North-easterly VII: A final grace

 

“…Manifest thy light for my regeneration, and let the breadth, height, fullness and crown
of the solar radiance appear, and may the light within shine forth!”

Abbe de Villars, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’

“We’ve just got to the top of the slope by the castle,” said the voice on the phone, in answer to my query. We had been a few minutes late arriving on Holy Island, and our companions had begun to stroll out towards the medieval castle that dominates the island landscape. Having failed to find them in any of the three cafés where we had looked, we had located them by phone and, putting on a bit of a spurt, finally caught up with them. From here we could look back at the beginning of our journey, over the water to Bamburgh Castle, just as the spiritual pilgrim looks back on his inner journey and sees with greater clarity than before, how short was the true distance he had to travel , no matter how difficult and tortuous the route he felt he had to take.

The plan was that we should spend an hour exploring in our own way before meeting for a light lunch and our departure, so while some visited the castle, the rest of us walked back into the village and met the sparrows. Time always makes its presence keenly felt on Holy Island, which is odd, because, in so many ways, it is a timeless place. As you cross the causeway from the mainland, that sense of stepping outside of time is one of the most striking feelings, and, if you remain when the tides come in, flooding the causeway and cutting off the island from the shore, there simply is no time, only the spirit of place. Yet the tides rule all and the clock ticks regardless, and for those who must leave before the waters rush in, time is always limited. The very consciousness of that knowledge makes every moment precious.

When we had gathered once more, we walked over to the ancient parish church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. In spite of the fact that there have been people on the island since the very earliest of times, this is the oldest building to remain. It is built on the site of St Aidan’s original monastery, founded in 635, and parts of the building date back to that century.

A service had just finished, and we had no wish to intrude, so simply sat quietly for a while, in contemplation. Faith is unique to each of us, no matter by what name we know it or what path we walk. Each of us has our own relationship with something other and greater than ourselves and the simple silence of St Mary’s seems to welcome all those who turn their faces to the Light.

There are beautiful stained glass windows, touching tributes to those who have served in the church and those who have lived on the island and worked with the sea. There are windows that glow with colour and light, a statue carved from elm and called ‘The Journey,’ that shows the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s coffin on its long odyssey, a transcript of the Lindisfarne Gospel… the beautifully illuminated manuscript from the last years of the seventh century, made by a monk called Eadfrith in honour of St Cuthbert.

Fourteen hundred years is a long time for any place to be at the heart of a tiny community, and the church holds that community in its heart.

You ‘may sense the ‘thinness’ linking with the ancient saints who trod the same ground so many years before,’ says the church website. And you can. There is a very real sense of the sacred here, of something older and deeper than the exoteric Church that we know today. It is impossible not to be moved by the echoes of so many centuries of prayer.

In the churchyard, the lives of those who walked here are both remembered and forgotten. The oldest inhabitants have no grave-markers, their names and stories are, for the most part, lost. Only those whose stories were written in the annals of history are remembered by name and deed, and those who lived recently enough that their headstones survive.

Two nineteenth century headstones caught my eye. One was that of a Freemason and soldier who served in India. His affiliation to Freemasonry is not explicitly mentioned in the inscription, but the Masonic Square and Compasses tell their own story. Another local rejoiced in the name of Field Flowers. Time and weather have worn away much of the inscription, but he still rests in the shadow of the Saxon Abbey.

From the church, we walked down to the shore, passing the old well that shelters beneath the walls. I had long wanted to visit St Cuthbert’s Island but on our previous visits, either the tide or time had always been against us.

St Cuthbert’s Isle is a tiny islet just off the island’s shore. At low tide, it is just a short walk across the mussel-encrusted rocks, but to fully appreciate its isolation from the rest of the community,you have to see it when the tide comes in, completely sundering it from the island. We had done so one day, when we had stayed the length of a sea-tide on Holy Island, watching the sun gild a roseate path to the mainland as it sank beyond the hills.

It was to this tiny islet that St Cuthbert would retreat when he needed solitude. He had become a monk after a vision that came to him the night that St Aidan died. he felt called to a contemplative life, but his kindness, charm and generosity, as well as his gift of healing and deep faith, were to take him from his cell and make him Bishop of Lindisfarne and one of the best loved of the early saints.

