Over many years Anne and I have enjoyed country walks with the aid of guidebooks to direct our passage through unfamiliar territory. For the most part , the way forward was relatively easy to follow, but occasionally the instruction of the guidebook and the vista that lay before us did not match. More than once we came to a field which had been comprehensively ploughed, sown or perhaps awaited final harvest. We would stand confused, for our instructions and map insisted that the public footpath did in fact go right through the centre of the field. I was always grateful when I had remembered to pack my binoculars in my rucksack. Careful scanning of the far edge of the field, sometimes a considerable distance away, usually revealed a beckoning style tucked snuggly into the dense hedgerow, thereby revealing the required direction of travel. Clear sight of our next waymark enabled our trek to continue.
Any walker will tell you that a gate or style is both a way out and a way in. The beauty of a country walk lies in the gift of surprise. Every gate or style takes a walker out of one niche and into another. Each ‘room’ in the landscape offers newness and novelty, challenge or ease. The Gospel accounts tell us that Jesus claimed to be “The Gate”, the way into a new spiritual landscape, the way out of where we are and the way into something extraordinarily different. Above all it is the entry into a place defined by, and infused with, the love of God. It is not always an easy landscape to walk, but it offers a journey in companionship with Christ and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, it is an eternal journey, extending beyond the existential present, beyond the boundaries of this life, and into an infinity that awaits.
Country walking allows the old and the new to converge. The pathway, unless it has been diverted in recent times, has most likely been in use since, or even long before, the Enclosure Acts of the 17thCentury onwards, legislation which privatised hitherto common land. Existing country paths are therefore a compensation to allow public journeying. However, even ancient landscapes change with the seasons, the weather, new structures, new land use, new farming methods, growth of hedges and trees, change of crops, and so on. This gifts us the delights of travelling ancient and familiar paths that are actually full of newness. It would seem that old and new are not always mutually exclusive! There is an intriguing injunction in the Old Testament :
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it.”
The prophet was speaking into tumultuous times for the Jewish people. In this period the Babylonians invaded, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and carried the most creative, able, and powerful Jews into exile. The political, religious and social landscape of those forcibly exiled , and those who remained, had changed suddenly and dramatically. We might say that the well-known and well-worn path through Judaism was no longer visible. It had been aggressively ploughed over by circumstances! What was needed was a sight-line to show the direction of travel in now unfamiliar terrain, just like looking for a distant style across a field ! Jeremiah offers radical theological and spiritual advice, of which our quotation from chapter 6 is but one example.
Ask for the ancient paths? Really? Go backwards? Surely life must always be lived forwards? Yet, I think Jeremiah is suggesting that the best way to advance in a dramatically novel situation is to re-discover the fundamentals, the deep spiritual values, the precious memories of faith, much of which had been taken for granted or forgotten. In effect, the ‘old’ becomes the ‘new’ since there really is no other foundation laid by a loving God. Perhaps the old is really the new, simply because it had not been previously fully experienced and explored. A return to a deeper personal relationship with God in honesty, humility and a genuine anticipation of good things to come, whatever the prevailing context, will provide newness and richness not previously experienced.
This coming Lenten season we will be aware that the old familiar pathways through the Lent experience will be considerably obscured, ‘ploughed over’ by the effects of Covid 19, as we are denied corporate worship, with its rich spirituality reflected in our shared liturgical prayers, readings, hymns, meditations and Holy Communion. Yet, beneath all this apparent absence there is surely another story taking shape. In our temporary separation we will most likely have formulated new questions about our faith, found different ways of sustaining and enriching our journey, discovered unexpected insights into the preciousness of gathering with one another, and have gained a deeper appreciation of things that we have hitherto taken for granted. In short, perhaps a hidden store of treasure has been forming that will one day, hopefully soon, manifest itself through joyous restoration of normal church life. As Paul the Apostle discovered , “all things work together for good, for those who love God”. Perhaps we need to embrace a new discipline of personal spiritual awareness and depth. That of course has traditionally always been the purpose of Lent. But, especially in these strange times, we seemingly have to accept a greater sense of ‘creative aloneness’ with God, something that can richly nurture and surprise us as we walk the 2021 Lenten pathway.
Terry Rees February 2021