We're in southern Italy, in a breezy villa a short walk from the beach. The beach, embracing a wide expanse of blue-green sea, stretches the 3 km between the tiny seaside village of San Marco and the larger coastal town of Santa Marie. Perched directly above us is the historic village of Castellbate, clinging to the mountainside. It's quintessential Italy, at least the Italy I've imagined all my life.
These next 2 weeks are the holiday part of my sabbatical. I've put aside my writing for 16 days to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, foods, and sun of Italy and France.
And I love it all – with one exception: the driving. Or, more to the point, the drivers. I have witnessed – up close and personal – some of the most insane, dangerous, and aggressive drivers I've ever seen (and I've been to Thailand, India, Argentina, Bolivia, Kenya – you get the idea: I'm no stranger to madcap drivers). Yesterday, a crazed Italian tried several times to force me off the road for the offense of driving too slow – and I was doing 10km over the limit, just to try to get him off my tail. He was driving a new SUV Volvo – maybe a hundred grand vehicle – but was willing to smash it up, it seemed, just to make a point. What's more, after he got by me, he kept pulling over to the side so that I would pass him and he could repeat his reckless antics. I was feeling my inner Hulk awakening.
Wales has slowed me down. I have come to savor taking my time. And now Italy's roads want to force me back into my pattern of rushing. I am resisting with everything in me, but it is unnerving to be in a place where it's actually dangerous to drive the speed limit: you risk, literally, being run down.
And the guy in the Volvo was not even running late – his road warrior antics must have delayed him 10 minutes. That's the thing about being in a hurry: it's usually, literally, pointless. It's a soul condition, not a condition of lateness.
Just before my encounter with the Highway madman, we were having dinner in the picturesque city of Sorrento after an unforgettable day on the Island of Capri. I was thinking about the 3 hour drive home, and was anxious to get going, so asked the waiter for the bill even before my daughters were finished their meal.
"My friend," he said. "Slow down. You're on holiday. Relax."
Great advice. I just wish it applied to the roads here. In that at least, while in Rome I plan not to do as the Romans.
My new friend Tony – ethnically Chinese, culturally Welsh – has managed what I thought no man could: lured me back into the game of golf.
It's a hateful game. A soul-wrecking, aggravation-stirring time-waster. It plays to all our basest instincts: pride, delusion, anger, pettiness, rivalry. That a fellow Scotsman first concocted this awful sport and inflicted it on the world is to my everlasting shame. The idea of spending several hours snookering a ball around a booby-trapped field is inherently absurd: to call it fun, and pay exorbitant amounts to engage it, hare-brained.
There. I got that off my chest.
It didn't help that I was mentored in the game by a father who fumbled away at it his whole life but, maybe to compensate, was a stickler for the rules. So I know that you don't touch the head of the wedge to the sand before hitting the ball out of a trap, but never managed to hit it well anyhow. I know that even to nudge the ball before laying into it is counted as a stroke, but rarely make the shot count all the same. I know all the intricate arcane rules of putting – there are dozens – and still can't putt.
I'd given the game up years ago. When anyone asked if I'd like to play, I'd politely decline. In my head I reckoned it would be cheaper, faster, and provide roughly the same sensation to just to buy a box of straight pins and stick them in my arm.
Then Tony – he who cooks like an angel, he who regales me with stories of God's astonishing healing power, he who, along with his wife Marian, has embraced us bedraggled displaced Canadians like we're long-lost relatives – asked me to go golfing. Tony loves golf, and I love Tony, and besides, I have a lot of time on my hands these days. So I said yes.
And I like it.
I still play like a fool. I still torture the ball, just never into submission. I still can't drive, can't chip, can't putt. I still hear my father's pedantic lectures and stern rebukes every time I break the rules, which is pretty much constantly. But darn if it ain't fun.
Well, there's Tony to liven things up. And there's Hades, not once but twice, to get the adrenaline pumping.
Hades I and Hades II is what Tony calls hole 6 and hole 8 on The Cliffs, a par-3, 9-hole course in Gwbert, just north of Cardigan Bay. Both holes involve treacherous shots across wide chasms over churning water. But that only begins the test. Both holes have greens – especially Hades I – that sit on a narrow plate of earth: undershoot, overshoot, shoot to far to the right, and your ball is gone, swallowed in outer darkness.