The little island was his retreat, until in later years he sought the greater solitude of the Farne Islands. Today the foundations of his chapel remain on the islet, marked by a simple cross where pilgrims still leave tokens of respect, and earthworks that may be the foundations of his cell.

 

I once heard the monastic life described as being ‘in the world, but not of it’. In some respects this relates too to the journey of the spiritual seeker… pilgrims in the land of the living… who embrace the earthly life and its world fully, yet who know that the source of being is not of this world. It was the perfect place for us to end our weekend.

From here we could see the mainland and the dark outline of Bamburgh Castle. We could look back too at the Holy Isle and see the ancient church and the Abbey. Our journey together was drawing to its close, yet our journeys would continue. For a moment, we were once more outside of time and the spirit of place caught at the heart.

“I can hear mermaids singing,” said one of our companions. Sure enough, she was right. Turning our eyes to the sea, we scanned the waves and saw their faces in the waves. It was indeed magical to watch the seals watching us from the sea… playing and diving through the waters with what looked like joyful abandon.

But time touched us even here, and it was time for the weekend to end. Gary read the beautiful Invocation to the Flame from Abbe de Villars’, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’ and Barbara ended the weekend with a poem she had written. Then, with hugs and the knowledge that we would hopefully meet again soon, we parted.

For three of us, there was still a little time. Just enough to linger on the island for a moment or two… long enough to realise that the dark shadow on the sandbanks was not seaweed, but our ‘mermaids’.

The three of us, joined by silence and friendship, watched from afar, listening to their song. Such moments can justly be called a grace.

The sea-song continued, eerie and haunting on the wind as we left the islet and climbed to the Heugh. Sheltering in the lee of the ruined Anglo-Saxon chapel, we watched the seals from afar and saw a heron gliding over the waves.

But although, for once, we were in no hurry, Gary had a long drive ahead and had to leave. We walked the length of the Heugh, looking down into the ruined Priory that was already nearly a thousand years old when the castle was built. Time and distance were about to make themselves felt and it was with a certain amount of sadness that we descended from the outcrop, knowing that the world was about to take us once more by the hand. And that although at such moments we may wish the demands of the world elsewhere, it is right that it should do so. We are born into this world for a reason and to live in it fully is at least part of our purpose.

The weekend held one final and surprising gift though. As we walked across the fields towards the village, we came face to face with the past in the most surprising manner. Our timing could hardly have been more perfect and we watched archaeologists brush fourteen hundred years of earth from the faces of the early monks in the newly uncovered Priory burial ground.

“These men would have known Aidan or Cuthbert,” said the archaeologist, when I asked if it were permitted to take photographs. “Treat them with respect if you use the pictures.” I could not do anything else, for these were the men in whose footsteps we had walked the island, the men who had ‘trod the same ground so many years before,’ and whose faith has made this a place of pilgrimage, both religious and spiritual, for centuries. I may not share their particular form of religion, but we share the essence of faith and, in coming face to face with the past, I came face to face with myself. And surely, that is what any pilgrimage is supposed to achieve?

With thanks to Steve Tanham and Barbara Walsh for organising the Castles of the Mind weekend.

If you have enjoyed reading the story of our time in Northumberland and would like to join us for one of our informal weekends exploring the spiritual landscape of Britain, or at our annual April Workshop in Derbyshire, please visit the Silent Eye’s Events page.

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Saving for a rainy day …

The fish need feeding… their food cannisters need refilling too. The bird feeder needs completely restocking…and it is freezing outside. Not only is it cold enough to make a snowman shiver, it is raining… the kind of rain that falls as stinging darts making the presence of each drop sharp and immediate. I shiver, watching the blood withdraw from my fingertips, feeling them shrink and stiffen with the cold and I wrestle with the frozen metal of the lock. Raindrops trickle across my scalp, slithering down my neck. It is not a day to be outdoors… but the fish and the birds need to be fed, regardless of my misery.

