Wander through almost any town or city in the UK and you will, most likely, spot at least one house with a slate roof—perhaps even your own home sports such a crown. I expect you'll know that most of that slate has come from the quarries of north Wales.
To give you a bit of background, slate has been mined for over 1,800 years and it became most popular during the Industrial Revolution as small villages exploded into large towns, and then cities, with the birth of mills and factories. All this prodigiousness made the quarry owners very rich but it came at an inevitable cost for the workers. You see, men worked every day but Sunday—when they were required to go to chapel—for extremely low wages and in terrible conditions. A boy's apprenticeship took five years, but the pay for such skilled labour was very poor. One chamber, hundreds of feet underground, would be dug by a small group of men, usually family members, who would work that area for decades using only rudimentary tools, such as chisels, hammers, and explosives, often dangling from ropes wrapped around their bodies and legs, and working only by candlelight.
Once dug, the raw stone was sent to the mills where it was processed and hand split to produce the slate tiles so familiar to us.
As an aside, Nanna talked about using a slate at school, rather than paper, as she learned to write. The slate would be set into a wooden frame, and a slate pencil used to write the letters. A damp cloth, sponge, or spit-soaked sleeve (nice!), was then used to clean the slate. Hence the expression 'wiping the slate clean'! Preferably not with spit.
I recently revisited the site of this grainy 1980s photograph, although the weather was somewhat different this time; in 2022, the weather was as grey as the stones in the photograph. I was back there with Phil and Toby, a much needed holiday for us all, and very much a saunter down Memory Lane for me. This is the Blaenau Ffestiniog Slate Caverns in north Wales. I love it there. Back in 1987, I was squinting in the sunshine with my whole family, retreating to the cool, dark caverns in hard hats and unsuitable shoes. This time I wisely amended the footwear situation, and nearly died on the ascent from the caverns below. (I’m definitely not fourteen any more and honestly thought my heart might explode as we climbed the 180+ steps!)
(I must mention that they actually mature cheese in these caverns... although they refused to tell us the exact location. Much to my chagrin.)
I am so drawn to north Wales. I love its history, its people, its landscape, its hardy wildlife, and unpredictable weather. Let's not forget its fudge! For me, it was a week of feasting, not only on fudge and ice cream, but on sights I’ve not seen for a very long time. Whilst I often long for the coast, I think my heart is most drawn to those foreboding hills and slate slag heaps! There is something so mesmorising about the beautiful bleakness of it all, hearing the faint echoes of those miners and workers from the past. If you’ve never visited, or not been for some time, I really do recommend you take a trip. But not whilst I’m there; I can’t stand crowds! Nothing personal, you understand.
I heard God in those caverns. Honestly, I did. I mean, doesn’t He tell us that He can find us wherever we are? If He could find Adam in the Garden of Eden, David hiding in a cave, and Elijah in the middle of nowhere, He wasn’t going to have any trouble finding me 500ft underground, was He? And whilst I didn’t exactly fancy making my bed in the depths (mind you, I'm not sure David did either), I did feel reassuringly comfortable down in that mine. God pointed out the small things that so many in our tour group passed by. The fragile fern, its roots in the tiniest of crevices; the varied, damp mosses; the water trickling through from the surface above into the natural underground streams, and the myriad of colours and tones in the chippings of slate on the cavern floors. It felt like a holy place somehow. They have even named one of the caverns ‘The Cathedral’ because of its height and vastness, and it really does feel as impressive as any medieval church. As the tour guide explained just how the men would mine the slate and how millworkers processing the slate would split it to create perfectly even slates for roofing, God told me to write down what he was saying. You see, the guide (another Phil) described how those miners (his own father and grandfather included) would have to find the faults in the rock in order to uncover the material that was useful and be able to mine it. The faults in the rock were the places they would need to open in order to expose the precious slate. It was the faults for which they were searching.
Slate is a metamorphic rock, mostly composed of quartz, and forms over many years through relatively low horizontal pressure and heat. It's quite unique in the fact that it can be mined in sheets, making it very useful in building and construction, of course.
