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A special reflection from Edinburgh for a cold-gripped country, with Healthcare Chaplain Duncan MacLaren, and poet, Christine de Luca. Producer: Mo McCullough.

38 minutes

Last on

Sun 4 Mar 2018 08:10


From 'The Celtic' Linn CKD 073 
The BT Scottish Ensemble; Violin - Clio Gould

MUSIC:  Sigur Ros - Eg Anda
From 'Valtari', Label - Krunk


Snow has descended on many parts of these islands this week – a last icy blast of winter.  Much of the landscape is cowled in soft, pristine snow.  There’s a magical quality to the scene; but it’s a reminder too of the power of nature – when traffic grinds to a standstill even on motorways, when we can’t get to where we need to go, even within a city.  It frustrates longed-for reunions and celebrations – even spoiling plans for broadcasts, and can bring sudden danger to the most routine of our journeys.

But looking out on my city garden I’m reminded of the joy I experienced as a child in Shetland when we woke up to a big snowfall.  My thoughts were always focused on opportunities to go sledging.  But for parents, in a rural area, it meant worrying about their work, about getting in supplies of food and fuel, trimming lamps knowing the electricity supply would fail, feeding hens and sheep, and battening down.  For many it also meant fetching water. Snow somehow amplified awareness of being indoors and being out-of-doors; of comfort and discomfort, even danger; of qualitatively different worlds.  The significance of Home became intensified.  But somehow the quiet mystery of snow was memorable and transformative. 

We may have been considered remote up in Shetland, but we were generally self-sufficient and lived in a community where there was much neighbourliness.  I can only remember one time when supplies ran out and we had to be relieved by a ship after several weeks.  No doubt adults were getting anxious but for children it just added an extra edge to our excitement.  


Perhaps more than any other season, winter gets into our bones. For some it's a time of hardship and grief, where the bare earth stirs up memories of loss, and our spirits shrivel against the cold. Winter can seem interminable, and it can be hard to believe that nature is merely dormant, not dead. For some, the season can mirror the bleakness of our inner world, where emotions are numb, and the voice of God seems muffled and blanketed.

Last week I cycled across Edinburgh on empty snow-packed roads. I passed a lonely figure, shivering, at a bus stop – waiting for a bus I suspect never came. Winter can feel that way: isolating, tedious, brutal.

And yet for the child, the blank sheet of snow can be an object of bright-eyed excitement and boundless creativity. At the edge of the road, a young boy, 7 or 8, was packing a snowball between gloved hands, while his mother walked on ahead. 

'Can I throw a snowball at you?' he asked.  I stood to attention.

'Yeah, go on.'

Paff! -  came the reply, as my shoulder exploded with snow.

I gave him a thumbs-up, and he scrambled after his mother, his voice jubilant:

“I asked that man if I could throw a snowball...”

Perhaps even in the winter of our prayers, there's room for a little mischief and creativity; trusting that whatever we hurl at God will get the thumbs up, because he loves us as we are. When spiritual winter freezes all feeling and desire, perhaps the child within us can still hope and pray, with simplicity and honesty and directness.

MUSIC: Whoever lives beside the Lord - Wild Goose Worship Group
From Psalms of Patience, Protest and Praise

CHRISTINE:   Reading: Mark 10:13-16

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

MUSIC: Whoever lives beside the Lord - Wild Goose Worship Group
From Psalms of Patience, Protest and Praise


In his poem To the Tibetan Refugees, the Orcadian George MacKay Brown wrote:

                        May the house be firmly founded
And I hope there's a well ... (Copyright material)

It’s a picture of the various comforts we need to keep body and soul together:
a house that can withstand the vagaries of weather, a reliable water source nearby, warmth, basic furnishings, food and enough for the ‘lost traveller’ (with its resonance of Christ).  But he doesn’t stop at just our physical needs.  He adds a book, and something of beauty (the flowers, the stars) and a sense of blessing and security; in other words, he considers our spiritual needs.

