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'Earth’s crammed with heaven:’ Sharing the Road a Little with David Adam

This address was given on 21st August 2018, based on David Adam's work: The Wonder of the Beyond, for the Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library, Middle Park.

Three snippets from the writings of David Adam:

Firstly, a…

a lovely story in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of three Irishmen who landed in Cornwell after having crossed the sea in a boat made of hide and without oars. When they were asked in the presence of King Alfred of Wessex why they had come they replied, “We stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where.” (A Desert in the Ocean by David Adam p17)


l (David Adam) used to travel by bus to Newcastle to see my future wife, Denise. On this journey the conductor used to say, “We are coming to the end of the journey, to the terminus, this is where you all get off.” There was a finality in his words, suggesting no one could go any further, and yet not one of us would stay in the terminus; the end of this journey was the beginning of another. The terminus itself often looked dull and a little frightening but no one would stay there. They would move on, in my case I looked forward with great anticipation…..Often Denise would meet me at the terminus. I then did not notice how dull and frightening it was, only her presence.

(A Desert in the Ocean by David Adam p118)

And this final piece is from the book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

‘I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved anyone. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you, “I am busy with matters of consequence!” that makes him swell with pride.’

‘But he is not a man - he is a mushroom!’

‘A what?’

‘A mushroom!’

(quoted in The Wonder of the Beyond by David Adam p136)

“We stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where.” When you recognise yourself as a pilgrim on the road, you understand that life is to be lived as an adventure. For David Adam, God is found at the heart of human life, and in the whole of creation, and this God is Love, and a Love that is deep, abundant, alive to the human senses and a Love which relishes adventure.

Pilgrims who love God, possess something a little like the foolishness that takes over someone who is in love, that sense of being on the road for the very sake of being on the road. Their values are different from the more worldly values. They are not bound down by security; they recognise that they are held in God’s hand. For pilgrims, being alive to the world and attentive to the unknown is a recognition that wherever we go, God’s presence is always there before us, and with us. Therefore, fear becomes courage, hardship a deepening of compassion and the unknown is opportunity for growth into fullness of life.

“We are coming to the end of the journey, to the terminus, this is where you all get off.” All endings, even the scary-looking ones like death, are new beginnings. There is no such thing as living in the terminus. They are markers or places of transition to new depths of understanding, or fresh worlds waiting to be discovered. They can be places we feel Something or Someone calling us to go to. They can also be times of uncomfortable uncertainty.

David Adam’s writing will often point out images that are ordinary or from the natural world to help us see God’s Presence: the tides of the ocean, the new day, the moon and the stars. Like ebb tide, the terminus is the place where everything’s coming to an end. But actually it’s also the place where we ask - where do I go next? It’s a crossover point, an invitation to take a new direction. Creation has very real boundaries and end points - and though they may look frightening or absent of love, these are creative places. Glory is found at the edges.

‘He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved anyone. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you, “I am busy with matters of consequence!”’ What are the matters of consequence for us in our lives? For each one of us, in our ordinary day to day activities, with our families, with our work, with those people we meet on the street or nudge up close to yet so far away from in our cars - what is it that is most important?

For David Adam it’s the very wonder of creation, the very seeing of the mystery: the beholding of a flower or tree or the ocean. To be alive is to recognise how connected we are to what’s around us. To be alive is to own our sensory experience and by that means then we understand that God doesn’t only meet us on a vertical plane, but a horizontal one as well.

In this autobiography, The Wonder of Beyond, the reader gets the sense that that David Adam’s heightened and sensitive awareness of a God, who is Love, Creator and Sustainer of all life, goes right back into his early childhood. Although the name of God was rarely mentioned in his childhood growing up in his family in the 1940s in Alnwick, North East England, there was a very powerful sense of Love’s presence. His father was both compassionate and wise.

