Last summer I started by accident, then completed with just a little bit of effort, a walk along the ancient pilgrim route from Glasgow to Whithorn. It wasn’t hard but I did learn a deal and in these few weeks I’d like to tell you about some of what I came across – and show you a bit of it, too – in the hope it might help us develop our faithful living.
As I’ve thought about what to say, passages from the Bible have emphasised some of the views I’ve developed, and these have become the readings for each week. We start with a Jesus out walking with his friends, who asks them to notice what they might, otherwise, have passed by. It’s in the noticing that life germinates and grows.
I walked the whole route there and back, something under three hundred miles, in about thirteen days between Easter Monday and Hallowe’en. I did it in both directions because it was easier that way – I could park anywhere on the day’s route, walk to one end then the other, and return to my car. The other benefit is that I saw the whole walk (whenever we walk, half of what we might see is hidden because it’s behind us).
I started in Govan – parking is cheap – and walked to Glasgow Cathedral. I missed, on the way up High Street, what is possibly the largest piece of religious art in Glasgow, and saw it only walking down the hill.
It’s a striking mural on the end of a tenement building. Designed and painted by Australian Sam Bates (also known as Smug), it shows St. Mungo in modern-day clothes and illustrates one of the ancient stories told about him. It’s the basis for the line in the little Glasgow rhyme which talks of the ‘bird that never flew’.
Apparently, boys in Mungo’s village were throwing stones at robins, and one was hit. When it fell to the ground, Mungo ran to it, picked it up, smoothed its feathers and then prayed for it. After that, the bird flew off. Whether this was a miracle or simply a demonstration of care and a recognition of the value of all creation, the bird’s recovery was seen as a sign by the villagers that Mungo was, indeed, special.
There is, then, in the middle of Glasgow, essentially a huge advert encouraging everyone to take notice, and care, of a wonderful world around us. That’s prompted by the Christian story and ancient Christian tradition, but it’s a message for everyone. It becomes rich, and influential, when we notice.
There’s another piece of art to notice further west along the Clyde. Near Custom House Quay sits the modernist statue of Dolores Ibárruri by Arthur Dooley. It is a memorial to the sixty-five Glaswegians killed in the Spanish Civil War and the struggle against European fascism. Ibarruri, known as ‘La Pasionaria’ – the Passionflower – was a Communist Spanish politician. She had written and campaigned extensively in favour of workers’ rights and Communist principles in fascist Spain from which she was exiled, eventually to return decades later to take up the only seat won by the Communists in the General Election of 1977.
The statue by the banks of the Clyde has inscribed on it a quotation Ibárruri borrowed, and made famous among her supporters: ‘Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees.’ I noticed this because the times she lived in, and her politics, are quite different from mine. However she saw what was going on around her; and seeing that, she played a part in a movement prompting change and standing against what she understood to be harmful and wrong.
She began doing all this as a young woman, and I notice today some young women such as Greta Thunberg noticing a global climate challenge and not being prepared to keep quiet. If there is a real risk of the world, and at least some of its seven billion people are living on their knees, then there is much to be said for those who are able getting to their feet and speaking out.
Back in Govan, at the right time of the year, you can get in to see the Govan Stones and the Govan Sarcophagus. This is probably a ninth century coffin for someone immensely influential, though not necessarily Christian (the symbols aren’t explicit, but it was housed in a church).
Apparently, it was eventually thrown out into the graveyard – though not buried – and lay in the wind and rain for many centuries before someone came across it (about a hundred and fifty years ago) digging another grave. You can see the damage around the top surface, though the sarcophagus was then protected before being brought back into the church.
It reminds me that the opposite of noticing is simply not caring. Apathy can lead to the loss of so much that’s rich and special. It takes effort to hold on to what we have, and it is all too easy to let go of what’s valuable simply because it’s familiar. We discover that we have lost precious things only when they have gone. What are we in danger of losing because we don’t recognise value, and work hard to keep well what we have?
I eventually made it to Paisley and, the next time, on to Lochwinnoch. The weather was poor on the Easter Monday I started all this, and the shops were closed: Paisley wasn’t looking its best. However, when I returned a week on the Saturday later it couldn’t have been more different.