The world seems full of ‘lost travellers’ at the moment: refugees, migrants, people moved at gunpoint from the safety of home, people living on the streets of our cities or in temporary accommodation.  Yet the world is also full of angels: neighbours checking on each other, carers battling to get to their work, and teams of emergency workers pulling out the stops to bring help to those stuck for hours on the roads.  Perhaps it’s the innocence of snow blanketing us all that somehow brings out the best in us; our communal responsibility. 

MUSIC:  Ubi Caritas - Morten Lauridsen
From 'Morten Lauridsen - Lux Aeterna'. Polyphony with Britten Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Layton.  Hyperion CDA67449


Jesus said, 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.'

Homeless Lord,
As winter transforms the landscape
And etches unseen contours in stark relief;
Give us eyes to notice the 'lost travellers' of our world:
The newcomer,
The vulnerable,
Those who feel lost inside.
Give us courage to walk the road with them. 

Homeless Lord,
As winter impresses upon us again
The visceral comforts of warmth
and bread
and rest;
And the simple joy of flowers
and stars
and a book;
Open our hearts to the needs of others
that our lives may be blessed in the sharing.

Homeless Lord,
As winter slows our pulse
And disrupts our busyness,
Purge us of our frenetic plans;
Teach us simplicity;
And re-order our priorities
that we may seek first your Kingdom.


My window-pane is starred with frost, 
The world is bitter cold to-night, 
The moon is cruel, and the wind 
Is like a two-edged sword to smite.

God pity all the homeless ones, 
The beggars pacing to and fro. 
God pity all the poor to-night 
Who walk the lamp-lit streets of snow.

My room is like a bit of June, 
Warm and close-curtained fold on fold, 
But somewhere, like a homeless child, 
My heart is crying in the cold. 


That poem is by Sara Teasdale.

As a child, snowfall lent a wonderful immediacy to the moment: watching it change from what we called softly-falling flukra to a full-on moorie-caavie.  As adults, looking out on a similar scene, perhaps we lose something of the joy and playfulness of snow, but we gain something else.  We can feel that thin veil between the sensual and the spiritual experience; between the act of keeping our balance as we venture out and the sensation of a blanketed earth, strangely made new.

 The elements outside are harsh and the window pane, with its delicate snow fringes, can act as a contemplative boundary between our instinctive, necessary, bodily living and our strange creative, spiritual yearning for meaning and belonging that marks us out as human.  However much we sense God as ‘out there’, the best place to find the Presence is deep within ourselves.  That is where God works.  That is where our creativity can bring about a better world; where we can imagine a God-centred world.   We have to start with ourselves.

Perhaps snow which stops us in our tracks has the capacity to heighten that awareness, that sense that we are more than merely molecules, as we step out of our normal routines.

The beautiful poem Snow by Louis MacNeice alludes to this heightened awareness that can come when we approach this boundary.


The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow … (Copyright material)


It’s a very comforting scene, suggesting the transformation of the world by the sudden snowfall: the heightened awareness of physical sensation and perception – the tang of the tangerine, the pink of the roses, the sound of the fire, the cold glass against the hand; and it offers too a contemplative opportunity of inside and outside.  We inhabit our own strange parallel universes – internal and external –in terms of how we live our lives both emotionally and spiritually.

MUSIC: For the Beauty of the Earth - Philip Stopford
Truro Cathedral Choir directed by Christopher Gray
From 'Do not be afraid', Regent Records 


When my travel plans are disrupted by the weather, I only pretend frustration. Another part of me sighs with relief: the world has stopped; I can finally get off. And then I look with wonder at my diary, and the things I've had to cancel, and suddenly many of them don't seem so important after all.

Winter's siege forces us into a liminal space: a threshold experience on the verge of a world where clocks have stopped and our teeming priorities are frozen beneath the ice.

It's a welcome purge: at my allotment, Nature seems to have tidied herself, as weeds die down, and the bugs retreat, and the soil is stripped bare. Inside, I snuggle close to heart and hearth, and contemplate what really matters.

