I find it hard to calm down, to relax. To chill out. If there’s work to do, I find it nigh impossible to forget that it is there, and do anything else, until it is finished. The problem with this philosophy in academia is that there is always work to be done: you are never finished.
My mind is ever busy, turning over the next problem to be solved, worrying, stressing. Over the past few months, migraines have set in; my head, paralysed by the pain, is forced to look away from the computer screen, seek darkness, until it passes. But it is the end of term, and I am going to East church, a converted church-house, to see a good friend for a few days, amidst the countryside of South West Scotland.
As the train sped through the hills of Cumbria, ever further North,I tried hard to concentrate on the novel I was reading, but could not. I was worrying: the train was delayed. I had no internet signal. I can’t stand the thought of keeping people waiting. It is me who should wait for them. I’m not sure why I feel it should be that way round. I just do.
Worrying is futile. The message got through. I was warmly welcomed. All was well. All was well before I ever set foot in East Church. As I stepped into the old sanctary, the wooden floorboards sighed under my footfall, and evening sunlight rays caught the freshly disturbed dust of a once-abandoned building now joyfully nursing new life. My fragile sense of Peace, of home, was magnified. I breathed in the atmosphere of a home holding wide open in front of me, the welcome and the presence of God.
I breathed, and settled into the rhythm of life. I watched the ewes out in the fields, tending their lambs; the still waters of the lake from which they drank, all visible from the church windows. The church invited slowness, stillness, calm. I coloured. Industriously, studiously, at first, then more calmly, more at ease with the quiet solitude surrounding me. At mealtimes, I felt free to talk, or to enjoy the silence, to listen to those around me.
Believing I could relax, be me, I tried the keyboard. My right hand unfurled easily. And I picked up a Taize chant.Stay with me. Simple enough, in F, easy dyads for the bass clef. For the first time since I was in my early twenties, while I was staying in East church, I worked away with the music, until I was satisfied with it, the dog curled up at my feet, asleep. The first piece of religious music I have been able to play with more than one hand.
Out in the Scottish countryside, in the Lowther Hills, was a different sense of God. Not the Peace or quiet of East church, but the rugged reality of nature. Of wind that sought to make its presence known. Here, even in walking boots, I could not readily cover the ground, fell over, mud. This was far from easy. I checked my jealousy at the ease with which the sheep surrounding me, and the dog under my heels, were at home on this rough terrain. But still, God was there. God was there in the patience of my friend, happy to wait, to point out our surroundings. In the hand that he offered to help me negotiate the rougher patches. In the reminder, that we are to wait for our hinds’ feet. In the majesty of the hills, the heather, the brook, wending its way down the valley. And in the faithfulness of the dog at our feet, rounding us up, ensuring our presence, expressing simple joy in the moment he was experiencing, that I could sense, but not put into words: surely goodness and mercy shall folow me all the days of my life. Psalm 23 is on my lips, in my mind, running right through me, and around me.
Back in the dry shelter of East church, I feel incredibly grateful for this experience. The experience of being wanted and loved, of belonging to God. For the calm and for space to be. For shared silence, solitude and company. For the realization that there are good things out there to be enjoyed, and that I may enjoy them.