It’s a shame, because I’ve been lucky enough to have a bedroom which looks directly towards the mountain. But the window of my bedroom is nothing in comparison to the stunning windows of the chapel, a small prefab with hundreds of colourful handprints decorating the outside. One wall, the one facing towards the mountain, is almost entirely glass, three enormous windows which invite you to look outwards and contemplate the breathtaking view. Or contemplate the clouds cloaking that breathtaking view, should Taranaki, at that moment, be lost from sight.
The chapel is a place for contemplation and reflection, along with meetings, yoga, drum practice and whatever else people need the space for. I’ve done Tai chi there every morning, lighting the candles and trying to keep my mind focused on my breath and my body as I move through the form. But my mind has inevitably strayed to the mountain I’ve been unable to see.
It is no accident that the windows of the chapel face Taranaki. The mountain is a powerful symbol, drawing the soul as much as it draws the eye. Even its frequent disappearance behind the cloak of cloud is a source of metaphor. People who come here are struggling. Under the weight of the burdens they carry, it becomes difficult to see what’s important. The clouds – their suffering, their struggle, their pain – have obscured the mountain. But the mountain is still there, and the clouds will eventually pass, revealing Taranaki again. There’s a note to this effect on the wall of the chapel, inviting people to meditate on the mountain and its meaning to them.
But there’s something else I’ve seen in Taranaki, something which becomes clearer the more I study the mountain’s geology and history. What people love so much about the mountain is its stunning shape, the way its slopes gently curve up to the solitary, sharp peak. This shape is portrayed in images of Taranaki across the region and across the world. But, as I’ve realised, that shape is a sign of Taranaki’s inherent instability. It has formed as a result of eruption cycles where the cone is built up and then collapses, then is built up before collapsing again and again. The beautiful, steep slopes have spawned the lahars and landslides that are so destructive and yet have also given Taranaki its beautiful soil.
Taranaki Retreat is much like the mountain. The warmth of its welcome does not come from wealth and ease. It was built by people who know suffering. It is maintained by people who know suffering. It’s brought to life by people who know suffering. Each day, people give their time and energy and love to the Retreat because they remember when they carried what seemed like an unbearable burden. Perhaps, like Taranaki, like me, they did their best to build themselves up, only to find themselves falling apart, again and again. But out of their suffering has come something beautiful and rare. From their experience, they find something to give to others who also suffer. The pain they’ve experienced has become their motivation, their compassion, their empathy. From their darkest times, they’ve created a place that brings people healing and hope.