Carningli, or the Rock that is Higher than I
by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | August 30, 2018Hi friends, it’s good to be home. Lucy and I so enjoyed our time vacationing and Wales. It was restful, replenishing, and rejuvenating—and all just in time for the new school year!
One of our favorite things to do in Wales is just to walk the countryside or hike one of Wales’ many, many giant hills and little mountains. I want to tell you about one of our hikes.
First, a note about Wales. I think one of the reasons Lucy and I love Wales so much is because it’s a liminal place. What I mean is that traveling through the Welsh countryside feels like being in two worlds at once. In some way this is obvious. For example, all the signs in Wales are in both Welsh and English—so everywhere you go you’re seeing two very different languages right beside each other. Another example is the history. Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world. So a city park, for example, might have all the things one would see at a park in the US, things like picnic tables, public restrooms, and bags for picking up after your dog. But the park might also include the ruins of a 12th century castle! (Or, even more astonishing, a Neolithic monument as old as—or older than—the pyramids.) Welsh and English, the ancient and the 21st century—it’s all there, all at once.
But there are other, less obvious worlds co-existing. Wales has a long and rich history of saints. St. David, with a cathedral named after him, is far and away the most famous Welsh saint. Most, however, are ones we (myself included) will never have heard of before. Saint Non, Saint Rhychwyn, Saint Brynach, Saint I’m-Not-Sure-How-To-Pronounce-the-Name. There are some saints about whom we know not much more than that he or she founded this or that church way back when. Others were members of monasteries long dissolved.
For many of these saints, hilltops and mountains were important places of prayer and meditation. The saints are gone, as are their monasteries, and yet the hills and mountains remain. Lucy and I did a day hike up from the coast, through a village and across a long moor, and finally up onto a craggy little peak called Carningli (carn-EEN-glee), Rock of the Angels, where St. Brynach spent hours in meditation. It’s right next to some farmland and a friendly herd of cows. It was raining badly for much of the final stretch through the moor. We were hungry, soaked through, and were having trouble navigating in the poor visibility. The views are usually great from the top, apparently, but that day our eyes could press no further than the thick grey fog and rain surrounding us.
Then, at the top of Carningli, standing in the shelter of a rock overhang, we met an older couple in red rain jackets, Keith and Sion (pronounced like Shawn). They were enjoying a snack after their hike. They were friendly and showed us the way back down, he leading and she walking behind with us in between.
It’s tempting to say that Keith and Sion were the same angels St. Brynach spent time with in meditation centuries ago. I don’t know if St. Brynach’s angels walked back into town for tea and cakes after their hikes, but that’s what Keith and Sion did. I think instead that Keith and Sion were friendly fellow hikers who were more experienced navigating Welsh moors in bad weather.
Whichever they were, we shared an unspoken connection in the short hour or so of down-hiking we did together. For some reason, in weather in which no one should be out hiking, all four of us felt drawn to the Rock of the Angels that afternoon. All four of us were drawn up, just as St. Brynach was in his century. Just as Moses went up onto Sinai to talk to God. Just as Jesus went up onto the mountain to speak with Moses and Elijah and his Father in heaven. Just as countless anonymous hikers have climbed the hills and mountains in their own countries for who knows what reasons.
Often in the bible, when God speaks to someone on the top of a mountain, the mountain is shrouded in a cloud. I imagine it’s like Welsh fog. You’re up high, but apart from the howling of the wind you wouldn’t know it because you can’t actually see how far up you are. It’s as though with the fog God is saying, “Yes, there’s a lot of world out there. But for now, just be here, with me, on top of the earth.”
The tops of Welsh mountains are liminal spaces, parts of earth that are somehow also the bottom floor of heaven. But more than that, there’s something about the act of climbing them that is itself a liminal experience. Walking up to Carningli, I was both a hiker on vacation, and making the ancient, prayerful climb of St. Brynach. I was both praying and not thinking about much in particular. I was both lost in the mist and found by my fellow travelers. I was both hiking through an ancient place of spiritual power and skirting alongside a stretch of moor pocked with cow poop. Even now, the memory of the hike is profoundly nourishing, and yet it’s also true that nothing particularly dramatic happened, let alone something obviously spiritual. We just went up, and then came back.
In Psalm 61, the psalmist beseeches God to, “Set me on the rock that is higher than I” (v.2). The psalmist is asking for safety from his enemies, but I can’t help invoking that verse when I think about our hike up Carningli. Like a lot of us, I tend to think in clearly distinct categories: vacation vs work, prayer vs play, lost vs found, kind strangers in red rain jackets vs. possibly angelic fellow pilgrims; the ancient topography of St. Brynach vs cow poop. Those distinctions are not illusory, but neither are they final because each is the spiritual terrain in which we meet God. Every now and then, God gives us a little change of perspective by setting us upon a rock that is higher than the distinctions we customarily make.
Perhaps none of us has ever taken a step apart from the angels.
It’s good to be home.