The autobiography begins with David Adam telling of his father’s self-described ‘fortunate accident’: as a young man in the early 1930s, he accidentally cut off two fingers by means of a mechanical saw. He subsequently got the sack for not using the saw properly so took to the roads to find work. And this was how he met his wife, an English woman who was with a group of travellers. They hooked up, left the travellers and were married three days later in Inverness. They had ‘no money, no home, no possessions, no real prospects. But they had love, the beauty of the landscape, and youth on their side.’ (Wonder of Beyond p4) And though they struggled with poverty, losing their first children due to malnutrition, later his father used to say to David in relation to this accident: ‘You do not know how lucky you are to be here.’ (Wonder of Beyond p5) Over the years his father found employment as a labourer, and was kept out of the war and made a driver because this damaged hand. Though the family were continually looking out for the ‘ticky man’ whom they had to borrow money from, they were ‘lucky to be here’ because they had the natural world to enjoy, they had each other to love, and they discovered that this love made more things possible.

David Adam’s father helped him experience a love that willingly sets free as welcomes back. When David Adam was 8 or 9 he wanted to leave home, his father relented and ‘with no harsh words only what seemed a willingness to let (him) go’ helped him pack his suitcase (with extra heavy things he subsequently believed later) and saw him on his way. David got to the end of the road struggling with the case, then sat on it and wept, hoping no-one would see. His father came down and kindly sat down beside him - ‘hello, you haven’t got very far, do you want to come home?’ And here, David Adam says, ‘I experienced the ability to walk out if I wanted to but also the loss in going. I was also made aware of the love that welcomed me back, that loved me though I had chosen to turn my back on it. Through a loving home I was learning the love of God.’ (Wonder of Beyond p10-12).

For David Adam, as with the early Celtic Christian Church, the God of Love is made manifest in the Trinity. In The Cry of the Deer he writes: ‘We have a Creator who brings order out of chaos, a Saviour who offers life beyond the many deaths and hells of this world, a Spirit who breathes life into the inanimate; we should therefore be able to walk with a little more confidence. We should be the adventurers and explorers. We can live where people take the fullness of life seriously, and yet see that it is not a tragedy.’ (The Cry of the Deer p117. The Trinity is founded on relationship: the Father (or Mother, just as meaningful to the Celtic-Christians), the Son and the Spirit, and each of us is invited in a very real sense to participate in this relationship.

David Adam’s father also encouraged him to use his eyes - ‘to look and take in what was around me.’ And through him ‘from an early I was discovering that life is to be adventured and that we cannot remain forever in a safe place.’ From their walks together ‘I discovered that every day brought something new to see or experience; no day is a repeat of the day that has gone before.’ (Wonder of Beyond p5-6)

Christian pilgrims of the early Celtic church recognised three scriptures. The New Testament needs the Old Testament to be understood fully. But both Testaments need Primary Scripture. And Primary Scripture is our world. Creation has its own intrinsic teachings. Our relationship with our creation and her creatures informs our hard wiring from childhood. Without an ability to relate well with one another, to feel our connection with the earth, and have a desire for a relationship with God in our lives, we will not be able to begin to properly understand any scripture. For all of us, hard wired healthily in the world or not, seeking out and learning the teachings of Creation take a lifetime’s practice. Such Primary Scripture becomes the formation of our understanding about God.

As a boy David Adam became keen to see everything his world at home had to offer. He requested a telescope and a microscope. Though the quality of these instruments was not very good because of cost, they did enable him to learn the importance of focusing in on things and looking closely over a period of time. In this process objects became subjects. What is in our world has form and place, and has a right to be here; just as each of us does. As a boy, home and its environs was a place of engagement. He didn’t need to go on holiday to Bali or Europe to find God or discover the wonders of creation. Where he was already was full of wonder. And when you read his books you sense how he is still graced with this perception today. Towards the end of Wonder of Beyond he writes:

‘The present is a gift to be opened yet most of us rush by to some future event without even noticing the wrappings. Enclosed in every moment in every encounter is the potential for wonder, for joy, for gift of the Presence. If only we would open our eyes and give our attention the world in which we live is capable of suddenly showing us that we live in a wonderful environment.’ (Wonder of Beyond p134)

By paying attention we learn to love the earth; we recognise our dependence upon our environment and each other. And we grow in spiritual understanding. The presence of heaven on earth surrounds us in the here and now. “We stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where.” In his book A Desert in the Ocean which is about the spiritual journey of St Brendan, David Adam goes so far as to say that ‘The Celtic pilgrim saw it was better to die in adventure than to remain fixed in a place where one was not fulfilled.’ (Desert in the Ocean p112) This is because to be on pilgrimage is to recognise you and others are on a lifetime’s journey of growth. To travel with this sense of ‘we care not where’ is not to be careless or irresponsible. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. ‘We care not where’ because our eyes are so full of care in being attuned to what we encounter around us in the here and now. We attend to what is real. And the love of God will always take us ‘back home’, that is, our centering anchor point within ourselves. Home is not out there; but within our very self.

