This is the week of the winter solstice; the shortest day of the year with around 7 hours of daylight – which is short enough – though I have experienced a winter solstice of just over 6 hours on a number of occasions while visiting my wife’s family in Orkney. I have also seen the summer solstice in Orkney which includes the midnight sun – yes – you really can see the sun at midnight!
There is a celebration of the summer solstice at The Ring of Brodgar – a stone circle older than Stonehenge – which is one of my most favourite of places. I feel an extraordinary connection with humanity there; 5000 plus years of gathering to recognise and celebrate the rhythm of nature, the earth and community. It is for me a deeply spiritual place to which I cannot return too often.
The winter solstice has a similar connection to Orkney but in an amazing place called Maeshowe. It’s an underground cairn built in around 2700BC with an 11 metre entrance corridor and inner chambers, which seem to be for some kind of rituals for which there is much speculation but very few hard facts. What is known, however, is that on the winter solstice, with precision which would be hard to recreate today, the angle of the entrance is set so the sunlight enters the cairn and illuminates the inner chambers.
It is a powerful metaphor of hope and resilience in dark times. Life for those island communities must have been a huge challenge – in many ways it still is. Nature and the elements defined their days and impacted very directly on their capacity to survive; but survive and thrive they did.
I like the fact that we don’t really know why or how these Neolithic architects created this place of ritual marking the cycle of life and the seasons. A little mystery is a good thing in my view. I am also moved by the metaphor. It speaks about what we do at Cyrenians. We are privileged to be part of the life journey of so many folk as they travel from a tough reality to a place of hope. We don’t always know why or how the moments of transformation will happen, but we know that if we build trusted relationships based on our values, there is every chance they they will happen. Our task is simply to be patient, be present, be willing to try unexpected things, and to seek out moments of light in sometimes dark experiences.
Sadly I won’t be on Orkney for the winter solstice this year, but as I think of the incredible work and deep commitment of colleagues, our volunteers and those we journey with, the same sense of awe and gratitude as the light slowly enters the Maeshowe corridor in the stillness of the dawn will be with me.
Ewan Aitken, 21st December 2018