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Arriving home from school

Arriving home from school, I find a letter addressed to 'My Son'. Expectantly, I tear it open hoping for a late birthday present. It wasn't. It read, ‘Now that you have turned 18, it's time you participate in the family tradition...’

Tradition? I know nothing of this!

‘We’ll pick you up 10am Sunday morning. Bring wet gear, extra warm clothing, your walking boots, and whatever else you want, that you can carry...

With mounting trepidation I wait for Sunday. Even ringing my uncle didn't help, will just have to wait till Sunday morning, have already repacked my rucksack six times.

Dad's friend turns up in an old beaten-up estate car. Dear God, please help us not break down. ‘Get in!’ he bellows, ‘and don't speak.’

What have I been signed up for?

We drive for forty minutes in silence. I hate silence. What a shame I’m required to remain silent .‘Can I put on the radio?’ I ask.

“I said, NO talking!”

An hour and a half later, we arrive at a field where I find another thirty four men of various ages. My not very talkative driver hands me a tent and instructs me pitch it and clear my gear away. If you want the toilet, use the trees over there or a portaloo up that path. When you hear a bell, go to the large marquee in the next field

After setting up, a few men come over and introduce themselves as guides for this journey. Guides... I don't even know where I am. They tell me to go and chat with the others for they will be your companions for the rest of the week.

The next few days are a blare of activities and sessions; some incredibly powerful and challenging, but too painful to talk about here.

This is now the penultimate day of a week-long event where I have been stretched, worn down and rebuilt in an ongoing cycle.

Now I have been silent for over twenty hours, something that if you know me would let you understand how difficult this part was.

The only sounds were the wind, gently rustling through the trees and the cry of a kite , searching for sustenance. Nature is such an awe-inspiring and grounding influence. No wonder God made so much of it.

I am currently moulded between a boulder and an outcrop of Scottish heather, shivering with rain cascading over all parts of my body. The cold has penetrated through five layers; I came prepared for the worse and it found me. This should be a warm July afternoon. Unfortunately, this has turned into the coldest, wettest July in years. After squelching through bracken and climbing over slippery, slimy boulders I find my quiet place. It overlooks a slowly meandering river and is surrounded by steep hills on three sides. Dragonflies hover over the rippling water scooping up small insects, while a salmon leaps ever onward, following a pre-ordained journey to its spawning ground.

Nature and I are one.

Nope, we are not! I am freezing, hungry, tired and miss talking to someone. But what I have had is a chance to seek and hopefully find out who I am.

I learnt that in the old days, the elders would take the young men out into the wilderness for initiation, to discover what it means to be a man. This is what this week has been all about. It has helped me ground myself in God’s wonderful creation. But more importantly, what it means to be a man; not just in a worldly sense, but for me as a young man of God.

Now they are herding us onto a bus and yes, you've got it: no talking.

I arrive back exhausted, hungry and looking forward to a warm shower. Yes, it's a portable shower as well. Walking into the marquee, I get the shock of my life. My dad is standing waiting for me. I run over and give him a hug. 'Thanks Dad! Thank you for the invite.'

This whole experience has been a lesson in understanding how I tick, and coping with difficult situations

Death the only certainty

Being told that Jenny may not last a year takes some adjusting to. I had looked forward to adventures over perhaps two decades of active retirement with my wife. We might have less than twelve months of failing health. On the road to work I see a hearse and my eyes fill with tears.

We men are not good on mortality. Unlike womenfolk we don't have the monthly cycle reminding us with blood of life and death. We don't have the possibility of giving birth, to jolt our egos into the necessary perspective that growth is painful and brings with it withering and certain death.

If I lived in a more "primitive" society as a young man I would have been taken through an initiation ritual by my elders. Shown the terrors of some little death I might learn better respect for the natural order and my humble place in it. The old men would have taught us young bucks that we none of us are in control. Death is the only certainty.

In western culture we are not good at aging, frailty and death. We tend to marginalise and mask it to concentrate on immediate and sustained gratification in the prevailing 'me' culture.

Just now I am making a picture to remind me of my own Men's Rite of Passage a few weeks back, aged 55 years. The sheep's skull in the bottom left corner is there for a reason. The retreat was four days, sleeping under canvas, close to nature, in the rain swept Lake District. Late in the programme we fasted 24 hours spending most of that in solitary contemplation out on the fell sides. My picture captures something of that silent waiting on the Divine.

I sat by a cascading beck, underneath a little willow tree on a crag. I could see right down the valley the length of Windermere. I watched the rain circling, choosing its direction to run in at me. In one brighter spell two farmers herded sheep up the valley, just as generations have done the world round.

As the mists of rain cleared I could see how the valleys had been scored in the land eons ago by the last ice age. I was a speck on the landscape in a flicker of time.

Huddled in my cleft in the rock out of the wind I imagined a conversation with my dead dad. It would have been better when he was alive, but better late than never. I concentrated on the words given for contemplation. 'Life is hard'. 'I am not important'. 'My life is not for me'. 'I am not in control'. 'I will die'. Inspiration came for an initiation name – the full appropriateness of which I only realised later. In the damp and the cold I maundered about death but was surrounded by the lush green growth of the bracken cloaked fells.

Walking back to camp I passed the remains of the dead sheep, then the sun came out. I looked up and spouting off a crag was a fall of water. Stripping naked I washed myself clean in this natural shower. They were healing living waters. All around green. The warm sun glinting on the lake below.

"The water I give them will turn into a spring of water deep inside them and give life to the full". John 4:14

My retreat helped me look forward. In the months ahead the picture I am making will help call on those living waters, to refresh me in the emotional roller-coaster that is the unavoidable cycle of life and death.

Peter Fishpool

(First published in The Friend on 19 September 2008 and reprinted with permission)

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