From quiet homes and first beginning,
out to the undiscovered ends,
there’s nothing worth the wear of winning,
but laughter and the love of friendsHilaire Belloc
One of things about retiring is that it tends to invite something which life’s busy routine denies – that is reflection.
The last eighteen months have been traumatic for so many in so many ways, that it seems almost callous to suggest that it might have had any benefits, but from my own personal point of view it has aided that process of reflection. When the first “lockdown” commenced in March 2020 it meant that after four years of living away from home for at least half the year, I was confined, as it were to barracks. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology and Zoom, it was possible to continue doing my job for St Mary’s from my own study at home. The loss of that “laughter and the love of friends” was a downside, as was not seeing the students and our beautiful campus at Strawberry Hill. I also missed my walks down the Thames path to Richmond and back to Teddington. If there is an occupational hazard to being a bibliophile academic, in my case it is the tendency to sit down and read books for as long as anyone will leave me undisturbed. When one’s children are younger that tendecy is held in check; mine flew the nest some years back. The Thames Path walks were a way of taking a bit of exercise. So I thought I’d do it while cribb’d, cabin’d and confin’d (to an hour a day).
I began to take what I called #norfolkexercise walks. Here in the far south of Norfolk that turned out to consist of a rich network of ancient footpaths, some of which the local farmers had actually left in a walkable condition. The timings were dictated by the demands of my timetable, but the weekends provided opportunties for a really long walk. I quickly found, as those familiar with my Twitter feed will confirm, that my steps tended toward the Church pictured above – St Mary’s, Redenhall. The tower is quite spectacular, built by the powerful de la Pole family in the fifteenth century as an example of their wealth, it is a local landmark much beloved, I am told, by pilots; it is a thing of beauty.
One of the things about long walks is that it gives one time to reflect – and pray. For the first part of every walk I pray my daily Rosary, which gets me in the right frame of mind to contemplate what I see all around me, which is the wonder of the created world. Psalm 8 came frequently to mind:
4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
6 Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:
What indeed? As the Pandemic reminded all of us of the fragility of human life and our powerlessness, the Churches decided, for perfectly obvious reasons, to close their doors. We were soon able to discover the wonder of Zoom church, and watch on-line services all over the world if we had access to a computer and the internet. But we were deprived of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The Communion of fellowship was gone, and with it the Blessed Eucharist. It was a fast which went way beyond Lent and which drove me, at least, further into the resources of prayer. I had long before adopted the practice of praying the Offices of the Church at the week-end, and I extended this into a daily routine. Anyone getting the message I like my routines will be reading me aright. But without them, at such times, I wonder how I should have managed?
It has been an interesting discipline. The easy habits are to pray when one is joyful or sorrowful, happiness and sorrow tend to remind me of God. The daily routine has been interesting. There have been times when press of business – the ever-demanding Zoom – has made it hard to find the time. There have been times when the “mood” does not seem right. Yet this is, I have discovered, the whole point of regular daily prayer. It has ceased to be about “me” and has become about “Him”. I have found in that both a discipline and a liberation. However I “felt” when I started, I have always felt better when I finished. It has been similar with the walking and the Rosary. I have surprised myself at the extent to which it is possible to pray mindfully while walking. One falls into a rythmn, and it becomes as natural as breathing.
That “destiny” of which Newman spoke, and to which I referred in my last post, may be known only to God, but increasingly I have come to realise that Cavafy had the right of it in his great poem, Ithaka when he concluded that it was the journey, and not the destination which mattered:
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
And yes, as Ithaka approaches, Cavafy was right. The ends, in this world, may remain undiscovered, but it is the journey, and what it adds to what you brought to it that matters.