Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Berdyaev and Tarkovsky - The Apocalypse and the Zone

 

‘It would be wrong to consider that the Book of Revelation only contains within itself a concept of punishment, of retribution; it seems to me that what it contains, above all, is hope. The time is near, yes indeed; for each one of us the time is very, very close at hand.’[1]

 Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)

 *

We live in an age of widening and deepening chasms – spiritual, cultural, social and political. 'Things fall apart,' as W.B. Yeats famously put it in The Second Coming. 'The centre cannot hold.' I will begin this essay by briefly describing why I feel the centre is dissolving, but I do not intend to speculate on how it might be recreated or restored. Discussion of this kind can easily be found elsewhere. I want to work instead from the premise that things are already too far gone and that no amount of rampart-bolstering will stop the wheels of de-spiritualisation that were set in motion long ago. We will not see the chasms bridged, in other words. Not in a worldly sense anyway. And this is as it should be. For, as Christ tells Pilate, 'My Kingdom is not of this world.'[2]

It is easy to caricature the centre as some bland, 'picket fence' type of place, but in reality it is the most exciting ground of all. The centre is where the common good is championed and different worldviews honoured, but also where a shared set of values – civic, national, or both – gives those views a local shape and context. There is a sense of belonging. People feel at home.

Regrettably, this is not where we are today. The centre has lost its imaginative hold. Social and economic liberalism have driven a coach and horses through the practices and traditions that grounded men and women in reality. 'You can be anything you want to be,’ we are told. But this is a pseudo-liberation, which divests us of our patrimony, both in this world and the next. It denies the existence of a heavenly home, while at the same time severing us from our roots on Earth – from the past, the future and, increasingly, from the limits set by Nature herself. 'Liberated' from an objective awareness of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going, we run the risk of becoming something less than human – 'a thing with one face' in Louis MacNeice's phrase[3] – putty in the hands of those who wish to enslave us.

Yeats, once again, read the runes aright. 'After us the Savage God,' he prophecied in 1896, stunned by the crudity of Alfred Jarry's play, Ubu Roi.[4] The poet recognized in this tale of an idiot dictator the potential for lunacy inherent in a free-floating world detached from its metaphysical moorings. Likewise, the revolutionaries of F.M. Dostoyevsky's, The Possessed, dazzled by the prolixity of Pyotr Verkhovensky, allow themselves to become vehicles of the demonic and conduits for nihilism. 'Listen,' declares this apostle of chaos. 'To level the mountains is a fine idea, not an absurd one. Down with culture ... The one thing wanting in the world is discipline ... We'll reduce everything to a common denominator!'[5]

One corollary of living in an epoch of moral and spiritual disintegration is that hope is gradually relegated to the margins. A transfigured world starts to feel possible in eschatological terms only. When we see secularism so deeply embedded in daily life and religious wisdom pushed so far to the periphery, it becomes hard to conceive of any constructive action we might take to help turn the tide. There remains, as always, the option of a retreat into literalism, but this is merely the flip-side of the relativism that assails us, and serves only to reinforce the dominant materialist paradigm.

Like Jacob wrestling the angel, this is a problem I do battle with every day. My romantic temperament (I am a monarchist and a Jacobite) pulls me perpetually towards certain Ersatz solutions. When the world grows dark, I find comfort in ancient Franco-German prophecies – visions of a 'Grand Monarch' and an 'Angelic Pope', who will restore the primacy of throne and altar, turn modernity on its head and, with their holiness and charisma, set hearts and minds ablaze for God. But this is a deception. It leaves the subject – myself in this case – unchanged and betrays a lack of faith in humanity's capacity for renewal and God's ability to surprise. That is why the life and witness of Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948) is such a blessing for our times. This great advocate of the imagination portrays what the genuinely transformative future awaiting us can and will look like.

History, Berdyaev claimed, is divided into three stages: the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Holy Spirit. The first age corresponds to the Old Testament and the Law of Moses. The age of the Son maps onto the New Testament and redemption from sin and death. The third age is still to come, and when it does it will change the dynamic and guide us beyond our habitual passivity in the face of the Divine. It will be our turn then to give something back to the Creator and thereby become creators ourselves. This, for Berdyaev, is the meaning of Apocalypsis – the unveiling in men and women of God's hidden purpose for the world. It is a transformation – a leap of consciousness – and an opportunity for ourselves, here and now, to quicken its advent. As he explains:

The Kingdom of God comes imperceptibly, without theatrical effects. It approaches in every triumph of humanness, in real liberation. In genuine creativity there comes nigh the end of this world, a world of inhumanity, of slavery, of inertia ... The end of time, the end of the world, the end of history is a passing over into another frame of consciousness. Within time the end is seen only as destruction, but in eternity as transfiguration.[6]

 *

Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, Stalker, prefigures this 'passing over' particularly well. A tract of land known as the 'Zone' is cordoned off after a mysterious environmental disaster in an unspecified European country. Hidden in its midst is a secret chamber (the 'Room'), which has the power, so it is said, to make one's deepest wish come true. The Stalker guides two men – the Writer and the Scientist – across the Zone's treacherous terrain to the threshold of the Room. It is a descent into Hades – a grimy trek through mud and slime; broken, blasted buildings; floods of stagnant water, and overgrown fields scarred with burnt-out tanks.

