'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:
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!’
(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.