There are many paths to the top of the mountain. And many travellers on those paths. The only ones who do not reach their goal are those who run in circles telling everyone else they are on the wrong path.
I walked out this morning along the edge of the receding tide, wet sand gritty between my toes.
The sun was shining but the shifting air held a hint of winter, a certain coolness that wasn’t there last week. Autumn in the Highlands comes early.
The three resident boats bobbed at their moorings, settling gently into the sand as the water fell away beneath them.
The long haunting cry of the curlew hung on the air, above the squabbling whistles of the oystercatchers. Further along the shoreline, a group of black-tailed godwits sank their long beaks quickly into the sand, again & again, seeking salty morsels for breakfast.
Away across the water, the lighthouse glinted in the early morning sun, but behind it, clouds were gathering. The mountains on the horizon were shrouded with a mass of grey, & rain was falling over the bridge. I could see the cloud leaking out its cargo as it moved slowly down the water, towards me…
The dog was running, nose to the ground, following enticing scents across the sands, pausing now & then to ferret under a pile of seaweed. Her white tail wagged continually, a visible measure of her excitement.
We came back as the tide turned, and turned our thoughts to breakfast….
Joyce retired from teaching some 20 plus years ago, not to sit back and relax, but to come from her home in Lincolnshire to the Highlands, to a tiny village on the Black Isle, to help her friend to open a retreat house. Her friend had cancer and a limited time to live.
And so the Coachhouse was born. Together they planned it, decorated, furnished and loved it.
Her friend passed away and Joyce spent the next 20 years running it, living in and welcoming retreatants from March to October, returning to her Lincolnshire home over the winter, like a bird flying south…
She always reminded me of a bird, a bright-eyed robin. She was diminutive, quiet, unobtrusive. My lasting memory is of her pottering about in the Coachhouse kitchen, stirring pans on the Rayburn, washing dishes, taking a 5 minute break to do the crossword.
You would never guess from watching her what an incredible strong person she was. She guided so many through retreats, through personal dilemma, through tears and laughter.
I would not be here writing this were it not for Joyce. When I was suffering a prolonged and intense depressive illness, exacerbated by past issues, by the betrayal of those I thought were friends and by a total failure of the psychiatric services to help me, Joyce took me into the Coachhouse and cared for me with love and compassion.
She has been more a mother to me than my own ever was. I love her dearly and am devastated by news of her.
She retired last autumn, as the Coachhouse was closing for extensive building work and refurbishment. She felt the time was right to hand over to those who had worked alongside her to bring the dream to its present point.
She left as the autumn leaves were falling and the chill of the winter snow was there in the wind. I went to her farewell party, a gathering of those closest to her, many who were grateful for her dedicated help over the years.
I managed to persuade her to have a photograph taken with me – she hated being photographed but she agreed on this one occasion!
As she left, she hugged me tightly, told me how much I meant to her, How glad she was that I was in such a good place now. She would be back for trustee meetings, she said, and for the reopening of the Coachhouse in July. She hoped we could meet then.
She was 84 years old. And had spent her entire retirement working for the good of others.
This past week, I had a message to let me know that she has cancer, an aggressive form that is not treatable, and that she has only a few weeks to live. Her family are caring for her. She has indicated that she would like to receive emails from those who know her, that her daughter will read out to her. I want to write but I do not know what to say.
I write this as a testament to the strongest, kindest, gentlest & most awesome woman I have ever met.
Joyce, I am holding you in prayer and in my heart. I pray that your life’s ending will be peaceful and pain free, and that you will continue on your journey beyond this world.
For me, you will forever be in the kitchen at the Coachhouse, in the garden that you loved, walking the lanes around Kilmuir, moving through the house quietly making sure that everything was in order and holding the wonderful silence you have created.
I will miss you. I will grieve for you. I will continue on my path, knowing that I know myself more fully through your ministry.
Go in peace, Joyce, to love and serve the Lord.
Easter Sunday. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia.
The long days of Lent are over; we have fasted, given up wine or chocolate, we have waved our palm crosses, heard the crowds shout Hosanna; heard those shouts change to Crucify Him!
We have walked or stumbled or wallowed our way through Holy Week….
Maundy Thursday with its ritualistic washing of feet, the stripping of the altar, the removal from church of the Holy Sacrament…
Good Friday, the hours of waiting, the church feeling abandoned: Jesus is not there….
Through Saturday & then, waking on this day, walking into church to find it bedecked in white with the flowers of Spring blooming on every surface.
The bright morning after the dark night; feeling well after a long illness; hope after despair; life after death….
He is Risen. He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.
Easter is the earliest it can be this year. And so, as soon as Candlemas was over, Ash Wednesday arrived….
