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CHRISTIAN VIEWPOINT: Seek moments of delight and you can find many

By John Dempster

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Kenneth Steven and John Dempster.
Kenneth Steven and John Dempster.

Creeping out early as a child to net a treasure of conkers after a stormy night. Hearing red-throated divers somewhere high in Sutherland. Dancing with the Northern Lights far north in Scandinavia. Moments when busy-ness and preoccupations fall away, and a deep peace stills the heart.

These are some of the experiences described in Scottish poet Kenneth Steven’s new collection of autobiographical reflections and poems: Atoms of Delight: ten pilgrimages from nature. It’s a wonderful little treasure, to be cherished by all, whatever their spiritual beliefs.

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The title comes from the writings of 20th century Highland novelist Neil Gunn, for whom an ‘atom of delight’ was an intuitive insight into the true nature of things. Kenneth interprets these moments through the lens of the Christian faith which he holds very precious.

Like Gunn, Kenneth was brought up in an austere Presbyterian context in which Delight, it seems, was a stranger. As a child he tells us, he would ‘almost invariably’ emerge from a church-service ‘grief-stricken and terrified, certain that I was on the way to perdition’. He writes of bleak sabbaths which ‘often extinguished any sense at all of a loving God’.

In a previously-published poem, ‘The Highland Church’ he describes elderly congregants ‘frightened of a God who frowned on Sundays, who put the fear of death into them’. Here, it seems that the God he finds free on the hills ‘has been nailed into a neat box, the rules and regulations stacked on every side’.

As Christians we lament that we have ever shared the good news of Jesus in such a way as to terrorise people with a cruel caricature of God. The God who delights in us, who loves us, the God who is Delight is to be found, Kenneth suggests, in all things - wherever there is mystery and loveliness.

He describes the healing consequences of such insights in a poem: ‘I came out strange and shining, new and wandered slowly home, the same yet never quite the same again.’

One of Kenneth’s treasures is the Santa Crux well near Dunkeld, a pilgrim destination before the Reformation. He looks at old maps, crosses moorland in a diligent search, finds the well still flowing. ‘It was unobtrusive, timeless, hidden.’

He drinks. The water is ‘clear and pure and lovely, and somehow it reached a very deep place.’

Kenneth says we receive only a very few ‘atoms of delight’ in our lifetimes. And no doubt there are a few particularly memorable insights. But if we seek out the Well – in nature, in the words of scripture, in music, poetry, literature, prayer – I believe we will find Delight most generous: there will be many, many atoms to assuage our deep-down thirst.

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