We’re in the season of Lent, a time of reflection, adjustment, letting go. Our outward act of giving things up is a reminder to strip back internally. We see this in the lives of the saints, which are often marked by a disarming simplicity. In the journey of faith, only few things matter: love, compassion, patience, kindness, hope.

CHRISTINE:  Philippians 4

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

MUSIC  Restless is the Heart (Bernadette Farrell)
Choir of St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow, conducted by Frikki Walker.
Oboe: Rhona Pollard


For all that winter feels like it will never end, we know from experience that the light always comes back – though the darkness may never be far away. The woodland near my home seems skeletal, deserted. But beneath today's shroud of snow, the snowdrops are pushing up white flags of winter's surrender, and the daffodils are tuning up to trumpet the spring.

The season of Lent imagines a spiritual parallel to the returning of this light. The word itself contains the idea of length: as the days lengthen, and nature reawakens, so we’re invited to brighten our lives with hope as we approach Easter and the Resurrection.

Recently I spent time at a drop-in for people living with the challenges of poor mental health. A song by the Scottish composer and singer, Emily Smith, seemed to sow a sense of wellbeing among the group. 'Winter Song' oozes incipient hopefulness as Emily takes us on a journey from Autumn to Spring.  It’s imbued with her own conviction that faithful hope - like Spring – will blossom in the end.

MUSIC:   Emily Smith – Winter Song
From 'Too Long Away', Label - Spit and Polish

Winter is a time of scarcity, when wildlife ventures into the city looking for food. Even for ourselves, cushioned by sophisticated supply-chain logistics, things can run out. On Friday, my giant supermarket had no bread and no milk. I snatched the last bag of bagels, feeling vaguely guilty. At that moment, a line in the Lord's Prayer came to mind:

'Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses...'.

As we listen to a setting of the Lord's Prayer, perhaps we can hear it with a consciousness of those for whom scarcity crouches at the door.

MUSIC:  Pater Noster - Igor Stravinsky
Cambridge Singers directed by John Rutter
From 'Images of Christ' Collegium COLCD124


It’s easy to get caught up in the physical demands of harsh weather, to forget to feed our inner person and our need for community.  This poem which I wrote in Shetlandic has the title Faerdie-maet which means ‘food for a journey’.

In the 19th century men went fishing in open boats and were away from home for several days and nights at a time.  They took provisions!   In this poem I’m expressing my belief that it’s not just food and shelter and material things we need for life’s journey; we also need love and companionship; music and poetry … and hope.

I love the richness and intimacy of this language: words and phrases like ‘little wirt’, meaning feeble, ‘fantin’ for famished; or ‘waeled tagidder things’, which means in this context generous things sifted together, and ‘shoard ’- to prop up.


Hit’s mair as maet we need ta hadd da haert,
ta keep da boady an da sowl tagidder;
although ithoot hit we’d be little wirt.
Ta bear da costly seekin we man dö
fur meanin, ta trive trowe tick an tin,
hit’s idder kinds o nourishment we need:
a haand held oot, a kindly wird.  Fantin
fur love wir less as whit wir meant ta be.

We shoard up een anidder we whit we mak
an whit wir oppen tae: poems we write,
– lik bread ta brack – notes we play or sing,
aa kind o waeled tagidder things.  Sae aet,
share roond da wirds, da image or da tune:
keep simmertime forivver in your haert!

MUSIC:  Ubi Caritas - Morten Lauridsen
From 'Morten Lauridsen - Lux Aeterna'. Polyphony with Britten Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Layton.  Hyperion CDA67449

[Translation for reference only:

Food for a journey
It’s more than food we need for sustenance,
to keep the body and the soul together;
although without it we’d be wearied, wasted.
To bear the costly seeking we must do
for meaning, to thrive through thick and thin,
it’s other kinds of nourishment we need:
a hand held out, a kindly word.  Famished
for love, we’re less than what we’re meant to be. 

We prop up one another with what we make
and what we’re open to: poems we write
 – like bread to break –  notes we play or sing,
all kinds of generous sifted things.  So eat,
share round the words, the image or the tune:
keep summertime forever in your heart!]