Splitting the slate is achieved by the craftsman finding the whimsically-named 'cleavage' (cue classroom sniggering) in the rock. Cleavage, in this context, is a super-induced structure, the result of pressure acting on the rock at some time when it was deeply buried beneath the Earth’s surface. And what makes slate so useful and distinct from other rock is this pressure-resultant cleavage.
Hands up if this resonates with you. Go on. Hands up. I’m not just talking about cleavages, (although that's obviously very relevant to any woman of my age and figure) but a metamorphic rock. Don’t you see? Only through pressure and heat can this rock become what it was made to be, only then can it be useful. It has to change from its original form, just fine grains of clay, mixed with other minerals, getting stressed by being pushed down and heated up, before it can be slate. Unique, beautiful, useful, tough, resistant, tenacious slate.
When God pointed all this out to me, I did wail a bit. Only inwardly… I didn’t want to create a scene now, did I? I wailed, if I'm really honest, because I’m tired of being pushed down and heated up. I’m so weary from the pressure, which seems pretty constant, of just living. Can you relate? Some days, I just want to hang up my hard hat and take a walk on the wild side. Whilst I'm not having to work down a mine (Thank you Jesus), there are some days which feel like I'm dangling from ropes in the dark. But let's face it: We're not the first in the whole history of humankind to experience life's pressures.
God reminded me about the early church as we read about them in Acts, and as I read chapter 5, four things stood out to me.
Now this was a group of people who knew all about pressure. In that time after Jesus had died and been raised, life was pretty dramatic. People were coming to faith left, right and centre, and the Jewish leaders weren't at all happy about it. Often the pressure experienced was through violence, flogging, and many died from the treatment. So why didn't these early followers crumble under the pressure? Because they felt an absolute compulsion to 'obey God rather than men' (v.29). They felt they simply had to carry on with the mission He'd laid out for them.
As I see it, there are several things that we can learn here.
Pressure clarifies priorities
We give most of our attention to our priorities, and we're prepared to invest of ourselves in the things that matter most to us. Sometimes, our priorities have to be the things which are most pressing, whilst at other times it's fair to say our priorities can be misplaced. And, naturally I suppose, priorities can be fundamentally self-serving. Yet pressure can clarify our priorities, just as it did for the apostles. For them, their greatest sense of 'must', of priority, was to God rather than to the religious and political pressure around them. When our obedience to God comes first, all other concerns find their rightful place.
Pressure brings focus
Pressure can generate pinpoint-sharpness. We can take something complicated and elaborate, and shape it into something simple. Before the craftsman takes his chisel to the slate, he looks for the faults, the cleavages, against which to place that chisel and to hammer the slate cleanly. His eyes focus on the simple line, the place he needs to aim for. If he becomes at all distracted, he'll mess it up.
Pressure can create determination
Either we can give in to the pressure and allow it to crush us, or we can be compelled to face it. We are not alone as we face into the pressure. Despite wanting to hang up my hat most days, I know without a doubt that we can successfully stand the pressure of life only with the power of God.
Pressure can be a catalyst for joy
Joy isn't just an emotion, it's not simply about feeling happy. Deep joy can come when the situation is far from ideal but we know we're doing the will of God. Deep joy can be experienced even when life seems to be going to hell in a hat. God's pretty savvy, you know. He's also incredibly kind. He can take a negative and use it for something positive. He can take all the stuff that's pressing down on you and turn that for your good and His glory. He can use the bleakest of times to teach you, to build your character, to bless you. Nothing is wasted in kingdom terms.
Our pressure points can be the very things that lead to the treasure within us. Remember: Beautiful, resilient, useful slate, was once just fine grains of clay. Only through intense heat and great pressure did that clay become incredible. So what will you choose? Will you skedaddle out of the pressure as fast as you can, or let the weight of pressure simply take you out? Or will your spirit align with God's and bear the pressure in God's strength, just like those early apostles?
I know most people have a thing for diamonds, but I'd rather be something less showy and a whole lot more useful. How about you?