I would happily play those two holes, over and over, all day. I would, of course, go through a mountain of balls (on Wednesday, Tony and I together lost about a dozen). But there's something compelling about matching your wit and skill, modest as these things are in my case, against the abyss. It is grievous pain to lose at it. But it is joy unspeakable when you win. One good shot over Hades is worth a thousand brilliant ones elsewhere.
Surely God is speaking through such things.
A few weeks ago, I wrote on Thin Places. My wife Cheryl has now written on that theme, and says it better and with richer insight than me. So I'm posting her thoughts here. Enjoy.
Early Celtic Christians recognized “thin places,” places where the veil between heaven and earth is very sheer, or tissue paper thin. Places where prayers were easily uttered, and perceptibly heard. But even before Christianity came to the Celt’s, there was recognition of these places as well as thin times. The equinoxes and solstices’ were such times, with October 31st/ November 1st being the thinnest of the calendar year. Thin places included mountain tops (high places), and well or springs which were entrances to the underworld. Consider how many Biblical encounters with God occurred on mountains – Moses, Elijah, Jesus – all had several mountain top experiences.
After the Celts embraced Christianity, these sites became places to meet with God, to pray and listen, as they felt such a close connection to the spiritual realm. The Celt’s were a people of prayer and blessing. They had prayers and blessings for every mundane and routine task of their day, from milking the cow, to making the bed because they recognized the presence of God always with them, visible in all created things. One particular place of blessing was the hearth in the home. They blessed the fire each morning as they lit it, and then again in the evening as they damped it for the night. The hearth was the place of warmth and life, where the family gathered to eat, to play and to pray. The hearth often became a thin place, a place to meet God.
Two of the themes that were prevalent in Celtic Christianity were recognition of ‘presence’ and in response ‘praise.’ Thus, thin places became destinations of pilgrimage to meet with and encounter a closer presence of God. Today many still make pilgrimage to these locations: in the UK these include several places in Ireland, such as Armagh and Glendalough; St. David’s and Ffald-y-brenin in Wales; Iona in Scotland; and Lindisfarne in Northern England. As I have visited some of these Holy sites I definitely can attest to the closeness to God, a sense of the Spirit’s nearness, and the Word of God becoming freshly alive. One particular thin place I discovered was the library at the Abbey on Iona. Each morning I would spend 30 – 45 minutes in solitude, tucked in this ancient dark paneled room, positioned in the brilliant morning sun-beam as it streamed through the east window. Here, as I opened my Bible, it was as though the Lord had written the words specifically for me, the Word was living and active and touching a deep place in me.
I know I have been in many thin places throughout my years. I have had similar encounters with God, and not had to travel half way around the world to meet Him. The Sunday before we came to Wales, we worshipped at our friends church “The Forge” in Victoria. For me this was also a thin place. Amidst the chaos of running children, interruptions and distractions, the presence of the Spirit was so tangible and I could hear God very clearly.
As I have visited, experienced, and reflected on thin places I have encountered, three prevalent characteristics have emerged. Thin places are places that have been soaked in prayer. 1500 years on Iona, 500 years at Ffald-y-brenin but maybe only 10, 50 or 100 on Vancouver Island, but the longer and deeper the intercession the thinner the veil.
Thin places are places without fear. There is no fear of man, fear of the stranger, fear of evil, instead they are places of faith, of hope, and of blessing.
Thin places are places without pride. The leadership in these places is not driven by an authority figure or charismatic personality, but there is equality among staff. On Iona, the worship services were mostly led by young people and volunteers, each asked to bring the gift of themselves as an offering. At Ffald-y-brenin, though Roy and Daphne Godwin are the leaders, they know when to back away and allow their team to minister, and even more so, when to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work of convicting, restoring and healing and they step away completely.
I have been challenged to consider not where I need to go to find a thin place, but how I can begin to create thin places both now and for future generations. Is my home, my hearth, my church soaked in prayer? Do I live more in faith or fear? Am I controlling my life, my image, my family, my ministry, or do I truly trust that God is in control?
My Painting of a stream flowing under a stone bridge.
Nicola's painting of an Island in Cardigan Bay
I wanted to push myself creatively during my sabbatical. In one sense, this plan was built into my time in Wales: I assigned myself the task while here of writing a novel (which hums along nicely, now nearing 300 pages – but more of that in a future blog). And, as I bragged about in an earlier post, I have been trying my hand in the kitchen. But my efforts there, though edible, are neither aesthetic nor culinary masterpieces. They fall yards short of being creative. I throw myself wholly on the mercy of a recipe, and even then reproduce something that bears little resemblance to how the original looks or, I suspect, tastes.