God is always bigger than we are - than our language, our thoughts, our actions. Learning to reopen our eyes to the adventure of life restores balance and wholeness, brings life givingness. This will not only help us overcome tragedy, but, David Adam quotes Paul Berger from A Rumour of Angels, ‘more importantly it will be an overcoming of triviality. In openness to the signals of the transcendence the true proportions of our experience are rediscovered. This is the comic relief of redemption; it makes it possible to laugh and play with a new fullness.’ (Wonder of Beyond p14) God accompanies us wherever we go; and, not only is God at our destination before us, but is in our remembering of past events. God too, is not only revealed by word of mouth in theology or the priest in the Christian Church, but by many writers and artists and musicians. God’s outpouring is expressed by a whole plethora of artistic expression, including the very living of a life. God is the first architect and artist. And as creatively engaged artists know, like the road itself, no true art can ever be owned or monopolised by one individual, incorporation or institution.

As a teenager David Adam became a server in an Anglican Church. But what he seems to recall more vividly than time as a young man spent in church were the Sunday afternoons he spent alone at Hulne Abbey, built on the site of the first Carmelite monastery in England founded in the 13th century. ‘It was said that the monastery was founded on this site because the hill opposite looked like Mount Carmel.’ (Wonder of Beyond p8) The ruins of Hulne Abbey became his sacred place, his Holy Land. He attended the local grammar school but was much more prone to enjoy the ‘blackbird’ than the ‘blackboard’, ‘to listen to the song of the lark, rather than my teacher.’(Wonder of Beyond p18) He left school, by choice, just before completing his O Levels so he could bring in a wage for his family at the local colliery, in other words, down pit.

When I taught literature for a few years at Fitzroy Community School with Faye Berryman, we would encourage the children to seek out the ‘turning points’ in the plot of a novel. These were paragraphs or moments when the direction of the plot would shift or change. This could happen unexpectedly and dramatically, or slowly and purposefully. Usually, in the novel, these turning points would be significant moments of change. Reading David Adam’s autobiography you become aware that for him, terminous moments are something akin to turning points. They can happen suddenly but also slowly in the midst of a busy active life. They are ‘nudges’ from the Spirit. As a young 16 year old he was happy with going to dances and pubs and friends, but also at this time there ‘was this nudging of my life in a certain direction and yet I cannot say why this should be. Something more than the words that were said, the space between the words often spoke louder. Something, Someone was calling…nothing definite. (Is it ever?).’ (Wonder of Beyond p28)

And it came as some surprise even to himself, when after one all night shift in the mines and whilst having coffee with his father at a café in Alnwick, he blurted out: ‘I want to be a vicar.’ His father’s response: ‘You silly b-(ugger)! Go and get yourself some sleep and see if you can talk some sense.’ (Wonder of Beyond p29) His mother was more supportive and encouraging. At her instigation he spoke with his own vicar, who gently suggested he be confirmed and offered to teach him Latin. It was a visiting clergy friend who suggested, since David had no qualifications, he should apply to the SSM, the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham. And here is the place where he received his training for priesthood.

He attributes much of his formative spiritual understanding from Kelham: the need for taking time over his studies as well as the enjoyment of his own desires to be out in nature or playing soccer or fixing things in the boiler room; he learned a respect for time and experience - no student was ever allowed to preach until ordained; he came to understand the benefit of a disciplined rhythm of prayer in the day, and; most importantly the call to live lightly, ‘no one should have anything that he could not willingly lay aside.’ (Wonder of Beyond p63) Though his father always found the choice of his vocation ‘strange’, his mother was thrilled. Neither ever chided him for the loss of income. David Adam was ordained on Advent Sunday in 1959 at Durham Cathedral and sadly his mother didn’t live long enough to attend.