Opening the shed, I squeeze past my son’s wheelchair to reach the feed. I remember, just for a moment, coming onto the hospital ward one day and seeing the longing on his face as he watched the raindrops on the window pane. I’d give anything to be out there, he had said. To feel the rain on my face again. Back then, we had no idea if he would ever be able to do so…at least, not without help.

What if, I wondered, this were the last time I ever felt the rain? I know, all too acutely, how life can change between one moment and the next. How normality, freedom…even life itself… can be snuffed out without warning. Such thoughts may seem morbid to some, but I have found that an awareness of the finite nature of the life we know only enhances our ability to appreciate its beauty. Yet, here I was complaining.

I asked myself the question once again. What if this were to be the last time I ever felt the cold of winter or the rain on my skin? Would I really want to remember it through a veil of misery? Or would I want to remember the clarity of the moment? The sparkle of rain on the first, burgeoning leaves of a nascent spring… the ever-expanding circles drawn by the raindrops on the silver surface of the pond… the aliveness of my skin, tingling beneath the touch of winter… the freshness of the rain-soaked garden and the smell of wet earth…

Some ‘last times’ we are aware of… we know they will be the last. We see them coming and they make an indelible impression on memory. I will never forget my last, tear-blurred glimpse of the Sacré-Cœur as we left Paris, thirty years ago. I didn’t know then that it would be the very last time… I still do not yet know if it was, for that matter… but it was the end of a chapter in my life and the beginning of a new story. I remember the final hug shared with a friend and his final words to me, hours before he died, as clearly as I recall the last time I closed the door on the family home.

Sometimes we only realise it was a ‘last time’ once the moment has passed… and those memories too entrench themselves, kept alive by emotion. But most ‘last times’ only become clear in retrospect… we will not know until it is too late to give them our attention and store them up in memory.

As we grow older, any farewell, no matter how temporary, takes on a new layer of meaning; as the years pass, the chances that some of these farewells will be ‘last times’ cannot help but increase. I would not wish to waste such moments in sentimentality, regret or in the imagining of some dire future… I want to enjoy them, storing them up in a treasure house of memory where life, love and laughter are the true riches of living.

There is a reason we are here, in this life, in these bodies and with these senses. Our lives are short… seconds, minutes and hours tick by, heading towards an unknown point, for few know the span of their days. For any one of us the world can change at any moment… yet we live our lives taking so much for granted or, as I was doing, railing against the downside instead of carrying away with us all the moment has to offer.

Living in England, the chances are that I will see and feel more rain than I could possibly wish for… but I do not know what the future holds. Would I really wish to be stuck behind glass watching the rain fall beyond my reach… and knowing I had wasted my ‘last time’ grumbling?

I fed the fish and the birds, smiled at the Indian airline label still attached to my son’s wheelchair… and went out to enjoy the rain.

All images in this post were taken in India by my son…where he felt the rain.

Watching the flowers grow…

I was convinced it was Sunday. The roads were quieter than usual on my way to work and that is a sure sign that it is a Sunday. Not because there is less traffic on the roads, but simply because, the shops being shut until ten, there are few cars about at half past seven in the morning. It took me until Tuesday to realise it had been Monday and the schools were on holiday.

There was a time when I would not have needed that particular clue. Working a regular job and having children meant that such alterations to routine were always eagerly awaited; holidays and weekends announced themselves loudly in our lives instead of sneaking up on me or laying in ambush to catch me unawares. I no longer have children of school age… in fact, my youngest son has a daughter of his own already in school… and for the past eight years I have worked seven days a week, except when I have been on the road. Like school holidays, weekends have ceased to exist, unless I am away. The passage of time I am all too aware of, but the specifics elude me as I no longer have those accustomed  markers to remind me of where I stand within its flow.

It is an odd thing, this notion of time. It rules our lives with an iron rod and yet there is no consistency to it. In Britain these days, we are not allowed out of the house for a couple of weeks after we are born… we wait a set amount of years then must begin school, and a scant few years later, we are expected to behave with the supposed wisdom of adulthood yet are allowed none of its privileges.We can legally marry and have children at sixteen, but cannot drive, drink alcohol or vote.

Youth, middle age and old age are defined by numerical averages that have no meaning to those at the extremes of the spectrum of health or attitude. We can qualify for retirement homes at fifty-five and because of that age can be classified as ‘vulnerable’… yet the minimum age for the state pension is sixty-seven.

