To Pause at the Threshold

To Pause at the Threshold

by Esther de Waal

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819219893
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/01/2004
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 0.23(w) x 7.81(h) x 5.06(d)

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To Pause at the Threshold

Reflections on Living on the Border

By Esther de Waal

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2001 Esther de Waal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-1989-3



The Border Landscape

Reading a landscape

I am now setting out to uncover or rediscover a whole world that lies around me, and to discover it in such a way that the outer landscape might shape and mold the inner landscape. It is an exploration that I believe I can best undertake by using the imagination in image and poetry and metaphor. As I turn to the land and to its poets and artists, I want to make this an undertaking not only for myself. I hope that my own specific encounter with a specific place may also speak to my readers and give them images that they can relate to their own personal experiences. This book comes out of a particular place that I know, but it is ultimately about making any place or any circumstance the threshold into the other, the new, the strange, and showing the image of difference, mystery, otherness at work in God's world.

Although my earliest childhood was spent in the Welsh border countryside, I was never taught to read the landscape around me. I did not ask questions about it, for neither did my father. He was an antiquarian of the old school and I owe him my sense of history and my knowledge of medieval architecture. His approach was quintessentially that of a man fascinated by factual information of a most precise nature. He wanted to be able to date stones, whether in their natural state or shaped and used by local builders, but these were not living stones: they did not cry out. This was a world on which categories and labels were imposed, a world known through charts and charters, dates and land grants. These land charters, with their concern for the giving and transferring of land between one owner and another, between one estate and another, encouraged an attitude of certainty and clarity about the past.

From my mother I learned another sort of certainty: certainty about the present, for she held very clear ideas about our neighbors across the border in Wales. Prejudice simplified her approach: the Welsh were small in stature, unreliable in character, not to be trusted, and unworthy of any respect. "Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief," the old jingle tripped only too easily off the tongue. They came to raid, crossing over into England to make inroads into our fair and pleasant land. Therefore, there was not any idea of giving and receiving, and doorways were shut, defrauding me of what, even as a small child, might have taught me to be receptive, ready to learn from the other. I had no sense of thresholds to cross, or borders to break; there was nothing to encourage openness or exploration.

Living on the border

But as so often happens in life, I was given a second chance. When I was married and with four young sons, my father presented us with a small cottage—two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs, the traditional local pattern, with only one cold water tap and no inside lavatory. Two streams meet here, the Cwm and the Greidol, and flow over into a waterfall, where at the base lies a mass of huge rock slabs whose shape and position would gradually but dramatically change over the years under the impact of flood and storm. These swirling combinations of mud and silt and stone, continually different and new, gave me a metaphor for a natural configuration that maintains its essential form while retaining its ability to shape and adapt over the years. Since time immemorial, streams have formed the boundaries between properties and settlements and very often, as here, they still carry their earliest Celtic or Welsh names. But even though the streams' names might be Welsh, the village name was Saxon and politically part of England, even while the church is still the proud possessor of the Great Welsh Bible, the first Bible to be translated into Welsh by William Morgan in 1588. A mile or two away, the neighboring tiny church of Llangua—which can date its origins to a sixth-century Celtic saint—lies geographically in Wales while yet remaining in the Church of England. Any neat demarcation, whether religious, economic, or cultural, has little meaning in a border countryside such as this.

So when I went walking along the stretch of Offa's Dyke that ran only a few miles away, I came to know afresh the world that had earlier delighted my father. He had told me the heroic story of Offa and his eighth-century ambitions, the man who dominated the whole of Britain between 757 and 795, a contemporary and almost an equal of the emperor Charlemagne. But that was now something of the historic past. A military frontier had become a pastoral border, though with visible differences whose pattern one could see written on the land itself. It was still a place where two worlds met. I felt that I was looking beyond political ambition and military conquest. Of course I could see those differences: they were written into the pattern of the landscape. There was Wales on the west side, a country of mountains and scattered settlements, bare stretches of hillside covered with sheep and wild ponies. I recalled David Jones's delight in the legend that these were the descendants of the horses of Arthur's knights, when they ran free after the defeat of the king and the end of Arthurian Britain. Now shrunk in size "those straying riderless horses gone to grass in forest and on mountain, seem, as their masters, to have acquired a new yet aboriginal liberty." On the east side, in contrast, lay a rolling landscape of low hills and prosperous farms where neat hedgerows enclosed fields that were the result of the more fertile soil and the strength of the landowning families. Two different worlds met here, each with its own past, shaped by geography, politics, and people.

Through others' eyes

So as I live here once again I am presented by the simple reality of the land. It is my mentor, my teacher, and in it I have a guide who can never become theoretical or abstract, for I am learning the wisdom of the earth itself, the ground beneath my feet, the people who settled it and shaped its cultivation. Above all, living deep in the countryside, I am faced with what I could so easily be unaware of in a city: the alternation of light and dark, the changing patterns of the seasons and the years, the ebb and flow of solstice and equinox.

