By Mark Clavier
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
Each morning (that is, when Wales isn’t throwing some of its atrociously wet weather at me) after I awake, take my dogs, Cuthbert and Humphrey, for their morning walk. I have my routine. First, I enjoy two cups of coffee while I catch up on email and Facebook. Then, I fetch my shoes and, if it’s winter, put on a warm jacket, hat, and headtorch. Then it’s out the door with the dogs to begin our two-mile journey amidst the wooded landscape of Priory Grove.
Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
Our journey begins with our opening up our garden gate: an increasingly dilapidated, gothic wooden door through the medieval walls of Brecon Cathedral (replete with square holes where once the door would have been barred against invaders). We emerge briefly onto the carpark, pass through the lychgate, and walk along the path that forms a kind of boundary between empty Cathedral grounds and its ancient churchyard. Thus, I begin my day among the dead: around three centuries of the sinners and saints who once called Brecon home.
The path leads us to a metal gate, down a gentle paved slope and to a crossroads where I can choose to turn left to take the high path or the low one on the right: the heights or the river walk, a decision more often than not determined by the weather. The path along the River Honddu is in places little better than quagmire in the winter and after heavy rains.
Whichever way I go, after a couple of minutes, I’ve entered an entirely different landscape—you might say, a different world—from my home or the town of Brecon. Priory Grove is an ancient forest, populated with ash, oak, massive beaches, and prickly walls of holly. Often, the sounds of my footsteps and the scurrying of my two Spaniels are accompanied by the screech of tawny owls. It’s a world set apart from Brecon, rarely if ever visited by the majority of people living in this ancient town.
And it came to pass, when he was come nigh to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount called the mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples.
During the winter, when we normally take the high road, we turn back towards home after a mile when we reach a pasture separated from the woods by a broken-down gate. Beyond, either a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle are usually grazing. By now, I will have met and said my “good mornings” to a chatty man with his two cantakerous Jack Russells, another man with a lurcher who chases away my dogs, and an elderly lady who’s always more pleased than her timid cocker to greet my canine whirlwind.
In the summer, however, we can make the walk a loop, pressing on to follow the path as it curves to the right and soon thereafter plunges down earth and timber steps to the lower river path. This allows us to see the old Forge Bridge in the morning sunlight, the old forge itself, and shortly thereafter a large, stone house that was once a mill of Brecon Priory. By the time I return to the Cathedral churchyard, I’ve taken in two miles of lush woodland, listened to owls, and passed by more than five hundred years of history. Not a bad way to start the day.
And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.
Since I moved to Brecon at the start of autumn in 2017, the dogs and I have walked Priory Grove at least a thousand times. I retrace my steps almost every morning and most evenings. Thus, in just over two years, I’ve grown intimately familiar with that landscape, immersing myself in all kinds of weather, in the darkest pitch of night and in the most brilliant light of the sun. I suppose I could almost walk it blindfolded now.
But it’s a landscape unfamiliar to most people in Brecon. It’s like another world that I enter and explore with a few others. Where for most people, the area demarcated on maps as “Priory Grove” is like a blank canvas, for me it’s a space where I can reflect, shore up my sanity, and find peace. My sense of Brecon as a place is deeply shaped by my daily experiences in that wood.
Like me each morning, I hope you have been preparing yourself to undertake once again a familiar journey. With the advent of Christmastide, we have now re-entered a different landscape. It’s a landscape even more removed than my little woodland from anything known to many people. A great many of them know only one landscape: our own world with all its anxieties, confusions, prejudices, and beliefs. But you and all of us who are Christians in any meaningful sense, spend a great deal of our time in a foreign landscape — ancient Palestine — following the footsteps of Jesus as he makes, as it were, his annual journey from cradle to cross, from the manger in which he was born to the cave from which he rose from the dead.
Try not to let that landscape pass you by this year. It’s no small thing that our Bible readings, lectionary, the words of our liturgy, and the symbols that surround us take us again and again into this strange world, ever old and ever new. We may not walk it with out actual feet, but our imaginations draw us continually back into that world. Our primary path is that of Christ, but we also take many side journeys: Eden, Egypt, the Wilderness, ancient Israel, Jerusalem, Galilee, and the dusty roads and strange cities of first-century Asia Minor and Greece.
That landscape may be as familiar to you as Priory Grove is to me. But just as many people here in Brecon never enter these woods to spend time beneath its canopy of trees or alongside the swift waters of the Honddu, so too do many find this biblical world utterly foreign, a blank space on their mental map of the world and their lives. And just as many people think I’m a little crazy spending almost two hours each day in these woods, so too do many think we Christians are eccentric for choosing to spend our time following again and again the dusty sandals of an itinerant Jewish rabbi in a world utterly foreign to our own.
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.
It’s so easy for us to journey less like walkers immersed in their surroundings than like passengers in a car, too preoccupied and travelling too quickly to notice the countryside. The weekly readings and the liturgy will take you into that old world whether you like it or not. You’ll meet old friends — Adam, Abraham, and Moses, John the Baptist, the disciples, and Paul, and above all else, Jesus himself — and return to places and scenes you may have known since you were a child. To the imaginations of the faithful, this foreign world is also our homeland, these strange companions our family. That they share our company, as they have with old Romans, medieval peasants, enslaved Africans, and countless other people, is one of their greatest gifts. And that all of us of different cultures, languages, time periods, denominations, and ethnicities can walk together in this foreign land is perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of our shared life together. We may not agree on a whole host of doctrine, but we know that path from Bethlehem through Golgotha to the empty tomb when we’re walking it.
So, this Christmas, pull on your boots, tie up your laces, grab your hat, and start walking. We’ve a long journey ahead of us.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon, or priest in residence, of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.