We live our lives by clock and calendar, regulating our own internal rhythms to the required and prescribed status quo… until Daylight Savings kick in and throw us out by an hour.  And, although we may moan and groan about all of these things… especially here in Britain where it seems to be a national pastime… we simply accept the imposition of artificial timetable on our lives.

We don’t even think about that…  Time itself may be a frame for perception, but the regulated time to which we daily and yearly submit is no more than a corporate convenience, an organisational tool. I do not advocate a complete disregard for this organisation… society as we know it would cease to function without its order and shibboleths, but I wonder if we place too much value on our adherence to the accepted norm and our judgement of ourselves within its confines.

As I drove to work, the dawn was breaking. It struck me, in one of those ‘why didn’t I realise that before’ moments,  that it does so every day. The leaves are turning and falling in golden drifts as autumn kisses summer goodbye as it does every year. Neither the sun, nor the rest of Nature, gets a weekend or a holiday. Weekends do not exist, nor do Monday mornings, nor, in fact, do any of the days of the week. Years and days are astronomical events, months no longer follow the lunar cycle. Weeks are no more than mathematical constructs, designed not to reflect time, but to contain it.

On the other hand, the sun never has to start early or work later than its alloted duty. Nothing is born, comes to maturity or dies before the ‘right’ time. Nothing retires, it simply evolves, following a natural rhythm dictated by fitness for function. Maiden, mother crone… child, warrior, sage… all enabled and limited by Nature herself; the transition individual, not regulated.

Plant a seed and, when soil and season conspire to make the right conditions it will germinate and grow. The manner of its growth and health will be influenced by both its own nature and its environment. Force it to maturity before its time and it will lose strength, cut it before its time and it will add neither fruit nor seed to the riches of the earth.

We may have to accede to convention and a societal need for order, but we do not have to do so blindly. Nor are we obliged to impose upon our inner selves the constraints and expectations of external time. We can be what we are, not what our acquired expectations make us think we should be. We do not have to obey all the ‘rules’ We need not grow old before our minds and bodies are ready, nor do we have to stay young longer than is right for us. And even then, we can be old and wise one minute, a child full of wonder the next. Our outer lives may be subject to the clock, but our inner growth cannot be forced and is ruled only by natural time.

 

Circles Beyond Time – On Edge

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We’d cancelled sunrise. Not literally, you understand, but what with our company, for once, being lodged across a swathe of miles and the weather being singularly uncooperative, it seemed unfair to drag everyone from their beds at some ungodly hour just to get wet and see nothing. It was, therefore, a rested and well-breakfasted company that gathered for the short trip to our next ancient site.

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Only two of us had visited the site before. We had found it quite by accident whilst on the track of the infamous wandering stone which, although it remains stubbornly lost, has a habit of revealing wonderful places as you follow its trail. We had come back in winter with author Graeme Cumming and his partner… and more recently to check the site before the workshop when we had been thoroughly drenched by unseasonal rain that had filled my boots until I squelched with every step. Even so, with each visit, the magic of the place had caught us unawares…. but we were hoping for better weather this time, in spite of the pall of grey cloud that hung low over the moors.

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A short walk across the moor takes you to a fence and a gate. It is as soon as you walk through the gate that the land seems to change. Regardless of the weather, it is quieter here … as if the place has withdrawn from the world somehow and waits at a temporal tangent for those who come seeking its mysteries. A few yards to the right of the path and the land falls away steeply from the edge of the cliff. In between is a green lawn strewn with boulders and silver-barked birch. It feels as if you have slipped into the realms of the Fae and the guardians of the place watch as you pass.

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For a little way the path slopes gently uphill. After a while you begin to notice that the boulders look odd, as if placed rather than strewn by ancient glaciers, then the land opens out into a boulder field of monumental proportions, very similar to the top of Carl Wark in appearance, though here the stones are enormous and the cliffs sheer. But whereas the atmosphere of the hillfort is one of peace and serenity, here there is something else; it ‘feels’ odd and uncomfortable.

