Since leaving work 5 months ago, an exciting thing has been happening. It feels like a new book of blank pages is being fashioned for me on which a different story has the opportunity of being written. The journey is, of course, a story in its own right. But the process of travelling has, to use a technology metaphor, cleaned my brain’s hard drive from the expectations of its previous formatting - a task that I think the time, space and experiences of travel makes a whole heap easier. I now think differently than I did before this trip.
I’ve often wondered what circumstances facilitate a person choosing to live away from established societies and become a hermit. Since my early teens, my mission, my purpose has always been wrapped up in the entwining of lives and activities of the city; probably a result of the fusion between my social conscience - a treasured gift from my parents – and the notion inculcated by the modern western church that God’s attention is keenly focussed on the inner city and his desire to bring healing to it. To consider spending ones life away from the hustle, the energy, the possibilities, the mix, the destiny of ‘lives laid down’ in a city community, was always an inconceivable option for me. To opt out and choose solitude or alternatively some type of utopian community outside of the city would have meant a lack of tenacity, a lack of determination, a lack of faith, ultimately a failure to believe in divine provision in the midst of a surrounding tormented, hurting world. It would have meant, slightly arrogantly, that we, as one of God’s lights in the darkness, would have gone out. Thus in my thinking, to opt out was essentially to fail.
Recently I have begun to be aware of the existence of a new desire to gravitate towards places void of human inhabitation. The remote mountain landscapes and the wild stretches of hard to find beaches have stolen my heart and changed my view. These places contain ingredients that deeply soothe the soul. The breathtaking scenery, chiselled landscapes, enormous panoramas, imprint themselves effortlessly on the retina of the eyes and of the spirit. The air is invigorating and cleans the lungs. The water is fresh, cold, nourishing and is in abundance to drink and wash in. Not bottled. Not processed. Free and available for every living thing to feed off and thrive. All this natural created stuff generates a peace, a harmony, a balance that needs nothing more added. It is perfection just the way it is.
In between those remote places, nestled in a valley or a cove, or perched precariously on a mountain side are the small ancient villages and towns that are definitive of rural Spain and Italy. In Spain especially, the architecture and the design of public spaces has been astonishingly pretty. Churches, houses, sculptures, squares. So beautiful. And the people we’ve met usually express a kindness and generosity that is not impossible, but in our experience, far rarer to find in cities. Large towns seem to reveal (or attract) the ugly side of human nature more evidently. Cities are the temples of consumerism. We over consume. We are vastly wasteful. We over develop. We endlessly concrete. We spoil the natural order. We spoil each other. We disconnect ourselves from the earth, the environment, the elements, and often the creator. Where large numbers of people gather you are more likely to encounter the harsh effects of poverty or greed that cause people to abuse, to harm, to destroy. Ugliness. I can’t help agree with Mr Smith from The Matrix. It is hard not to acknowledge his view that humans act in a very similar way to another organism on this planet – the virus.
Of course our experience of being done over last Saturday at the beach in Solpena north of Bilbao colours my judgement here. My thoughts therefore are a tad in the extreme and also probably part of a process of deconstruction. However, there’s been a realisation growing that my previous framework of thinking about cities might well have been an unavoidable rationalisation for the maintenance of sanity while living there. If you’re reading this and loving the city, I do not wish to change your view. Cities need more committed citizens like you. And even Revelation in the bible describes heaven as a city (although one without temples). Ugliness is not always the day to day experience for sure. Brockley, for us, was like a little village of people we loved. Walking Moses in Hilly Fields, nipping to the local shops, dropping kids off at schools, working in Deptford, churching for a while at The Bear, were all activities that gave us the chance to encounter and be surrounded by lovely relationships. Bits of heaven breaking through on earth. Because of these relationships and the investment made in them I think we were more able to ignore the ugliness of the human virus around us.
There are always exceptions to these broad generalising comparisons between rural and urban. Even on the evening we were robbed, we experienced the touching kindness of strangers such as Adriana working that afternoon in the restaurant who came to our rescue translating for the police and feeding us. Or Anna who provided us shelter in the safe security of her apartment block´s parking lot for the night. Anna and Adriana were angels, lights in the midst of our own darkness. However, humanity living together on mass has an inevitable viciousness to it that I no longer want to overcome. In fact I want to avoid it and leave it to its own inexorable destruction.
I’m dreaming and searching for places that are a considerable distance away from the masses and their accompanying societal structures, dogmas and cruelty. If we find nothing on this road ahead of us, if we do not realise this emerging dream, I cannot consider retreating to the old way of living in order to provide for my family. I don’t want to opt back into the matrix of a working city life. This is a substantial reversal of expectations and it’s occurred in a relatively short period. Before, to opt out was to fail. Now, to opt out would be to truly live. To eek out an existence in the city, continually fighting the forces of darkness that are given strength by mankind’s insatiable appetite to destroy, is a battle I do not wish to engage in. At least not for a long while yet.
I have never read anything about the life of Moses (the Israeli liberator rather than our own liberating canine) for the 40 years after fleeing Egypt and prior to his encounter with God in the burning bush. But I wonder. What on earth was he doing? Was he a hermit escaping his destiny? Or maybe his episode away from Egypt gave him the perspective, the strength, the confidence to lead his people out of captivity and into freedom. I’ll have to ask him one day what it was like. In the meantime we have some more pooping to do. Thanks for listening.