His first curacy, sent by the SSM, was at St Helens, Auckland, County Durham. He had, by this stage already met his future wife, Denise who was studying religious education and soon after his ordination they married in Newcastle. His next parish was a large new housing estate in West Hartlepool; again it was a poor parish with a great deal of unemployment. It was particularly during his time in the mid-1960s at West Hartlepool where he came to see that ‘There is a danger of suggesting that God is more concerned about our church than he is about the world which he loves. We need to learn to show that God is concerned with, is present in, all of life. He is there when we travel to work, in the office, in the shop, when we are depressed or frustrated. He is present in our joys and celebrations. Even when we forget or ignore him he is still with us. Our faith is not a set of rules laid down but rather an entering into an exciting relationship with the living God who is with us at all times and in all places.’ (Wonder of Beyond p92) His work in a psychiatric hospital helped him see that when a person’s life is said to ‘break down’ what is really happening is that here they are ‘breaking through’; their lives are crying out to grow in a new direction. The terminus isn’t terminal.

Once more, after 3 ½ years, trusting that felt sense of the spirit nudging them to launch out into the deep the young couple moved to the beautiful Northern York Moors and the parish of Ainthorpe. It was here that David Adam further developed his ‘recital prayer’ theology. He had recognised for a long time that reciting prayers, like mantras, helps our spiritual growth. As a young boy he had been taught hymns and songs at the Salvation Army and Baptist Church. He later joined an Anglican Church choir and began to learn that ‘songs, hymns and rhythmical prayers …. help to deepen our awareness and give us words to help us express what is in fact almost inexpressible. Prayers and hymns that have a rhythm or a beat are more easily remembered and not only help us to say something about our feelings and awareness but also deepen them.’ (Wonder of Beyond p16)

Sensing that people needed prayers to say easily at home and at work he was inspired at Ainthorpe by the Carmina Gadelica (collection of prayers from the Celtic Christian Oral Tradition) and Poems From the Western Highlanders by G.R.D. McLean to experiment with writing his own prayers in the Celtic Christian tradition. One that he started then was the ‘Caim’ or the encircling prayer: ‘We are in God and God is in us’ or otherwise known as the Prayer of Seven Directions: ‘God before me, God behind me, God on my right, God on my left, God above me, God beneath me..’ and ‘only after we experience the greatness of God can we truly rejoice in the last direction that God is in us.’ (Wonder of Beyond p105)

Together with practicing this ‘existential wonder’ at creation, recital prayers help us maintain focus on God even through those times in life that are very painful. David Adam emphasises our need when feeling desperately challenged by life to stay in the process, ‘don’t flit’ from tragedy. He encourages us to the search out for where we have a sense of God’s hand even during the most difficult times. Today, he says, many people seek to escape, ‘to avoid the issues, to tranquilise themselves with hyperactivity, science, religion or drugs. That is to retreat from the fullness of life - and that is a very sensible thing to do if there is no God!’ (Cry of Deer p177) But that we have a God, as God, Son and Spirit, means we always have this presence with us as we are called to face tragedy or pain or mundanities of life. We are not alone in facing the challenges. So there is no cause to escape ‘into a fantasy world where values and securities are of our own making.’ (Eye of the Eagle p139)

For David Adam one of the biggest dangers in our lives ‘are the places where we do not experience anything at all.’ (Desert in the Ocean p101) There is a danger in our modern world because of constant media of having seen places before we get there, or of seeing the same shops when we arrive; travel itself can lose that edge of being called into something greater than we are. When we let go of the ability to see, when we lose that felt sense or glimpse of beauty and depth, and become seekers who are satisfied only with superficiality and quick fixes, then ‘life becomes more of a problem or we become dull and bored.’ (Desert in the Ocean p32)

Being alive means there are times when we experience hardship; and these are times when we are called to ‘launch out into the deep’. We will be ‘disturbed out of our security and complacency…… called to adventure and risk so that we remain fully alive and sensitive to our world, the people in it and to our God.’ (Wonder of Beyond p91) After 23 years in Ainthorpe, although with something of an inkling that it was time to move on, the invitation to be Vicar of Lindisfarne, the Holy Island in 1989 was unexpected and came as a shock to him. His initial response was, ‘No, thank you.’ (Wonder of Beyond p114)

