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Cadair Idris: Encountering God in Wales

I sat next to my tent admiring the way the wind tickled the surface of Llyn Cau in the fading Autumn sunlight. There was no noise except for the wind, the occasional frantic flap of ravens swooping from the summit of Cadair Idris, and the regular bleating of sheep — not a car or airplane could be heard and so one 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 a hundred, five hundred, or even a thousand years ago. What do the wind, sheep, and ravens know of our time? “Eternity has no time. It is itself all time,” Tertullian had once written. Here I could see the he was right.

Earlier that day I had started my walk at Mary Jones’s Chapel (St Michael’s, Llanfihangel-y-pennant), a small medieval church famous because in 1800 the teenage Mary Jones had trekked 26 miles across the mountains to buy a bible in Bala, thereby inspiring the formation of the Bible Society. As I pulled on my heavy pack, sombrely dressed locals were making their way quietly to the church for a funeral as no doubt people have for more than seven hundred years. A little later, I passed the ruins of Castell-y-Bere, a ruinous castle that stands astride a rocky knoll and keeps watch over a long valley teeming with grazing flocks and cattle. Its crumbling walls have almost melted into the natural rock and ancient wood so that now all three seem perfectly suited to each other. A glance at my map suggested I could easily spend a week visiting nearby standing stones, cairns, and pre-Roman forts. If time has no meaning at the shore of Llyn Cau, here it permeates everything.

This is deep or thick-history, the kind that flirts with my overactive imagination as I try to answer the ever-elusive questions of “What have those places seen?” or “What must it have been like?” But in comparison to these ancient monuments I hardly exist, occupying the most fleeting of moments in the long expanse of human history; were they alive they would care little about my questions. They are each other’s companions, despite our best efforts to turn them into museums and tourist attractions.

As I sat enjoying a pint and my surroundings, I reflected on the juxtaposition of those two locations. There are few places like Wales where timelessness and thick-time dance around each other, so that thoughtful walkers find themselves alternately confronted with both the meaninglessness and vastness of time itself. When I used to hike in the Appalachian Mountains, I was often struck by the former and in Oxfordshire by the latter; only here in Wales have I encountered both. I’ve enjoyed walks along pathless moors where I’ve stumbled upon a standing stone keeping vigil as it has done for over four thousand years; through ancient woodlands where I’ve come upon an old holy well festooned with recent offerings; and along massive outcroppings in which pilgrims of old carved rough crosses.

At such times, I’m reminded that here in Wales thick-time and timelessness don’t really compete with each other as you might expect. In almost every instance they seem made for each other like an elderly couple in the twilight of a long marriage — the timeless frames thick-time, and thick-time only seems at home within timeless landscapes; both provide the unchanging frontier to the manic, ever-changing flow of human activity. Start “managing” timeless landscapes and, though its natural resources and beauty may be preserved, something of its detachment from us is lost. Reconstruct and refurbish ancient monuments or try to bottle history in a “living museum,” and it all ceases to be thick-history. It merely becomes a snapshot of a past age now enslaved to the preoccupations of the present. No, timelessness and thick-time need each other and we them.

* * *

Later, as sunset approached, I climbed to the top of Craig Lwyd to enjoy the view of the mountains of southern Snowdonia as the sky slowly faded from a rich gold to the lapis lazuli of the evening. Soon the stars would be out, and I would carefully make my way back down to my tent by headlamp. For now, though, I hunkered down in the midst of a rocky outcrop that later I read had been scattered there in the midst of volcanic activity 500 million years ago. In the valley far below me, I could see the headlights of cars speeding along the A487 in the deepening shadows of the mountains. It struck me how incongruous it was that such tiny lights — seemingly smaller than fireflies from my height — could produce such noise; the automobile is a singularly loud contraption.

It was then time for dinner and a cup of tea, so I returned to my tent. The wind had died so that now there was nothing in Cwm Cau to hear but sheep calling out “yeah” to each other and the faint sound of their munching away at grass and heather. With the descent of darkness came the kind of silence one only experiences away from human habitation. There’s nothing quite like the silence of nature. It’s not the same as you would find in a sound-proofed room because it has the quality of magnitude to it. One can almost hear — or at least want to hear — the music of the spheres because the silence seems to stretch to the stars themselves. Indeed, at moments like that I begin to wonder if the ancient cosmologists didn’t have it right after all — at least, the planets and stars seem much more companionable to me than how they are described in our textbooks. In our enlightenment, we may know them to be millions of miles away, but when I lay against a cold rock looking up at them it seemed to me that they belonged entirely to the landscape. After all, were it not for the glimmer of stars and the bright shine of the moon gradually creeping over the shadowy cliffs, all would be darkness. It was by their dim light that I could discern the dark landscape around me.

The indescribable vastness of the world’s silence was the third element of my happy evening on Cadair Idris. And it was an important element, for without it I would not have been in the reflective mood that made me aware of the intimate dance of timelessness and thick-time. And like the other two elements, the most powerful effect of the vast silence was to make me feel inconsequential. Now, that may sound horrid to you. But for me, it was freeing. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t matter. Were I to vanish now, the mountains, the old castle, Mary Jones’s ancient chapel, the sheep, ravens, and the distant stars would not care, would be no more affected than they are by each autumn’s leaf-fall. I find that thought amazingly liberating.

I imagine the path to God lies somewhere in the midst of those three elements: timelessness, thick-time, and silence.

