Healing Places

John@johndavies.org By John@johndavies.org, 22nd Nov 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Culture

A retreat at Bishop's House, Iona, April 2005. Healing places was the theme of a retreat I led at Bishop's House, Iona between 16-21 April 2005. Building on the material I'd then been developing on an urban theology of land.


When we consider the many changes affecting our world, and the sense of loss, dispossession and injustice they can bring, we may feel that some places we know and love are in need of healing. We are conscious of many other places where this is equally true.

On an island where for centuries people have encountered God, with the help of scripture and contemporary voices, we will investigate healing places: How can troubled places be healed? Can our homes, our communities, our churches become places of healing?

En-route we might ask, how can we get to know our place better? Who are the dispossessed and who are the possessors there? How can places experience healing through prayer ministry, and through justice?

I hope to provoke some creative answers to some of these questions.


Read the full texts of the sessions at these pages:

1. Knowing your place
What is the place you know, or love, best? A gentle way into the theme after a long journey to a special place.

2 Frontier places
Exploring what makes places distinctive; and what is happening at the margins, the edges, the frontiers

3 The dispossessed at the frontiers
Scripture has a number of categories for the dispossessed: sojourners, wanderers, exiles. They're still around today. In this session, and afterwards, we will think of them.

4 The possessors at the frontiers
Scripture also has many stories about those who 'possess the land' and many warnings about their potential downfall. Possessors can become slaves. Who and where are they today?

5 Healing at the frontiers
Is there healing for the hurting places? If so, how might we embrace it? Could our familiar places offer healing to those in need?

1. Knowing your place

What is the place you know, or love, best? A gentle way into the theme after a long journey to a special place.

Start with time of silence - settling-in

Think back over the past day ... journey ... companions ... difficulties or challenges ... joys ...

Remember your arrival on the island of Iona ... first impressions ... what is different about this place than the place you call 'home'?

Remember your arrival at this house ... greeting others ... finding your room ... difficulties or challenges ... joys ... what is different about this place than the place you call 'home'?

Call to mind the place you have left behind ... the people close to you ... those, perhaps, you may be glad to be away from for a while ... those you will miss ...

Trust all of these to God ... We are here now; but we will not forget them this week; our people and our place ... we hope to find God speaking to us of them in new ways ...

A prayer to bring us gently out of our contemplation and back into our evening gathering:

Dear God,
We give thanks for places of simplicity and peace. Let us find such a place within ourselves. We give thanks for places of refuge and beauty. Let us find such a plaÏce within ourselves. We give thanks for places of nature's truth and freedom, of joy, inspiration and renewal, places where all creatures may find acceptance and belonging. Let us search for these places: in the world, in ourselves and others. Let us restore them. Let us strengthen and protect them and let us create them.
May we mend this outer world according to the truth of our inner life and may our souls be shaped and nourished by nature's eternal wisdom. AMEN.

I would like you to consider this small question, what makes a place special? In our contemplation just now you may have brought to mind a place or places which would certainly be special to you. The place you call home, perhaps. Or another's home where you are welcomed. Somewhere you have been on the journey today which has fond memories for you. Somewhere else you have been reminded of today. Why are these places special? What qualities do they contain which make them so? I invite you to quietly think on these things for two minutes.

Those places we call 'home' might be special for the sorts of reasons described in this poem by Rosie Miles:

I've come to know a place I can call home:
It walls me gently round, it gives me space,
It offers me stillness, it contains my fears,
It roofs me safely under, gifts me grace,
It is both books and art, colour and light,
It shelves and stacks me, my life storage space;
It's work and love and dust and green growing things,
It's laughter, friends and food, it's cat's own place,
It is so full of me and all I am,
I've come to know a home, a sacred space.

That describes finding beauty in the ordinary. On the other hand, some places are special quite simply because they are beautiful - on our journey up here we have passed through many such places. For me, I could stand on the observation deck of the Craignure ferry, soaking in the wonderful sparkling blue scene, watching tiny Hebridean islands appear and disappear on the sparkling horizon - I could do that forever, it's heaven to me... unless, of course, it's raining! Then I find beauty in the snug warm hospitality of the on board cafeteria...

