Author Archives: Andrew

Sin is Behovely

In modern English the word ‘behovely’ has fallen out of common usage. Certainly the spell-check on my MacBook does not recognise the word. Collins online Dictionary gives the definition as ‘useful’ and ‘in a useful manner.’ One of Mother Julian’s better known assertions, it is none-the-less somewhat surprising to the modern reader as at face value it appears to be the very antithesis of the Christian message. If the redemption offered by Christ is to save us from our sins, how on earth can sin be useful? 

Collins Dictionary definition of the word ‘behovely’

The American psychologist B. F. Skinner believed free will to be a myth. Rather, he concluded, human behaviour was dependent upon the consequences of previous actions, which he referred to as the principle of reinforcement. This principle stated that If the consequences of an action were bad, there would be a high probability the action would not be repeated; if the consequences were good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger. The obvious contradiction to the argument is alcohol dependency, or any other form of addiction for that matter, where individuals continually repeat behaviour which is detrimental to them, in the case of alcoholism potentially fatal. That Skinner developed most of his theory by observing lab rats and not actual human beings in retrospect seems an oversight. 

Jung, on the other hand, believed that such detrimental behaviour was driven by what he described as ‘splinter personalities’ that were the manifestation of unresolved complexes that held an energy all of their own. The splinters would largely reside dormant in the psyche but become activated by certain environmental triggers. So individuals would find themselves engaging in behaviour which ran contrary to their conscious beliefs and the moral expectations of the society in which they lived. 

St Paul put it far more simply.

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh; for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do. And if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me.”

Romans 7:18-20

Each in their own way is attempting to articulate the very human experience that our behaviour can sometimes run contrary to our beliefs, and that this behaviour is often driven by forces of which we are unaware. The more I ponder such aspects of Christianity in the light of modern psychology the more I believe we are juggling with syntax. What Jung described as a ‘splinter personality’ St Paul describes as sin living within him. To me they are the same thing. 

The Apostle Paul, as imagined by Rembrandt, National Gallery of Art, London.

No surprise then that, in my experience, many of these unwanted behaviours are related to primitive impulses such as fight or flight, fear, anger, envy, food, and sex, to name just a few, what for millennia the Church has referred to as Sin. How then can Julian tell us that Sin is behovely? Let’s hear from Julian herself. 

I saw that nothing hindered me but sin. And I saw that this was the same for all of us. And it seemed to me that, if sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like unto our Lord as he made us. And so, in my folly, before this time, I had often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented – for then, I thought, all should have been well. But Jesus, who in the Showing told me all that I needed, answered by this word and said: ‘Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ 

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 27

Jung believed that individuation* occurred as the individual drew shadow elements of their unconscious psyche, such as the splinter personalities, into conscious awareness and assimilated these into the Ego, or what Carl Rogers referred to as the Self Concept. The crux for me is that the individual cannot being to be aware of their shadow unless it is manifested in behaviour. Only when we observe ourselves engaging in behaviour contrary to our conscious beliefs and the moral expectations of the society in which we live can we being to question why we are behaving in this manner, and most importantly, begin to do something about changing that behaviour. 

Now we see the wisdom in Mother Julian’s assertion that sin in behovely, for it is ONLY by sin that we can become aware of the unresolved complexes that linger in the shadows of our unconscious mind. 


*In Jungian or analytical psychology, individuation is the process where the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious. It is seen as a developmental psychic process during which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person’s life become, if the process is more or less successful, integrated over time into a well-functioning whole. Other psychoanalytic theorists describe it as the stage where an individual transcends group attachment and narcissistic self-absorption.

#lentbookclub is a loose association of people who broadly fall under the spiritual umbrella of Christianity. During the reflective season of Lent, we are invited to read a specific book, chosen by group consent, and comment about this on social media. The group is open to everyone, those who identify as ‘Christian’ in whatever manner, and those who do not.

The Huge High Wholeness of God

Mother Julian wrote, “These revelations were shewed to a simple creature that knew no letter, the year of our Lord 1373, the 8th day of May.” A contradiction in terms. If she knew no letters, how was she able to write that sentence? In her book The Way of Julian of Norwich, Sheila Upjohn provides a number of possible explanations. Firstly is the idea that Julian wrote in English but knew no Latin. In Fourteenth Century England Latin was the authoritative language of the Church. It would be a further nine years before John Wycliffe completed his translation of the Bible into English, for which, and for arguing that Scripture be the authoritative centre of Christianity, he was posthumously excommunicated and condemned as a heretic. If Julian knew no Latin she would have been regarded as functionally illiterate by the Church.  

