Caves and Crossroads - By Sheridan Voysey
My hands are freezing. My trousers are soaked. The pelting rain sounds like popping corn under the hood of my raincoat. Droplets run along my eyebrows and drip from my nose but shaking them off is futile. I glance at DJ, and we both break a smile. Sunshine is overrated anyway.
When the alarm rang early, I had peeked through the curtain to find a misty morning with rabbits grazing on the lawn. But the downpour had begun the same time the rabbits had scattered – the moment we left the front door. Now we plod along the causeway that winds beside the dunes, stepping aside for passing cars.
“Sleep well?” DJ asks. I wipe the rain from my face and think before I answer. DJ and I first met while working on a radio project tackling child poverty. We had visited developing countries together, discovered some shared interests, and enjoyed long conversations about life and God. DJ had moved his family to Aberdeen from Australia soon after Merryn and I came to Oxford, allowing some shared holidays to follow. In him I’d found a wise, fun and empathetic friend. But…
“I forgot that you snore,” I say as kindly as I can. I hadn’t slept all night. Not a wink. It isn’t the best way to start a long hike. DJ quickly apologises, and we agree our cost-saving plan to bunk in the same room will need to be revised. I don’t tell him that Merryn says I snore too.
We round a bend and reach the tip of the island. The dunes fall away, exposing the full force of the wind. It wraps our hoods around our heads, flattens our jackets across our chests, and turns those raindrops into liquid needles. With heads down and faces stinging, we head for the mainland, our adrenaline pumping. We march along the causeway for 40 minutes, the asphalt awash in sand from the receding tide, then head south-west on the mainland. The terrain starts to rise as we move into the countryside, the rain easing now but the path springy. We lean forward as we climb, our boots sinking under the load of our packs.
“Now our preparation is tested!” DJ says. We’d done practice walks for months to prepare for the pilgrimage, DJ roaming the glens near his home in rural Scotland, and me trekking around Oxford. I had walked to St Margaret’s church in Binsey with its ancient healing well, and to St Michael’s in Cumnor to enjoy its quiet nave, up to Boars Hill where the bluebells flower, and across town to find CS Lewis’ grave. Hopefully these miles have readied our limbs for the coming days. We’ll find out soon enough. Even if they haven’t, I think those preparatory walks have accomplished much already. In heading out to the ancient wells and bluebell woods, I had left the confines of my fussing mind for unexplored roads and new vistas. Each walk had coaxed me out of myself and into its own small adventure. A left turn. A right. Around the corner, straight on. Walk on, Sheridan. With movement comes discovery.
We zigzag up the hill, walking the seams of patchwork fields, squelching in the soggy ground and picking blackberries from the brambles. The sun comes out; our jackets come off. Enjoyment masks my tiredness. “Maybe Cuthbert walked this path,” I say. The idea fills me with wonder. Cuthbert was a solitary soul. He would sneak out at night to pray alone in the fields (or the sea, if one legend can be believed). When Hobthrush got too noisy, he built a shack on a remote island further down the coast. There he communed with God, fought the devil, and counselled any who braved the seas to reach him. When he was later recalled to Lindisfarne to become its bishop, he left that beloved shack in tears. So, it’s surprising to find that this introverted monk was also a man of adventure. He journeyed into the hills where warring tribes fought. He went to impoverished villages others avoided. And as he opened his Bible and preached in those places, he saw the lame walk and multitudes respond. Though happiest at home, Cuthbert would step out and follow God into the unknown.
“I think it’s this way,” I say, pointing up and to our left. We climb a stile over a fence and head towards a forest. We’re a few days into autumn – a season of falling petals, yellowing leaves and seeds bedding in for the spring, but also of grand migration in the natural world. Right now, arctic terns are leaving these regions for cooler climes down south, humpback whales are departing the Antarctic for warmer waters north, wildebeest are crossing the Serengeti plains for Kenya’s greener pastures, and monarch butterflies are flapping their pretty wings across North America to Mexico. Wing to wing and head to tail they go, crossing earth and sea on their own pilgrimages.
We reach the top of the hill, enter a large open field, and take a right at the wooden sign pointing to our first stop.
A lesson from my 20s comes to mind as we walk. Seeking direction for my life, I had prayed for guidance, but a whole two years later I still had no idea what to do. Then some words from the Gospels had struck me with unusual effect. Keep asking, they said. Keep seeking and knocking. Because those who ask, receive; those who seek, find; and doors open for those who knock (see Matthew 7:7-8). And that’s when the hole in my strategy had been shown. I had prayed without seeking and asked without knocking, waiting for an epiphany instead of tapping on some doors. Once I put action behind my prayer by writing letters and making calls, my path into radio had become clear.
I take another step on that spongy track and feel this lesson reawakened in my bones. There is no discovery without movement, no direction without action.
Ask, seek, knock. Move.