The Writer and the Scientist are a cynical, world-weary pair, unable to see any further or deeper than the wasteland that surrounds them. Pausing by a pool of water, the Stalker – a mystic and a dreamer – prays that his companions may repent of their hardness of heart:

'May everything come true. May they believe. May they laugh at their passions. For that which they call passion is not really the energy of the soul, but merely friction between the soul and the outer world. But mostly may they have hope and may they become as helpless as children. For weakness is great and strength is worthless.'

Under the water we see a series of objects, representative of our civilisation, which the catastrophe has rendered useless – gold coins, a hypodermic needle, a machine gun, and a painting of Christ. Tellingly, it is the religious image which comes last. The order which has passed away placed its priorities elsewhere and has paid the price.

The Stalker, in the end, is disappointed by his colleagues' lack of faith. Like the contemporary world, they seem too far gone – compromised and blinded by their hard-nosed materialism. But two remarkable, unforeseen occurrences turn base metal into gold – a confession of unconditional, utterly selfless love from the Stalker's long-suffering wife, and an astonishing display of telekinesis from his crippled daughter, Monkey. The quest, on the surface, appears to fail, yet the wasteland is renewed in fresh and unexpected ways.

There is a price to pay, however. The wasteland in Stalker is literal as well as figurative. There will never be cast-iron proof, but it is highly likely that Tarkovsky's premature death, along with those of his wife and several members of the cast and crew, was caused by exposure to toxins during filming. The film had to be shot twice – from February to September 1977, and again from June to November 1978 – due to a fault with the first lot of stock. Shooting took place, on both occasions, in Estonia, close to a power plant pumping out poisonous, and probably fatal, chemicals.

Tarkovsky also suffered a heart attack in April 1978, which forced him into convalescence for two months, and became so ill again early in 1979 that he thought he might die. The cost of the film, in human terms, was colossal. Was it worth it? All I can say is that I was privileged and blessed, in April 2011, to attend a big-screen viewing in a basement room at Manchester University with half a dozen colleagues and friends. It was a shared experience of the utmost intensity. This slow, contemplative masterpiece brought both the characters and ourselves to the threshold of the Room. It stripped us bare. Skinned us alive. The silence at the end felt as numinous and charged with significance as the elevation of the Host at Mass. All those great intangibles – Faith, Communion, Mystery, Solidarity, and more – were alive and present in the space.

I often feel nostalgia for that miraculous night, but then I realise that the holiness we touched and felt points not to the past but the future. If only, for instance, we could find a way of conveying the Gospel story with just a tenth of Tarkovsky's imaginative force, I believe we would see a Christian Renaissance that would astound and rejuvenate the world.

The past will never be rejected. Obedience to God's law will always be central to our lives. The same applies, obviously, to salvation from sin and death. But Berdyaev is right. This is an hour of impasse and stagnation, and more is required of us now – a creative flair and visionary intensity that turns conventional wisdom upside down and draws its inspiration from the deepest wellsprings of Christian tradition: that Living Water offered by Christ to the woman of Samaria in St. John's Gospel.

The cost of such a transformation will be absolute. We will be burnt to a crisp on Ixion's wheel – dismembered like Orpheus and pieced back together by the gods. In Tarkovsky's next film, Nostalghia (1983) – set in Tuscany – the protagonist, Gorchakov, becomes irresistibly drawn to the village fool, Domenico. This Stalker-like figure sets him the task of crossing the hot springs at the Bagno Vignoni spa, holding a candle and keeping it alive at all costs. Gorchakov, like St. Christopher, carries the Light of the World over the waters. It is an act of high symbolism, which transcends the rational mind. He wavers and wobbles and it costs him his life, but he fulfills his mission, playing his part, as he sees it, in the redemption of the world.

The Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, called this nine-minute take 'a miracle', as by the time he completes his task, Gorchakov appears to be holding something more than a candle in his hand.[7] The scene is an artistic tour de force, and as such performs a vital religious function, especially today. It re-enchants and re-mythologises the world. Our mechanistic, post-Enlightenment assumptions are broken apart and space created for the Divine – wild, fierce and strange – to make its presence felt. Spiritually-resonant art, like Tarkovsky’s, is moulded by silence and refined by fire. It brings gifts of insight, perspective and depth, which can and should inform the way we practice and present our faith. It unveils pattern and meaning, and helps us see the turning point ahead for what it truly is – an end, yes, but also a beginning. A death too – most certainly a death – but with the light of the Resurrection already, even now, here and there, starting to break though. As Berdyaev assures us:

God will not judge the world and mankind, but a blinding light will pierce the world and man. This will not be only light, but a searing, purifying fire. In this purifying fire, it will be evil that burns, not living beings. And that will lead to transfiguration, to a new heaven and a new earth.[8]



[1] ‘The Apocalypse’, Temenos, Issue 8, 1987, 14-15.

