The View from Here: Escape from Ourselves


Read: Psalm 11

In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to me, “Flee like a bird to the mountains….”? (Psalm 11:1, NRSV).

So, I really did flee like a bird to the mountains—just last week, in fact. My new home in northwest Italy could not be a greater contrast to my tiny apartment in central Rome, but to paraphrase Jane Austen, Rome had “delighted me long enough.”

Even in lockdown, Rome was far noisier than my new mountain refuge—a cluster of small, stone structures clinging to the slopes above the village of San Lorenzo in the Angrogna Valley. But just as I was luxuriating in the sound of songbirds, “the peace of wild things” was shattered by what I can only describe as cow cacophony.

My chalet shares a lane with a farm next door. The day after my arrival, that lane came alive with cows. Herded by children a fraction of their size, the cows were crowded into the barnyard to receive the bells that would help keep them safe in the high summer pastures for which they would soon depart. This was all part of the prep. Big cows got big bells; calves got baby bells. Some of the most beautiful bovine specimens received fancy, expensive-looking bells, which I assume signified the recipients’ prize status. But as I watched the parade pass by, I had to hold my hands over my ears. So much for the sound of silence!

Even the cows themselves seemed alarmed by the noise. I laughed out loud as the herd hurried from one end of the pasture to the other, trying to “escape” the sound of themselves. It made me think of a stanza from a poem Emily Dickinson: The Manner of the Children—who weary of the Day—Themself—the noisy Plaything they cannot put away.

Suddenly, I stopped laughing.  Come to think of it, I had a lot in common with those fleeing cows. There really is no escape from ourselves, after all. And some problems—like pandemics—can’t be shaken off no matter how fast we run back and forth across the pasture. Even climbing the mountain won’t get that bell off our necks.

The urge to escape is understandable. But when the psalmist’s friends advised him to “flee like a bird to the mountains,” he wisely recognized that God was his only real refuge. We would do well to realize the same.

Does this mean we throw caution to the wind, and rush back to our lives as if the pandemic did not exist? Of course not. Just bragging that we will “not be ruled by fear” is absurd. A little fear is healthy sometimes. The psalmist was still surrounded by enemies after he announced that he was going to trust God instead of running away. Denial would have been dangerous. At the end of the day, denial is simply escapism by another name.

Perhaps the difference is one of demeanor. If we know our true refuge is in God, we can go about the business of survival without feeling like we are in a constant state of “fight or flight.”

The cows left for their summer pastures last night. Most of them seem to have adjusted to their bells. The silence after their exodus is profound, though now my ears can detect the gentler sounds that were lost under the layers of cow cacophony—birdsong and rustling leaves for starters. I am still wearing my own metaphorical bell, but I find that if I keep my spirit still, I can stop running back and forth across the pasture.

Ponder: What is the bell around your neck these days? What helps you keep your spirit still?

Pray: Help us to find our refuge in you, O God. Even as we contend with each day’s dangers, keep our spirits still. May that inner peace be a balm to both ourselves and others. Amen.

Listen to The Music of Stillness  by Elaine Hagenberg (poem by Sarah Teasdale).



“The View from Here” Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.

And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.