The Plateau

17th March 2015

We live in France, in the Jura Mountains. The Jura (as in Jurassic Park) are a long, low line of mountains which run in a north south axis just a little way to the west of the Alps. It's a beautiful area. It has a certain softness to it, that is to say that the mountains are not as huge and high and jagged as the Alps themselves, or indeed the Rockies. A visiting friend once likened them to salt-dough hills made by a giant toddler. He certainly had a point, these massive, heavily forested limestone blocks and ridges are creased with the most extraordinary folds and fissures.

Their very impenetrability makes them one of the best kept secrets of France. We don't get many tourists, and though the regional economy could do with a boost, the locals claim they like to keep the area to themselves. It's certainly a lot easier to go around the Jura Mountains than to go through them. The few roads that do cross them snake along the deep and largely sunless valley floors, and the narrow roads that zig-zag up the steep flanks of the pine and beech clad gorges are not for the faint hearted. But then, all of a sudden, you reach the plateau.

The change is dramatic. Everything opens right up, and you are basking in bright sunshine, buffeted by the wind, and in winter, lashed by rain or buried beneath the snow. The immensity of the sky is staggering, spread over the wide, rolling wooded hills and grassy, flower-filled prairies.

It's the Hauteville Plateau and it's beautiful. Maybe not as dramatic as the high mountain peaks and ridges, but still it is quietly and hugely beautiful, and also hugely empty. The stillness is broken by the sigh of the wind, and the desolate cries of eagles and buzzards and the faint jangle of cow-bells. The small communities which do exist are few and far between, and you can stumble over the traces of old settlements where people tried to make a go of it and then gave it up as a bad job. There is only one town, Hauteville itself, which grew up around France's very first TB sanatorium, built in the 19th century and chosen for it's airy and isolated location. It still functions as a hospital centre, but now specialises in surgery and post-operative re-education, including physical therapy for many world class athletes. However, you wonder for how much longer, as more and more of the huge buildings stand empty.

So what is it about a plateau that people don't like?

It's interesting that we use the term “plateau” to describe a blockage, an impasse: “I've reached a plateau”. In other words, I'm stuck, I don't seem to be going anywhere, I've lost my direction, I'm in limbo. A plateau seems to exist in a sort of geographical vacuum, and it's not just “nature” that abhors a vacuum, we do too.

Have you noticed how. for the most part, we define ourselves by what we do, by our primary activities. We'll proudly say: I'm a CEO, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, or I'm a soldier, a footballer, a student, a nurse, a truck driver. Perhaps with a certain amount of reluctance we'll admit that we're retired, that we're “just” a stay at home Mom, or out of work, no, let's re-phrase that, we're “in between” jobs. Maybe this explains why we don't cope too well when we really do find ourselves without a defining activity.

Even for those whose lives have been entirely redefined by new birth in Jesus Christ, it’s not always easy to accept that it is enough simply “to be” a child of God. We live in such an image conscious world, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of boosting ourselves daily in the mirror of social media. We're all too eager to take on a new list of titles and “worthy” activities: I'm a pastor, a Sunday School teacher, a Choir member, a prison visitor...

Hold on there, wait a moment, wait. There are times in all of our lives when God requires that we do just that... Wait. He says, be still and know that I am God. Be still.

We have to stop talking to hear what God wants to say to us; we have to have empty hands in order to receive what God wants to give us; we have to lay down our own agendas in order to be available to do His will. This is often far from comfortable, we can panic at the mere thought of giving up our most prized possession, the person we want to be seen as...

On my desk is a framed text given to me many years go when I was a brand new Christian. Depending on the current state of my desk, it's more or less visible, but every time it surfaces, it challenges me anew. Yes, you guessed right, it's: “Be still and know that I am God” Psalm 46:10. It challenges me because I am not good at being still. Like so many of us, I pride myself on being a “busy” person. “If you want someone to do something, ask a busy person.” That expression just about sums me up. So when I find myself without energy, motivation, inspiration, call it what you will, I feel deeply uncomfortable. I want do something, anything, but that is precisely the problem. We can so easily overfill our lives with the doing of “things”, things that make us feel good, valuable, important, and so on. When God takes these things away we become aware that these are often only props for our fragile egos.

Here's another scripture to keep in mind, that fits hand in glove with the last one. It's Isaiah 30:15 “In repentance and rest you will be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength.” In this passage God was speaking to the Israelites and, sad to say, they were not willing to wait, not willing to trust Him, and it led to their dispersion and virtual destruction.

