This October, I flew across the Atlantic for my first excursion beyond North America. For eight days, I traveled around Scotland, walking and running over ninety miles and driving an additional 700 more in a rented Mercedes. I didn’t begin this year expecting to travel to Scotland; in fact, I hardly knew anything about the country other than that I thought the accents were charming, the Loch Ness monster lived there, and there was this thing called Haggis that included an ingredient charmingly known as “sheep’s pluck.” Despite my ignorance, a variety of life events unfolded and by early summer, I had a plane ticket to Scotland.
My first few days in Scotland were a bit of blur; I walked all over the streets of Edinburgh, visited the coastal town of St Andrews, and zipped up to Inverness for a casual Sunday morning marathon. It’s the thing to do when you’re 25 years old and traveling alone abroad for the first time, right?!
On my fourth day in Scotland, I spent a few hours of a misty Monday morning touring the ruins of Urquhart Castle, a centuries-old site that is one of the most visited castles in Scotland. Nestled near the northern section of the legendary Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle has a long history of invasion, conflict, and conquering. Read a short history of it and your head will spin with the hands the castle passed to, either by royal decree or, more often, by bloodshed. In 1692, Urquhart was intentionally blown up by the last garrisons of the castle in an effort to prevent it from becoming a military stronghold for enemy Jacobite forces. After the explosion, the castle fell into a run-down state until modern tourism and historical preservation intervened. But historical preservation hasn’t restored the castle to its original glory; during my visit, the wind whipped across the Loch Ness and swirled through the open walls of Urquhart. My teeth chattered.
Walking through the ruins of Urquhart was neat, but admittedly I didn’t linger there long. I had run my marathon the previous day, rendering my physical ability to walk the grounds of Urquhart very limited. My legs were beyond sore, my teeth were chattering, and I had more things I wanted to do on my itinerary for the day. So I left the ruins behind, not realizing that they would be following me for the rest of the trip, across the ocean, and all the way back home.
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My trip to Scotland arrived on the heels of a particularly challenging few months. I hoped my 10 days of travel would bring joy and levity, that my mind would find clarity and peace. I deleted my social media apps and forewent international phone service, attempting to eliminate distractions and make the most of my travel experience. But as my days in Scotland unfolded, I found myself weighed down and distracted despite my best efforts. Emerson writes about this self-imposed tourist-trap in his essay Self Reliance:
“Traveling is a fool’s paradise…At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
I experienced the dissatisfaction Emerson alludes to most acutely two days after my trip to Urquhart Castle. I sat in an armchair of a bed and breakfast nestled in between the mountains of Glencoe, looking out a window at views of the most majestic mountains I had ever seen. And I couldn’t stop crying. I sat in that chair, watching the rain fall and feeling a profound wave of loneliness. Even here, thousands of miles away from home in one of the most intoxicatingly beautiful places I’d ever been, I could not escape the stern fact that I was sad, that I was disappointed by my past, dissatisfied with my present, and fearful of my future.
As I drove away from Glencoe that afternoon, the wind and rain whipped my car. I drove past a vehicle that had crashed, the wreckage folded up like an accordion. A helicopter flew overhead as I passed the site of the accident, presumably to lift the person out of the mountains and to a hospital, one that was probably many miles from this remote setting. Shortly after passing the wreckage, a song began playing through my speakers “Don’t Ever Let Me Go” by Cory Voss. “I’m surrendering my will / You are crumbling all the walls I’ve built / My defense is coming down / Down / I can’t deny you / I am broken open wide / Now you can come inside / My defenses have come down / Down / I can’t deny you.”
As the song played, unrelenting tears invaded my eyes once again. I thought about Urquhart, the castle that didn’t mean much to me but now seemed to be serving as a metaphor for the whole trip, for this whole year, really. I saw its crumbled walls, the fallen stones that once formed its grand structure, and I saw…my life. This year was one that began with great plans and expectations to build a beautiful life. My mind goes to Mark 13, when one of Jesus’s followers say to him, “‘Look, Teacher! How beautiful the buildings are! How big the stones are!’ Jesus said, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone will be left on another. Every stone will be thrown down to the ground.”
As plan after plan of my own fell through, I realized that the fortress I had been building all these years needed to be invaded, needed to be conquered, needed to collapse – just like Urquhart. Why? Because my life was a structure built on faulty dreams and false hopes, a foundation founded on the American Dream and the impossible expectations that came with it. Disappointment and ruin were inevitable. At times, these walls I built became weapons, something Frederick Buechner writes about in his essay Faith:
“As individuals, we stockpile weapons for defending ourselves against not just the things and people that threaten us but against the very things and people that seek to touch our hearts with healing and make us better and more human than we are. We stockpile weapons for holding each other at arm’s length, for wounding sometimes even the ones who are closest to us. And as for hostilities toward other people, toward ourselves, toward God if we happen to believe in God we can all name them silently and privately for ourselves.”
I needed to be disarmed. I needed every stone to be thrown to the ground. I needed God to blow it all up. I needed The Urquhart Treatment.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes these words:
“Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
In stories like these, I think it’s my instinct to see the castle ruins and ask to see for the blueprint for reconstruction, or observe the pile of ashes and look for the phoenix. But the thing I have been learning in the fallout of this year – a year of exploded plans – is that I am not a phoenix rising from the ashes. I am dust. From dust I came and to dust I shall return. So as I stand in the soot of dreams that have been set ablaze, as I climb over the ruins of a fortress that is finally, graciously in shambles, I give thanks for the rubble. I give thanks that the stones have been thrown down, but I also give thanks because of what 1 Peter 2 promises:
“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
That day I visited Urquhart, it was uncomfortable to walk around the grounds of the castle. My post-marathon body protested with pain in each step I took. The wind whipped across the Loch Ness and I wanted to escape the chill for the warmth of my car, the vehicle that would take me to someplace new. But in that uncomfortable place, the Holy Spirit was doing his merciful work. “Set fire to your expectations, your rights, and even your dreams,” writes Andrew Peterson in his newest and brilliant book Adorning the Dark. “When all that is gone, it will be clear that the only thing you ever really had was this wild and Holy Spirit that whirls about inside you, urging you to follow where his wind blows.”
This life, this year, is turning out nothing like I expected it would. My trip to Scotland didn’t either. But in that wild country of mountains and sea and sky, something new started to be built. And in his mercy, he will keep building. “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” – Revelation 21:5