Firstly, I have zero hesitation in saying that Mark Yaconelli has to be one of the most gentle yet dynamic storytellers and speakers you could ever meet. The way he communicates is utterly captivating.
I’ve known him as a pretty big name in the youth work scene, but I have personally been mesmerised by his wise and contemplative approach since I first read his book The Gift of Hard Things: Finding Grace in Unexpected Places. I found a great sense of validation in that book and so to meet him and interview him at Greenbelt was a real privilege. In fact, many of the things he shared spoke to me very profoundly.
I met with him in the press tent on a busy Sunday afternoon where he shared with me his thoughts on the value of retreats, the learning we can find in our 20’s and 30’s and the experience of “middle sufferings”.
threads: What are your favourite things about Greenbelt?
Mark Yaconelli: My favourite thing about Greenbelt is the interaction of creativity, arts and spirituality. There are three spiritual paths: the way of compassion and social justice, prayer and contemplation and art and creativity, which is often forgotten but is very alive here at Greenbelt, which is great to see.
Lots of people in [the threads] age bracket love Greenbelt because it feels a bit like a spiritual retreat. What would you say about the value of retreat?
I think it’s necessary in order to become yourself in this world! Retreat is an old practice, it’s an every wisdom tradition and it’s in the Christian tradition you watch Jesus who spends lots of time by himself, off in the woods, down by the lake, off with friends. I don’t know how you can become yourself, discover your passions and heal your wounds without retreats and when I say retreat, I mean no distracting phones and all that stuff. I mean, interacting with boredom until all the stuff you’ve been hiding within yourself comes to the surface. I understand why people don’t want to have that happen, because then you feel the loneliness or maybe the bitterness at how your life is turning out.
Retreats are hard, they can be restful only once you’ve slept because none of us are getting enough sleep, and then all that unhealed in you comes to the surface.
I went to a Quaker worship event and for the first 15 minutes, I spent the whole time trying to switch off my brain. I really sensed that we are so addicted to the “accessories” of church that we’re never alone with our thoughts and ourselves anymore!
Yes, and no one encourages us too, including most of our churches. Our lives are reacting all the time instead of responding from some deeper place.
So how is it that we transfer what we experience in a retreat to our hectic day-to-day lives to make sure we don’t lose what we have learnt?
First of all, I wouldn’t call Greenbelt a retreat as such. What I call retreat is open space and nothing to do and so you just end up napping for the first two to three days and then maybe you start praying a little, maybe you write a couple of lines in a journal. Maybe something you’re reading strikes you and suddenly all the forgotten dreams you had as a child start to come to the surface and all the grieving places within you start to cry out – I’m talking about that kind of retreat.
Here at Greenbelt, there is so much going on, it’s difficult to really go inside and hear who you are right now. If you do go on a retreat like that, remember that when Jesus went on a retreat, his parting words were to say nothing to anyone. I think after a retreat it’s good to say silent. In other words, when people ask how did it go, to not give them all your great insights, to just say: “It was good, I learnt some things,” and keep it to yourself, let the power of your retreat begin to reshape you and remake you by keeping it secret within you. It’s almost like when you fall in love and there’s something about the secrecy of this love that begins to awaken things in you and it’s not time to tell anyone yet.
I’m really looking forward to hearing you speak later about disappointments. I’m aware you have written extensively about this and one of the phrases accredited to you is the concept of “middle sufferings”. Can you tell us more about that?
I’m talking about the day-to-day, year-in, year-out sufferings. You’re writing for folks possibly in their 20s and 30s where its like: “My life is not going anywhere,” and: “This is not the life I dreamed of,” the paying the bills, the self doubt, the self hatred, the disappointment you feel, the bitterness you experience when looking at the lives of others compared to yourself. In the book there are some chapters about death and larger sufferings, but it’s those middle sufferings that wear us down and make us want to spend every night in front of the television watching movies, eating ice cream and drinking beer, I know that feeling. We just want to “check out” and be numb, that’s what the middle sufferings do to us. So instead, I’m inviting a different approach, which is instead of numbing ourselves, to trust the restlessness, to trust the despair, to trust the disappointment, it’s actually a cry from some place within us that needs to be heard and wants more. It’s OK to want more and it’s okay to grieve what you haven’t got. In that grief we actually come in touch with life in a way that we have been hiding from.
What advice would you give to your 20 or 30-year-old self?
What I would say is: when you’re younger, most of the lessons you hopefully learnt as a child were from love, maybe you had a loving parent or teacher or someone to show you love, but in your 20s and 30s, the majority of learning comes from suffering. That’s hard to accept, but this is a time to make mistakes. This is a time to fail and it’s the actual failing that will point you in the right direction. It’s a time to decide: “I don’t want to work this job,” or: “I don’t want to be in this relationship,” or: “This church is false and people are pretending and I don’t feel real here,” and give it up and quit. There should be a lot of quitting going on at this time! What’s important in the Christian life, what God wants most is to not give you answers, but to help you fall in love with yourself, with others and with this life. Seek love. Seek life and let the other stuff go.
threads are reporting on Greenbelt for the whole week! Have a read of our other Greenbelt 2016 articles right here.