So, back to our plateau, and its celebrated sanatorium... When people go or get sent to the Hauteville Plateau, it's designed to be a time apart from their normal lives. They go to receive treatment, to rest and recuperate from illness or accident, to be healed. However, to really move forward, they then need to commit to a time of intensive training specifically designed to rebuild their strength. That training isn't easy and can be uncomfortable if not downright painful but... it is essential for each one if they wish to make the most of the rest of their lives.

When we find yourself “stuck” on a spiritual or emotional plateau, are we willing to simply wait on God, or are we in too much of a rush to get back down to the busy centres of civilisation, to start “doing” things too soon... The patients who heal the fastest have found a right balance between patience and perseverance. Perhaps God knows that you've needed to submit to some heavenly or indeed physical surgery, to repair your damaged soul or body. Trust him for the time it takes to heal that damaged part, and then trust him, too, for the time it will take to exercise that repaired part, and renew both your spiritual and physical stamina before you return to the fray. And not just any old fray, but the specific calling that God has for you at this particular time of your life, the certainty of which can only come out of a place of perfect trust, that you are his child, chosen and cherished.

So, if you find yourself temporarily “becalmed”, then don't fret about it,. Enjoy the peace of the plateau. Listen to the whisper of the wind, the soft words of the Holy Spirit. Enjoy being able to spend some precious time apart from the world. Let go of the compulsion to be busy. Dare to disconnect your iPad, your iPod and your iPhone; dare to be still and know that the great I AM is indeed God. Quieten your mind, trust in him, and He will be both your salvation and your strength.

The Everlasting Arms

August 1st 2013 

My cat was jumpy tonight. She leapt up onto the bed only to find that she'd landed on a brand new duvet cover. She was so surprised that she very nearly somersaulted straight back off again. She wasn't at all reassured by seeing me installed beneath it. She advanced towards me very reluctantly, inch by twitchy inch, suspicious of the unfamiliar smells, balking at the unexpected patterns.

I offered her the silky ribbon from my Bible bookmark, something that usually fascinates her, but she didn't take the bait. I held out one of my dangly earrings and she edged a little bit closer. Finally she was near enough for me to scratch her chin and cheeks, and at last she forgot her fear and began to purr contentedly.  As I write she's curled up between my feet and, give or take a bit of shuffling around when I settle down to sleep, she'll be there until morning.

We can be a bit like that when we find ourselves "catapulted" into new life situations. We either become nervous and edgy, overreacting like my cat Cleo or alternatively, we retreat into ourselves in order to escape from the uncomfortable reality that surrounds us. The latter tendency often results in a doom and gloom scenario. We wear ourselves out worrying about things that will never happen. Either way, we forget that God is still there. Underneath the unfamiliar surroundings are the everlasting arms of our loving Heavenly Father. Whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves, He is faithful and true, He can't be anything else. The same yesterday, today and forever.

Don't mess about, don't let yourself get stressed or depressed. When He holds his hands out to you, go straight to Him. Let him calm and cradle you. Then you too can take your place resting in perfect peace at the Father's feet.

Read Psalm 139 verses 7-12



The Measure of Disorder

4th August 2013

There are several definitions of the word entropy given by my online dictionary. The one I prefer is the shortest of the five listed. It describes entropy as "A measure of the disorder and randomness in a closed system." In other words it's a perfect description of what goes on behind the closed door of almost every high school or college student's bedroom, my daughter's room being no exception.

This summer has been worse than usual. I was away for a while in hospital, and since getting home I've been stuck downstairs on a bed in a corner of the living room. Without my gentle maternal reminders or, as she would probably say, without my constant nagging, by the time she left us to return to the UK, her room looked very much as though a twister had passed through town.

But who am I to point the finger. When I consider the habitual state of my desk or my art studio, I'm not much better, particularly when I'm working on several projects at the same time. Snowdrifts of paper tend to engulf the once neatly stacked "pending" pile. Paint pots and paintings stack up on every available surface, more and more canvasses prop against the walls. Periodically I have to stop everything and sort it ALL out and put it ALL away. But then I start work again...

It make me wonder how some people seem have an innate capacity to live well-ordered lives, to be disciplined. Maybe the secret of their success is simplicity. They aren't caught up on the tyrannical treadmill of "busyness". In my heart of hearts I know I do far too much. When I list it all, it's scary. I paint, I teach Art and English, I write and translate, I try to cook and keep our large old French farmhouse in a reasonable state, plus the garden (but we won't talk about that at the moment). Then there's church, where my husband is on the leadership team, and until recently I was running the crèche, and producing illustrated teaching materials for the Sunday school. I'm not surprised that I've had less and less energy to sing, or that there seemed to be less and less time in my life for friends, for me, and truth to tell, for God.

