Today means getting back to work after the holiday. Even in retirement time has its ebbs and flows, is shaped and configured by the seasons. After Christmas and new year, ordinary time is here again (not liturgically I know - but it feels that way). A new term has begun and the caravanserai of school buses snakes past the house with youngsters from across Northumberland. My wife returns to her day-job with people to see. And I have some thinking to do.
It's a beautiful day: crisp, clear and sunny. The sky has that exquisite duck-egg hue you get in the north in winter and which it's almost impossible to capture accurately in a photo (I've tried). I need to walk, not so much to slough off Yuletide excess (there's a bit of that) as to limber up, get body and mind into shape for whatever awaits this new year. Walking is good mental and spiritual exercise as well as good for the body. It has a way of sorting things, putting them into their proper places. Pascal said: "just carry on walking, and everything will be all right".
I've said I have some thinking to do. So I find some classical music, plug in my earphones and head off up the hill. Who else finds that BBC Radio 3 is among the best of all walking companions? So enjoyable. So civilised. So stimulating. And most of the time, so harmonious in ways that in the open air suggest nature and art echoing each other in praise of creation's eternal harmonies. Every walk out of the village takes you up a hillside. When you live in a steep-sided valley, walks bring their rewards early on. Quiet narrow lanes criss-cross the hills with only the occasional tractor or post van to disturb the tranquility. The holly trees are thick with berries. Snowdrops are tentatively pushing through the hard ground. Mossy drystone walls glow green and silver-grey in the morning light.
I climb clear of the village outlier, an intriguing group of Northumbrian bastle houses gathered round a green in a place that clearly has a long defensive history in this land of border reivers. Here is where I set about getting my mind round the project I need to think about. It focuses on the three sets of addresses I have agreed to give in 2017. Why on earth did I take on so much in one year, my wife has asked me, as if to say, will you never learn? I respond, feebly, that favours are being called in here, and promises about how I would have so much more time to give in retirement. I hardly convince myself, let alone her. But on the other hand, I am honoured to be asked to do important things like these. I am glad still to be useful in my superannuation. And I shall enjoy the mental and spiritual stimulus of preparing for these assignments because I know how much I shall learn in the course of it.
The first is to preach through Holy Week in an English cathedral. I have always thought that the public proclamation of the cross is the year's most awesome undertaking, and I won't deny that even after all these years of preaching I am still daunted by it. The second is to lead the summer ordination retreat for deacons and priests in another diocese. This will feel private and intimate by comparison, but it is no less awesome to be ministering to men and women who are experiencing one the biggest turning-points they will ever have known in their lives. And the third assignment is to conduct the annual week's retreat for a community of monastics. It will be the first time I have lived and prayed with this particular religious community and the first time I have led a conducted retreat for monastics (as opposed to lay people or secular clergy). So this too will bring its sense of both privilege and challenge.
I figure that if I can have identified the central themes of each of these in good time, it will help me find some coherence in the considerable amount of preparation that lies ahead during the first half of this year. Recognising what I should offer in each place and how I should set about it is of course itself an act of spiritual discernment. Prayer comes into things, and so does conversation with those responsible for arranging these events. The last thing any preacher or retreat conductor wants to do is to speak into the vacuum of not knowing his or her audience, what their needs and expectations are, and why they have asked this particular person (me) to address them. At this early stage, my own thoughts and instincts are inchoate: morsels of bread cast on to the waters. But the process has to start somewhere. And I have wanted to take the first steps on my January Northumberland hillside.
I find (think? feel? believe? so many perhapses and maybes) that I am sensing a direction, a shape. As the lane twists round the little old church where centuries ago St Cuthbert's body once lay, I detect faint outlines of a discernible picture on each of the three blank canvasses. Below me, the village is laid out in the valley like a patterned hearthrug. I take in the majestic Tyne that has given our valley its shape and much of its history, and which flows swiftly across the tableau from right to left. I pick out the two bridges that span the river, the one old and narrow where the medieval bridge used to be, the other built more recently to carry traffic. I glimpse the parish church with its distinctive pagoda tower where we worship each week and where I join the Vicar for daily prayers. At the station a Newcastle-bound Sprinter has stopped to collect passengers. Wisps of smoke from a score of hearths (one of them mine) hang over the village in the stillness. The sun continues to shine. I am feeling warmed by my exercise.
"Angels whisper to you when you go for a walk" someone said. I regain my front door sensing I have been whispered to. I wish I could say that the big problems facing humanity could be resolved by an invigorating winter walk. We take off our walking boots and everything is manifestly not all right - yet. But I suspect everything has a way of looking a little different when we go for a walk. Is this what Pascal meant - that the sheer act of striding out has a way of getting us mentally and spiritually engaged, making us participants rather than bystanders? I think I've glimpsed that this morning. I have certainly been given a lot to think about.