Another theory is that at the time when Julian received her visions she was illiterate, but later learned to read and write English so that she might put to paper the message she had received. A contemporary of Julian, Margery Kempe, a mystic of the Christian tradition who lived in nearby King’s Lynn, is regarded as being the first woman to write an autobiography in English. However, we know that Kempe was unlettered. Her story was dictated to a scribe. If Julian describes herself as being unlettered, is it not possible that Revelations of Divine Love was also transcribed by dictation? 

Be that as it may, Julian was a woman, and in Fourteenth Century England this meant she had little status, regardless of her ability to read and write. Remarkably then for the time, although she is at pains to point out her lowly status, she is also firm in her belief that despite her gender she has the same right as any to speak of the goodness of God. The following is a modern translation from the first draft of Revelations of Divine Love.

God forbid that you should say or take it that I am a teacher, for I do not mean that, nor never meant it. I am an unlettered woman, poor and simple. But I know well that, what I say, I have it from the showing of Him who is a mighty teacher – and I tell it to you for love, for I would to God it were known, and my fellow Christians helped on to greater loathing of sin and a deeper love of God. But because I am a woman, must I therefore believe that I should not tell you of the goodness of God, when I saw at the same time that it was His Will that it should be known? 

This brought to my mind some passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. 

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:25

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

1 Corinthians 1:27

God’s decision to impart His message to an unlettered woman in Fourteenth Century Norwich would undoubtedly appear as foolishness to the patriarchal hierarchy of the time, which was, ironically, dominated by the Church. This was why Julian and her subsequent followers kept her writings hidden from the authorities. In the same way God’s decision to place into the arms of a young, unmarried Jewish girl, “a Saviour who is Christ the Lord” was regarded as foolishness by the authorities of the time. This is the foolishness of which Paul speaks. It is foolishness as the world perceives it, not as God perceives it. 

The Annunciation (1898) by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Similarly, had the church authorities of Fourteenth Century Norwich discovered and read Julian’s writings, they undoubtedly would also have regarded as foolishness, if not outright heresy, her notions on the gender of God. 

As truly as God is our father, so, just as truly, God is our mother. And he showed this in everything, especially in those sweet words when he said: ‘It is I.’ That is to say: ‘It is I, the strength and goodness of fatherhood. It is I, the wisdom of motherhood’. 

Despite the insistence of much of the Church in clinging to gender exclusive language, gender is not, nor has ever been, something that has coloured my notions of God. I suppose “Parent, Offspring and Holy Entity” doesn’t have quite the poetic ring of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”  Moreover, I can’t help but feel that rumination on the nature of the Trinity is a particularly ineffective use of time and energy when “capital crimes, chewed, swallowed and digested, before us lie.” Though that may depend on one’s understanding of the role of church. Are we, as Christian’s called to affect social justice or to seek out our own redemption and salvation? Are the two mutually exclusive? 

A few years ago a young lesbian couple joined my walking group. With a shared interest in photography we soon became friends. As I have come to know them I have seen how much dedication and devotion they have to each other, certainly way more than I could muster in any of the failed relationships I have left in my wake. They will be moving from Manchester soon and I will miss them. They have brought friendship and joy to my life. 

What I take from these passages of Mother Julian’s then, is how important it is for me to be aware of God’s presence in the world around me, the huge high wholeness of God, whether manifest as father, mother, brother, sister, friend, neighbour, colleague, gay, straight, or stranger. Demarcation by gender is, mostly, absent. 

Julian of Norwich

#lentbookclub is a loose association of people who broadly fall under the spiritual umbrella of Christianity. During the reflective season of Lent, we are invited to read a specific book, chosen by group consent, and comment about this on social media. The group is open to everyone, those who identify as ‘Christian’ in whatever manner, and those who do not.

For Lent 2021 we are reading The Way of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn. I am supplementing my reading, by way of contrast, with Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters by Mary-Jane Rubinstein.

What little is known of Julian comes mostly from her own writings. She was an anchoress who lived in the city of Norwich in the fourteenth century. In the spring of 1373 she became seriously ill. During her illness she received a series of ‘shewings’ during which Jesus Christ appeared to her and spoke with her. Having recovered from her illness she chose to live a life of seclusion in a small ‘cell’ adjacent to St Julian’s Church, where she meditated on her experiences and wrote about them. Her book A Revelation of Divine Love is thought to be the first written by a woman in the English language. 

