By Mark Clavier
I sat on a rock beside my tent high up on Cadair Idris, admiring the way the wind tickled the surface of Llyn Cau in the fading autumn sunlight. On three sides of the mountain lake, rock and turf climbed sharply upwards towards the summit. Behind me, the valley Cwm Cau (Welsh for closing valley) dropped away towards the east and south, its centre traced by a rocky stream and its southern edge by the path I’d followed to the lake. Sheep grazed on dense, tall grass or stood like sentinels on high, seemingly unreachable rocks. Cwm Cau is a magical place: the bottom of a massive cup or seat carved away by glaciers millennia ago when Wales and Canada were close neighbors.
Sitting alone on that rock, I could easily imagine that time has no meaning in the craggy amphitheatre of Cwm Cau. My view and the sounds that echoed around me were now as they surely must have been ever since sheep were first introduced in the long, forgotten past. What do rocks, the wind, sheep, and birds know of our time? “Eternity has no time. It is itself all time,” Tertullian had written in the third century. Here I could see that he was right.
Moments like this are when I realise how elastic time is and how obsessed with minutes and seconds our frenetic lifestyles force us to be. Spend a day walking alone in the countryside and you quickly discover that the mind slips into a different mode of consciousness: reflective and yet receptive to what lies around. Without such experiences, I don’t know how one can speak meaningfully of a God who’s eternal or have any sense of what heaven might be like.
Moreover, Cwm Cau isn’t just any place. Even now I can see the shape of the lake, the features of the rocks scattered around it, and the way the light plays on the high cliffs. I can picture the sheep perched precariously up and down the steep slopes and know that even now, in the cold driving rain on the day I’m writing this sentence, they’re still there. I can see the birds playing in the air currents and the pools of water, blackened by the peaty earth, among the tall moor-grass. All these things and more imbue Cwm Cau with personality. It feels as distinct as any human personality. Anyone who has taken to trekking in the wilderness knows that each place has its own character, its own irreducible personality. Sights, sounds, the feel of the air, the smell of earth and plants, and, most of all, the way these all interweave to present a strong impression to the receptive and perceptive mind makes one locale unique from another.
The personality of such places is as changeless as the earth — we simply can’t comprehend the deep geological and climatic periods to which they’re subject. Seasons pass over such landscapes as moods over our loved ones, making them seem different for a spell without actually changing their underlying character. From our vantage, natural landscapes seem to remain the same generation after generation.
Because such places are so immeasurably ancient, changing at an imperceptibly slow pace, they elongate my sense of time, pressing my own understanding of past-present-future to breaking point. They’re incredibly more ancient than any concept I have of being old, will be around far beyond any hopes and fears I have about the future, and have been and will be present throughout human history to anyone who finds them. The passage of human time is nothing more than the present in the elongated lifespan of Cadair Idris. What’s a few thousand years in comparison to 500 million? As Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice exclaims, “What are men to rocks and mountains?” To Cadair Idris, the 30 thousand years separating the first humans in Wales from me are as an instant.
I find this combination of timelessness and personality compelling because they appear contradictory. Human personalities change all the time, adapting to the people and circumstances that affect them. Timelessness is also changelessness, since to change from one thing into another is to invoke a then and now, a before and after. For this reason, some theologians argue that portraying God as timeless makes him distant and impersonal. How can an unchanging, timeless Deity respond to our prayers, which are so very often focused sharply on others or ourselves in the anguish of present suffering?
Scripture, of course, is full of examples of God responding immediately to human activity: speaking with people like Moses, responding to prayers, and even getting angry or being pleased. All these suggest that God can be affected by his creation — by us humans — and responds directly to it, which implies too that he can change. On the other hand, James says in his epistle that in God there’s “no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1.17) and Paul assures us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Rom. 11.29). In the words of the great hymn:
we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
and wither and perish, but naught changeth Thee.
But if God is unchanging then doesn’t this imply that he’s ultimately uncaring? How can anything be personal if it doesn’t react and respond? The great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann states the obvious answer: “a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being.”
Places like Cwm Cau, however, demonstrate that timelessness can actually be intensely personal. Indeed, timelessness and dependable changelessness are part of their strong attraction. I suppose my encounter with such incredibly ancient landscapes is why I’ve never been troubled by the idea of a changeless God. Just spend time in the wilderness or return to the same spot after a space of time and observe how there can be no contradiction between timelessness and personality. That a changeless landscape becomes intensely personal when it plays on our affections teaches our imaginations to see how a timeless God can also be a personal one. If I have the good fortune to return to Cwm Cau 20 years from now, I’ll encounter an old friend unchanged. I may even feel young in that reunion.
My treks into changeless wildernesses like Cwm Cau are like inhabited parables, natural illustrations of what has been revealed. They have taught me that there’s no contradiction between timelessness and the personal, that even within creation my deepest affections can be engaged by that which seems never to change. Having accepted that teaching, I can now see signs of divine immutability wherever I go. God is timeless; God is personal. How do I know? Because he created places like Cwm Cau that are also timeless and personal. And having encountered him in such places, I can’t soon forget him. That’s the nature of God, as Jacob discovered in his own wilderness.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon, or priest in residence, of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales. This essay is excerpted from his new podcast series, Paradoxes in an Ancient Landscape: What a Welsh Mountain Taught Me about God & the World.