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It it always difficult to tease apart the threads of impression. Most people are sensitive to atmospheres and will react predictably to the serenity of a quiet chapel or an eerie, moonlit ruin. With the open landscape it is impossible to say what it is one picks up, but places have their own particular ‘feel’. Most of the time we are visiting sites of which little can be known, given their antiquity and the mind inevitably tries to make sense of the landscape in modern terms first. When it cannot, the natural reaction is to seek a story the mind can accept, but these sites are older than our knowing and alive in a way difficult to express. Images arise and are dismissed as imagination… until others, too, begin to recount the same feelings and you have to take note. At this particular part of the site…and only here… the impression is that the rock-strewn cliff was once used as part of the ancestral funerary rites… and was then desecrated and despoiled by invaders, as if to take the heart from its people. The atmosphere affects everyone differently, so saying little except that there would be a chance to look around on the way back, we hurried our companions through the stones to the second gate.

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Once through the gate, the land changes immediately. Delicate mosses carpet the undulating earth in emerald, scattered with diamond drops of mist and festooned with jewelled webs. Even the sound changes as the slender trunks of the silver birches cluster closer. It is a quiet place… a child’s fairyland… and at its heart, a standing stone…

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Circles Beyond Time – Living stone

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I smiled, knowing what was still to come… and knowing that our companion had picked up on something not yet visible when she had said that the place reminded her of the stone blocks of the old South American cultures. I knew what she meant, but while the precision of the masonry at Cusco still defies understanding over a thousand years old since its building, the place to which we were walking was older. Far older.

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Following the path that climbs through the bracken, you can see the changing forms of the stones. Peering from the top of the plateau, they seem to shapeshift in the fading, afternoon light, taking first one form and then another as you approach the steps that lead into the enclosure. It is a strange place. To some it is just another hill to climb. To others, ‘just’ another ancient hillfort. Cinema buffs may recognise one of the locations from The Princess Bride and geologists would have a field day. To archaeologists, though, Carl Wark is pretty much an enigma and unique in this part of the world.

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As soon as you reach the plateau you begin to see how important the site must have been. No direct dating evidence has been found so far, but comparisons have been drawn between the construction of the enclosure at Carl Wark and one we would visit next day at Gardom’s Edge…and that has been dated to around 1300BC. The general consensus seems to be that although some of the more visible features date back only to the Iron Age, the site and features of the surrounding landscape, have been in use since the Bronze Age. The trouble with such dates, however, is that they can only work with what they can see, dig up and measure. If a place becomes important in the life of a people, how long does its legend take to build before the walls are begun? How long before it becomes so entrenched in the life of the clan that its safety becomes a priority?

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A natural outcrop rising around eighty feet from the valley floor, the hillfort sits much lower in the landscape than nearby Higger Tor. Even to a layman’s eyes, the Tor makes a far more defensible position, having much wider views of the surrounding landscape and being visible from a far greater distance than its smaller neighbour. Not only that, but the enclosure of the hillfort is completely covered by huge boulders, making any kind of settlement there impossible to establish and no evidence of such has been found. If it was a fortress in the sense that we understand it, what were they protecting? There is nothing there but the stones.

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It was stone that greeted us as we reached the plateau… a great wall of boulders, carefully placed and buttressed from behind by an earthen embankment. The wall, so the archaeologists believe, dates back only to the Iron Age, which in Britain began almost three thousand years ago. The site has been in use longer than that. Only one section of this rampart remains, 130 ft long, 26 ft wide at its base and nearly ten feet high. Each stone is huge and the construction quite unexpected in the middle of the moors.

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Beyond the wall you enter a magical landscape of frozen forms and movement captured in stone. Perhaps the eyes of the heart can come closer to understanding what the old ones were protecting than the eyes of science. Almost every boulder reveals a face, shape or limb that to the human eye and imagination, suggests life. Some stones, like one of the ‘rocking stones’ perched precariously on the edge, seem to have been encouraged into their position and carefully chocked with small boulders. Some seem to shift, from bear, to cat, to hawk depending on where you stand… as if Nature has shaped a cathedral to honour the totems of the ancient tribes.

