God in the High Places

“You can’t help but wonder what compelled anybody to build a monastery way up there on the mountain.”

For just a moment in their hour-long conversation about real estate, American sitcoms and friends who had near scrapes with cancer, a Californian woman on the train remarks to her companion on the mystery of the world heritage site they have been visiting, as it speedily slides out of sight as the train turns a corner. It lasts but a moment; within seconds they’re discussing Ellen DeGeneres’ Instagram and Oprah’s twitter feed.

I’ve always been amazed by karst ever since my first visit to El Torcal when I was a kid. It affected me so much that it became the setting for one of the main episodes in my book, and I have spent much of my adult life dreaming of finding similar geological wonders around the world. But if El Torcal was beautiful, the jagged mountains of Montserrat were impressive on a whole other level. The name itself – serrated mountain – tells of its stark, toothlike appearance, standing high above the lowlands around Barcelona. That on a clear day you can see them from the city itself only adds to their majesty.

Small wonder, then, that the monks of eleventh century Catalonia saw fit to build a monastery there, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

There was a rush for the first train at 8.35am, but on arrival in Monistrol, the town at the foot of the mountain, they all herded straight onto the cable car and rack railway services without a second’s thought. Alone, carrying my lunch under one arm and my sketchbook under the other, I began the two hour climb up the mountainside.

It was quiet on the way up. The kind of quiet I haven’t heard since the last time I climbed a mountain, now almost two years ago. Cirl buntings and greenfinches chattered in the bushes, treecreepers and blue tits sang from the woods, and every so often the croak of a raven came in on the wind. Only the intermittent rattle of the train in the valley below broke the spell. It was an old place, and it felt that way for much of the climb.

The mid morning bells were ringing as I rounded the last bend in the track and began the final ascent towards the monastery. It was, of course, like most scenic places of worship, completely crawling with tourists. Three coach-loads of French schoolkids arrived just as I did, and a huge Chinese group of over a hundred-strong with their pike square of selfie sticks made getting up the narrow walkway to the monastery grounds a slow and uneasy business. Never mind the obnoxiously loud Americans, the even louder Italians, and the ridiculously dressed young Briton, almost as red-faced as his bright red shorts as he wandered around with his sketchbook. That is, of course, me.

Not for the first time I found myself wishing I could step back in time, to a time before mass tourism, when you could stay in the monastery for around the cost of a single euro (or equivalent). When, looking out across the hills of Barcelona towards the sea, you wouldn’t see motorways and industrial sites, but green hills and church towers lining the Llobregat river. In my very British way, I pined for the pastoral glory of days long gone.

I could not find God in the monastery itself, so I gathered my things and set off up into the mountains instead. Only twenty minutes out, with the monastery still in sight, it was calm again, and I was back in the silence. Which, I suppose, is precisely why the Benedictine monks of Montserrat chose to build such a wonder so far removed from society. To retreat is to escape from the world. Perhaps that’s why it struck me as so strange that a place of reflective retreat had become such a magnet for mass tourism. But mankind is all alike, in some respects; what occurs to one wandering mind must also occur to a dozen others. And who is to say any one person has more of a right to go?

Nowadays there’s this widespread notion that God is everywhere. He loves you, so naturally he is everywhere. He resides in every man and woman, every street corner, every kiosk, every artificial tree. Is it because he’s become so much a part of the everyday that so many people have forgotten him? When was the last time you really took stock of a kiosk?

The ancients believed that God could be found in the holy places: a high mountain, a desert oasis or a tree said to be older than time itself. I wonder whether if we stopped imagining that he is everywhere for a moment and instead went to seek him in the wilderness, as the ancients did, we might at least find that small measure of peace that resides in the high places of the world. For if he is the God of love, so too is he the God of peace. The Monastery of Montserrat might have sold its peace in part to the tourism industry, but wander a little higher up into the mountains beyond and you might begin to get a sense for why it is that God of old chose the wilderness. BB x

Searching for God

I’m not a Christian. At least, not in the truest sense of the word. Insofar as my upbringing is concerned, I guess I don’t fall under any category other than Church of England, but when the occasional questionnaire gets handed my way, I tick the box marked ‘agnostic’ without a second’s thought. Only if that’s not an option, and it usually is, Christianity gets my vote over the ‘no religion’ box. Why does this matter? Because today I found myself, once again, in a position where it made more sense to come down on one side of the fence. ‘Christian’ simply makes a lot more sense than ‘no religion’. Strong words for a not-so strong belief, don’t you think?