[2] John: 18:36

[3] Louis MacNeice, ‘Prayer Before Birth’, in Louis MacNeice: Poems Selected by Michael Longley (London; Faber, 2001), 71.

[4] W.B.Yeats, Autobiographies (London; Macmillan, 1955), 349.

[5] F.M. Dostoyevsky, The Possessed, trans. Jessie Coulson (London; J.M. Dent & Sons, 1931), 391.

[6] Nicholas Berdyaev, ‘War and Eschatology’ in Journal Put’, Oct. 1939 / Mar. 1940,  No. 61, 3-14. Trans. Fr. S Janos, 2001.

 

[7] Sean Martin, Andrei Tarkovsky (Kamera Books; Harpenden, 2011), 163.

[8] Nicholas Berdyaev, Truth and Revelation, trans. R.M. French (Geoffrey Bles; London, 1953), 108-9.

 

Essay originally published in Jesus The Imagination (Volume III) in June 2019. JTI is a print-only publication, but there's a web portal at - www.thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com

 

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Circle of Great British Lights


Our monastery lies just across the road from the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. The Tor and the tower at its summit - what remains of the old St. Michael's Church - are never far from our line of vision.

Brother Simon's cell had the best view of the Tor, and that was fitting as he had such a deep, intuitive awareness of the spiritual essence of this land. He was absolutely soaked in it, and Brother Charles, Brother Andrew, and myself - Brother Mark - saw and felt this in the most extraordinary fashion last Friday evening, just after Vespers, when Brother Simon was carried up into Heaven at the estimable age of ninety-one.

For Brother Simon, of course, none of this was extraordinary. It was reality making itself manifest. Nothing more; nothing else. But he lived closer to that reality than myself or anyone else I know and he was rewarded, right on the threshold of death, when the reality became visible and guided him through the passage from this world to the next.

I had been Brother Simon's student for a long time so I knew how he viewed such things. Because of this, and as I had been so close to him, our Abbot had given me permission to be present at the end along with Charles and Andrew, our 'in-house' medical men.

As I reached the arch-shaped wooden door, I glanced up at the sky. It was one Brother Simon would have relished - varied, free-flowing, and typically English - blue sky and sunshine vying for position with two rival cloud-types: white and fleecy versus dark and sombre - all seasons, you might say, and all potential weathers on display.

I lifted the latch and crept in. Brother Charles and Brother Andrew were sitting pensively on wicker chairs, either side of the dying monk's bed. He was as still as death already, his complexion, beneath his snow-white hair and beard, ash-pale and lifeless. I spied a chair by the door, picked it up and sat down next to Brother Charles, just to the right of the bed.

Brother Simon's eyes had been closed when I entered. They were open now. Grey and filmy. Slowly, he raised himself into a sitting position. I watched his tremulous arms, ready to catch him should they give way beneath him. But they held firm, and when I looked in his eyes again I saw that they had changed, back to the vibrant emerald green I knew so well. They were gazing straight ahead, behind where we were sitting, towards the door and the stone wall surrounding it. But there was nothing there, just the square window looking onto the cloister and Brother Luca's little icon of the Transfiguration hanging from a nail on the door. I thought he might be looking at that. But no.

'Behold,' he whispered. 'The Kings are here - four indomitable guardians of the land - Alfred, Arthur, Edward the Martyr, and Harold.'

Brother Simon's face was ruddy now, glowing almost. A fresh new energy radiated from him. He pushed himself right up and sat bolt upright, his voice trong and resonant:

'Now come the poets - four prophets, four seers, four bards of Britain - Charles Williams, David Jones, Geoffrey Hill, and William Blake.'

Brother Charles, Brother Andrew and myself stood up as one. The atmosphere in the room was transformed, like a current had been switched on. The place had come alive. Brother Simon's face was shining now. There were literal rays - bright and golden - circling around it like a halo. His words were ringing and authoritative:

'Now am I truly blessed for four saints of this isle are with us in this cell - treasures of our realm; living, eternal jewels - Hilda, Cuthbert, Julian, and Bede.'

The light was so intense and potent now that we could only just discern Brother Simon's eyes and mouth and the oval outline of his face. Then a smell - rich, evocative, enchanting - permeated the air. Brother Simon spoke again. Quieter now:

'Joseph of Arimathea is present, the bearer of the Grail and the first to bring the Faith to Britain.' That was all he said this time. His face was like the sun and we all stepped back in awe and wonder. Did I glimpse a gleam of gold then by Brother Simon's head as I drew back? Was the Grail itself among us and had Brother Simon just inclined his head to drink from it? The  light was so powerful now, pulsing out not from only his face but from his whole body that it was impossible for me to be sure. 