So I needed something more. And I found it a mere skip and a jump away, in the tiny village of Henllan, next to our tiny village of Pentre-cwrt. There, in her little one-room studio beside her home, artist Diane Mathias plies her trade, with oils and pastels. She hangs a sign by the roadside inviting all passers-by to stop in for a peek at her art and a cup of tea. So we took her up on it. One thing led to the next, and last Friday Nicola and I signed up, with 3 others, for a 5-hour art class with Diane, using the medium of pastels.
It was both hard work and pure fun. She got us down to the task right away, no preliminaries. We each chose a photo from a thick pile she had on hand, and within minutes we were wrist-deep in the chalky residue of pastel crayons. Our hands look like we'd smeared them in buckets of condiments – mustard and ketchup and guacamole and refried beans. Diane walked around, said encouraging if vague things ("Well, that's coming along, isn't it?"; "My, that's colorful!" "That's an interesting way of depicting that tree!"), and gave pointers. Slowly, our smudges and blobs emerged into something half-way recognizable, rough facsimiles of the photographs we were working from.
The results, as you can see, are clumsy and amateurish.
But something woke up in me during it. As I struggled to capture the shapes, the shades, the hues, the textures of the picture I was trying to render, I realized how much the visual is its own language. It wants to tell a story. It wants to articulate, not just what things look like, but how they feel, what they mean, why they matter. I know that my pastel drawing captures none of this. But I sensed it. I felt its pulse. I glimpsed what skilled artists are able to convey: the deeper reality beneath the surface reality, the inner beauty that gives the outward form its mystery and its potency.
In some ways it's like worship. Art is taking the world as we find it, transforming it through sustained attention, and offering it back. It is rendering the everyday into the everlasting. It is an act both of surrender and of thanksgiving.
My first attempts at this are childish.
But I don't think the Father minds.
I'm reading about waves.
I brought along on my sabbatical Susan Casey's book The Wave, her sweeping and riveting account of mammoth waves from Tahiti to northern Scotland, from Hawaii to Alaska, From Cape Town to Lisbon, and her collage of portraits of the scientists who study them, the underwriters who insure against them, and above all the half-mad adventurers called big-wave surfers who chase them around the globe to fling themselves headlong into their wild unforgiving hearts. I had, last year, read Casey's The Devil's Teeth, her equally riveting account of the great white sharks off California's Farallon Islands, and found it wondrous and terrifying enough to pick up her most recent volume. I'm not disappointed.
I never knew there was so much to know about bumps in the water – or how big those bumps can get (in 1958, in Lituya Bay, Alaska, a wave roused up by a massive earthquake which set off a massive landslide rose to an astonishing 1,740 feet; as astonishing, four of the people on two of the three small fishing vessels harbored in the bay lived to tell the tale).
All of it makes for a compelling read – a kind of whodunit joined to an espionage thriller joined to a life-at-the-edge dispatch. What I find most gripping – it's the story Casey keeps circling back to – are the portraits of the big-wave surfers. These are not the stereotypical air-head party-boys often associated with the ilk. Off the water, they are philosopher-poets of the mysteries of storm and ocean. But on the water, they are aquatic daredevils. Tsunami warriors. They are men (and a few women) who run for the sea when all others are running from it. They are those for whom the pulsing magenta blob in the centre of a storm reading is good news of great joy: it means somewhere, soon, monster waves 60, 70, 80 feet at their crest will crash on some breakwater, and if they fly through the night and care nothing about sleep, they might just be there to meet it and ride it.
This is the story, really, of a small band of death-defiers who play at the edge of destruction. They spare no expense. They fly in the face of terror. They risk life and limb. It would be easy to dismiss it all as juvenile testosterone-fueled frivolity, except it is so downright awe-inspiring.
Frankly, it's convicting. I would love to think I have given myself this unreservedly to the cause of the gospel, but really? I can get put off by the smallest obstacle, intimidated by the least resistance. My heart can quaver at the first sign of disturbance. But to actually see the worst the devil or the earth can throw at you, to actually go looking for it, and then to aim straight for it?
It's a wave I'd love to catch.