Tag Archives: Annie Dillard

At the end of the rainbow

Nov-embering Mull. This was meant to be a silent retreat (sort of) to quieten the thoughts that had been pummelling my brain recently, the interior soap opera that Martin Laird talks about [Into the Silent Land, OUP, p.15]. It was not a good beginning. A nightmarish journey from the ferry to my cottage at the other end of the island on the back of a single track road. In the pitch black. Torrents of raindrops glaring back at me in the headlights. A slippery, tarmac switchback road, rising, rising until, for a moment, I thought that I had been carried by a Valkyrie from the battlefield to Valhalla. Instead I found myself deposited outside a former blackhouse at Haunn. I stepped into the….. dark, dark night of the soul.

The next day was all sunshine and smiles. Sheep safely grazing in the garden. A hawk [buteo buteo] rising over the hill, mobbed by some ‘hoodies’ [corvus corone corvix]. My cottage was one of three built by fishing families, who would have used the natural harbour at Port Haunn. I descended the cliffs, now smoothed by the relentless battering of the Atlantic Ocean. Little sign of human presence save for the flotsam of ships’ detritus on the shore. Looking out over to the horizon to the flattened Treshnish Islands, just a few miles out to sea spoke of a creative edge of fragility. A fragment of the original chaos, elements of liminality, permeable and calming. The surrounding cliff sent out a frisson of fear. Not in the sense of terror, but the experience of wonder and awe and the indifference of the wilderness to human safety.

I walked along the raised beach, along a footpath that took me round the headland for about one and a half miles.  I stopped to take every opportunity to explore the beach, keen to find the infamous Whisky Cave, the site of an illicit still. A glance over my shoulder reassured me that I was not alone. A rainbow had risen out of the grey sea and arced over the headland. However, several, more anxious glances later, as I continued my heroic scramble, revealed that the rainbow was following me. Just above the infamous cave the track came to an abrupt halt as the cliffs ran sheer down to the sea. It was high tide so there was little point going down to the cave and along the shore.  I turned to go back the way I came. The shock of being confronted by the rainbow, much closer now, had me scrabbling down the hill and jumping the stream back to the flat headland.

The OS map revealed this to be the site of a ruined chapel so I dug out the guidebook from my day-bag. It spoke of possible mediaeval chapel ruins, and perhaps a burial ground, but little else was known. To my mind’s eye it was just a pile of stones. But to my heart’s ‘eye,’ I had a strong liminal sense of ʻplaceʼ and my ʻplace in the worldʼ which intimately connected me with my journey so far. Somehow this seemed just as important spiritually as my arrival at this sacred space. I became sensitised to Godʼs presence and said the Daily Office using the Universalis ‘app.’   A God particle on my iPhone. “How lovely is your dwelling place,  O Lord of hosts!” [Psalm 84.1] In this silent contemplation I left behind my connections with the world. The words on the faux parchment of the app echoed around the stones and reconnected me to my mainland sadness but also led me out of it. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,  to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways  and that we may walk in his paths.” The Canticle from Isaiah 2.3.

I walked on. A wood on the hill and a waterfall signposted the way, so I set off following a steep path up the valley. At the brow of the hill soft breeze brushed my perspiring face and Annie Dillard’s words came to mind, “A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.” [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Pan Books, p.213]. The ruined crofting villages of Crackaig and Glac Gugairidh lay beyond.  They wanted to tell me their sad story.  Unusually, not the highland clearances this time, but of how they had been abandoned after a deadly outbreak of typhoid. And I wanted to listen.

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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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