At Llannerchwen I quickly fall into the pattern that has shaped my retreats for many years...After breakfast and morning prayer, I will usually spend the morning with the book that has called to me: this time, particularly, Peterson's “Contemplative Pastor”. I may well journal in response to it – often I'll do some art or craft work – and then in the early afternoon it's time to go for a walk.
The walks around Llannerchwen seem to be strangely illusive, if you try to follow the map that waits in the folder in each prayer-hut...but I think I'm beginning to learn that getting lost here is often the way to find out something important, a truth I might easily miss otherwise.
So that afternoon I set off confidently down the lane, relishing the sense of space and silence that the spring bird-song somehow seems to emphasise...Snowdrops and catkins spoke of spring waiting poised in the wings, but the daffodil buds remained tight and green...their triumphant glory will come soon, but not yet. But despite this, there was colour everywhere. The rich red earth, the thousand different greens of the deep moss that covers wood and boulders on this dampest of hill-sides. Springs burst from the bank, rivulets found a way through tiny ravines, chattering busily on their way, and for some time I was content to follow them down the hill, pausing to take in tiny details, remembering as best I could to say “thank you” that I was there, free to wander, to pause, to be.
At the bend in the road a track led off on the left to another house – but my way, said the map, was to the right – up through the farm and so back home. At first I followed a clear track through the woods, putting up a pheasant or two whose sharp “Cack, cack” seemed unreasonably urgent, at odds with my mood. At the edge of the woodland I reached a cross-roads: left would take me back to the lane, and a clear route back, but that did seem dull...With the whole of the Brecon Beacons to explore, who would choose a walk down a metalled round and back again? So I went on, following the green dotted line on my map, which told me that on through the farm yard lay my route home.
I could see the farm above me, and 2 men by a lambing shed (the sound of the flock grew louder as I climbed)...I worried, slightly, that I might be off course, trespassing unintentionally...but the map was very clear so I pressed on, and coming out in the farmyard followed a red painted sign whose arrow marked the way “Llannerchwen”.
Plain sailing for a while, up through one field but at the end there was a choice – 2 gates side by side and not a hint of which one would lead to the path home. It seemed to me that leaving the telegraph poles to my right was the better idea so I opted for the left hand gate and continued up the hill. Up hill had to be right – specially when I saw that woodland lay ahead, for my own prayer hut of Ty Siwan stands of the edge of a wood. It began to mizzle, in the way that seems a natural expression of the Welsh countryside. The mountains around me began to disappear into the mist and soon I could only see a few yards in front of me, as my glasses were fogged up. I reached the far side of the field, - but there was no gate, so I was forced to make my way round the edge in search of a way onwards. I crossed another field, still heading upwards, then another...I began to worry a little. The way up seemed to be much longer than the way down and the rain was beginning to make itself felt, the landscape closing in around me.
Finally I reached the far side of that field and saw ahead of me not the home paddock I had expected but a totally unfamiliar stretch of ploughed earth in which some distinctly scraggy sheep munched on roots and mangle wurzles.
No point in carrying on, then.
I had clearly missed my way, and would have to return to the farm and start again – or maybe even revert to the metalled lane I'd scorned before. It went against the grain to head back downhill, knowing that I'd have to climb again – but common sense dictated that this was the only way.
And then, as I crossed the second field, I saw another figure, hooded against the rain, holding a stout stick like the one that waited beside the door of Ty Siwan. I wondered if this might be a fellow pilgrim, or even one of the sisters...someone who knew where they were going and could thus show me the way home.
With a new sense of purpose I made haste towards her, - but as I crossed into the next field I noticed something – the shape of a long low building on the edge of a wood...A building I had completely failed to see as I toiled uphill, certain that my destination was just over the horizon. Suddenly I knew exactly where I was...which was fortunate because as I clambered over the stile into “her” field, the other walker turned and came towards me
“I don't suppose you know the way to Llannerchwen? I seem to have got lost”.
Suddenly lost sheep became shepherd as I pointed out the cabin and the stile, just across the field from us, which she too had failed to spot.
Together we made our way triumphantly downhill...over one more stile, and home!
If I hadn't been trying to follow her, I would never have seen the familiar landmarks that brought us home...If she hadn't retraced her steps, she too would have wandered around in the mist, getting colder and more anxious as one muddy field merged with the next, and the sheep seemed to mock up with their bleating.
I have to confess, I didn't admit to her quite how far off course I had been...nor the part that she herself had played in my change of direction. After all, we were both of us trying to spend a week in silence. But as I opened my front door and took off my muddy boots I could hear God's laughter and joined in. So much of ministry seems to involve treading a path that you believe is there, heading on a course that has been laid out for you, plugging along without much encouragement simply because you are sure that this is the way it has to be. I wouldn't be surprised if home really was just around the corner – but in struggling on uphill we run the risk of overshooting and carrying on, wasting time and energy forever. Better by far to find the courage to admit that we're lost, to turn around and seek another way, in company with others.