Some places are special to us because they carry memories. Homes where so much joy and pain have been shared between loved ones; places of intersection and change like railway stations, airports - where we may have waved goodbye to special people, or may have welcomed new folk into our lives; for some it might be sports stadia where we have witnessed great events, or theatres where we remember performances which have enriched us, even transformed us - places which hold great memories.

Still other places may be special to us because of the spiritual qualities they contain. You will probably be familiar with the description of Iona as a thin place. Attributed variously to George MacLeod or St Columba and many inbetween, nevertheless it is a quote which carries truth - here, it seems, barely nothing separates earth from heaven. It is like another place of pilgrimage, the very English Little Gidding, whose special nature brings T.S.Eliot to his knees when he writes, in the Four Quartets,

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Somehow you can sense when you are in a place where prayer has been valid for many years - somehow it makes it more natural for you, then, to kneel in that place and help the voice of prayer continue. And sometimes it is just enough to be in a place to sense its specialness and the presence of God in it, as in this poem by R.S. Thomas, The Moor:

It was like a church to me -
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But in stillness
Of the heart's passions - that was praise
Enough; and the mind's cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

Place is important to us. Walter Brueggemann writes that

Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom.

When we are on retreat together - we are not on escape. For one thing, the places and the people we have left behind will be there for us again on our return; and for another thing, we are ourselves here, and we cannot escape from ourselves. We are in a similar position to the philosopher and broadcaster Alain de Botton who with characteristic wit described his dilemma on a Caribbean cruise,

I found a deck chair at the edge of the sea. I could hear small lapping sounds beside me, as if a kindly monster was taking discreet sips of water from a large goblet. A few birds were waking up and beginning to career through the air in matinal excitement. Behind me, the raffia roofs of the hotel bungalows were visible through gaps in the trees. Before me was a view that I recognized from the brochure: the beach stretched away in a gentle curve towards the tip of the bay, behind it were jungle-covered hills, and the first row of coconut trees inclined irregularly towards the turquoise sea, as though some of them were craning their necks to catch a better angle of the sun.
Yet this description only imperfectly reflects what occurred within me that morning, for my attention was in truth far more fractured and confused than the foregoing paragraphs suggest. I may have noticed a few birds careering through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among these, a sore throat that I had developed during the flight, a worry at not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom. A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.

Now, we have not chosen to be on a Caribbean escape this week. We have chosen to be on a retreat, a pilgrimage of sorts. Which makes us more ready to acknowledge ourselves, ask questions, face God and grow. And so I would like to invite you to come with me this week as we look more closely into this question of place; what it might reveal to us, what it might mean for the church in a time of change, what it might mean for the world in which we live and move, and have our place.

Walter Brueggemann suggests that a pervasive aspect of contemporary culture is the sense of being lost, displaced, and homeless. "The yearning to belong somewhere, to have a home, to be in a safe place, is a deep and moving pursuit," he writes. It is experienced by people from all sectors of society and even those who appear to be well rooted and belonging can experience profound dislocation.

This highlights a tension in our society, which so often, at least on the surface, celebrates its placelessness. We get told these days that it doesn't matter where we live, because we're in a networked society. We can do our work from anywhere, our mobile phones mean that we're always connected.

It strikes me as interesting then, that most of the conversations we have on our mobiles involve us telling the other person where we are. "I'm on the bus", "I'm outside the office" - location is still important to us after all.

Indeed, it seems that our supposedly free and independent lifestyles do not satisfy our need to be somewhere. Even the most networked people can experience the sense of being lost, displaced, and homeless.

This suggests that the modern promise of freedom and independence has failed, that it has not fed the human hunger for a sense of place, which our humanity, our faith requires.

Brueggemann insists that this tension in our society is not a new struggle, "but it is more widespread and visible than it has ever been. Nor is this sense alien to the biblical promise of faith. The Bible itself is primarily concerned with the issue of being displaced and yearning for a place. Indeed, the Bible promises precisely what the modern world denies."

He suggests that land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith. "Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging."

Biblical faith is not to do with a history of a people in random space; it is to do with a particular history of a particular people in a particular place. "If God has to do with Israel in a special way, as he surely does, he has to do with land as a historical place in a special way."

Consider the very first story - of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden - and what it might still say to us today about us and our relationship with the place God gives to us.

