At the southernmost point of Running home so far, further south even than Durham, St Ninian’s Cave is reached from the Isle of Whithorn five miles to the east, by a cliff-top path with extraordinary views - to the south the Isle of Man and, behind the Rhins of Galloway to the south west, to Ireland. The cave is supposedly where Ninian would make retreat to pray, away from the affairs of the White House, his establishment in Whithorn and the first Christian monastery in Scotland, founded in 397.
Ninian may or may not have been the name of the leader of that first Christian mission, and the small but well-sheltered cave may or may not have been his favoured place of seclusion. Still, as I trudged my way across the pebbly beach toward it I knew for sure there had been a first missionary pioneer and that this would have been a place known to them.
I looked back on nearly three days of running, including the early onset of shin pain on the second day, and I looked back on the highs and lows of the previous 11 pilgrimages. I looked forward, with four more days of running on already sore, tired legs loomed formidably. Finishing the job I’d started was looking doubtful.
What must Ninian have thought? His was an unlikely message about a way of peace which had flowered in the warmth of the Middle East. But would it withstand the hostile battering of the north Atlantic? Was he sure of success, of finishing the job? In fact there is evidence that Ninian’s missions, after initial success, suffered serious setbacks after his death.
We can’t help but think with hindsight – we remember these saintly ancestors in the light of the subsequent centuries of Christian dominance. They had no such vantage point. In fact, the Persia of King Yazdegerd, renowned as he was for openness to the Jews and Christians living in the areas of Mesopotamia we consider northern Iraq, must have seemed very much the safe haven in comparison.
Did Ninian find something especially reassuring about this beach and this cave? Its aspect encourages a southward and backward look to a journey successfully made. From here the dramatic Caledonian interior to the north seems to repose benignly. The cave and its beach feels, momentarily, like enough, a ‘present’ against which the past and future unknown future retreat. ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved’.
With 200 miles still remaining to run, I set my face towards the unknown. I’d let go of the fear of what might lie ahead, knowing that I still had strength to put one foot in front of another a few more times. What would be would be, and I would rest in that.
Now I look back on those last four days as having gone remarkably well. My ankle caused me significant pain from the morning of day four, but it responded well to frequent icing. Mile after mile of asphalt caused my mood to fluctuate, but I never felt the intense despair that has occasionally clouded my pilgrimages this year (except perhaps for the couple of hours spent trudging through mud after Colmonell, electrocuting myself on fences that blocked the path marked on my map!). The views I saw shortly after from the hills above Lendalfoot, across to Ailsa Craig and Arran, will live long in the memory, as will the sunset in Troon where Dr Philippa Whitford MP and her husband came out to cheer me on my way. The generosity of hotels and hosts who put us up and the encouragement and prayer of supporters sustained me and, in the end, I reached South Queensferry almost exactly when I’d intended to.
But we should linger on the unknowables of Ninian’s beach a while longer, and especially in the surprising sense of rest. In lands once ruled by Yazdegerd, people as courageous as Ninian are setting their faces towards situations fraught with risk, writing new lines in a story of which neither we, nor they, know the ending. What a privilege to be standing in solidarity with them, lending them some of the fruits of our freedom and prosperity in their pursuit of a safe home. As they take the next step, seeking to train, work and provide for their families, while being good neighbours in their hometowns, we also can take a next step, praying, listening, and giving to support their return. We do so not knowing what the next miles hold, but we return to that Middle Eastern message of peace, borne across the sea centuries ago by Ninian, and to his God who brings beginnings of life out of endings of death.
We return to this, and we rest.