A few weeks ago we rented a car and drove out into some of the Cotswold villages near Oxford for a day of exploration and English country air. We went through several villages on foot and in the course of our wanderings we managed to escape the ordinary tourist track and walk a bit behind the scenes.
It was raining very subtly, the sort of misty rain that clings to the surface of everything in tiny drops. It was very quiet in that muffled way that the outdoors sometimes has, like in a snowstorm. The village with its antiquated cottages and shops was mostly on our left and we passed behind it, with open spaces on our right. We walked along an ancient stone wall covered with moss and lichen, and suddenly we came upon a stone church, guarded closely by the graves of its former saints. Then we heard the melody of “The Old Rugged Cross” being sung in many voices ringing out through the rain. I looked at Alex, and it was suddenly four years ago in a different place.
We were in Cameroon. It was one of those rare experiences that impresses itself so deeply on your mind that you can relive it with your eyes shut and believe, for just a second, that you are there again. We had driven a rutted track high up the side of an African mountain to visit a tiny village. On one side of us the mountain dropped away into a lush valley, on the other it rose steeply, everywhere tangled with coffee trees and banana trees and jungle growth in wild profusion. Along the ridge was the tiny settlement, a few thatched concrete houses. The doorways gaped open to dark interiors and outside the sunshine blasted down on the dust. There was that same complete sort of silence. On the edge of things there was a crumbly stone church of classic design and indeterminate age, small but easily the dominant structure in its surroundings. As we approached it we heard the sounds of the people joyously singing inside, their voices echoing faintly around the tiny empty village. And we stood there in the dust next to the cold stone foundation of the church and listened to the worship flowing from the narrow windows high above our heads.
The Cotswolds. Cameroon. On neither occasion did we catch the actual words. But we absorbed every shade of meaning. We’ve heard this sound before. It’s a sound that fills the silence around the world, that echoes across cultures and time zones and boundaries. It rings out in many places as I type these words and if it stopped the very stones of the church foundations would be given voice and it would ring out again. It’s a sound that lifts our hearts and satisfies our destiny. It’s the sound of the city on a hill.
For Liz, with gratitude for the photograph.