Julian of Norwich

Week 1
Contemplation of a God who is with us in our defecation is a great way to start Lent, I think. Especially after all those pancakes. It brings to mind Earnest Becker’s comment about human’s being gods who shit. Here is the appropriate passage (no pun intended, honestly) from Chapter Six of A Revelation of Divine Love

A man walks upright, and the food in his body is sealed as in a well-made purse. When the time of his necessity comes, it is opened and sealed again most properly. And that it is God who does this is shown where he says that he comes down to the lowest part of our need. For he does not despise what he has made, nor does he disdain to serve our humblest earthly needs. For he loves the soul he has made in his likeness. 

Recently, I have been watching the Russell T Davies drama It’s a Sin, set in the gay scene of 1980’s London. It struck me that the scenes where the humanity of the characters shone through most palpably were those in which they or their friends had succumbed to the ravages of AIDS, and were confronted by an inevitable death. Here in the lowest point of their need did they find an outpouring of service, compassion, devotion and love. It also struck me that, regardless of gender and sexual preference, we all share in this aspect of our humanity, coming to terms with the shame of our lowest needs, confronted by an inevitable death. The vision of Julian is that in our greatest need God is not only with us, but loves us. 

Lent Book Group can be found at

Circle of Seasons

2020 has been a pretty dreadful year for most of us, but even in the darkness there is light. Circle of Seasons is my homage to some of my more positive experiences in 2020.

The music is Circle of Seasons by Tori Amos from her recently released EP Wintertide. It can be ordered in various formats from Tori’s website, here

All videos and photographs were taken by me during 2020.

St Stephen’s St Stephen’s

It has become something of a Boxing Day tradition to walk from Tegg’s Nose Country Park, through Macclesfield Forest, to visit St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. Walking through the forest on the day after Christmas Day the traditions of centuries hang heavy in the air as the tamarisk mosses hang from the naked limbs of the trees. 

In a quiet corner of the forest, close by the Iron Age earthworks of Toot Hill, crystal clear Peak District water emerges from a spring in the forest floor. Each year at this location someone dresses a small spruce tree with Christmas decorations. A notebook protected in a small plastic container nearby contains comments of passers by and there is a little tin for donations. To whom the donations might go we can only presume as this information is not provided by the mysterious decorator of the tree. I like to think this has some connection with St Stephen’s but the genius loci of the place has more of the votive pagan tradition about it than anything related to the Christian church. I make my offering and descend Charity Lane, leaving the shadows of the forest behind me. 

The Forest Chapel stands in a isolated depression among the northern hills of Macclesfield Forest, a stone’s throw from the curiously named Bottom-of-the-Oven. 

As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate the chapel was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. In about 1720 Francis Gastrell, Bishop of Chester noted that the church had not been consecrated and so was dedicated in the name of the martyr Saint Stephen.

St Stephen’s Church, The Forest Chapel

To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the families who eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands for some five hundred years since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century. The interior is unostentatious, the basic structure being a single rectangular room, the nave and chancel having no discernible division, covered by a simple oak-beamed vaulted ceiling. A simple stone altar set against the east wall is overlooked by a Victorian stained-glass window. 

I sit for some time in the peaceful solitude of the chapel. Here too is erected a Christmas tree. In addition to the customary baubles and fairy lights the hand written prayers of visitors hang from the boughs of the tree. I pack away my flask of coffee in my rucksack and head out once again into the forest.

From Standing Stone car park I climb Buxtor’s Hill. A cold damp wind sweeps across Piggford Moor making the ascent of Shutlingsloe arduous. On the crest of the hill I tuck myself into the relative shelter of a fissure in the Chatsworth Gritstone and eat Stollen, thick with marzipan, which I wash down with coffee. 

A fissure in the rocks on top of Shutlingsloe

Shutlingsloe is an anchor in my landscape. The little whitewashed summit monument, once of importance to the Ordnance Survey in the measurement and mapping of this anomalistic archipelago of islands we call home, is without doubt the triangulation pillar upon which I have placed my hands more than any other. Here I place my hands once again, now to steady myself against the buffeting wind. 

To find shelter I descend once again into the forest, pausing at Nessit Hill to admire the panorama over Trentabank and Ridgegate Reservoirs. By Bottoms Reservoir I pick up the Gritstone Trail and make the arduous ascent to the summit of Tegg’s Nose Quarry. An information board here informs me that the rocks of the quarry date from the Carboniferous geologic period and were laid down in a mighty river delta some three hundred and fifty million years ago. In comparison to this age the quarry men who split these rocks open a hundred years ago seem my contemporaries. 