As I return to live here, I find a place, a situation, that is both familiar and mysterious. That is right. It should take time for something to reveal itself, to unveil its meaning. Many of us were struck by the way in which, when he was asked a question during a radio interview, Archbishop Rowan Williams said, "May I take a moment?" For many of us who were listening, accustomed as we had become to the cut and thrust of the quick question and the immediate response in public discussion, this was a defining moment. It reminded us just how important it is to pause, in this as in any other context. It is to recall the role of reverence and respect, in a question, in another person, in a situation.

This is what I have gained from my encounter with my native landscape. In the end, this border country and what it brings must remain elusive, like the mists and the ever-changing colors. It will speak to each of us differently, and it will say different things to us at different times. It will strike chords and bring glimpses. It may also bring gifts of sudden insight. But it can never be possessed or fully understood. All of this is a reason for great gratitude.

The landscape, as David Jones reminds me, also points me to an awareness of movement, change, and ceaseless transformation. If I were to try to sum it up very simply, I would say that it has made me aware of continual movement, crossing over thresholds while yet remaining firmly rooted in this place where I still belong. So at once I realize that I am in a situation that is not sheltered and safe, for to be transformed means being open, and while standing firmly in this place where I belong, I am firmly rooted yet never static.

R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet par excellence of our day, is also, in effect, speaking of the importance of being hesitant at the threshold, when he holds out this warning to those who have become too possessive of what they see of his native country:

You can come in You can come a long way ... But you won't be inside.

This encounter with place is such a personal experience that it is not surprising to find that the one thing all writers, whether of prose or poetry, have in common is that they respect the way in which landscape opens up depths beyond itself. Bonnie Thurston, an American poet and theologian who has come to know and love the Welsh Borders, brings her own particular vision of the land:

On a glorious summer day this border country rolls out in a carpet of green turf, the fertile result of a blood-soaked history. A place where armies marched, kings were made and broken....

Border lands often murmur of what was and might have been. God draws back the veil to make a Golden Valley between the Black Mountains, a place teeming with the life of presence and past.

There is great gentleness and hope in these lines. The past is there with its memories of battle and death, and there is blood-soaked land, but there is also fertility, the green turf that has sprung from the destruction. Above all there is the Golden Valley with all the promise that its name inspires. As God draws back the veil we see how this landscape sings. Here is the good news: different cultures and stories meet and mix, they challenge one another, and from their meeting the new can flourish.

Border or frontier?

By a strange irony there is a place I visit frequently and with which I have a strong connection that allows me to measure the strength of and appreciate the gift that I receive at home more fully. As I was thinking about the theme of this small book, I spent three months in a Benedictine monastery in South Africa, uMariya uMama weThemba, founded by the American Episcopalian Order of the Holy Cross. This became particularly significant, for I found that I was now beginning to ask myself questions: What is a frontier? A border? A boundary? A threshold? A boundary gives a necessary definition—a structure, a framework that one respects. The whole monastic life shows us the vital role of that—boundaries of time and place, held in a flexible rhythm that brings order and certainty, and with this comes freedom (as it does of course in the parallel situation of the family). Boundaries, any good psychologist will tell us (and the monastic tradition has an excellent grasp of psychological insight), are very important and must be respected. A frontier, however, is designed to exclude the other. It is the product of hostility, aggression, and power. But my experience is of the Welsh Marches, neither boundary nor frontier, but a borderland that marks (where of course the old term Marches or Marcher Lords originates) the point where the lands of two peoples run alongside one another. So I see borderlands as places where different cultures and histories meet and mix, perhaps challenge one another, and from which the new can then open up. And what I find in this outer landscape (which is my home) has also become true of that inner landscape, the inscape, which I cultivate and nurture.

In the eastern Cape in South Africa, I was able to see a complete contrast in the way an imperial power had established frontiers to keep peoples apart. In order to push the Xhosa people back beyond the great Fish River, the British created a network of fortified positions along a line marked by palisades and forts, manned by constant patrols intended to maintain "a proper degree of terror." Here was a deliberate policy of creating barriers in order to establish a clear demarcation line between cultural and racial difference, white and black, by excluding and dividing. First written, as it were, on the soil itself in the nineteenth century, it was next to be carried over into legal, social, and economic spheres in the twentieth century under the regime of apartheid. The white proponents of that regime were so completely and utterly confident of the Tightness of their stance that they shut the door totally on the other. Metaphorically, they barricaded themselves into their laagers, those circles of upturned wagons that the Afrikaners traditionally used to protect themselves on their long marches. Two worlds had now become polarized, without contact, without sympathy or understanding.

A border priory

In the Welsh Marches I realized with gratitude that I belonged to a world where both landscape and buildings gave me another message. St. Mary's Priory in Monmouth, a few miles from my home, is a border place in every sense. It tells a wonderful story of how cultures and peoples have met and mingled there. We find a Benedictine priory built in Wales after the Norman Conquest, a daughter house founded from a mother house in the Loire Valley in France, but also having a Breton involvement, which introduces a Celtic element. In the preface to the history of the priory church, Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Wales and bishop of Monmouth explores the full significance of such a border situation:

This history gives us a good metaphor for a central aspect of Christian ministry. The priory built on a past legacy but moved in a new direction; it was founded by strangers who were also kindred. It is a "border" place in every sense; and the future of the priory buildings must be about how that border is explored in such a way as to change strangers into kindred, and to bring people closer to that dangerous and transforming border between the world and God—the border that God himself upsets by his entry into the world on our terms, in flesh and blood.

