Journey to the Centre of the Universe

Wherever I go in the world and whatever else happens in my life, I know that eventually, inevitably everything will reconvene around the circle of an old, Celtic knot that sits at the centre of an old kitchen table in the heart of our home.

Many years ago, through a set of quite extraordinary circumstances, I found myself staying with an elderly gentleman called Donald MacPhail in the village of Arnol on the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Arnol is the sort of place where people still dig peat and the branches only grow from one side of the trees. Donald lived through the spiritual awakening which erupted in this archipelago in the years 1949-53 (You can find out more about this in Dirty Glory). In fact, I discovered that Donald had been one of its main intercessors. 



Donald had snowy white hair by the time I met him. He was tall and wiry with the most piercing blue eyes I’d ever seen. Some Viking blood in there for sure, I thought. Donald yarned about the good ol’ days of the great revival, took me to the house that shook when they prayed, and laughed at my ignorance about his rural ways. (OK, I admit that I said a sheep had fur instead of wool.) On the day of my departure we stood together in his kitchen, and the old man quietly offered to give me his blessing. 'So how do you want me to pray?' he enquired.

It was a big moment. I didn't want to say the wrong thing. Donald was kind of scary and he still hadn't let me forget that whole disastrous 'sheep fur' thing. So I decided to play it safe. 'Um, could you maybe, um, pray please that I would... become more like, um, Jesus?'

Donald snorted his disapproval. 'Certainly not,' he said. 'That happens automatically. You get transformed from one degree of glory to the next. That's what The Good Book says.'

I stammered a couple of other equally unacceptable suggestions.

'Shall I tell you what I'd like to pray for?' he said in the end.

'Oh, yes please,' I said a little too quickly.

'I'm going to pray,' he paused and those eyes bored into mine, 'I'm going to pray that your ministry always flows from your home, and not from a platform.'


To be honest I was a bit disappointed. Here was the last great intercessor of the last great British Awakening offering to bless me, but all he wanted to bless was my domestic arrangements. I wondered if he was just trying to project something quaint from his old-fashioned Gaelic culture upon me.

‘I’m going to pray that your ministry always flows from your home and not from a platform.’
— Donald McPhail

But of course I look back now and realise that Donald's benediction was the wisest, richest most insightful prayer he could possibly have given to a young firebrand like me.

I travelled home, told Sammy, and we got ourselves a house and found ourselves a table. We filled that house with all kinds of people - our own children, of course, but also teenagers from the local housing estate (who set about nicking all our stuff), artists and activists, missionaries and students, friends who were succeeding at life, and friends who clearly weren't and just needed a safe place to hide away and kick their habits. And then there were the guests who came from so many countries we lost count. Some stayed for a night and others for a week or a year.

Family, journey, eternity

Along the way we moved house a couple of times, but that table always came with us. It convened countless conversations and hosted well over ten thousand meals (yes, I counted). Over the years, we've danced on it, performed plays from it, broken bread around it, laughed and prayed and argued night and day around this sturdy old piece of solid Parana pine.

The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

And so, reflecting on Donald's Benediction one wet Saturday several years ago, I sat down and cut that Celtic knot-work deep into the table by hand. It's a traditional, interlacing design familiar to the Hebridean people, a pattern that speaks of community and family, of the great unbroken journey circling into eternity.

As for Donald, the old warrior is long gone now, but I think perhaps his blessing lives on. We are ghosts in time, you and I, until the day we finally decide to root ourselves in an imperfect place, commit ourselves to an unimpressed people, earth ourselves in a maverick community, limit ourselves to a particular postcode and proudly call it 'home'.

There is a day
When the road neither
Comes nor goes, and the way
Is not a way but a place’
— Wendell Berry