I became conscious then that a being of immense power had entered the space. A new quality occupied the air - silent, strong and resolute. We could not see this entity, but Brother Simon clearly could. He looked up, and we had to shield our eyes with our hands for the glory of his face was too much to look at - too fierce and all-consuming. I thought that I could hear the sound of beating wings, just above the bed. Then a great quiet came down upon us and there was no noise at all, just stillness, peace and light.

Minutes or centuries later, Brother Andrew spoke. 'What is happening, Brother Simon?' he asked.

'The Angel of Albion is calling me,' came the reply. 'I have asked him for a minute more so that I may repent more thoroughly.'

'You, Brother Simon, have no need of repentance,' said Brother Charles.

'Truly, I tell you, seeing these great ones here and measuring myself against them has shown me plainly that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of repentance.'

The aureole around him blazed even brighter than before and the holiness in the air was palpable. I had the strong impression that the invisible presences had arranged themselves in a circle around him. Some of them, therefore - those behind the bed - were now situated outside the cell as it stood in physical space - in the orchard, in fact - but that made no difference to what was happening. Walls and boundaries had become irrelevant.

My intuition told me that Joseph of Arimathea was in the centre of this circle, with the Angel of Albion above. Then, miraculously, the veil was drawn back and we were given a hint of the revelation unfolding before Brother Simon. I saw twelve solver lights, bright shining balls, floating in the air. Some, as I say (four, I think) were outside the room, behind Brother Simon's head. Even so, In the middle, near to Brother Simon's face, was a sphere of golden light, with the Angel's vivid red - like a scarlet lantern - watching on, it seemed, from just below the ceiling. All these lights appeared to me to be somehow still and moving at the same time. They hummed and whirred - in deep harmony, it struck me, with themselves, with Brother Simon, with us three watchers, and with the whole created world. But it was a harmony too deep and too refined for me to grasp and hold onto. In any case, I don't think it was ever meant to be grasped and held onto. But for just one instant I discerned a high music emanating from and between these luminous orbs, and everything that mattered to me, everything I fought for and believed in - divinity, sanctity, royalty, nobility - was contained within those sounds, and I longed to stay forever in that music, to inhabit its pattern and breathe its air unto the end of the ages and beyond.

I had come home, I realised. But I was there and gone again so quickly as the music faded and the lights steadily dimmed, though some of the magic - the calm joyousness of it all - remains with me still and hopefully always will. The halo around Brother Simon slowly disappeared as well. His head dropped gently back onto the pillow and there and then he died and his soul was lifted up to Heaven. 

Brother Charles and Brother Andrew knelt down beside him and began the Litany for the Dead. But I felt completely overwhelmed by what had happened, so I wandered over to the window, breathing deeply and praying silently, striving to reorientate myself.

A soft rain was falling on the summit of the Tor, then a flash of scarlet lightning lit the sky above the tower and I saw a mighty winged being standing there in triumph. In his right hand was a flag, and on that flag - gold on white - was depicted the Island of Britain. In his left I beheld the figure of a man, curled up and cradled, like a babe awaiting birth. Without seeing any more than this rough shape and outline, I knew at once that I was looking at Brother Simon.

The angel departed, the wall of cloud lifted, and the sun shone down upon the Tor. All the seasons were present and active again, and all the weathers - sunshine, rain, and wind as well - banding together, it appeared, in tribute to one who all his life - not just at the end - had heard the music of the spheres and seen and spoken with our nation's saints and sages, building up Jerusalem, brick by sacred brick, here in Somerset and everywhere in this green and pleasant land.

*

Adapted from The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell (1987) p.157 - the death of Abbot Sosois. Also with a nod to Dante's 'Circle of the Twelve Lights' in Paradiso Canto X - the Heaven of the Sun. The illustration above was used to promote the Glastonbury William Blake Festival in August 2018. Artist unknown.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The Apokalypsis of Dindrane


I stand on the threshold and lift the baby up to the brazier's light. To my left, moon, stars, wind and snow; to my right, the warm amber glow of the inner cloister. It is Quinqagesima Eve – raw, biting cold – but in my hands is light and life, the light of men and day star from on high.

Footsteps on the stone. My sisters, alive as always to the presence of the holy, congregate in wonder, kneel on the flags, and start to chant in Latin, Cymric and Greek that high canticle of Mary, the Ode of the Theotokos – Magnificat anima mea, Dominum ...

I cradle the sleeping babe to my breast and set off through the cloister, the nuns a candlelit phalanx around us. I glance behind. He who brought the boy to our door has departed. His pawprints recede in the snow. He has been true to his word. 'I will come again with the child,' he promised me fifty months ago. 'His name shall be Galahad.'