Let me explain (you’d better get comfortable). I was baptised as a Christian. Church of England. Standard fare. I had a fairly regular English upbringing. I attended a Church of England primary school. I went to church every Christmas and Easter, like almost everyone else. The only minor difference was that my parents both had various musical roles in their respective churches, which meant that I probably spent more time in church than most kids my age. It just so happened that one of them was Canterbury Cathedral, where my dad was a lay-clerk. I guess you get a little blasé about that kind of thing when evensong is a biweekly venture. Not to mention all the school carol services held there. It certainly made the local church back home seem a little small by comparison, though I have warmer memories of that. When I was little I went to church every other Sunday, or at least when Mum played the organ. The memories get a little fuzzy sometimes; this is reaching quite a way back into my childhood. I remember only that I used to sit behind the choir near the organ pipes, and you could hear the organ humming long after everyone had filed out of church and Mum took her hands off the keys. Between that and the old gas heater glowing a dim red in the corner, I have this musty image of your run-of-the-mill Church of England parish tucked away in my head. That’s my strongest memory of the early days, at least. Nothing particularly special. I wasn’t even old enough to sit in the choir then, but I knew most of the hymns well enough, especially the ones they used to roll out on the projector at school. Morning has Broken, for one.

Fast-forward on a few years and it gets a little more interesting. Moving back to England from a year abroad in Spain finds me singing in the church choir in my new home town. It’s nothing more than something to do, I suppose, as I have little else to do at the weekends but go birdwatching down at Stodmarsh or Sandwich Bay – I’m still too young to be thinking about girls or going out – but it pays my first wages, and it feels ‘sort of right’. Right enough to take that next C of E step and decide to get ‘confirmed’. It’s not as big a deal as it is over in Spain, with the sailor suits and all the bells and whistles that go with it, but like I said, it seemed like ‘the right thing to do’. And the other kids in the choir were a lovely bunch, too.

Then along comes my early teenage years, a girlfriend and the beginning of a new approach: evangelicalism. She got me into it, I suppose, but it was something I took to with relish. Prayer and worship, spiritual healing, speaking in tongues… It was a brand new world and I loved every second of it. Ever heard of Soul Survivor? That kind of thing. It was a far cry from ‘open your hymn-books to Hymn no. 348‘ or what-have-you, at the very least. I might even go so far as to say that, for a little while, I even believed it. But it was the people that really made it for me, not the spiritual side of it. Just like playing the violin, the practising of which I had come to loathe, it was more the sense of community that went with it that I craved: the orchestra over the recital, and the worship group over the prayers. I guess you could say I built my house on the sand. Little wonder, then, that it all came crashing down with the end of that relationship. Coincidentally, it was raining that night, too.

I wandered for a while. I asked a lot of questions. I even stopped saying prayers at night, realising that most of them had been selfish anyway – especially the later ones. If not selfish, then love-blind at the very least. Eventually I returned, somewhat shame-faced, to my local church youth group, whom I’d abandoned for almost a year and a half. That was where I met Seth and Jenny Cooper, the Walmer Parish, and Katherine, that everlasting beacon, who showed me that there was more to life than a constant search for answers. For a little while longer, I continued to carry the flag, stronger than before. I was happy. But it was not to last. A series of unfortunate events came as the second hammer blow to my faith. I started to read about the Empire, and all the horrors that had been wrought in the name of God. My brother was assaulted on the way home from school. And Katherine, ever the kindling flame, went out of my life. A few weeks later, I gave up altogether.

As a true Christian, that was my final chapter. I had another fling with the Church in Uganda – ain’t no party like an African Baptist Prayer and Worship Party – but that was little more than a dalliance. Back in England, on the gap year that seemed like it would never end, faith eluded me. Mum, on the other hand, found her way to the Catholic Church and embarked upon what she has described as the ‘road her whole life had been leading towards’. I coveted that, I suppose. It wasn’t her new-found happiness of hers that I wanted, but that contented state of mind. Structured. Ordered. At peace. At one. Something that I’ve struggled with in all the hypocrisies of my life for the last seven years. Her faith gave her life a new meaning. I’d been looking for that meaning for a while with no such luck. People say that ‘finding yourself’ is the first step on the road to that level of understanding. If I could have ‘found myself in Africa’ as so many jokingly think I did, I’d probably have more of an idea as to where exactly I am right now. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, as God knows how lost I’d have been – I didn’t, and the search continues. Right up until last night, when I found myself sitting in an Iraqi church, listening to a Californian preacher explaining the meaning of John 3:16 whilst a translator conveyed it to the congregation in Arabic. Talk about a new way of looking at things!

Now we come to the heart of the matter. I’m not a Christian, like I said at the start. I might have been once, but for a token gesture or two of late, I’m not labelling material at the moment. I can go through the motions like a mynah bird, of course, but that’s got more to do with habit and observation than anything else. That, and a burning desire to believe, whenever that day comes. Until it does, everything seems false. To pray to a God you don’t believe in with all of your heart, with all of your soul – does that not seem a bit ingenuous? That’s not to say I’m not religious, though. Given the choice I’d rather be spiritual than to disbelieve entirely. I’ll put it this way: there’s a hole in my heart that’s waiting for faith. I just haven’t found it yet.

I’ve had this discussion/argument with Andrew recently. I put it to him that I’d be happier not knowing all the answers; that sometimes it’s better to stop asking questions and to have a little faith in what you can’t see; that some things, like as not, are necessarily beyond our understanding. It goes against a great deal of my character, and I think he took umbrage at that, but it’s a principle I try to stick to, and as far as I’m concerned it’s connected to the most fundamental principle of all: hope. I swear by it. There is no greater sin in my book than despair. I might not have the staying power that others prize – indeed, if something is beyond my capability (or, more often, interest) I’m more likely than not to throw up my arms and walk away – but I never truly give up on the inside. And as long as that’s the case, I’d like to believe I still have a chance.