In contrast, my current lifestyle is simple. I'm still confined to my downstairs bed. I have one small cupboard where I keep my clothes, a drawer under the bed for towels and linen. A small night stand, a shelf for my Bibles and notebooks, a mug full of pens and pencils, my tablet, my meds, my phone. I do my prescribed walks and exercises. I read my bible. I pray and I sing, all wonderfully uplifting. Then I see friends, and call or write them. Finally I write poems, songs or "thoughts for day" or night, depending when the inspiration arrives.

Part of me is nervous about getting back on my feet, of picking up the pieces again, as there are just too many of them... I have to make some radical choices, and stop a lot of what I have been doing before it stops me. Because, when it is my time to go, I don't want my loved ones to have to sort out the massive muddle of my life, I want to sort it out now.

Reading in the Gospel of Matthew yesterday I was struck by John the Baptist's words: "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." This dire warning was directed at the Pharisees and Sadducees, but it so fits with Jesus' words to His disciples in John 15 when He talks about the vine and the branches. "Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit - as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me."

So, it's time to get out the pruning shears. But it's also time to reverse my order of priorities, with regard to the list I wrote earlier. It's time for God to be restored to the first place in my life. In Matthew 16, Jesus also said to His disciples: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up His cross and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but who ever loses his life for My sake will find it."






1st August 2013

Time slips by so fast

Like a stream of sand

In an hour glass


If you could reach out your hand

And catch each grain

You'd see that each one has a different face


Different as the faces in a city crowd

They too stream by

Seeming as unstoppable as a mill race


Faces that are blank or weary

Etched with pain

And sometimes even joy


Each one has a different song

Murmured quiet or shouted loud

Each one a life, short or long


If you could reach out your hand, again

And slow the pace just for a moment

Then do so my friend


Though none of us has power to postpone our end entirely

We still can grasp each moment

Relish it before we let it go


Slipping between our fingers

Vanishing once more

In time's remorseless flow










June 9th 2013

Woven in the womb

Woven in the Womb Sarah Cunnington © 2013

Inspired by the HubbleSite image of M83 image Credit: NASAESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: R. O'Connell (University of Virginia) and the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee

One of a multitude of mesmerizing images on the Hubblesite is called M83, or to give it its proper name, Messier 83. The American astronomer and academic Bob O’Connell headed up the team of scientists who were responsible for this fantastic photography project. But he was not the only one to be inspired by this Galaxy. In 2001 Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau, two French musicians from Antibes, formed an Electronic/shoegaze band named M83. I am afraid I am not qualified to tell you what "shoegaze" might mean but the overall style is what is also termed "new wave". Layers of spacy synthesized sounds are interwoven with delicate instrumental parts and a blend of breathy voices. I discovered that I like their music and, like them, I’m fascinated by the image of Messier 83.

This vast swirl of cosmic matter is composed of long graceful strands of interstellar dust. Caught up in these floating chiffon-like filaments are jeweled clusters of young stars, swarms of ancient stars, and hundreds and thousands of individual stars, bright pinpricks of light that pierce the fabric of the universe. One can sense the immense spiraling force that draws all these elements together, culminating in a radiant core of light where literally thousands of stars are forming and transforming in the very heart of this galaxy.

But is it the heart or is it the head? For me this spiral formation recalls the shape of an embryo, enveloped in the membraneous web of the womb, nourished by the delicate arterial network of its mother's blood vessels. The spinal column curves towards the cranium, where the forming mass of neurones fire off blinding flashes of naissant energy.

In an attempt to interpret this image, I took one of my old textured pictures and over-painted it, blacking it out entirely. Then began the long process of patient exploration; following twisting trails in the texture; searching for pattern and sense in the entirely random creases of the underlying collage; choosing certain shapes, losing others; then losing the thread entirely. Starting again from scratch, retracing old lines discovering new ones and all the while, a constant refrain ran through my mind, the song of David in Psalm 139 : 11-16

Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body,

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

The Rock 

May 26th 2013

There's a long mountain ridge across the valley from our house. A little to the south of the summit stands a solitary rock. From far away, it looks as small as a lone tooth in an old man’s mouth.

One day I decided to walk to the rock. I drove up a winding road, and left the car on the grass where the track finally petered out. After a short brisk climb, I found myself at the southern end of the ridge, with the wide valley where we live spread out below me. On the far side, to the west, another long wooded ridge rose up out of the haze. To the north was the summit of le Grand Colombier, the highest mountain in the southern massif of the Jura and there, nestling a little below the summit, was the rock.

