When I want to clear my head, or need to think, or feel the urge to pray, (and sometimes all three can combine in a feeling of longing and wish for solitude) - when any of that happens, a favourite place to go is Brimmond Hill. Recent years when I go out and about I take my camera, and try to pay more attention to what is there. To see what is there, to step outdoors from the constraints and concerns of our own mind and to observe the world around, to breathe and listen to the environment in which we walk, to be alive and alert to the context of which we are more or less aware, is for me a deliberate act of self-discipline.
So today I was at it again. The gorse is just beginning to bloom, much of the winter moorland is still barren and flat, but the birds were active, noisy and letting the world know they are there. I was preoccupied, and not at home in my own mind and heart. The news from London of people being killed and injured as an intentional act of political violence is a difficult series of events to process. Some call it a hate crime, others think that is to underestimate the brutal reality of evil. Such acts are the opposite of mindless. On the contrary, they are mindful acts. They are planned, rehearsed and motivated by drives that are devoid of any braking system. They are not inexplicable. On one level the explanation is as clear as the video footage of a man in a car intent on carnage.
Yet, at another deeper and darker level, a disturbing and terrifying question insinuates itself, weaving its toxic trail into our deepest fears: What is it that prepares a human mind, conscience and emotional constitution to carry out actions of such indiscriminate violence, studied evil, and suicidal determination? What kind of human being thinks, feels, acts like that? What barcode traits of humanity have to be erased to make it possible for one human being to simply see a crowd as an agglomerate of targets for hate, violence and killing?
Thinking such thoughts as I walked on the beautiful hillside overlooking east Aberdeenshire, I was also doing my best to pay attention to what was there, to step outdoors from the constraints and contours of my own mind. And I came to the old stile near the top of the hill. I pass it every time, and often wonder about the feet that have walked this path, the people who have climbed its step, and made their way safely over the barbed wire fence that used to be there. Stiles are for crossing barriers, for overcoming obstacles in our path. From the angle I was standing the stile looked old, rugged, and something else. Where the step and the post intersected there was the weathered, lichen covered shape of a cross. The cruciform image is ubiquitous on doors, windows, telegraph poles, and yes, fences.
But this time, in the context of my own brooding thoughts about the evil and hate that visited innocent and defenceless people yesterday on Westminster Bridge, the cross exuded a power that pulled the rug from under my best attempts at making sense of such irruptions of evil. The cross is also about overcoming barriers. And yet reconciliation is impossible where hate persists, enmity is normalised, violence is the default mechanism of human exchange, and no solution is tolerated other than the death of the enemy.
At the living core of Christian faith are the most outrageous statements about God, and what God is about. "God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them... "If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God..."..."God commends his love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Forgiveness is not reconciliation, but it is the first and essential move towards reconciliation. Repentance is not reconciliation, but it is likewise a first and essential step towards reconciliation. What the cross demonstrates beyond the limits of human imagining, thinking or feeling, is a love that absorbs the distilled essence of evil and drains the toxins of their never ending half life. "He who knew no sin was made to be sin, so that we in him might become the righteousness of God."
With camera in hand, held steady to capture the image of an old rugged cross, I was made aware today, yet again, of the impenetrable mystery of evil. But I was also made aware, yet again, of the revealed mystery of a love that defies our most categorical certainties. I prayed sitting on that stile, for people I don't know, them and their families and friends. With my back against the cross, I prayed for a world broken, divided, with jagged edges and lacerating fences, and I prayed to the God whose reconciling love embraces a bleeding world, and whose own blood reaches our deepest suffering with redemptive intent.
O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust, life's glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.