The sun was out – and it hardly stopped shining for the whole of my walk – and Paisley Abbey looked fantastic.
This is where the pilgrimage would have started for this was the historic seat of Christian power in the area. The charter for a Cluniac priory in Paisley was granted by Walter FitzAlan, the first High Steward of Scotland, in 1163. Even before then, the town had become a pilgrim centre, associated with St Mirrin who is credited with bringing Christianity to the area in, perhaps, the sixth century. Glasgow has been, in religious terms, a mere appendage to the longstanding piety of Paisley.
Two things caught my attention there. One was another mural with, coincidentally another bird, on a tenement wall not far from the Abbey. The Kingfisher Mural by local boys Mark Worst and Ross Dinnett was completed in February, 2017. It shows the Thomas Coats Memorial Church – a Paisley landmark – and a kingfisher, sometimes seen on the banks of the White Cart Water.
It’s symbolic, too, of Alexander Wilson. Most famous for his ornithological work in the United States, Wilson was born in Paisley and started out there as a weaver and poet. During his career he drew many images of birds across north America and is known as the father of American ornithology, having published the nine-volume work of the same name. It is fitting that an illustration of a local bird features on a wall in the home town of a man whose life was spent noticing, and draughting, and sharing his insights about creation.
Speaking of noticing creation, what do you make of this poem by Norman MacCaig which, as I read it, highlights the rich obligation of noticing.
One of the many days
I never saw more frogs
than once at the back of Ben Dorain.
Joseph-coated, they ambled and jumped
in the sweet marsh grass
like coloured ideas.
The river ran glass in the sun.
I waded in the jocular water
of Loch Lyon. A parcel of hinds
gave the V-sign with their ears, then
ran off and off till they were
cantering crumbs. I watched
a whole long day
release its miracles.
But clearest of all I remember
the Joseph-coated frogs
amiably ambling or
jumping into the air—like
the huge concept of Ben Dorain.
What riches, to watch a whole long day release its miracles.Norman MacCaig
Finally, I walked from Paisley to Lochwinnoch along National Cycle Route. This is the former Glasgow, Paisley and Greenock Railway which, along with the Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway became, in time, the Glasgow and South West Railway, and ran a number of lines in west and south-west Scotland. Competition for railway lines in the mid-eighteenth century was fierce but, within a hundred years, all that had changed.
Railway rationalisation in the 1960s rather disguises the huge impact of rail transport on Paisley and throughout this part of Scotland. One subtle remaining indication is the path’s sign in the shape of a former semaphore railway signal. It also shows that while some old things sometimes need to be preserved, old ways can be repurposed.
Walking through Ferguslie Park (the railway sits below ground level) on a warm, bright, spring morning was the sort of thing you’d hope to enjoy while on holiday. It’s easy to let reputation get the better of a place; sometimes noticing needs to be a real, personal, present activity.
What has this to do with the Bible passage? Jesus encouraged people to notice their environment around, and tied in that there-and-then awareness with bigger issues.
It’s all too easy only to notice the things which suit our needs or desires. More important, but perhaps less easy spotted, issues stand all around. For Jesus, seeking (or noticing) God’s Kingdom was pre-eminent among these.
So he tells the crowd: don’t let concerns about food or clothes or housing put you off noticing what really matters. Don’t let worrying about the future blind you from seeing the things that are of lasting importance, or bind you from doing anything about them.
Get out, look around, and take part in the life of God in the world entrusted to us. Don’t do that only for your own enrichment (though be sure to be enriched by all you notice and experience). Recognise that the God who has entrusted this world to us for this time makes demands on how we look after it.
We can throw stuff out because its value is hidden by familiarity or ignorance. We can fail to spot the big issues of our day; or, having recognised them, we can choose to walk away. But pictures on walls and statues by rivers, ancient churches and coffins, and new paths, too, can all help us see more and live in rich ways. All provided we are prepared to notice, and to journey. Grace inhabits and fills our world; ‘miracles are released’ daily as MacCaig writes.
And we are blessed when, on our journeys, we notice.