And so it began, that cool Advent morn, my heart and future torn between the convent here at Almesbury and the Lord Taliesin, the King's Poet and Captain of Horse, who graced my life at that time in such vivid, intense ways. I had travelled with him and my brother, Perceval, to the Roman fort of Rutupiae at the South East tip of Artorus' realm. Inspecting the new defences, they had left me alone to wander the jetties, the screeching gulls a bracing counterpoint to the incessant clink of hammer and blade. I found a quiet place to pray in, a mildewed old storeroom lined with fallen sandstone vaulting. But Merlin, the King's Mage, and his sister Brisen, were already there – watchful and alert, they knew where to find me – he with hair as dark as raven's pinions, her a vision of red and gold – a living flame – hot, fierce and bright, a second Brigid of the Gael.

They spoke to me of Carbonek – that charged, concealed place to the South West, which cannot be found on the maps. Whenever I had heard that name before – fleeting, flashing rumours in streets and squares – my heart would quicken and my face flush. Carbonek was my secret love – a magnetic pull, barely conscious, dangerously potent, yet without an outlet in my life. And here it all was – wounded king, wasted land, Grail castle and chapel, and most of all the wondrous child, whose coming, they told me, lies close at hand, the Priest and King who will bestow honour and glory on all corners of our land – from Canovium to Caerleon and Anderida to the Antonine Wall.

A dizzying conception spiralled within me – that I would be the mother of this child and this day my Annunciation. But Brisen, divining my thought, laid her hand upon my shoulder. 'No, Princess Dindrane. Your task is to raise and nurture the child, for his parents will be unable to. You are nearer to God than you think. There is no better woman.' But I shook my head, wrenched myself free and ran onto the quays, bumping blindly into workmen and builders, appalled by my hybris, a wild, weeping girl. I came to the foot of the great Roman Pharos – that brazen, flaming rod – eighty feet high, with its beacon brazier – recently relit by Artorus himself – blazing away on top. The light held and compelled me, and as I looked up I felt the cloud of indecision that had dogged me for months dissolve and disperse in the flames. A consoling presence descended upon me. My shame abated, and I discerned a deeper pattern, inscribed, as it were, in the fire – my God, my country, my child – interlinked and intertwined – directing me towards Almesbury and the strong, supportive arms of Tradition.

They were still in the storeroom, as I knew they would be. We joined hands in a triangle of power as the chant began. 'I will come again with the child,' Merlin assured me afterwards. 'His name shall be Galahad.'

*

I told Taliesin in the Praetorium as the sun sank low in the West, and there was sorrow and joy in our parting that night. I see him now, I see him always – shining brow, emerald eyes, shock of flaxen hair. But we write often, Deo gratias. Just yesterday, I read his account of the Thanksgiving Mass at Eboracum, ordered by Artorus after his Christmas rout of the Jutes, for Septuagesima Sunday:

'... I saw John the Divine and Mary of Magdala praying at the altar in the slanting sun, hands stretched out in blessing as Britain was consecrated to the Theotokos. Then, in Paternoster Square, our soldiers laid joyful hands on Artorus and tossed him high into the air, and every time they caught him they stamped their hobnailed boots and cried, "Hail Caesar! Caesar! Caesar!"

'So it was that our King became Emperor – the first in the West for thirty years – in the same city and manner as Constantine two centuries ago. Torches were lit and a space cleared by the statue of Mars. A makeshift diadem was fashioned out of winter berries, while a giddy young priest threw a purple chasuble across our captain's shoulders. Artorus unsheathed Excalibur and held it aloft as a universal shout of acclaim boomed around the colonnades. He spoke of what is past and passing and to come as one imbued with the gemlike clarity of the Holy Spirit. Britain, he declared, is the new Rome – the successor, the inheritor ... ' But from there I read no more.

My soul rejoiced – to a degree – at Taliesin's words, for I recall from childhood the streams of refugees seeking shelter in our house from Saxon sword and spear. Stunted, scarred and shocked they were, the legacy of Rome's departure and Vortigern's misrule. Our father, Gerren the Fleet Owner, was – and is – King of Dumnonia in the far South West. Again and again, in the years before Perceval and I were born, he petitioned Rome for help, though Rome, unknown to him, was but a smoking ruin. So he gave his ships to the fugitive princeling, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and when our victory came – first at sea and then on land at Dubroviae Bridge – the myth of Saxon invincibility was shattered and their power broken north of Vectis Water to the Abus river.

After the coronation, Gerren sent us to live in Ambrosius' capital, Venta Belgarum, for he knew what changes were afoot – scholars hired from Hibernia and Gaul to teach the young, and a mass construction of churches, cathedrals, and those thousand tiny chapels – votive lights glimmering through the night – that line our pilgrim pathways. I was six years old. Our father wished us to live at the center of this resurgence until it felt as natural to us as war and dissolution had for him. But Ambrosius died in his hunting runs – too young, too soon – skewered on a royal stag's tine. Yet under Artorus, his nephew, the revival he planted has bloomed into full restoration. For He has received his servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy.

And yet ...

