One of the most amazing places I have ever been to lies a few miles off the west coast of Ireland. It’s a tiny cluster of three islands which rise abruptly out of the Atlantic ocean about 12 Kilometres off the coast. The place is called Skellig Michael – the tallest of the rocks. Skellig means splinter of stone, and it was called Michael after the arch-angel, just like Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Mont Saint Michel in France. For hundreds of years this remote and rugged island was home to Celtic monks who established a monastery there in the 6 th Century. To climb the steep stone steps cut into the rock and find yourself standing among perfectly preserved bee-hive huts made out of slate like stone with no mortar felt like being transported hundreds of years back in time. As a sacred site and place of prayer it seemed saturated in solitude, so far from the noise of traffic or the rush and nervous hast of modern life. It seemed to call forth prayer within me.
As I write this I am reminded of an experience I had as a teenager while on holiday with my family in Westernport Bay. The experience was of profound solitude while sitting alone for hours warmly rugged up in the sand dunes overlooking Bass Strait, watching the sea. I was not consciously praying. I was not trying to contact God, but that’s just what happened. It wasn’t as though everything was calm either – the wind was whipping up the waves and the sea birds were calling out to each other – but in the time I was there it was as though a stillness filled my whole being just as the bracing wind filled my lungs, and I knew a deep sense of peace. Many years later when I lived on the Island of Iona in Scotland that experience of peace was given words in a Celtic Blessing.
Deep peace of the running wave to you,
Deep peace of the flowing air to you,
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,
Deep peace of the shining stars to you,
Deep peace of the Son of peace to you.
I write these things at a time when we are in lockdown, and I hear about the lack of peace that many are experiencing. A friend of mine runs an engineering factory and employs staff but the machinery is quiet because there is no work, and that leaves him un-quiet and troubled wanting to hold onto staff and care for them in uncertain times. Many are angry about the loss of liberty, some refusing to believe the science and resorting to conspiracy theories, and others are angry at those who flout the lockdown and don’t wear masks or abide by the rules and so ruin everything for the rest of us. Still others want to celebrate anniversaries, weddings, baptisms or gather for funerals as we used to, surrounded by those we love and supported by their presence, and feel thwarted, frustrated, depressed, or just simply sad. We want to see and be with our families, to re-connect with our friends not just on zoom but in person. Those shared moments we have in real rather than virtual space are precious and keep us human. In times like these we need to be kind to each other and to ourselves.
Sometimes it can be helpful to re-frame how we see the world and our lives within it. Instead of focusing on our lack of freedoms, take the opportunity where you can to contact those who come into your mind and reach out to them by phone or some other media. The Christian life has often been referred to as a journey or adventure which we are on for the long haul. It’s not a quick sprint but more like a marathon on which we need the resilience of the long distance runner. One of the great resources we have are the psalms, those wonderful poetic prayers that give voice to every human emotion.
Remembering even just one line can help like, ‘I sought the Lord and he answered me, from all my terrors he set me free.’
‘Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever.’
But also remembering and relishing those moments of joy and wholeness in our lives can help us find some perspective as we negotiate this lockdown.
As one gospel singer once wrote, ‘Go back to the place where you first believed,’ and remember that God holds onto us. As the Psalmist says, ‘My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast’.