* * *

12068774_10153314812286731_3181387440362502800_oThere is a very old legend that anyone who spends the night on Cadair Idris will either be struck mad or wake up a poet. According to another old myth, the mountain is the hunting ground to Gwyn ap Nudd, king of the Welsh underworld of Annwn, the howl of whose great hounds portends one’s death. There are other legends, too, as stories cling to Cadair Idris like the flocks that graze upon it. Some of them are the last echoes of the otherwise forgotten culture of the Romano-British and, perhaps, even earlier of the Britons who once fought invading Roman legions. Other stories are more recent but equally evocative. Old or new, all have been worked and reworked in their retelling into a single book like the stories of the Old Testament. They reflect the landscape itself, sharing in that strange juxtaposition of timelessness and thick-time. They are the storied backdrop to all the private and local stories that chart the lives of people and villages. They also imbue the hills with a personality. Cadair Idris isn’t just a mountain rising above the sea and forming the southern rim of the Harlech Dome; it’s a particular mountain storied into a particular place within Welsh folklore and history. It is the giant Idris’s Chair, King Arthur’s Seat, the hunting ground of Gwyn ap Nudd, and the mountain that young Mary Jones crossed to buy her Bible; it is also the stage for countless stories (probably no less exaggerated) told by climbers to impress friends and strangers alike.

Another juxtaposition: the vast silence of my evening by the shore of Llyn Cau belied the stories the landscape has produced. But it was people encountering the vast, wildness of that silent mountain that had produced the stories. Out of the silence had come imaginative and remarkable tales: indeed, the story of Cadair Idris. Despite those stories, the silence remains. If I hadn’t bothered to do a bit of research, I would never have heard the stories, and would have remained ignorant of Cadair’s personality. The deep drone of the wind just before the next morning’s sunrise would not have brought Gwyn ap Nudd’s hounds to mind. I would have missed the poetry of the place.

Ignatius of Antioch said that God “manifested himself through Jesus Christ in his Son, who is his Word that came forth from silence” (Letter to the Magnesians 8). Elsewhere, he claims that the Virginity of Mary, the Incarnation, and the crucifixion were shouted from the “deep silence of God” (Ephesians 19). Divine Silence and the Word are intimately tied together — the Incarnation and our Christian faith may be about speech and proclamation but never about noise. In the “still small voice” of God we encounter both deep silence and the Word that generates all our own stories, both personal and shared.

If the path to God, therefore, lies somewhere in the midst of timelessness, thick-time, and silence, then we are transported up that path by the stories that precede, surround, and follow us. The unchanging God who dwells intimately in our deep-time calls out from his own divine silence with his Word whom we encounter through stories. The tapestry of Scripture, hymns, half-remembered sermons, accounts of faithful men and women, and our own personal and family stories are what make timelessness and thick-time understandable and deep silence less threatening. Perhaps too they produce in us a deep yearning to sink more deeply into our existence, to get down beneath the facile shallows of our everyday lives to encounter a depth we recognise as home. The Welsh call this hiraeth.

* * *

I’m pleased to say that I never heard Gwyn ap Nudd’s hounds, but neither did I awake a poet (I’ll let others comment on the state of my mental health). The next day I climbed the very steep ascent from Llyn Cau to the summit of Pen y Gadair (Head of the Chair) where I was met by an astounding view of Snowdonia and the Irish Sea. I had the mountain to myself for much of that morning, and so I could delight in the landscape without a drop of self-consciousness. I walked in high spirits the ten miles back to Mary Jones’s chapel and my car, unloaded my backpack, and started for home.

Reflecting on my two days at Cadair Idris, I was struck by what the old mountain had taught me about my faith. Strip away everything else from Catholicism and, I think, you’ll encounter at its heart the juxtapositions I’d found at Cadair: timelessness, thick-time, deep silence, and deep stories. As on Cadair, these don’t contend with each other so that the heart of our faith is troubled and disturbed. Rather they dance joyfully around each other, underpinning, informing and subsisting in ways that can only seem paradoxical to us. Call this sacramental or incarnational, it reminds us that God and creation are not opposed, that our spirit and body should enjoy a nuptial love, and that the fact that God became man explains all.

I also realised, however, that such rumination would not have happened had I not inhabited that landscape, if only for two days. I grapple with ideas like timelessness, thick-time, silence, and narratives all the time; I am a theologian after all. But it was only when I inhabited the place of Cwm Cau on that cool, autumnal evening that I understood those ideas from deep within. Rather, it was only then that they acted upon me and imparted their gift of humility and smallness. I suppose I began to understand what the medieval theologians meant when they suggested that wisdom comes not from knowledge but by encountering the unfathomable mystery of God in the contemplative silence of love.

Perhaps that is a lesson we as the Church need to relearn. We so surround ourselves with noise, frenetic activity, and clutter that we stand little chance of finding the Cwm Cau of our faith: that place where we can discover God in the depths of reality and the deep silence of his Word who forever calls us to our true home. We need to learn to let go, to allow ourselves to be small, inconsequential, the fleeting creatures of dust that we are. Then we might just stand a chance of discovering the vastness of Christ’s Body, whose own deep history and deep stories faithfully convey the unchanging life of God. Then, in the deep silence of that encounter we may just possibly discover ourselves.

Mark Clavier’s other posts may be found here. The images were supplied by the author. 


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