Sleet spatters the windows as Galahad stirs in his sleep, squirming and wriggling, conscious perhaps of the treacherous undercurrents I sense and fear. Five years of marriage so far for Artorus and Gwenhwyfar and still no child, rivalries at court between Roman and Celt, the baleful influence of Medraut the Gaunt, and the ceaseless, insidious whispers surrounding Gwenhwyfar and Lanslod, the Emperor's right-hand man and Dux Brittianorum. Those who might stop the slide - Perceval, Taliesin, Merlin himself - turn the other way and pretend they do not see, blindsided by imperial pretensions as Artorus' glory curdles into pride.

Taliesin's missive told me too of Lanslod's nine-month disappearance. Our Dux, as part of his role, ventures often to far-flung regions and has been absent in the past for up to a year. So there is little concern at Venta right now, but they have no notion of how fast and wide the wheels are turning. Merlin and Brisen, claims Taliesin, lured Lanslod to Carbonek and tricked him into lying with Elayne, the Grail King's daughter, who Lanslod, under enchantment, mistook for the Empress. When he awoke he hurled himself out of the window in horror and disgust. Remorse collapsed into madness, a sickness possessing both body and mind as Lanslod grew backwards into a wolf, patrolling the scree and howling by Carbonek's gates, slavering for the blood of the child – soon to be born – that he unwittingly sired.

This very night I have learned the truth of this mad tale. Sat on duty by the door, just half an hour ago, I heard a snuffling and a padding on the snow outside. I lifted the latch and saw a pure white wolf with a babe in swaddling clothes tied in scarlet bands upon his back. I recognized the beast by his eyes – as black as raven's wings – and then by his voice. 'To overcome the wolf,' he announced. 'I had to become a wolf.'

I closed my eyes, prayed silently for Lanslod, then loosed the bands and held the baby up to the light. And the presence that consoled me at the Pharos breathed life and fire upon me once again – the light of men and daystar from on high.

 *

Sister Seren has prepared the chamber, and once inside, alone at last with Galahad, my calling's weight and severity come crashing down upon me. My body stays standing but my spirit sinks down, down into the dark, down to the place of truth and revelation. My inner Carbonek.

And in the dark I find that I can see – what is past and passing and to come. The Saxons will return and seize this land, driving us into the West. The Empire will be restored indeed, but in a far off era and not by us. But first comes the Grail – soon now – with Galahad its Priest and King. Perceval will sup from it too, and also Bors, our Comtes Brittianorum. Taliesin will record these things and become our standard bearer once this fa├žade of Empire falls. But the madness that made Lanslod bestial will strip Merlin of his puissance too, for he has deceived our Dux and misused the Grail, mistaking political necessity for spiritual reality.

No. Carbonek cannot be commanded – brought to heel and shunted around like the Frankish chess pieces in our father's house. Uncontainable. Uncontrollable. Untameable it is. It strikes and acts in ways beyond the range of Emperor and Mage.

Silence descends. Wind, sleet, snow all cease. The candles in the wall – one for each niche – cast a nimbus around Galahad's tuft of red-brown hair. And I gaze intently at that halo, for my fate alone remains hidden, and I have faith I will discern it there. But it is not the future that is shown me, nor the present, but the past, back through the Halls of Time – all the way back – to the Fiat Lux and beyond.

Our true names blaze out in letters of gold as a thousand bells resound in my mind. For Galahad and I have been here before, and we will come once more before the ending of the world. From age to age we appear – agents of Apokalypsis – unveiling, unmasking, transforming, creating. Where the darkness is thickest and Satan runs rampant, there are we sent, champions of the ancient light. Sometimes our ways seem strange, and earthly powers rarely comprehend. But we have lineage and pedigree – now and in eternity – for He is the Logos and I Sophia.

I was at Michael's side when he cast out the dragon. I laid the foundation stone at Carbonek Castle. At the world's inception I stood before the Throne, holding up a silver cross and chanting in Old Solar, the language the Logos gave me ...

'Your song is good, Sophia,' said the Father of Lights. And behold, the world was made ...

And goes on being made.

*

The gale snarls back, smashing snow on wall and windowpane. I tuck Galahad into his bed, make the sign of the cross on his brow, kneel beside him and pray, 'O You who fashioned a universe from my song, forgive our Mage and his sister their trickery and haste. May the boy bring peace and fullness of redemption ... ' But my eyes grow heavy and my words tail off. Time now for sleep, for I have work to do and a child to look after – as He watches over me too, in my waking and my sleeping – my brother, my friend, my comrade, my God.


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Future Shock - Aeneas in the Underworld (2)


The mountains were not only clear all through like purple glass, but living. They sang and were conjubilant. They were not all that sang. Everything is related to everything else, and all relationship is either discord or harmony. The power of gravity, dimension and space, the movement of the earth and sun and unseen stars, these made what might be called music and I heard it ...

William Golding, Free Fall

*

'It is good,' said the Sibyl, taking the golden bough and turning it in her hands. 'Come, let us pray in silence for a moment.'

Then we were on our way again, through the portico and into the big cavern. She opened a trap-door in the ground with her foot. I saw a small, square space, and stone steps leading down. 'You first,' she said, handing me back the bough. 'Hold it aloft at all times. It is your lantern in the dark. Now go.'