Consider these themes - of Israel as God's dispossessed people; and then as God's possessors:

First dispossessed - as sojourners, as embodied in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on the way to a land whose name they didn't know; as wanderers in the wilderness with Moses and Aaron where they are at their most vulnerable; and as exiles, displaced in Babylon, alienated from the place which gave them identity and security;

And then possessors - as embodied in Joseph, where Israel settled in the land of Egypt - a complex story where security and prosperity gave way to oppression and slavery; and also as embodied in the monarchy which ran its course from Solomon to Jehoiachin, where kings behaved as kings do and had their way in the land.

Consider where Jesus walked, and why he walked there at those particular points in history, think of his relationship with the city of Jerusalem, and remember how the book of Revelation speaks about God's ultimate healing victory in terms of a place - the new Jerusalem.

We will revisit these themes during the week ahead, and reflect on how they speak to us today. I like the adage which says that history does not repeat - it mirrors itself. I think we are in a good place to investigate how these ancient stories of people's relationships with particular places, might be mirrored in our own experiences. And in particular, how God might be speaking to today's sense of displacement, dislocation and dispossession through the scriptures. How all of this relates to our own places. And ultimately, whether we can find in our faith, ways of reconciling people and healing places where we see and feel the need for that today. In our homes, our community, our church.

These places of displacement, dislocation and dispossession I have chosen to call 'frontiers'. For they are at the edges of human experience, both deeply vulnerable and rich with potential for healing and growth. Tomorrow evening I shall be inviting you to join me in reflecting on the frontier places we know or are aware of. But let us close this session by returning to our beginning, reflecting again on our special places.....

This is a mediation which will last about ten minutes. It is something which you could do on your own outside, to experience a place in a deeper way. And I have copied it onto the handout in that form to offer that to you should you like to do it.

Imaginative ending

Here, though, I would like to invite you to use your imagination to bring yourself again into that special place which you thought of earlier, to see it in more detail and appreciate it more deeply.

First, spend a short time making yourself comfortable, but attentive, calming yourself.

Sit STILL and be SILENT... and let your mind begin to take you into that place which is special to you.

BREATHE in the whole scene with eyes, ears, nose and feet.

Be aware of yourself in this scene.

FEEL your limbs, hands, fingers, and feet.

LISTEN to every sound near, mid-distance and far away, in earth and sky.

Walk around the place.

On your walk record the number of different sounds.

TOUCH as many things on your walk as you can. Use fingers and finger-tips.

FEEL the ground beneath your feet - is it easy walking or difficult?

FEEL the weight of objects. Feel the natural and the man-made.

FEEL the different textures of things (bark, leaves, stone, wood, paper, metal, plastic, etc.).

Is anything you have touched edible? Then TASTE it, savour it.

Use your sense of SMELL in the place; water, earth, animals, food, sun on bricks, shrubs, flowers, clothes, cooking, traffic, tar, etc...

What particular scent stays with you.

LOOK with eyes and the inward eye, seeing with mind, hand and eye.

LOOK DOWN into things - if outdoors, the earth and the ditches; the skirting-board or carpet-corners if indoors; things near and far. Notice all the differing shades and designs; be aware of all the colours.

LOOK UP at SHAPES against the sky: shadow patterns; shapes of trees, buildings, roof materials, chimneys, road shapes, gardens, people - order and chaos, beauty and ugliness, light and shade, contrasts.

TRY AND FIND A PICTURE from this time to hold in your memory for recording by prose, poetry, story-telling, painting, drawing, making creating...

And slowly, gradually, come out of that place, back into this place, your home for this week.


Michael Leunig: A Common Prayer
Rosie Miles, from Ruth Burgess (ed), A Book of Blessings... and how to write your own
T.S.Eliot: Four Quartets
R.S. Thomas: The Moor
Walter Brueggemann: The Land - Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith
Alain de Botton: The Art of Travel
adapted from the Approaches to Prayer website


Healing, Land, Place, Psychogeography, Urban Theology, Walking

Meet the author

author avatar John@johndavies.org
An Anglican vicar originally from Liverpool, and now living and working in Somerset UK. Offering an open Christian angle on current affairs, arts, media etc.

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