The Moon in Lleyn

Thoughts and images inspired by the poem The Moon in Lleyn by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub

The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregations
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of the bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.

But a voice sounds
in my ear: Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptised. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.

This is one of my favourite poems by RST. It speaks to me deeply of my journey in faith, which has been circuitous, and the joy I have found in my solitary exploration of the enigmatic and beguiling country known as Wales. 

On the surface, what faith I have in God is founded largely on necessity, rather than any abstract metaphysical concept. It is a belief that has grown and changed over time and is influenced by the traditional teachings of the Anglican Christian Church, some elements of Eastern philosophy and the principles of the Twelve Step Fellowship movement. 

At the core of this belief is the need for a guiding, stabilising entity in my life that can be depended upon. It is sustained by an experiential positive feedback loop. The more I rely on this sustaining power the more manageable my life becomes. This need is for a power greater than myself, which I can contemplate in wonder, a power that can and does restore me to sanity. 

Self examination of the necessity of faith leads me to an awareness that the foundation of that belief is the sure and certain knowledge of the fallibility of human beings. To put it simply, human beings are not dependable. Whether at a personal or national level, or taking humanity as a whole, they can and will let you down, either as a result of conscious wilfulness, ignorance, stupidity, the manifestation of some mental illness or any combination of these factors. As Eckhart Tolle wrote, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species.”

Moreover, as a member of the human race I am more than capable of behaving in this manner. I too will let you down. Sometimes I feel the outlook is bleak. The ‘wise’ ape is doomed to an eternity of delusional craving and obsession. In this dark place it is easy to believe Yeats was right. 

The Second Coming by W B Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

A vast image out of Spiritus Mundi. Painting by William Blake

At such times I have to put myself in check. “Why so fast, /mortal? These very seas /are baptised.” And often, sitting quietly, alone, by the sea, I have found solace. 

Some years ago I was attending a course at the Welsh language college at Nant Gwrytheyrn. Class having concluded for the day I took the opportunity to walk along Morfa Nefyn to Porthdinllaen. Resisting the temptations of cool ale at the Tŷ Coch Inn, I continued along the headland, beyond the Lifeboat Station and sat among the sun-bleached rocks soaking my feet in the crystal blue waters of the Celtic Sea. 

Tŷ Coch Inn, Porthdinllaen

My meditation of tranquility was disturbed by loud snorting from the pool before me. With a cloud of spray a young grey seal surfaced no more than twenty feet from where I sat. She fixed me with an inquisitive eye, drifting towards me on the gentle swell of the waves. I held my breath. For a moment all time stood still. Unanticipated, unsolicited, here was a wild creature of God, a fellow mortal. In that moment there was an awareness of each others presence, a shared repose amongst creation. 

With a disinterested snort and a swish of her tail she turned about, her limbs working gracefully until she was clear of the little cove, then with a final cloud of spray she slipped beneath the waves. 

“These very seas /are baptised” and blessed with gentle spirits. In comparison to such epiphanies the folly of humans becomes a mere inconvenience. 

#adventbookclub is using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here:

You can find the Advent Book Club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments.


Thoughts and images inspired by the poem Pilgrimages by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub

There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches.

The tides in Bardsey Sound/Swnt Enlli are notorious. Between Pen y Cil and the island of Bardsey, known as Ynys Enlli in Welsh, the seabed rises up. In places it breaches the water’s surface to form clusters of treacherous reefs, such as the black rocks of Carreg Ddu. During the tidal flood, water is forced through the sound, up and over the elevated seabed, so that the surface of the sea is higher to the east than to the west. In order to maintain equilibrium the water rushes through the sound, reaching speeds of up to eight knots and creating standing waves that can be several feet in height. Being caught up in this maelstrom in a small sixth century wooden boat would have been terrifying, no doubt. Thus Porth Neigwl became known in English as Hell’s Mouth.

As Vicar of St Hywyn’s Church, Aberdaron, this was a landscape, a seascape with which RST was very familiar, within which he saw the legacy of the twenty thousand saints who journeyed to Ynys Enlli and did not return. In the company of these saints RST undoubtedly saw himself as a twentieth century pilgrim making his journey across the post-Freudian seascape of the psyche, wherein he sought God. “Was the pilgrimage/ I made to come to my own/ self.” The narration of this journey in his poems defines RST as a twentieth century modernist, in the intertextual company of poets such as T S Eliot, W H Auden and Dylan Thomas. 

