Pilgrim at Kinnoull

“I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from no place rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loosen: I walk on my way.”
— Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

The scarf presses on my shoulders. The scroll intones my duties and responsibilities. No longer ‘in formation’ but the timetable requires final attendance at summer school with the ordinands and lay readers in training at Kinnoull. We begin the week with a silent retreat except that it has been structured around a pattern of worship, compline on Sunday night, morning prayer, midday prayer followed by Eucharist, evening prayer and then compline. A bit like a stained glass window. Sacred spaces held fast like the jewels of a medieval window. What best to do? How best to spend my time?

I try reading a worthy book on moral philosophy in the context of climate change but my eyes soon become tired and I drop off to sleep. I try listening to sacred music. Then, reflecting on the advice the retreat director has given, opening my eyes to St Benedict in a way I haven’t experienced before, I think about developing up a Rule of Life. In the ‘groves of academe’ I had felt an antipathy toward St Benedict, as a result of a too selective choice of literature, preferring the ecological spirituality of St Francis, a rich vein to be plundered for my dissertation. Oh for shame! Now St Benedict is appealing for more sympathetic attention and, remembering what I have just heard about balance and not getting too ‘prissy’ in the silent retreat, I take my binoculars and decide to go birdwatching.

Birdwatching in July! When the birds are silent, the parent birds exhausted and skulking, the fledglings moulting. Madness! I decide instead to go the usual path up to the viewpoint. As I set off I quickly discover obstacles in my path. Climbing over another dead tree, victim of a recent gale, I find this woodland labyrinth increasingly troublesome and turn back. Just as I am about abandon the project, a faint route signposts a tangential opportunity for quiet reflection. A small mound of smoothed rocks, moss and grass. I sit here and wait for God to reveal herself in her Creation. Like John Muir, nature is often my cathedral.

The usual woodland birds seem reassured that my presence is not a threat. Blackbirds, wood-pigeon, robin, wren, a family of blue tits, and then treecreeper, woodpecker and, circling above, the mewing of a buzzard, probably a juvenile. The dappled shade is infused with a deep sense of peace.

A wind from no place rises. Warm, sensuous, calming. And like Annie Dillard I feel the bonds of my existence fall away. A sense of the real exalts me. Invisible, yet very present. Caught in this precious moment of time, the bonds of unpleasant memories become gossamer threads and I brush them away. But then…a disturbance…I catch the glimpse of an approaching figure. The reverie ends. I am unsettled by I a new sense of purpose. I get to my feet. Something has changed. I have changed. The leaves beneath my feet sound like shibboleths being shredded and I return to the monastery by a different path.

Coming up the stairs I meet our retreat director, and ask if we can discuss how I to go about finding a spiritual director. A spiritual director!! The one thing that in all my meetings with my training ‘minders’ I had resisted doing anything about. We arrange to meet in half an hour. I eat my buttered currant loaf, drink a mug of tea. Ready for a new journey. A new path. Three months later I am now on the train home from Auld Reekie. I’ve got a soul friend and we have agreed to meet again.

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