Across the border, then, whether it's a human border or the strange frontier with God, is something or someone who is more hospitable than we dreamed; and we learn this by taking the risk of hospitality ourselves. Benedictine life is centered on God and on guests, seeing each in the other and learning from each how to relate to the other.

Interlude: Standing on the Threshold

Rowan Williams tells us to take the risk of hospitality. When we turn to the Rule of St. Benedict, we are shown the fullness of what hospitality can mean. It is not merely the open door or the open gate that offers warmth, food, and drink, but also the open heart offering acceptance and love, and not least the open mind ready and willing to listen and to receive and exchange. St. Benedict tells us to give a welcome to all who come because we see in them the figure of Christ himself. This means not judging or labeling, not being critical or competitive, not imprisoning the other in our demands and expectations. As he so often does, St. Benedict presents profound theological teaching in very down-to- earth and immediate terms. In Chapter 62 he describes the porter who stands at the gate of the monastery to exercise this art of hospitality on behalf of his brothers.

It is tender, funny, and wise, a very simple but profound portrait, and we should not overlook its implications as a model for any of us. We see a man on the threshold, with one foot, as it were, in the monastic enclosure and the other in the world outside. Whenever anyone appears, he calls out his greeting "Deo Gratias" "Thank God you have come." It is a real welcome, of loving openness, and St. Benedict uses two very simple phrases to describe it: "all the gentleness that comes from the fear of God" and "the warmth of love."

In my own thinking and praying I have extended the image of the man on the margin to include the greeting of new circumstances, new situations, and new demands, so that even when they appear unexpectedly and I feel unready and ill equipped, I am yet prepared to welcome them. This image of being simultaneously rooted yet open, planted on either side of the threshold of the interior and the exterior, is one that I now want to apply elsewhere in my own personal experience.


Times and Seasons or Crossing Between Light and Dark

Place and time are the two primordial, inescapable realities that can either imprison or liberate us. How do we handle them? Even recognizing this and realizing that it is our responsibility can be the first step to freedom. I find that I have been given an unexpected image in the form of the medieval chained library of Hereford cathedral, and as the priest-poet David Scott reminds us, if we are thinking of heaven and earth—"two major and distinct realities and you want to build some sort of bridge between them"—then we can only deal in images that have always been tools for writers for the exploration of truths. In Hereford cathedral we find the Mappa Mundi, which is not actually a map in the usual sense but instead, in an apparently geographical map, gives us a picture of the medieval understanding of the world. Jerusalem is placed at the center, surrounded by countries and creatures, true or fantastical, which make up a total universe, real and imaginary, human and non-human, and in the triangular apex above the round world is Christ in Majesty presiding over it all, the work of his creation and redemption. We see God seated in glory and in judgment, inside and outside of time. And so here I am given an image of another border: that between time and eternity.

For many of us, time has become yet one more commodity of the consumer world, a commodity at the mercy of the dictates of deadlines and contracts, valued in terms of achievement and productivity. It is not easy to regain a sense of the changes of time and season when the night sky with all its gentle and subtle changes is blotted out by the sullen orange glow of the sodium light, denying us what should rightly be the timeless heritage of the movement of moon and stars. When the imported luxuries of the world stare us in the face on every visit to the supermarket, we are denied any sense of the coming and going of successive seasons of the year, with the expectation and delight that each will bring its own particular gift. If the kiwi fruits and the tomatoes and the strawberries are endlessly available, there is no longer that waiting on the threshold for each new season to bring its appropriate contribution of fruitfulness.

Yet living here I cannot fail to be aware of movement, the movement of water, of light and dark, of the coming and going of each season in turn, and with it the underlying theme of ebb and flow, of death and life, the dying down of nature and the new seed of creation and re-creation, experienced again and again, year in year out, just as it will be repeated time and again throughout our lives. It demands active response, involvement. I remember hearing that Parker Palmer was once told about what to expect from an upper mid-west winter: "The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them."

In an attempt to remember, to recall, to live with these as gifts, to handle light and dark, time and season with respect and reverence, I have begun in recent years to look at the annual pattern of the changeover of the days and the seasons as the Celtic peoples of the Scottish islands used to do. I have made a commitment to incorporate into my own life the riches of the Celtic oral tradition that has come down to us from generation to generation and shows us so vividly their way of looking at the world. Of course in my case it applies very easily since I also live in a northern clime, but it is the underlying approach and attitude that I want to encourage people to discover and use for themselves, in their own terms.

Excerpted from To Pause at the Threshold by Esther de Waal. Copyright © 2001 by Esther de Waal. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



1. The Border Landscape          

2. Times and Seasons or Crossing Between Light and Dark          

3. Embracing Life's Changes          

4. Connecting Inner and Outer          

5. The Time Between Times          


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