Although the poems of RST can sometimes seem dark and impenetrable, there is often a subtle wit to his choice of language. As Carys Walsh points out in her book Frequencies of God, the phrase “munching the gravel/of its beaches” from Pilgrimages is likely a reference to the book of Lamentations.

He has broken my teeth with gravel;
   he has trampled me in the dust.

Lamentations 3:16

But RST is also, no doubt with a cheeky wink, making reference to the following passage from Under Milk Wood written by his long-dead contemporary Dylan Thomas.

never such seas as any that swamped the decks of his S.S.
Kidwelly bellying over the bedclothes and jellyfish-slippery
sucking him down salt deep into the Davy dark where the fish
come biting out and nibble him down to his wishbone, and
the long drowned nuzzle up to him.

We have already seen reference to the imagery of this passage in the poem This to do. Imagery and themes are cyclical in RST’s poetry, as no doubt he experienced them in his exploration of God. In the second stanza of Pilgrimages RST contemplates again the idea of the timeless moment. 

There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock; the events
are dateless

This imagery once again calls to mind T S Eliot’s “history is a pattern of timeless moments.”

We know for sure that RST was familiar with Eliot’s works as he made reference to them in his personal letters. 

RST lived in the company of all the saints, and the poets, and saw himself as a fellow pilgrim in the journey towards God. What I see in the cyclical imagery of his poems is a growing awareness that the origin of the pilgrim’s journey is God and the destination is God. 

This phrase from Little Gidding is now quoted so often it has become a cliché, but for sake of completion, I quote it again.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Out of necessity life involves a physical journey. Undoubtedly, there are places we encounter along the way, suspended in place and time, such as Ynys Enlli, that are portals to an inner journey. But it is through this inner journey that we are ultimately reconciled to God. 

#adventbookclub is using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here:

You can find the Advent Book Club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments.

The Moor

Thoughts inspired by the poem The Moor by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub

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 the movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said, But 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.

Over the past fifteen years I’ve spent a fair bit of time walking across moorland, sometimes with fellow walkers, more often than not on my own.

In contrast to the craggy, ice scarred mountains and cwmoedd that define the drama of Snowdonia, open moorland is the predominant landscape of the gritstone uplands of the Pennine hills. The spine of Old England, as they were once known. It is a landscape with which I have become reacquainted as a result of recent travel restrictions, and the increasing restrictions of my ageing body. It is a landscape scarred not by ice but by the slash and burn practices of humans in their quest for the mineral wealth of the earth and their blood lust for the tragic little bird known as the grouse. There are no trees here where the watershed divides the ancient counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire as bloodshed once did. Nothing higher than the hearts of the sheep, as Sylvia Plath noted, where the wind pours by like destiny. 

There is something about open moorland that is conducive to communion with a consciousness that is both within and beyond ourselves. Perhaps it is the absence of form and colour. There are fewer distractions here for the conscious mind to latch onto. In bad weather, with visibility lost, wind and rain being the soul determinants of direction, the moor can take on the aspect of an isolation tank. Separating me from all the anchors I have attached to my fears.

This is the mind’s cession that RST speaks of. The ego letting go of it’s kingdom. It’s just me, simple and poor, and rude weather. Oh, how I yearn for that simplicity. 

#adventbookclub is using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here:

You can find the Advent Book Club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments.


Thoughts inspired by the poem Suddenly by R S Thomas. #adventbookclub

It’s a bright Sunday morning in late November and I drive up to Alderley Edge for a walk in the woods. I arrive at the little car park near Findlow Farm to find it already full. There’s no point in driving up to The Wizard. It will only be the same. Sunshine always brings out the families with their SUV’s, matching Hunter wellies and cross-breed dogs. 

I decide to make a try for the Bollin Valley, fully expecting things to be even busier there. And sure enough, as I come around the bend in front of St Bartholomew’s Church, I see vehicles queuing to access the car park. Nothing for it but to cut my losses and head for home.

And then I remember Quarry Bank Mill. The car park there has room for hundreds of cars. The mill will be closed, of course. Isn’t everything? But I can a slip past the turnstiles then head down to the old mill race and walk along the river back towards Wilmslow.

