I have always been fascinated by stone because in one form or another it has been around since the world began, and, in one form or another, will still be around when we are all gone!
As a youngster I lived for a few years in the Lake District, where slate has been mined for centuries, and still is. There were wonderful shades of green and blue-grey, which you can still get today. The colours depend on what minerals and organic materials were in the shale when it was laid down. There was even a silvery grey called Coniston Old Man! Geologists reckon it was laid down over the course of 500 million years, from sedimentary rock under low heat and pressure. This natural slate can withstand the most extreme environments and conditions, which makes it ideal as a building material.
But, when slate is turned on its side, it can be easily split with a hammer and chisel into separate layers of differing thicknesses. It is these qualities of timelessness, strength and layering that were in my mind this week.
I imagine that inside of each one of us there are layers of love being laid down. Daily life is the mud between the layers and the surface may be riven by life’s ups and downs. But, hopefully we will all have layers of love laid down for our parents, siblings, children and extended family, whether natural or adoptive, who form the bedrock of our emotional lives.
There will be other layers formed by people we hardly knew but who made a deep impression on our hearts. I’m thinking of my grandmother who died when I was just 5 but whom I loved with all my heart because she made me feel safe and loved when I was tiny. They say children won’t remember what you said or what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel. That was certainly true in her case.
Special friends will lay down other layers, which will still be there even when the friends have passed away. I’m thinking here of my dear friend, Pat, who died in a cycling accident some years ago. I have such fond memories of her as we had such fun together at college and for years after.
But there will be other people we meet during the course of our lives whom we respect and admire so strongly that a love develops that transcends normal feelings and is often inexplicable to others. And this is the point of my post.
When I retired from decades working in education, I was drained in every way; physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. My well had definitely run dry! I knew that I needed to be in a peaceful place where I could restore my energy and regain my ‘joie de vivre’. So, I went to work as a housekeeper at St Peter’s Grange, which at the time was a retreat and conference centre run by the Benedictine monks from Prinknash Abbey
This was a labour of love and I learned a great deal about life from the Benedictine monks I shared the chores with. Fr Alphedge especially was an inspiration. He was always so happy, building up the fire, sweeping the floor, even scrubbing out enormous pots and pans. His philosophy was to treat every moment as a sacrament, and every task as a gift to God, not a chore. He did each menial job with reverence while radiating joy, peace and stillness for almost 40 years.
Fr Alphedge in L’Astazou, Lourdes with our ACROSS pilgrimage 1993
Fr Alphedge left this life last month, and I found myself grieving and reflecting on all I had learned from him during those beautiful moments of quiet contemplation that we shared, over the soapy suds, dusty cobwebs and sooty ashes.
And it boils down to love. I learned to love myself again, to love life, to love the people I come into contact with, and to love the work in-hand. This is not a shallow kind of love. As Fr Alphedge would be the first to admit, some people – monks included – can do irritating things that temporarily annoy one. But, deep inside, love is laid down like the mudstone that changes over time to riven slate. The people we meet are like the crystals of quartz embedded in it and the formative experiences we have are like the minerals and organic matter that give the slate its colour.
Many years ago, my parents picked up a large slab of slate in the Lake District and carved letters from their names into it, which they painted gold. It reads ‘Terstels’ from Terry and Stella, and is still on the front of the house where they lived until they died. I pass it every day and it reminds me that although they are gone, my love for them is still as strong as ever. I guess it is the first layer of love I laid down.
I think we each have a limitless capacity for love- it costs nothing, takes up no space, and it is very precious.
Another monk, a Salesian this time, who was rather irreverently known as Bro. Joe, taught me not to hide love but to spread it, share it, give it freely, and let others know that they are loved. This poem was printed on his funeral order of service and I think it is very good advice!
If with pleasure you are viewing
Any work that I am doing,
If you like me, or you love me, tell me now.
Don’t withhold your approbation
Till the Father makes oration
And I lie with snowy lilies o’er my brow.
For no matter how you shout it,
I won’t care so much about it,
I won’t see how many tear drops you have shed.
If you think some praise is due me.
Now’s the time to slip it to me,
For I cannot read my tombstone when I’m dead.
More than fame and more than money
Is the comment warm and sunny,
Is the hearty warm approval of a friend.
For it gives to life a savour
And it makes me stronger, braver,
And it gives to me the spirit to the end.
If I earn your praise bestow it,
If you like me, let me know it,
Let the words of true encouragement be said.
Do not wait till life is over
And I’m underneath the clover,
For I cannot read my tombstone when I’m dead.
I need to thank Michelle at Honister Slate Mine for the great photos