The afternoon light and heat vanished. The Sibyl closed the door above our heads and we were only saved from total darkness by the bough's warm, heartening glow. After a long descent, I detected a certain moisture in the air and even a hint of the sea. Then I heard a babble of voices - crying, begging, pleading, wailing - as we emerged onto a dismal shore lit by a feeble green light, which had no obvious source that I could see. A lake stretched before us, and between ourselves and the water's edge was a huge throng of people - jostling, pushing, clamouring - all trying to climb aboard the wooden skiff coming into harbour. The boatman was a wild-looking fellow with long grey hair and beard. Some of them he let on, but others he beat back with his oar. 'Not yet!' he barked. 'Wait your time.' Then he sailed off into the gloom, returning about a half hour later, during which time even more desperate souls had appeared on the gloomy strand.

'These are the newly dead,' explained the Sibyl. 'Charon ferries those who have received burial to their destination on the far side of Acheron. The unburied must stay here for a hundred years. Now lift that golden bough up high and part this crowd in two.'

The unhappy shades gazed up in awe and moved aside instantly, and when Charon returned he saw the bough too and took us two alone on the boat. But as we were boarding I heard a familiar voice calling my name. I turned and looked and there was Palinurus, our lost helmsman. 'Take me with you, good Aeneas, ' he implored. 'Get me out of this place!'

'Palinurus!' I exclaimed. 'What happened? Did a god shove you overboard?'

'No, my Lord. The sea was so calm and the night so still that complacency possessed me and and I fell asleep. I tumbled over into the water, and when I cried out for help no-one heard me. Everyone was sleeping. So I swam for the Italian shore and almost made it but was clubbed to death in the shallows by natives who mistook me for a demon. And that is why I am here, unburied and condemned to squat in this fetid swamp for a century. So I ask you again, noble prince, take me with you to the farther shore.'

'Palinurus,' I replied. 'You were never so naive as you seem to have grown down here. The gods treated us so roughly, both before Troy's fall and after, that you were always so shrewd and careful. I believe you are covering for whichever god did this to you, hiding the crime so that they will not be angered further and you get your wish to cross Acheron before your time. Well, I would take you if I could, but I am a stranger here - alive, not dead - and am ignorant of the law. So I leave your fate in the hands of Apollo's priestess, the Cumaen Sibyl, who stands beside me.'

'Palinurus,' she said. 'I know both the truth and the falsehood in your words. Both are irrelevant. You are unburied, and no amount of pleading and dissembling will alter Jove's decree. But take heart. Those Italians will acknowledge their crime and rapidly repent. They will build you a tomb, which will soon become a shrine as they perceive that nearness to your remains brings healing to their sick and makes the barren fertile. They will name that coastline after you, so look up with joy, for you will be honoured and Charon will ferry you to Elysium far sooner than you think.'

Tears of joy ran down Palinurus's pale cheeks. I would have said more but Charon growled impatiently and I knew it was time to go. The voyage was long, the air cold, and the waters black. At the farther shore, he turned around and sailed straight back without a glance or word. A rough gravel path lay ahead of us, lined on either side with tall, drooping trees like elms or poplars. It was hard to be sure in the half-light. But as we walked, it was the sounds I heard that stirred my heart, not the sights - three different expressions of anguish, one upon another in quick succession. The first seemed to come from babies and infants - short, sharp cries and gasps. Then adult voices in a kind of medley - weeping, wailing and exclaiming. The third was so quiet that my ears could barely pick it up - a choking, insistent kind of sobbing - yet the despair in those tears was all-pervasive and seemed to fill the air and every nook and corner of my mind. The atmosphere was heavy and doom-laden. I ground to a halt. The Sibyl grasped my sleeve and dragged me on but all the time the sobbing lasted I felt a strong, all but overwhelming sense of futility and hopelessness.

She explained the sounds. The first, as I had surmised, was that of babes and infants who had died at birth or shortly afterwards. Then came those who had been unjustly sentenced to death, followed by numberless legions of suicides. I was so distressed by this waste and loss - the sorrow and the pity - that I failed to notice we had entered a wood and that the path had almost disappeared. Here I saw men and women with stooped backs and sad expressions wandering between and behind the trees. 'Who are these mournful shades?' I asked.

'Also suicides,' said the Sibyl, 'but the gods have granted them a copse of their own for they all destroyed themselves for the same reason - an excess of love. Here, I believe, is one you know.' And Dido, Queen of Carthage, stepped forth and turned her face to me. I ran to greet her, but she glowered at me as I spoke, her beautiful eyes all ice and hostility. 

'O great and noble Queen. So those dreadful rumours are true - that you made a pyre and flung yourself on top on my account. Please understand. I did not want to leave Carthage. I had no desire to depart from your side or your bed. But Mercury himself, at Jove's command, ordered me to go. He recalled me to my destiny, that city and civilisation I am called to begin. This is what drives and compels me on, often against my will, and never more so than when I left your gracious harbour.'

