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Finding guidance in today's uncertain world

Veteran trees, dogs, gravestones and monarchs: why there is much to learn from those who have discovered how to live, or even thrive, in whatever circumstances they have faced, writes Shaun Lambert 

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Veteran trees

I was walking on Hampstead Heath and noticed a tree surrounded by a metal fence. It had a large, gnarled trunk and spoke of being part of the landscape for hundreds of years. On the fence was a notice about it being one of the many veteran trees of the Heath. There was a QR code to scan through which I could follow the Hampstead Heath Veteran Tree Trail curated by the Ancient Tree Forum.
I scanned the code and followed part of the trail. All the trees were different as outlined by their names: Two Tree Hill, Constable Pine, The Hollow Beech, The Three Sisters. Lapsed Pollard Behind Fence. Some names are poetic and resonant, others are functional. Some give clues to their history in the wider world.
It seemed that (apart from the dead ones that were life for others) they had learnt how to live, or even thrive, in whatever circumstances they faced. 
I am living in West Hampstead to write a book and support my family who are studying in London. It is a new chapter as I turn 60. The trees give me hope for the future.

An imaginative route
I was walking with a veteran dog and my daughter. She had looked after him during the extreme heat earlier in the summer, attentive to his every need. Having a curly black coat was not the best fit for the heatwave that had been experienced in London and other parts of the country.
We were walking back home from the Heath, and I said, ‘Let’s go this way.’

She said, ‘No, there’s no shade or benches.’

Although her attentive way was a longer walk, she knew all the routes home that offered shade and benches. Most cafés and restaurants put a bowl of water outside for dogs and whenever we went past, she would stop and offer Coco a drink. I was very struck by this poetic, creative and imaginative attention to the needs of a veteran dog via the cooler roads with frequent stops rather than my prosaic, fastest way home.

A Christian scholar and spiritual guide

Underhill graveLater that evening in the cooler temperature we walked up to Hampstead itself and the additional burial ground of the Parish Church of St John at Hampstead. I wanted to see the gravestone of Evelyn Underhill, writer, scholar, spiritual director, and mystic (1875-1941). I had read several of her books. Around her ledger stone, a grey slab of slate covering her grave, are written the words, Christianity which is only active is not complete Christianity

The ledger stone designed by the artist Lois Anderson was commissioned for the 80th anniversary of her death, 15 June 2021. All that commemorated her previously was a simple gravestone in which her name lies below that of her husband, ‘H. Stuart Moore F.S.A. and his wife Evelyn,’ and the ‘daughter of Sir Arthur Underhill.’ The new ledger stone also marks some of her accomplishments, ‘Christian – Scholar – Spiritual Guide.’ You can read about the project on the Hampstead Parish Church website, A Memorial for Evelyn Underhill.
Some of Underhill’s books are veterans like the trees, they have lived on past her. Her 1911 book on Mysticism is still read today and has been called a ‘weathered masterpiece.’[1] 

The veteran trees in Hampstead are weathered masterpieces of a different kind. In a contrasting way to the veteran oaks dropping their acorns, Underhill is still sowing seeds of life through her writings, seeds of the contemplative life. 

What can we learn from these veterans?

Like the trees we need deep roots to find life-giving water, or to find the right place by a pond. It is contemplative prayer that gives us those deep roots in dry times.

Sometimes we need help on our journey, as with our veteran dog, that help can be attentive and imaginative.

Part of the help we need today in our uncertain culture are those who can help us find the way, the right paths. Underhill has been called a ‘pathfinder for our way to God.’[2] We can learn from those who have written in a different, but equally uncertain era. In this sense Underhill’s writings could be prophetic. Evelyn Underhill and the oak trees also mirror each other in other ways, we need to sow seeds for others. 
We know about war veterans, but at Scargill House, a community and retreat centre that I am deeply connected to, I have learnt a lot from ‘veterans’ of life who come to be working friends, clean the house, work in the kitchen, make tea and coffee, offer a listening ear. I have loved listening to their stories and their wisdom that enables them to thrive still in this fearful new world. They are recognised and respected and treated with honour, in the same way that the veteran trees, dog and gravestone have been recognised and treated with honour and respect. 
Finally, and the unexpected death of Queen Elizabeth II prompted these concluding reflections, many of the aspects of the veteran trees, animals, and mystics above could apply to her majesty. The resilience and longevity of her life, the service to others, the legacy and sowing of seeds that will flourish long after her.

The word that comes to mind as I deal with the shock of the Queen’s death, along with so many others, that I associate with veteran, is that of ‘venerate.’ This is not in the sense of venerating a saint, but that sense of regarding her with great respect in life and in death. Much has been said of the Queen’s Christian faith – and it could be fairly said that she venerated, held, and revered the person of Jesus consistently in her own life so that her actions and behaviours were completely shaped by that reverence. 

I think one way we can learn to reperceive the value of the veteran tree, dog, or person is, to paraphrase Evelyn Underhill, to clean the windows of our souls through contemplation to let in the Light that recognizes the other. That is something the Queen did throughout our very long and remarkable reign. 

Shaun Lambert is a Baptist minister, psychotherapist and mindfulness researcher and recently completed a doctorate at London School of Theology. He is Honorary Mindfulness Chaplain at Scargill House.


[1] Harvey D. Egan, ‘Evelyn Underhill Revisited,’ The Way 51 no. 1(January 2012), 26, the full title is Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (Mineola: Dover, 2002).

[2] Karen E. Smith, ‘Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) as Spiritual Guide,’ American Baptist Quarterly XXXVII no. 3, original quote by Annice Callahan, Spiritual Guides for Today (New York: Crossroad, 1992).

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