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We left our companions to explore for a while and headed over to the southern end of the hillfort. Here there was a stone we had planned to use, carved by Man or Nature into a perfect chair for storytelling or teaching, but the wind had increased, the clouds had come down and the rain had begun… nothing major, but not exactly conducive to sitting around on the grass. We sought out a more sheltered spot and gathered everyone together, showing them the great blocks of millstone grit that had been added to the natural revetments of the cliff to fortify the place.

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Taking our places in a shelter between towering boulders, we shared a meditation where we each sought a thread within the web of light, tracing it back, through our own ancestry and beyond; back to the beginnings of our own civilisation to a time and place where were no religious doctrines, or dogma wars… just the many-faceted One that each could see moving across the face of the earth in the shapes of the life that they knew. That web of life is not a thing of the past, but the matrix of life.

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As the echoes were erased by the wind, I thought of a passage from Dion Fortune’s Sea Priestess that seemed to sum up both something that has gone wrong with our society and something of what we were attempting over the weekend. “…sinking back into the primordial sleep, returning to forgotten things before time was: and the soul is renewed, touching the Great Mother. Whoso cannot return to the primordial, hath no roots in life, but withereth as the grass. These are the living dead, they who are orphaned of the Great Mother.”

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We were far from being the living dead that day… We shared our thoughts and some readings. One of our companions shared a poem he had come across and which had seemed appropriate to the moment. We all smiled in recognition at the first lines of Tolkien’s ‘The road goes ever on and on…’. I smiled twice, loving the poem and remembering that, quite coincidentally, I had been reciting it just below where we were sheltering at dawn that very day. Another of our companions gave us music, singing October Song a cappella. Written by Robin Williamson, it had been a hit in the 60s for the Incredible String Band. We smiled; we were going to see Williamson play that week. Such small synchronicities seem to offer a reassurance that you are getting things right.

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Which is more than we could say for the weather. We had allowed plenty of time to explore the hilltop and its mysteries knowing how much there was to see, then had planned on sharing the sunset there before returning for dinner. The wind, damp and chill were too much to linger… and the sunset would be hidden by clouds. There would be other days. We gathered in the lee of the ancient wall and, with the sound reverberating from the stone, joined in chanting the close of day, bringing sound to the stones in a spirit of reverence for Life. Somehow, it felt exactly right.

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Pause for thought

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For a good many years, my days have begun very early and ended very late. For most of that time, I have been working, whether it has been on the nine-to-five treadmill (which very seldom was just nine-to-five), doing housework and gardening, cooking or writing…or the myriad other jobs that come with adulthood, parenthood and the age of responsibility. Weekends and the misnamed ‘holidays’ simply exchanged one task for another, fitting the things I wanted to do in between those I had to. Even meditation periods become part of the routine, slotting in between other necessities. It doesn’t really matter whether you love what you are doing or not…and I do… it is the constant motion of the wheel of doing that gets hold of us. Escaping the hamster wheel is a dream many share, but for most of us, a dream is all it may ever be.

The trouble is that we get caught up by what we do… and the more we do, the more it holds us. We start to believe that if we don’t do it, no-one else will… or that we do it best/quickest/most efficiently. Even worse, for many of us, especially in the domestic arena, that is probably true…simply because we have been doing it for so long that we have grown efficient through long habit. Even when the need is no longer there, we still carry on with the old ways, sticking to the same routines because we do them on autopilot. When something forces us to stop for a while, it feels odd, things nag at us somewhere below the surface and we find it hard to switch off.

There is a constant pressure of routine that creates an unconscious level of chronic stress that has been shown to have adverse effects on health, weight, sleep and emotional wellbeing. It is insidious and we don’t even notice it, so deeply ingrained does it become.

It took me a while after the boys had all left home and I was living alone with the dog, to realise that actually, I wouldn’t be burned at the stake if I didn’t dust and polish every morning. The sky would not fall if I didn’t do the laundry every day and I would neither starve to death nor be ostracised by society if I chose not to cook. In fact, if it wasn’t for the dog, her toys and her fur, I would actually have very little around the house that had to be done every day. Okay, I would keep the place nice for me… and for any unexpected visitors… but it was no longer an imperative.

