During our visit to Christchurch we are staying outside the city in the beautiful little seaside village of Sumner at the Sister Eveleen Retreat Centre, high up on Scarborough hill overlooking the sandy beach of the bay below. The Sister Eveleen Retreat Centre is owned by the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch. It is run ecumenically under the gentle guidance of Lyn and Kevin Gallagher.
In 1948, James K. Baxter, the famous New Zealand poet, wrote a poem about Sumner. The poem is called “Poem by the Clock Tower, Sumner.” In this poem Baxter offers a vision that describes beautifully the life and ministry of the Sister Eveleen Retreat Centre.
In the poem Baxter watches children playing
Beside the dark sand and the winged foam
Under the shadow of the naked tower
Something in the beauty of the scene and the wild playfulness of the children, reminds Baxter that the world is not always this pure and innocent place. His mind returns to the city which in 1948 must have seemed more distant from Sumner than it does today. For Baxter the city stirs disturbing memories and he laments that
We in the murdering city hug our death
Closer than jewels: to the mud-stained sky
The poet longs for an alternative vision to “the murdering city.” He wonders,
Where is the white stone that shall transmute
Our average day to gold?
Then despite his dark vision, Baxter affirms his faith that there is a way to this “white stone that shall transmute/ Our average day to gold.”
The green lane that leads to the wishing well
The secret house the fertile wilderness
Where grief and memory are reconciled.
Sister Eveleen Retreat House is that “secret house,” hidden away in the hills overlooking the beach where Baxter was stirred to long for a place where “grief and memory are reconciled.”
Here you will find yourself in “the fertile wilderness.” This is a place where the art of reconciliation is faithfully practiced. The Sister Eveleen Retreat House stands as a bold reminder that there is an alternative to “the murdering city.” There is a gentleness and an openness that have the capacity to resolve the ragged edges of our painful memories and of our unresolved histories. In this quiet “secret house” we may rediscover the presence of the divine at the heart of our being. Baxter finds in Sumner that “Again the dark Dove nestles in my breast.”
But Baxter cannot leave us without a warning. It is not easy to find the “green lane that leads to the wishing well.” The “secret house” that has the capacity to be a “fertile wilderness,” does not announce its existence with great fanfare. It is a “secret house.” The “dark Dove” of God’s Spirit yields only to the one who is willing to open and wait in silence. God is found by those who desire deeply to walk in the “fertile wilderness.” The way to this place passes through dark territory. There are many forces at work that will keep us from this place of “joy, and promise of prodigious noon.”
Angels of fire and ice guard well that garden
We need to desire to know God’s presence and action in our lives. There are so many competing forces that work to keep us from finding this place of quiet openness that can yield an awareness of God’s presence.
As Baxter watches the children, he knows that for them,
From earth’s still centre the heaven-bearing
Immortal Tree. The ponds and hollow groves
Peopled with fish and speaking birds receive them
But he knows also that someone must
Teach them the language in which stones converse,
Show them the arrows of the toi-toi plume.
This is the mission of the Sister Eveleen House – to teach “the language in which stones converse,” to point the way back to the “Immortal Tree,” to help us find again “the arrows of the toi-toi plume.”
I am deeply touched that the Anglican Church in Christchurch, understands the value of a place where, as Baxter writes, “stone on stone are one,” and it is possible to find the “Suspending rainbow in the lost abyss.” The church must raise up many places where we can be called back to our true nature and find again the reconciling presence of God at work in our lives.