A picture posted on Facebook by an old friend from L’Arche reminded me of the importance of special places that we can return to, whether physically, virtually or in the imagination.
It was the Zen garden at Orval, a Trappist monastery in Belgium where many L’Arche retreats took place. We were there a few times with our children when they were fairly young and I have a particular memory of them in that garden. Together with the children of our friends, the Kramers, they would jump onto and between the rocks, trying not to fall off and disturb the carefully arranged small stones. They would be hooting with laughter (hopefully not disturbing too much the people on silent retreat!). Some years later, our daughter was complaining during one meal-time that we never used to take them to France on holiday, “like EVERYONE else”. I pointed out that we took them to Belgium. “Yeah”, said our eldest, derisively, “to a monastery”!
During this time of Lockdown I have been making regular visits to some old and faithful sacred spaces and to one or two newly discovered ones as well. My early morning walk takes me through the woods on the way up to Kent University and they are filled now with bluebells. It’s one of the first places that Yim Soon and I took our first child Kieran in 1995 when he was about 10 weeks old. When I’m in those woods at this time of year, I can always picture carrying him in a baby sling through the bluebells. Another sacred space is the area outside my shed at the bottom of the garden, and now that the weather is a little warmer I sit there after the walk with a cup of tea, listening to the birds and watching the sun rise over the trees. I sit there as well in the late afternoon, with another cup of tea, and listen to the birds again and watch the sun start to go down.
I’m doing a lot of cycling in these days, and there’s one particular route that I never tire of. It takes me out of Canterbury via Clowes Wood and then on a long, straight stretch through Thornden Wood and West Blean Wood, and near the end of which is a bench where I always stop. It’s in memory of a lovely young woman called Alison who died in 1997. I knew her a little bit, also her mother Breege, who must still be going there regularly, since the flower pots around the bench are always well tended. I have a little sit on the bench and say a little prayer about anything that might be troubling me. I might do an extra section through East Blean Wood but either way, I end up eventually in Herne Bay and I go to the petrol station on the High Street and get my latte, which I then drink next to the pier, near the spot where I met a couple of weeks ago Sam McCallum, the Coventry City left-back. I continue along the coast to Whitstable, and have a quick stop when I reach the Hotel Continental to take in the view. I’ve drunk a lot of cups of tea there (occasionally something a little stronger), while sitting looking out over the beautiful bay towards the Isle of Sheppey, and, on a clear day, all the way to Southend on the other side of the Thames Estuary. The return to Canterbury is via the Crab and Winkle Line which was the route for many years of the final day of the annual L’Arche Kent pilgrimage, so loads of special memories both of that and of other walks and cycles.
Another sacred space for me currently which is both new and old is the Facebook Livestream of Taizé Evening Prayer. Taizé is an inter-denominational monastic community in the South of France which uses in its 3-time daily prayer short songs (‘Taizé chants) which are in different languages, in four parts, and sung over and over. It’s a very accessible and uplifting way to pray, and also, at the present time of social isolation, it’s touching to be in connection with people from all over the world. I go there religiously (pardon the pun) every evening at 7.30, and it even gets me out of the washing-up sometimes (“sorry, got to go to Taizé now”). Taizé is an incredibly special place for me. I’ve been there several times over the years, and Yim Soon and I have even been there with the children, so it’s not true that we never took them to France! And actually, one of the other times that we went was when Yim Soon was 5 months pregnant with Kieran, so he’s been there twice! (as well as his three trips to Belgium!)
Thank God for sacred spaces, especially at the current time. I’ll be sure to keep returning to them…