I’ve never seen so many people, but I’m not alarmed. I’m wearing a Buff, which I can discreetly pull up over my mouth and nose if they choose to come too close. And I have my new noise-cancelling headphones with me so I can block out the chatter. I’ve decided to go festive early. I’m listening to the Tori Amos Christmas album, Midwinter Graces

This is okay, I think to myself. I’d rather be up in the Peak District somewhere but the lockdown restrictions do not permit travel outside our own area. I don’t mind. I can walk to the Carrs, grab a coffee, walk back. That will be at least ten thousand steps.

I find myself standing beneath a sycamore tree, beside the river, watching the people pass by, and a verse from the bible springs to mind. “The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light.” That’s appropriate, I think. We’re all in darkness at the moment, even though the sun is shining. And then the words just start to come. The families are walking their dogs, the children are playing by the river, the elderly couple are holding hands, and I’m typing furiously with one finger on my phone.

By the time I reach Worms Hill I have the bones of the poem. Tori is singing about Jeanette & Isabella. They are bringing their torches to the nativity. Suddenly, emotions surge from within. Tears are streaming down my face. Heat floods my body. I see not with my eyes but with the whole of my being. There is Joy, Joy, Joy!

When such moments have passed I look back and wonder whether the surge of overwhelming emotion was some manifestation of an undiagnosed mental illness. The ecstatic phase of bipolar disorder, perhaps. But really, who cares? It’s only illness if it’s problematic. I cherish these experiences. They are mine. They serve a purpose. A message is transmitted and received. I am forgiven. I am loved. I am redeemed. And no-one and nothing can take that away from me. 

My cup overflows like the sea. 

#adventbookclub is using “Frequencies of God” by Carys Walsh and you can support the publisher by buying it here:
You can find the Advent Book Club on Twitter and Facebook, and you are welcome to join in with thoughts and comments. 

Frequencies of God

For some years now I have participated in an Advent Book Group located on social media. I have, in the past, found it helpful to reflect upon the meaning of the Christian season of Advent, as a way to reflect upon the year gone by and a time to review the path ones own life has taken. Advent is so often overshadowed by the commercial celebrations of Christmas, which now begin immediately following the American festival of Thanksgiving at the end of November. As far as the Church is concerned, officially, the season of Christmas does not begin until midnight on Christmas Eve, but as we all know, our culture’s aversion to delayed gratification means Christmas starts when multi-national corporations say it starts.

And so I see my participation in the little online book group as a form of rebellion against the leviathan of corporate capitalism. That said, I have just put up my Christmas tree on 1 December. Something which would have been unthinkable when I was a child.

This year the group is reading Frequencies of God by Carys Walsh, a collection of reflections on the work of the Welsh poet R S Thomas.

The poem for Week 1, Day 3 is In Church.

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silence. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

Here we have some powerful imagery from R S Thomas. Imagery with which I am familiar. There have been many times I have sat, alone, in country churches as the darkness thickens around me.

It’s a bit of a Boxing Day tradition for me to walk from Tegg’s Nose, through Macclesfield Forest, up to St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. By the time I have walked through the forest to the church it is often early afternoon, but at that time of year the darkness has already mustered on over the Pennine Hills to the west.

The following is from an article I wrote for the Great Outdoors magazine.

To the north I took refuge from the inclement weather inside one of the jewels of the western Peak District. As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate, the Forest Chapel, or Saint Stephen’s Church as it was consecrated, was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the generations who have eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century.

I sat for some time as rainwater from the stone-clad roof collected in the lead guttering and splish-splashed onto the paving outside, until ultimately the light in the chapel brightened and brief shafts of sunlight, at acute angles from the south transept windows, blessed the silent nave, and the rain stopped, like the silence that follows the prayers of four hundred years. 

Saint Stephen’s Church, Macclesfield Forest

A similar experience too place some years earlier in The Kirk of Saint Ternan, Arbuthnott, Laurencekirk. I had been walking in snow and ice the day before on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms; had fallen and twisted my knee quiet badly. Deciding to assign the next day to low-impact activities I paid a visit to the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre.

For those unfamiliar with LGG, he wrote Sunset Song, a novel set in the early twentieth century about the loss of tradition agricultural practice in rural Scotland. It is a short walk from the visitors centre to the kirkyard of St Ternan’s, where LGG is buried. At that latitude during the liminal week betwixt Christmas and New Year’s Eve the light begins to fade not long after lunch. Not a soul in sight I took refuge in the church and sat for sometime contemplating the wreckage of my life and the pain searing through my knee. Nailing my questions one by one to an untenanted cross.