After many years as a Trustee of Ffald y Brenin, most of them as Chair, Val Cole recently retired. We asked her to look back and share some memories:
F-y-B: You have spoken of a great storm which greeted you on your first day at Ffald y Brenin. What are your recollections of that storm?
V.C.: Following years of work to establish the Retreat Centre, preparations were made to celebrate the official opening in 1988. Invitations were sent out and plans were in place for an outdoor service of Celebration and Thanksgiving followed by tea and party food on the beautiful lawns, to the sound of the rockery waterfall and the stunning sight of the valley below and the Preseli hills in the distance.
I was delighted to be invited; what a shock though to wake on the appointed day to hear the wind howling, seeing the skies dark with menace and the rain sheeting horizontally down the valley and across the hillside. It was a battle to open doors to enter or exit the buildings!
However, there wasn’t a complaint to be heard; only good humoured banter and a determined change of plans. The music group found a space in the common room and everyone else squeezed in around them; it was a full house.
While the gale raged without, praise and thanksgiving rose within, to the God who had led Peter and Phyllida to overcome so many challenges to bring His vision into reality. An air of appreciation and excitement was matched by expectations and hope for the unfolding of God’s purposes in the months and years ahead.
By the following day the storm had passed. The awesome beauty of the Centre and its natural surroundings emerged. I experienced again not only the welcome of friends, old and new, but that special sense of peace in the presence of God. A safe haven.
Little did I know that for me the early years of supporting Gordon and Audrey (the first wardens) alongside Peter and Phyllida, would extend to more than thirty years of involvement with the people and ministry of Ffald y Brenin itself. A precious God-given privilege.
F-y-B: Learning to pray is often the apprenticeship of a lifetime. What role has Ffald y Brenin played in your prayer apprenticeship?
V.C.: At Ffald y Brenin prayer is caught rather than taught. A Rhythm of Prayer has evolved that underpins the development of the Centre and the ministry which flows from it. To commune with God there, individually or with others, seems natural. There is an expectation that He will respond, and He does not disappoint – God makes His Presence felt.
For me, Ffald y Brenin has always been a place of rest; a place where I have felt spiritually safe. There was no pressure to make decisions, conform to a pattern of faith or behaviour, explore anything, or even say anything to God. He was there. It was enough.
His presence, love, power and acceptance released me to be myself whether in restful stillness or wrestling with seemingly insurmountable issues. It has been a place to be honest with myself and with God.
I have loved the friendship and fellowship of people at Ffald y Brenin, both team and guests. In casual conversation, in worship, at a shared meal or a walk on the hills, I have learned of others’ experiences and been encouraged by their faith and their joy in gaining a fresh understanding of God’s character and ways.
Chapel times have been precious times of fellowship and worship. Coming from a free church background I was accustomed to free prayer and later, joining an Anglican church, I learned to appreciate biblical liturgy. It was at Ffald y Brenin though, that I learned the value of simple but powerful liturgy that could be used easily in personal as well as corporate prayer. Using the liturgy at home, knowing it was being shared with many other friends, broke down a prejudice within me and freed me to approach God regularly, quietly, and expectantly. For me the liturgy has become like a recognisable cup which I can take up, knowing that each day it holds fresh wine of the Spirit.
F-y-B: Reports of the manifest presence of God at Ffald y Brenin are widespread. Do any specific occasions stand out where you encountered Him in an unusual way?
V.C.: I have invariably been aware of the presence of God in the beautiful setting of the Centre; the rugged trees bent into strange shape by harsh winds – yet displaying strength, endurance, and new glory. The bushes, heathers and flowers in the gardens, the hillsides, the hedgerows, the woodland spreading carpets of bluebells – all speak of the Great Creator. The work of His hands is freely displayed.
Grazing sheep in the surrounding fields have given me much food for thought about the Lord, our Shepherd and I rejoice in His provision. “Be still and know that I am God” is a word that has come alive to me at Ffald y Brenin; His presence is IN the stillness.
But God has also spoken to me through His people: One afternoon I sat on the hillside overlooking the valley, struggling with multiple issues that needed some resolution; asking the Lord for enlightenment and guidance. There were no clear answers. That evening as I came out of my room I saw, on the carpet, an envelope with my name on it. Inside was a card written to me by one of the other guests. She had seen me sitting on the hillside, so still, and felt God speaking about me. Then she quoted from the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’:
O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above, Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee The silence of eternity, Interpreted by love. Drop Thy still dews of quietness, Till all our strivings cease. Take from our hearts the strain and stress And let our ordered lives confess The beauty of Thy peace Breathe through the heats of our desire Thy coolness and Thy balm Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire, Speak through the earthquake wind and fire O still small voice of calm.
I was stunned, for it spoke straight to my heart! It was God’s response to my prayers; not what I was looking for – but what I deeply needed at that moment; a reminder of how to pray as Jesus did, how to listen, and why. At chapel, I thanked her. She was relieved that she had indeed heard from the Lord. We both gave thanks to God for we were both blessed. Those words have resonated with me again and again over the years.
All at Ffald-y-Brenin are profoundly grateful to Val for the decades of cheerful and selfless service which she has given to the centre. The value of her contribution cannot be measured and her friendship will always be cherished.
“ I thank my God every time I remember you… because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” Philippians 1:5