At my feet there was a wide alpine meadow which had to be crossed. We can see it from our house, but what I’d imagined would be nice springy turf bore as little resemblence to that as the vast jumble of arctic sea ice does to a skating rink. As I set off across the meadow I realised that the only way to do it was to literally leap from one rough grassy tussock to another, trying, not always successfully, to avoid falling into the deep ruts and holes that were hiding between the clumps of grass. Short springy turf, indeed! I had plenty of time to reflect on my false assumption. It had been based on memories of the smooth sheep-cropped cover of the North Downs, the gently rolling hills of the 'Garden of England' where I spent most of my life before coming to France. How wrong one can be. These pastures had been thoroughly ploughed up by the heavy, saucer-sized hooves of cattle, and then further undermined by tunnelling field voles. How I reached the beech woods beyond without breaking a leg or twisting an ankle, I do not know, but eventually, I got there.

Hot and decidedly bothered, I stepped gratefully into the cool shade of the wood. Over my head was a delightful canopy of fresh green leaves… Ah, the beech woods of the North Downs, huge graceful trees, standing on a smooth carpet of leaf litter amid a mass of bluebells… Once I’d caught my breath I turned, and began to fight my way through the tangle of twisted, dwarf-like trees that had somehow found root in the sparse earth between chaotic heaps of boulders.

After a while I realised that I could see light beyond the tree trunks. I pushed on: the end was in sight. Suddenly I was out of the woods. It took me a moment to realise that I was face-to-face, no, nose-to-nose with a solid wall of limestone. The incredible whiteness of the rock reflected the glare of the sun and the light was almost blinding. I craned my neck upwards, and there was rock. I peered to either side, and there was rock. As far as the eye could see, there was rock.

The words of a song came to my lips: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, lead me to Jesus’ feet…”

How limited our vision can be when we look at our objective from far away. It is impossible to appreciate the scale, the grandeur, the detail and the true nature of our destination until we actually get there, until we lay our hands upon it.

When first we plan our route, in the comfort of our living rooms, we often make the mistake of referencing the unknown with the known, that which lies ahead with that which lies behind. We can’t imagine the actual difficulties we’ll have to face along the way. Perhaps it’s just as well. We might not have the courage to start the journey.

Ephesians 3:18: “I pray that you may grasp how long, how high, how wide and how deep is the love of Jesus for you.”

The Transhumance 

May 25th 2013

The transhumance is an ancient  tradition in rural France. It’s a celebration of the twice-yearly trek made by shepherds as they take their flocks of sheep to and from their summer pastures, high up in Alpine meadows. But it’s more than a celebration: it’s also an accompaniment.

The length of the route along which the shepherd leads his sheep is always lined with people. They seem to appear out of nowhere, but in fact they come from every nearby village, hamlet and isolated farm, and even from far off towns. They are just as enthusiastic as the fans cheering the cyclists on the Tour de France, but out of respect for the flock they are a great deal quieter! Walking on either side of the long straggle of sheep, the dogs bringing up the rear, they accompany the shepherd to the next village where another crowd takes over the relay. 

Every spring, on a pre-ordained date, the shepherd sets off to lead his sheep up into the mountains. He follows a well-worn, time-honoured route. People will walk with him for a morning, an afternoon, or even a whole day at a time. But little by little, as the trail rises higher, the crowds fall away.  At last, only a few faithful friends remain to accompany the shepherd and his sheep on the final stretch that leads up to the high plateau and its rich mountain pastures. Then even they turn back. The shepherd is left alone with his dogs and his sheep, to pass the long summer season among the crags and the clouds. His home is a small stone built hut. The only noises are the  bleating of sheep and the constant clonking of sheep bells, the occasional bark of the dogs, the sharp cry of a circling buzzard or eagle and the soft wailing whistle of the wind.

In the autumn, on a pre-determined day, the downward journey begins. A few stalwart fellows have made the climb to the plateau. The shepherd easily shoulders his few belongings, and then each man hoists up his precious cargo of cheese. Once loaded, men, sheep and dogs all set off down the mountain to the plain below.  As the trail descends, the accompanying crowds increase in size. In the villages where there’s an overnight stop, the atmosphere is decidedly festive. Local wines and cheeses are brought out; freshly baked bread is set on the table; each one contributes a dish for the feast.

The next morning, the journey continues and finally, the shepherd arrives at his home village, down in the valley where the sheep will spend the winter in security. Now it really is party time. People have been preparing for days. However the shepherd seems preoccupied. Perhaps he is weary, or dazed by the noise and throng. More likely it’s because he knows he still has one last task to accomplish. He moves quietly and purposefully through the exited crowd, his wife at his side, his children running in front of him, the flock still following behind. His sole concern is to get the sheep to safe pasture. Then and only then can he relax, and celebrate a job well done.