I let it be and relaxed.

Twiddled my thumbs for a bit.

Then found I had filled all the spare time I had released with other ‘jobs’.

Downsizing was next… one almighty burst of activity and I’d be in a small flat that would take much less upkeep! Except it doesn’t. I’m still only using the same area as before, but the dog, her toys and her coat can  access all areas… so the hamster wheel kept turning. Until the first virus hit. For a few days, I couldn’t have cared less where I was. For the next few days, I didn’t care about anything except much and spent the time cuddled on the sofa with the dog. We slept through a number of mindless DVDs and a couple of excellent ones too. I managed to stay awake for much of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and it was watching that film that woke me up.

Dame Judi Dench plays a woman in her seventies who, although relatively recently widowed, has fallen in love, but is afraid of the new relationship. “I just need more time,” says her character to another woman. “How much time do you have?” she replies. Which got me thinking.

I am nowhere near my seventies… not yet. But how much time do any of us have? It is an unknown factor. We stay in the hamster wheel of duty and necessity, looking towards a ‘one day’ that may never, for a multitude of possible reasons, happen. And for most of us, getting off that wheel entirely, simply through choice, is an impossibility. We seem to be programmed to be doing.

But we can slow it down, making space in each day for doing … nothing. For simply sitting in the sun. Meditating. Watching the stars. It doesn’t matter… it just has to be time. Time to actively, deliberately engage with doing nothing, giving it as much attention as all the rest of the doing and according it the same importance. Time to just be you.

It is not a new concept, but an ancient one. It is a simple thing. An hour a day… half an hour… just time to leave everything, let it wait and just be.

Like all the habitual things we do in a day, doing nothing seems to make space for itself…time you did not think you had…and you come back from it refreshed.

Give it a try.

Personal

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It is undoubtedly an incredible piece of craftsmanship. It is unbelievably impressive…designed specifically to be awe-inspiring, streaming light and colour into the great cavern of the Abbey. It is also just too big to be able to  make any sense of the images it contains… Had I  not seen other Tree of Jesse windows before, recognising the recumbent figure of the dreamer, I wouldn’t have had a clue what it was I was looking at. It is only later, with the help of the camera, that I am able to see the individual scenes depicted in the great, towering window of the south transept of Bath Abbey… and the east window is even harder to decipher.

We wondered why.

Politics, probably… the intent of the builders hovering somewhere between raising an edifice of the utmost beauty to the glory of their God and the desire to impress upon all who entered its portals the power and supremacy of the Church itself. In so doing they seem to have forgotten that their primary function was supposed to be to teach the words of a humble man to other humble men.

Given that the stained glass and the earlier wall paintings of these magnificent and beautiful churches were designed originally to convey the stories of the Bible, the saints and the virtues of the faith to the faithful, it seems rather pointless to make them so grand they cease to fulfill their function. Their very magnificence renders them indecipherable to the naked eye… in effect, their stories become so remote and impersonal as to be invisible.

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It is only when you can actually get close enough to see the painted faces that any connection is made with the subjects they portray…and it is through the emotional connection that religious teaching has always been promulgated, either with the gentle message of Love or through the fear of hellfire and brimstone. It has to be personal. Without that contact with the emotions, such teachings remain too distant to take root in the heart where faith must grow if it is to be a true and personal relationship with the divine … by whatever Name we come to know it.

The same concept applies to all our life-lessons. Unless they touch our emotions in some way, we take little note of the events, great and small, that make up our lives, events that may be there and gone in an instant. There are 31556952 seconds in a single year… each one already in the past before you know it is there… each one capable of being a pivotal point of understanding, of change, of realisation. Multiply that by our traditional ‘three-score years and ten’ and the number is just too great to comprehend… too distant to seem as if it has any relevance in our lives… too big to know how to even read the number correctly… Yet we will grumble at wasting two minutes of those lives … a mere 120 seconds… in a queue. Those seconds are relevant…they are small enough for us to come to terms with… small enough to understand their waste on something annoyingly unimportant, yet big enough for us to see what else they could have been spent upon. Annoyance and frustration make them real to us.