And Lent is upon us, bringing the usual question: “what are you giving up for Lent this year?”
I have done my share of giving things up for Lent, some more successfully than others.
There was the year I gave up butter, eggs & milk. And my husband nobly said he would do the same. All there is to be said is never again!
And the year we gave up tea & coffee – and suffered migraine-like headaches & cramps for the first two weeks.
In recent years, I have stopped giving things up & have instead taken something on….
One year, I committed to reading the Bible – all of it. That didn’t quite work out.
More successfully, I agreed to do several hours gardening each week at a local retreat house. They benefitted from tidy borders & I found spending several hours in their lovely peaceful garden most conducive to quiet meditation.
Last year, to the great amusement of my non-church friends, I gave up church for Lent…
It started as a bit of a joke but the idea had a strange attraction. I did go to one or two services, when I was the altar server, and Palm Sunday & the Chrism Mass – but for the rest, I stayed home & spent time in prayer.
I found it a remarkably liberating experience. And, on pondering why that should be, I have decided that I do not care much for Lent.
I do not at all mind having seasons where reflection, quietness, amendment of life & waiting are prominent. Indeed one cannot celebrate all the time…
But I do not like the emphasis that the church seems to place on sin & guilt & shame. I do not like being told that I am “a miserable offender” & “not worthy to be called a child of God”.
I do not like the dirgy hymns or the sombre atmosphere; the bare church or that preoccupation with sin.
So much so that this year I am giving up….well, Lent actually…
At least, I am not keeping it in the church’s way.
It is right that we should remember our Lord’s journey to the cross. But we know the end and new beginning of the story…and so, we can follow in his footsteps knowing that we are indeed children of God, that we have been saved by his blood, that we are forgiven and loved – and we can celebrate that (but quietly, deeply & reflectively).
And that is what I will be doing over the next few weeks, spending time alone & silently, but not miserably….
So here we are, nearly a week into the New Year. I am choosing, just for a moment, to look back, to Christmas, and further, to Advent. Already it seems like a lifetime ago.
Last year, I kept Advent. I did not set out to do that but, as the season progressed, I realised that Christmas had not registered for me, had not begun to impinge on the expectancy of Advent. Three weeks in and, apart from a brief outing to buy presents, I remained impervious to Christmas. Not impervious to the expectancy but to the commercialism, the endless trumpeting about how many days are left to shop, to cram our baskets full of things we do not need and, in so doing, obscure the true meaning of the season.
The advertising that my friends, particularly those with children, complained about passed me by. I suppose it helps that I do not watch television and am not a recreational shopper!
So, for me, no angels, no tinsel, no tree, no nativity scenes, no carols….
After four weeks of quiet expectancy, of looking forward to a birth, of pondering on the lives of the patriarchs, the words of the prophets, the messages of the angels and the acceptance by Mary of God’s task for her, suddenly it was here! All in a flurry of glitter and tinsel, sparkling lights and mysterious packages; the glow of candlelight on the white of the altar linen, the lights sparkling and dancing, the ruby red wine and piled wafers speaking of life in abundance, the peal of bells and the solemn joyfulness of the organ, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the newborn King…
Christmas was come, not in November, not during the weeks of Advent, but at midnight as Christmas Eve became Christmas Day and unto us is born a boy….
To everything its season, for everything its time. A time to wait,a time to listen, a time for joy, a time to be born…
Advent first, then Christmas Day and then the twelve days; the excitement of the birth followed by another time of waiting, for the wise men at Epiphany.
By which time, the old year has gone, the new year has begun and we can look back on a season lived and look forward in joy and hope.
Today I went to help someone pack ready for moving. The place was, to put it mildly, a mess.
Clothes lay in sprawling piles in the bedroom. Ornaments, crockery & toiletries jostled for space with piles of old newspapers, letters, books & shoes.
Chaos. Where to begin?
In the end, we began at the beginning, picking up one item at a time, folding , packing…picking, folding, packing…
As we packed, I began to notice things – a shoe rack, still in its unopened box; a set of shelves on a shelf; a metal filing box, unused; two free-standing clothes rails, again unopened, unused.
While we stood knee deep in crumpled clothing.
It seemed to me that all this external chaos mirrored the inner chaos of its owner’s life. Decent, good things buried alongside litter, trash, detritus….and the means with which to conquer the chaos close at hand.
Shelves, cabinets, racks, all ready to control the external chaos, to order it, bring it into line.
Intelligence, prayer, support & knowledge all ready to do the same with the internal chaos.
Yet there was lacking the will, the ability to own the mess, wanting instead to pass it off onto someone else.
Our inner environment demands to be seen. If we will not look at it, it reflects in our external environment, clear for all the world to see…..