There's a Bible passage (Heberws 11:1) where the writer descibes the Christian walk as a race requiring perseverence, and he reminds us that there is a huge crowd of witnesses cheering us on. He encourages us to fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the author and perfector of our faith.

The same Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, and described those who follow him as the sheep of his pasture. Whenever I think of these passages now, I am reminded of the transhumance. Whenever I think of the transhumance, I am reminded of these scriptures...

Full Fathom Five thy Father Lies 

May 24th 2013

Structure III

Structure III © Sarah Cunnington 2013

Full fathom five thy father lies:

Of his bones are coral made:

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:


Hark! Now I hear them - Ding-dong, bell.

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) 

An extract from Ariel's Song, The Tempest

The Heart of the Matter 

May 24th 2013


The Heart of the Matter © Sarah Cunnington 2012

Inspired by the HubbleSite image :  Hubble/Spitzer Colour Mosaic of the Galactic Centre Credits : NASAESA, Q.D. Wang (University of Massachusetts, Amhurst) NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Centre/Caltech) 

I am currently counting the days until I have a hip replacement. No, I’m not complaining, but rather explaining my current preoccupation with bones, muscles, and my all too often outraged nerves… 

I find it curious that a long period spent exploring images of outer space, a vast emptiness, interspersed with amorphous masses of star-studded dust,  should engender (amongst other things) a series of small, structured and extremely visceral paintings.  

But perhaps it’s not so extraordinary after all. The same hand that created the stars, created me. The maker’s distinctive mark is imprinted on all he has made, like the inimitable brushstrokes of an artist. Perhaps that’s why a fabulous image of the Milky Way also speaks to me of the intricate workings of the human heart, The wonderfully complex, pulsating organ that drives our bodies, and is so inextricably bound up in our emotions, the very seat of our souls.

A new start 

May 20th 2013

Coral Garden

Coral Garden © Sarah Cunnington 2011

In 2005, I moved to France with my husband and daughter. For the first six years after our arrival, I concentrated almost exclusively on landscape paintings. It was a way of putting down roots, of making the place my own, as I explored the curves and contours of the hills and valleys surrounding our old farmhouse in the Southern Jura Mountains.

Then, at the end of a year long string of exhibitions, I found myself with a disabling tendinitis of the wrist. It prevented me from painting for months. However, this enforced ‘fallow’ period was incredibly productive!

As I was also having increasing problems walking I decided to "surf the web" instead, and the more exotic the location the better! I spent hours watching amazing You Tube videos of underwater lava flows and coral reefs, Eventually my browsing led me to the website of the Hubble telescope, and its photographic treasure trove of stars, galaxies and nebula. I was hooked.

As I gradually felt able to start painting again, I knew didn’t want to just copy someone else’s photos, I wanted to use them as the starting point of some new work.

Over the years I have tended to vary my styles and subjects, to avoid getting stale. Stashed away around the house there were a number of canvases already prepared with textured surfaces. I decided to use these for the new paintings. Occasionally this meant painting over old pictures, but I guess we all have to make sacrifices sometimes!

Although I had a general sense of where I wanted to go, I decided to let the surface lines and textures guide me. I was searching for pattern in random forms, and I found it too, often exactly where it needed to be! The coral tree in the painting above, for example, corresponds exactly with lines in the textured surface that I had prepared 4 years before! This transitional work was finished shortly before the 'Space' series began. 

I can sometimes spend hours just sitting and looking at a painting in progress, reflecting on the various ways it might develop. Is there a natural coherence to the forms that are emerging? What are they saying to me? If I am not convinced by what I see, I may paint over the whole canvas and start again from scratch. Whether the work is large or small, whether it comes together slowly or swiftly, it is liberating to feel a total absence of pressure: no hurry, no worry! I may leave a work alone for weeks, then come back to it with a fresh eye and renewed energy. The time delay doesn't seem to break the creative flow when I am working in a more abstract way.

The following posts will mostly be about the things I've discovered and am continuing to discover through my paintings, both figurative and abstract. I don’t expect everyone to feel the way I feel or see exactly what I see, but maybe these reflections on my work, and my life here in France, will help expand your personal vision of the world around you, as together we contemplate the marvels of creation, the immensity of the universe, the fragile beauty of our planet, the intimate complexity of our own bodies, and the awesome God who created it all.

© Sarah Cunnington 2013