There are 3600 seconds in an hour…and an hour spent with someone you love, doing something you love…even dreaming about somewhere you love… is an hour well-spent. It makes you smile, relax… feel good about life. We can understand the passing of an hour. It is small enough to be personal… yet can hold enough to make life feel as if it is pure gold and we the richest of creatures.

There are 2.208e+9 seconds in seventy years. See what I mean? Except for the mathematicians amongst us, such a number holds neither warmth nor possibility… it is too far from our everyday comprehension to hold any relevance. It is too big… too impersonal.

Our way of life is becoming more and more remote. The personal touch is being lost to scripted phone calls, self service checkouts, automated business … even our social lives are often lived largely online. Youngsters will even text each other when they are in the same house. The distance between human hearts and the lack of contact in a society that shuns the intrusion of personal space can isolate us insidiously. Automation is saving money for businesses and organisations to the point where fewer people need to be employed and I wonder how far society is moving towards losing  the ability to connect with each other and solve problems through building a personal relationship that starts with a simple smile.

It doesn’t really matter if it is a beautiful edifice divorced from the heart of its purpose by its own grandeur or the two pairs of eyes, gateways to the soul, that slide away from each other for fear of an illusory intrusion… without that personal touch, we cannot reach each other and we are prisoned in glass stained by our own tears.

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No time at all

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What colour is the sky?

I watched the sun go down tonight from the roadside. For once, the camera had not come with me… I was just driving to the shop and didn’t pick it up. Even so, I cursed myself for leaving the camera as I saw the huge, golden orb shot with crimson reflected in the rear view mirror. Too late to turn and go back, the sun would have gone by then… but maybe, just maybe, I would be home in time…

No. Halfway home it was evident I wouldn’t make it, so, camera or not, I pulled over to watch the setting glory of a summer’s day.

It took only a couple of minutes for the last of the blue to fade through a rainbow of colour to a molten sky, aflame against the silhouetted trees. Almost as if the sky was clothed in the colours of the School…I couldn’t help but smile.

It was the speed of those final moments, though, that struck me. In the space of just a few heartbeats dusk became sunset and night swallowed the earth. The change came with incredible swiftness and was complete.

It made me think how fast our little planet is spinning, unnoticed by we who live and breathe her air. Hurtling through space around the sun at around 70,000 miles an hour, rotating on its own axis at around a thousand miles an hour at the equator… and we are so habituated to that movement we never notice. Yet, we get motion sickness in a vehicle….

Our eyes and brains process light that hits a speed of 670 million mph…and we don’t bat an eyelid at that constant miracle. Our field of vision seems infinite… even I, short-sighted as I am, think nothing of glancing up to say hello to Orion,  capturing in my gaze light which left the nebula nearly 1350 years  and nine trillion miles ago to meet my eyes tonight. Some of the stars I see no longer even exist!

Yet I have trouble getting to grips with things when I speak friends from ‘the future’ in timezones across the world….

Odd, isn’t it?

We live our lives against the backdrop of an enormity of time, yet it often seems that all we know can change in a heartbeat. A single moment, a scintilla of time, and life can be transformed, becoming unrecognisable, both for better or for worse. It can be a small thing that changes a mood, moving a day from sadness to joy, or it can be the bigger events that upheave a lifetime.

Just like the movement of the earth, we often don’t even notice how these changes begin. Or even at all. Sometimes we think we can trace them back to a particular and pivotal event, if we look… but it is hard, if not impossible, to untangle the skein of a lifetime, and the further you try and trace an event’s beginning back to its roots, the more apparent it becomes that you cannot do so, for each event is dependent in some way upon the ones that preceded it and brought you to that point in time.

We cannot alter past events and the future is unscripted… which leaves us with now, this moment, this scintilla of time, in which to change our worlds. And we do so. All the time. And don’t even notice.

I deliberately took time to watch that sunset. It is something that happens every day, something that has happened over my head 20,778 times since I was born and which I seldom consciously take time to watch. I have to ask myself how many of those days of my life I have missed, simply by taking them for granted and not drinking in each moment in full awareness of the possibilities they hold, not living with a passion.

Tonight the sky was a rainbow veil that turned to a sea of molten gold. I never want to take that for granted again.