With elderly poise and grace, my four-legged friend slowly makes her way along the pathway to a favourite patch of grass. Minx and I have been together for fifteen years. So many adventures we have enjoyed. Days of climbing mountains, chasing rabbits and catching sticks now belong to her dreams.
It is summertime as we sit at the water's edge. She loves the sights and sounds and smells of her world. Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of each other. Our time together so precious.
It's a warm day. A day to do nothing except think or not think. Little boats with assorted generations of family on board, putt out of the harbour. Children in swimsuits play tag on the beach and tuck into fruit salad and jelly afterwards. Seagulls hover overhead, waiting for a piece of pineapple to come their way.
Dreams and memories add to this salty reverie. I'm five years old again, on the beach at Blackpool in Lancashire, with my younger brother, Mark. We are wearing our new inflatable swim rings. Mark's ring has a horse's head, mine is a swan. The Irish Sea is always cold. Small guardians of the future do not worry about such things. Mum and Dad gently pull us into less shallow water, not letting go until, screeching with fearful delight, we insist on freedom. Afterwards, we head to the ice-cream parlour for banana splits all round. To children belongs the Kingdom of God.
All this reminiscing comes to an end when two men in gumboots, argue furiously on the quayside over their catch of fish and I hear the gunshots of a pig hunter in the valley. Contemplative spirituality has to engage with the world.
With her twilight perception, Minx has gifted me the wisdom that times of stillness and refreshment are vital to wholeness. Intense movement, busyness, work, justification of self, through the doing of deeds are endemic these days, not least in the Church. Many clergy, from Archbishops down, earnestly go about the business of religion attending endless meetings, compulsory personal development courses, supervision sessions, yearly reviews and formulating still more desperate strategies for mission. Yet what significant time is given to the heart of vocation - presence - sharing the sights and sounds and smells of other people's worlds and being refreshed in mind, body and spirit?
The clergy of Jane Austen's time were not known to work onerously. As the daughter and sister of clergymen, Jane always included at least one vicar in her novels. Taking tea with parishioners was a most regular occurrence for them, as was reading in the study and if they were single, wooing a fair maiden. Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey was noticeably absent from his parish for much of the year, retreating to the town of Bath. His lack of commitment would surely be questioned these days, yet he saw the world quite poetically and spiritually, '… I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.' For all his flaws, Henry Tilney took time to see the subtlest of things.
Is it possible to find a still and quiet place in our hearts and lives?
At the heart of Vaughan Park is the Ruatara Chapel. Three times a day, the community gathers there to mark the hours of the day, to pray for justice, peace and the integrity of creation and to value the ordinary as sacred. As most of us are rarely in a place where we stand and in the time that is now, this living of the canonical hours is a vital resource.
The Book of Hours, popular in the medieval period, was originally written by monks who contemplated the nature of God in quietness, sometimes isolation. It contained prayers for specific hours of the day, days of the week, months and seasons, with illustrations to help the reader contemplate and meditate. It was read by all kinds of people from every strata of society, often carried in pocket or bag. The Liturgy of the Hours, The Daily Office, The Divine Services all originate from this early source of wisdom.
Wisdom, I think, is a deeper way of knowing and living in rhythm with our souls, life and the Divine. It is about learning to balance the known with the unknown and linking the whole of life to a deeper Unity. Jesus withdrew to quiet places, in mind, body and spirit. He considered it wise.
The Christian Church reminds us in early February of the story in St. Luke's gospel about the elderly priest and prophetess, Simeon and Anna. They waited many faithful years to bless the Christ Child and sensed the sacredness of the moment when he came before them. With the wisdom of age and the daily prayers of a lifetime, they saw God in Jesus and knew him to be the Light of the World.
At Candlemas and at any other time, come to think of it, we light candles in response to Love, praying and believing that Light will shine where wars rage, hate burns, fresh water is but a dream, land is stolen and pillaged. We also pray that the Light will continue to shine in the lives of people who honour love, justice, truth, peace and hope. The Church, for all its flaws and in its goodness, still seeks the Light.
Minx is resting at my feet as I write these words. Perhaps she is dreaming of a time when she swam in the river or when she licked away the tears from my face on the night Dad died. I gaze out at our garden. The boughs of the gnarled pear tree, planted some eighty years ago, are laden with fruit.
©Hilary Oxford Smith
Image Children sitting on wall at the seaside, by the artist, Marilyn Spence, www.marilynspence.co.uk