these words. I reflected on the year that had been and the year ahead and I gave myself space to feel the emotions that arose for me as, bringing them all to God.

And then the snow stopped. The visibility extended 16 miles North once more, all the way to the City of London - The Shard punctuating the sky, which was still grey and snow-laden. But as I looked more closely, I started to see what visual artists seem to train their eyes to see - a diversity of shades in a scene that at first glance appeared monochrome.

Perhaps for the first time, I noticed brown-grey and blue-grey as well as slate-grey in the palette of the snow clouds. And as the sun muscled its way through to make a brief appearance - yellow-grey also showed its face. I reflected on the shades of grey that God was now showing me, and how it takes the slower pace of a retreat to really notice what's going on in in both my internal and external world. I also reflected on how my faith had developed over recent years into less of a black and white view of the world, to a more nuanced one with many shades of grey. And there was beauty in that greyness, room for a diversity of views, room to suspend judgement, to embrace difference and to find my peace with the uncertain, the unknown and the unknowable.

The wind had dropped and the sun was making an effort, so it was time to venture out across the downs, wrapped in many layers, along familiar paths. They led me by badger setts and sculptured Burdock seed heads backdropped by a fallow field. I reflected on the outward appearance of dormancy in winter and became more aware that beneath the grey, life still stirred. That dusk would see inquisitive noses emerge from the Sett to sniff the air and that Burdock seeds, adorned with nature's velcro, were simply waiting for a passing animal - human or otherwise - to spread their kernels of life across the landscape.

As I headed back to my car, the snow began to fall once more and I attempted to capture the shapes of snowflakes landing on my coat. More shades of grey drew my attention in the weave of my black woollen coat.

Not quite '50 Shades of Grey', but enough shades to start changing my mind about grey's ambivalence. I sensed a winsome smile spreading across the face of the Divine. "Ok you win!" I said.

(All photographs taken by the author)

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