But the nudging this time seemed to come as much from other people as that felt sense of the Spirit in himself. In reading about David Adam’s time as Vicar of Lindisfarne, the chapter entitled, ‘The Lord is Here’, there is a great sense that this period of his life just before retirement, was a as much about hyper-practical busyness as it was a culmination of a lifetime’s spiritual growth and maturity. It was a season of flourishing. The challenge of having to hold balance between managing busloads of visitors whilst maintaining a church of prayer and contemplation amidst the memory of the integrity of its former saints, together too with having to minister to his own small community living on the Island whilst looking after his own and his family’s needs, is only glimpsed. The daily rhythm of prayer and mass kept ‘some balance in this hyperactive existence.’ (Wonder of Beyond p 117) But it was an experience which he found enlivened the Church as well as enriched himself and the small Lindisfarne community.

I want to finish with one passage, which for me summarises so much about the life and work of David Adam. His writing, (I’ve never met him), affirms, inspires and also makes me uncomfortable - or at least, never lets me settle into becoming too comfortable:

In 1989 I was made a canon of York, in the minster that is on the site where Paulinus baptised Hilda and Edwin, where Chad was bishop and Wilfred built a stone church. It was here that Archbishop Theodore consecrated Cuthbert as bishop in front of King Egfrith on Easter Day in 685. Once again a ‘cloud of witness’ surrounded me. Here was the history of the Church in England all about me and I was a living part of it. No wonder I felt overawed when made ‘canon of York and prebend of Botevant’ and was led to my own stall within the minster. When I asked where Botevant was I was told that no one really know; it was probably on the coast somewhere and had fallen into the sea. I was likely made the prebend of a lost community of an area of land under the sea. Its very name Botevant probably meant ‘Bote’, that is ‘booty’ or ‘profit’ and ‘vant’ meaning ‘want’, so it was ‘of little profit.’

Perhaps this was reflected in my payment for being a canon: I was given a once-off payment of one bread bun! No one can say that the Church is not quaint at times or that it lacks a sense of humour. I took my bread bun home, baked it until it was hard and then varnished it. So I am still the proud possessor of a 20-year-old bread bun!

(Wonder of the Beyond p 108)

In my own life I am continually drawn to those places that make me feel safe or comfortable. A great part of my own heart is invested in my possessions, my income, my job. Possessions and money give me security. A job gives assuages my fear of a future that could be without a home or means for food. These promise me I won’t be homeless. If my job were less secure would I love it as much? If I had fewer possessions, would I be less happy? David Adam reminds me again and again, that ‘life is rich when it is not measured by what you own.’ He reminds me too, that in the movement away from the ‘possession’ of material things or desire for security, and more towards putting one’s faith in God and ‘entering more deeply the present moment and light of eternity’ (Wonder of Beyond p64), in this movement there is always the experience of that edge of loss.

Deeply loving connections with our friends and families also will necessarily involve the bereavement of their passing. Or their bereavement in our own passing. Letting go and experiencing loss is part of life. We are none of us protected from it. The temptation for me, is either to attempt cheating at life and store up as many reserves as possible against the inevitable, or retreat from this deep and dangerous love. I am tempted to go into, what David Adam calls the ‘shadowland’ that place where we are timid and refuse to feel deeply. In other words, I am tempted to refuse to live. To live fully is to love deeply, and that means to experience the feeling of loss deeply. What we have loved, other people, our work and our possessions, will be lost and fall into the sea.

But what I find so inspirational and encouraging about the wisdom in David Adam’s writing is that when we have that sense of right relationship in the world, which is formed by Primary Scripture then grown with in the Gospels and wisdom of Scripture - when we have this, then we are called to value and respect what possessions we have but also hold them lightly, to value and honour our work but not be defined by it. To intensely engage with and greatly love our friends and family and community and creation, is living out real life itself. The profound terror of loss becomes transformed when experienced in a loving relationship with God, Christ and Spirit at the centre of our lives. Here’s a relationship that to the world may look like nothing, but in which when I invest everything - even the brunt of my own periods of anger, pain and frustration - brings with it joy and hope and meaning. Entering into this relationship offers the very fullness of life itself.