Where are the places that mean most to you? Do you find refreshment and inspiration just revisiting them in spirit, or through photos? How blessed we are to live in Malvern; if the South Downs were my first love, and the Lake District a very close second, I have grown to love these hills very much too. All this speaks of the German concept of heimat. ‘Wherein the individual is able to experience safety and the reliability of its existence, as well as a place of a deeper trust.’ So this is a good opportunity to explore the question of what effect your love for particular regions has on you. Warning: this may involve trying to untease and untangle the distinction between sentimentality and nostalgia on the one hand, (which can be sapping) and a profound attraction and affection on the other which can be profoundly energising.
At a time when the Tennyson family was obliged to depart the vicarage in Somersby, the great future poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote to his fiancée that “that landscape continually talks to me of my own youth and half-forgotten things.” Even though Tennyson’s father, the vicar of this remote Lincolnshire hamlet, was considered to be dependent on drink and drugs despite, and despite the fact that he himself experienced such a traumatic time at the local grammar school that he went to it each day in tears, Tennyson deeply appreciated the ‘calm and deep peace of the high Lincolnshire wolds’; a love that was a source of consistent inspiration to him and which shines through so many of his writings.
Thomas Vaughan, a Welsh clergyman noted that we should profitably learn to “refer all naturals to the spirituals by way of the secret analogy.” To decode that: God loves to turn sight into insight and bring hidden meaning out in the places we see and the events we experience – but He also uses the affection we feel for particular places, and that what we see in the natural world around us can speak of mighty spiritual truths.
I’m sure you will have experienced this many times. I remember years ago seeing all the water suddenly disappear from a brook; the bed was still there but of the water there was simply no trace. Further downstream, however, equally mysteriously, it reappeared. Geographers refer to this phenomenon as swallow hole. To me it spoke about those times when the purposes of God suddenly dip below ground for reasons known only to the Lord, only to re-emerge again later on.
It is a great blessing to feel deeply connected to a place and communities, whilst at the same time remembering that we “here we have no lasting city because we seek the city that is to come.” (Heb. 13:14) Yet each region has its own redemptive qualities at a deeper level than just ‘tourist desirability’. The anonymous writer of the ancient poem The Properties of the Shires of England recognised this as he gave a brief resume of every county in England, ending with the prayer to ‘the Lord who for us all did die, save all our shires I pray.’
Many influential writers have drawn on their native landscapes for inspiration. You’ll know what I mean if I mention Robbie Burns’ declaration that “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here, my hearts in the Highland, wherever I go.” And who does not identify Malvern with Edward Elgar?
At a time when we were very actively praying where to go after leaving Kent, we were staying with Francis and Lindsay Cummings when the Spirit of the Lord suddenly came on Francis even as the meal was being served. It was so strong that he was literally writhing around on the floor. When he finally surfaced he declared, “I can hear Elgar’s cello Concerto. It’s Malvern you’ll be moving to!”
Some of us may need to add filters to our heart to prevent waxing too sentimental (or indeed feeling too antipathetic) towards certain places, but there are depths of true emotion here that we can rightly make good use of, and harness for active prayer.
How about, for example, taking John of Gaunt’s startlingly evocative speech in praise of ‘this sceptre’d isle’ and by all means apply it to England since that is who it was written for – but why not also considering adapting it in praise of some other region or nation?
Having described himself as ‘a prophet new inspired’, John of Gaunt launches himself with the words ‘this royal throne of kings, this sceptre’d isle’ into an exquisitely paean of praise with regard to England’s special qualities. Do look it up and refresh your memory, beginning with the phrase ‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptre’d isle.’
Sussex is woefully full of cars today that are anything but relaxing, but it is still possible to seek out places to be quiet. How we need them. As John of Gaunt also said in words that speak both to the very real condition of burnout that so many face today, but also of our overzealous exploitation of the planet’s resources:
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
Yes we are blessed if we are able to identify deeply with a region – and the identification ability to do so deeply with one region may well make it easier for us to do so with others too.
How about praying at this time for Salisbury, for example, that beleaguered city, that has seen such a startling fall off of tourists and business, ‘with joy half memory, half desire’ as the poet Coventry Patmore put it.
More severely still than Salisbury, many countries have suffered devastating decline in their tourist industry as a result of just a very limited number of terrorist outrages. So many people’s livelihoods must have been deeply affected.
Certain poets have always loved and identified deeply with particular regions, their association with it adding vim and acumen to their descriptions. Because such attachments reach to the depths of our being it is only to be expected that they should take the form of poetry, or form a living background to the stories, as Wessex does in Thomas Hardy’s novels, Normandy in Maupassant’s, or as the great pine expanse of forests and dunes south of Bordeaux and known collectively as Les Landes do in Francois Mauriac’s novels.
Sometimes it is not so much place that He reminds us of, of course, but people, or some spiritual insight or encounter. In which case you could still complete the template ‘starter’ above, but it would run along rather different lines – always bearing in mind to try to prise the difference between the truly spiritual and the merely sentimental.
I wonder: how might you answer if you filled in a paragraph starting with the phrase;
The memory of . . . returns in force to me today:
its . . . and . . . and . . .
and bring . . . to mind
and cause me to feel / pray . . .