Faith lies somewhere along the road, of that much I’m sure. Wherever it may be is, for the time being, beyond my understanding. And that’s not a bad thing. I tried to find it out here, but for all the strength of the community and the goodwill of the people, it continues to elude me. Maybe I’m being picky. Maybe I’m looking too hard. I don’t know. I’ve just got to keep trying.

I leave you (and this gargantuan post, which is approaching essay length as the clock strikes twenty minutes to midnight) with the only Bible verse I’ve consigned to heart, as it speaks to me on much the same level as it ever did five years ago, when first I found it:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5

I wonder whatever happened to Katherine? I hope her light is still shining brightly for the rest of the world, wherever she is. BB x

Not All Those Who Wander Are Flossed

It’s just taken me about an hour and a half to wade through the latest Arabic text for tomorrow’s class. With a night of karaoke at the Marriott Hotel on the cards for this evening, I don’t exactly have the ‘I’ll do it later’ gambit at my disposal.

First off I want to apologise for a very rocky week or two of bipolar posting (some of you noticed, I gather…). The mid-term fury is over and things have settled back to the way they were before, helped along the way by much meditation, H.R. Haggard and Karl Jenkins. Ouch, that’s a painfully middle-class sentence. Life in Amman rumbles slowly onwards, the daily Arabic homework’s still coming in thick and fast and the Versailles branch of the British Council still haven’t told Andrew where he’s going. Business as usual. I took an entire weekend out to deal with my restless psyche and it seems to have paid off. It meant missing out on a couple of parties, but for the sake of my bleeding heart, it was worth it. So if you were feeling the strain of my sine-wave posts over the last week or so, fret not; the dust has settled. It should be a little easier on the eye from here on out.

It’s been a fairly productive couple of days, which means we haven’t had that many adventures; but that’s no bad thing. I saw our first clouds in a month or so the other day, and what a sight for sore eyes that was. You’d be surprised how uplifting it was to see a speck of grey on the horizon for once. Blue skies are lovely and all that, but when you’ve had temperatures balancing out over the high thirties for almost three weeks without cease, a cool breeze is a welcome miracle. There was supposed to be a thunderstorm, which we all got super excited about, but it never came. Instead, the sky went a very queer shade of brown and a mild sandstorm swept through the streets. No rain. One of the strangest weather phenomenons I’ve ever seen. We got the full force of the stifling storm heat, though; the temperature soared up into the mid forties. My insides felt like they were being cooked every time I stepped outside and there was a weird charge in the air. Mostly we found ourselves retreating to our various homes to sit like idol-worshippers before the air-con until the sun decided to call it a day. Even then it often carried on long into the night, that stuffy, all-pervading heat. The blankets had to go. How they’ve lasted this long is anyone’s guess. BBC Weather’s been getting an unnatural number of hits from our flat, at any rate. They say there’s a 51% chance of precipitation tomorrow. Good news takes the strangest forms…

I finally got around to sending off an email to the school I’ll be teaching at in Extremadura. I’ve had it written for the best part of a week and a half, but for some reason I never hit the send button. I guess I wanted to be dead-certain on the grammar, but in the end I just had to be happy with what I’d written, bite the bullet and hit SEND. With any luck, I’ll get a reply at some point before I arrive in September. So that’s pretty cool. In the meantime I’m keeping my teacher senses trained with this project of ours at the Iraqi church Andreas got me in on last week. The last session must have gone down well enough, because we had double the numbers this time. We’ll have to call in reinforcements at this rate. Parts of the body this week, following on from the previous lesson on going to the hospital. Getting the groups to use the vocab to compliment each other was a great idea, and also highly amusing. Apparently eyebrows are a valuable commodity. Or maybe they were just trying to get their heads around the pronunciation. I’d like to believe the former. Having to explain the difference between diarrhea and constipation in the politest possible way is definitely going down as one of the most entertaining moments of my teaching career. Something along the lines of ‘let’s say you eat a bad falafel, and it goes right through you… and for the other one, well, it doesn’t quite go right through you…’. British humour. It never gets old.

This church is just about the best thing that’s happened to me out here, though. It’s the one thing I’d return to Jordan for, given the chance. Maybe this is the beginning of a spiritual journey, maybe not. I hope so, at any rate. I’ve been waiting for my chance for so very long now, ever since I left that world behind almost six years ago… I’ll be dropping by three times a week from now on, twice for class and once for the service, so things should start to look up. And that’s a real slice of good news.

Bummer, I’m out of toothpaste. Looks like I really will have to resort to this weird Arab brand I picked up in the corner shop last week. At least it smells nice. After Morocco I’m none too keen to follow up on any of these traditional Arabian dental practices. BB x

The moment we thought Andrew’s placement might have come through…