A Letter from Bewcastle – October 2023

Dear Friends,

Each morning before breakfast, whatever the weather, I go out for a walk, taking the dog, and often my binoculars. Its when I offer my Morning Prayer, using ancient prayers of the Hebrew people and the Church, and then pray for all of you, as parishioners, some by name, depending on circumstance, others more generally.

But half way through the walk I stop and be still for 10-15 minutes, just listening and watching the world around me. I look at the sky to notice the clouds, their shapes, their types, whether cirrus, cumulus, stratus, lenticular and so on, and their direction of travel. But also to appreciate their ever-shifting beauty. I listen to the sounds, of sheep bleating, cattle lowing, an occasional quad bike or tractor in the distance, but more interestingly, to which birds I can hear. It’s a deliberate act to listen, to become aware of what’s going on around me; to hear a robin in that tree, a wren tutting in that bush, a chiff-chaff in those woods that hasn’t left for southern Africa yet, a blackbird as it starts from under a hedge and flies, low-level, across the path to the hedge on the other side. All this life going on around, an entire existence for all these wild creatures, completely independent of “the state of the British economy”, or whatever other such worry that’s currently making the headlines.

And oftentimes there will be a special moment. It may be the glance of a roe deer in my direction, or watching a pair of hares chasing each other for a few seconds and then washing themselves. The other day it was the sound, and then the sight, of a pair of lapwings in the field next to me, that I haven’t seen all year. Sometimes it might be a flock of goldfinches twittering and flitting just along the lane. Once it was a tawny owl watching me watching it for at least two minutes, 20 metres away on a post in the woods. Whatever it is, it’s a moment of unexpected serendipity, joyful surprise. In that moment I take delight as it fills me with wonder and lifts my spirit. I see it as ‘my gift from God’ for the day. And so, I close my eyes, let it soak in, and say ‘thank you’ to God for the gift of that moment. It is like drinking from a cool, clear spring on a hot, dusty day, for my soul.

The natural world is so full of wonder, ‘charged’, as it is, ‘with the grandeur of God’, to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ majestic phrase. And we know so little about it. What, for example, are the swallows chattering to each other about as they sit in rows on the telegraph wire? Sometimes there’s only one swallow, and she sits alone chattering away. Is she talking to me? But I’m too ignorant to understand what she’s saying. Then again, she chatters even when I’m out of sight, so to whom is she talking then? Same for that starling. He just sits atop the pole wheezing, clicking, and whistling with no one to hear him but me. To whom is he talking? Not another starling in sight. Is he just too stupid to realise, or is it just ‘instinct’ and he can’t help it? Or is he talking to the other birds around? To the swallows, perhaps? Or the wren in the bush below? Do the creatures communicate with each other in ways about which we know nothing?

Even domesticated animals that we live with every day, cattle, sheep, horses, dogs, cats have such subtle means of perception and communication about which we are almost entirely ignorant. We know they establish unique relationships and friendships with each other, even across species. But how, for example, do these animals ‘name’ each other in their brains? We think in words. How do they ‘think’ about each other?

There was an article in the Guardian recently about a fellow called Tim Birkhead who has spent the last 52 summers on the vertical cliffs of Skomer Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales, observing the behaviour of guillemots. After all this watching and examining, there probably isn’t anyone in the world who knows as much about these seabirds as him. And yet he was astonished when, in a homemade hide just a metre away from a bird incubating an egg, he heard it begin its greeting call. He scoured the horizon with his binoculars before picking up a tiny speck in the air almost 1km away. He watched, until it landed by this bird that had been calling. It had recognised its mate, where he saw just a speck.

This earth isn’t ours. We are merely a part of a mysterious, extraordinary, deeply complex and interwoven whole, about most of which it appears we have very little understanding. We need to be so careful about our attitudes towards this world of creatures, especially when we introduce that most toxic element into our thinking, money. For some reason that, above all else, has the power to drive an existential chasm between us and the rest of creation, almost requiring us to consider ourselves apart from, and superior to, the whole. No wonder Jesus said you cannot serve both God and money.

Stillness, listening, becoming aware of the world around. And thanksgiving to God for the gift of sharing life and wonder with ALL other beings. This is the call of Christ.

Your friend and priest,

Robert

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