Walking Above Clouds

2nd October 2018

I have walked above clouds. The first time you do it, it leaves its mark. 

That summer, I’d been walking on an ancient pilgrim route from Le Puy in France towards the Pyrenees. To get there, you have to traverse the Massif Central – a highland region peppered with mountains and plateaus. I have a memory of incessant up-down-up-down hill walking that wakes up the knees. 

The morning in question was wet – miserable even – and I was hiking alone on a very steep ascent, clambering with 15kg of necessities on my back. The act of walking is so innately repetitive it encourages a kind of stupor in which you delegate physical movement to the basic motor functions, leaving the spirit to walk above, and often outside, yourself. Being in this manner separated, you can objectively confirm that you are indeed fully alive. 

And so, I crested the first steep mountain that morning, on a pathway thick with mist. Suddenly, I arrived into a scene of unparalleled beauty. A deep valley stretched out below my feet, filled almost to the brim with pillowy clouds. 

I stood, shocked by awe. 

Around and above me there was the clearest air and bluest sky. Below, a carpet of floating cotton of such majesty that I involuntarily stretched out my arms. 

This natural phenomenon, called cloud inversion, gives a dizzying effect. You spontaneously become a kind of benign God, looking down upon the world with unending love in your heart. 

It is only recently that I connect this singular experience of cloud inversion with one that was, on the face of it, wholly different. I connect it with Declan – my beautiful friend from County Down who took his own life in the darkening autumn of 2013. 

Today is the fifth anniversary of his passing. 

As I entered the church and climbed to the gallery to join the choir and sing at his funeral, a sense-memory was triggered in me. I had been here before, some years previous, for the death of Dec’s father. And now him. As I took my place in the choir, my feet recalled the give of the wooden kneelers and their high pitched, pained squeak. 

It is a terrible thing to be present at the funeral of a friend. 

We sang ‘Be Still My Soul’ that day. In four parts. I had since left the choir which had introduced Declan and I to each other. I did not know the exact notes of the line, but we stood shoulder to shoulder, and I muddled along. 

Much of music is performance, where the singer’s job is to inhabit the feelings of the lyrics and melody laid down. Music is emotion caught on staves, and needs to be interpreted by a singer in order to be fully shared. 

But in that Newry church on that solemn day, I sensed the reverse. We were not performers. We were mourners. The job of the music was to inhabit our true feelings. It was the task of the music to rise to the emotion of us, its interpreters. We were singing in a world inverted. 

Although I have long ago ceased connection with organised churches, I am keenly aware of the good that they channel. I assumed ‘Be Still My Soul’ was one of the old folk hymns. But it is not true, it is from the hand of Sibelius – within a larger piece called Finlandia. 

Finlandia is a famous, stirring and patriotic piece of music, full of bombast and swell. Perhaps two thirds through, however, the heavy thunder of music breaks. A most beautiful, sweet melody emerges from the still. It flies free in the sky. 

‘Be still my soul…Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain’. 

I do not know the details of Dec’s passing. I do know something of his life, however. How thoughtful and gentle he was. How he loved a good joke; loved to be part of a group; loved music. How humble and intelligent he was. How he cared for others, and allowed others care for him. These traits of his, and the beauty of his heart, are things I do not forget. Like walking above clouds, they leave their indelible mark. 

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