I would have gone down on my knees and begged forgiveness but she never gave me chance. She simply turned and walked away and disappeared behind a knotty oak. There was nothing in her comportment that suggested she wanted me to follow. Quite the reverse. I was most emphatically unforgiven, and knew in that moment that it was right and just that I was. I could not blame the gods this time. I had stayed in Carthage of my own free will and had enjoyed Dido's hospitality to the full. It was the gods, in fact, who had shaken me awake. Dido, I saw now, had every right to assume that I loved her and had decided to stay with her for life. Through my sensuality, through my abdication of responsibility, I had conveyed to her that this was the case. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

I was crushed  - pulverised and made naught - by the weight of my sin. 'Did Apollo not say,' whispered the Sibyl, 'that you would come face to face down here with the very worst of who you are?'

'Words to that effect,' I snapped back. 

The air grew thick. The trees thinned and disappeared until nothing but flat, barren land surrounded us. Presently, the ramparts of a mighty city loomed ahead, giant battlements and towers of the purest, darkest black. Demonic figures stood on the turrets, brandishing spears and shouting what I could only take to be obscenities at me in some outlandish tongue I could not understand. Cries of screaming agony resounded from the depths. 'Behold the city of Dis,' said the Sibyl, 'where the wicked dwell. To the left lies the road to Tartarus, the black pit reserved for the worst of evildoers. Be careful that you do not end up there. Our road now, the way to Elysium, runs under the city and then to the right. Cling tight to the bough as you go. It will bring comfort and strength.'

The path dipped, and soon the iron gates of Dis stood bold and strong in front of me. I saw a sign in blood-red ink: 'Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.' Then a hole in the ground, like a small cave, right beneath the doors. I clutched the bough as the Sibyl had instructed. Down we went. The hole became a tunnel. The bough's rays were again the only light we had. A foul, sickening stench accompanied us. The cries of the damned assailed us from above. But the tunnel quickly ended, and we found ourselves in a rocky, slightly brighter landscape, full of armed men and women too, including, I saw, some of the Amazons who had fought beside us at Troy. There were horses as well, and chariots, and all kinds of sword-play and mock battles going on. It seemed a contented type of place, the first I had come seen in Hades. I saw many there that I knew - Idaeus, Adrastus, the three sons of Antenor, and more - noble comrades all. When they saw me they gave a shout of recognition and speedily rushed over. I spotted Agammemnon too, skulking in the distance. I had not known that he had died. When he saw me, he scuttled off into a dell and hid. I longed to see that bastard Ulysses there among the dead as well, though I rather hoped he had come to a more deserved fate in Tartarus or Dis. 'He is still alive,' said the Sibyl, reading my mind. 'He is a wanderer like you. Searching for his home  Soon we will be in Elysium - the blessed realm. You will need to have banished all such animosity from your mind by then.'

One of the faces in front of me was so scarred and mutilated that at first I did not recognise him - Deiphobus, Priam's son, who had taken Helen for his wife after Paris's death. Those savage cuts wounded me with shame for I had thought of him often on Troy's last night as I knew that Menelaus and his men would have headed straight for his chamber. I had been aware of this and had intended to find him and support him but the pressure of events kept me away. I apologised and told him I had let him down, but Deiphobus said there was nothing to forgive and sent me on my way with his blessing, assuring me that I had done everything I could to save Troy and that a future bright beyond imagining lay ahead now for us all.

So we left that place and crossed a stream of clear blue water before passing beneath a huge green hill, nearly a mountain. Colour, I noticed, was coming back to the world. A tunnel ran straight through the hill, long and metallic, my boots ringing on the shiny, silvery surface as we walked.

The stream and the hill and the colour they displayed were harbingers of the astonishing world we shortly emerged into. There was so much light that at first I could make nothing out. I had to pause and rub my eyes. Then I saw the sun and the sky - mountains, rivers, trees, flowers and a wild, briny smell that told me the sea was near. Then I saw people - men, women and children of all types and races - all clad in white, some with golden circlets around their brows, others with silver. 'Behold Orpheus!,' said the Sibyl, pointing to a man of beauty and distinction playing a harp on a cliff-top as a group of blessed spirits listened peacefully below. 'Here are all those nearest to the gods - poets, artists, priests, prophets, and the finest of warriors, such as these, your friends and countrymen who now approach.'

I had been seen by two men, who waved and sprinted towards us across the grass. I saw who they were - Misenus, our trumpeter, who we had so recently lost, and with him great Hector himself. My heart leapt and sang in a burst of unexpected, totally undeserved joy. We talked together for a long time, while the Sibyl watched on discreetly. Their faith in me - their unswerving backing and support - broke the chains of the negativity that had taken my mind captive for so long. By the end of our conversation I had even begun to think that the fall of Troy was a good thing because without it the glory of the city to be could never come about. 'Come now,' said Hector at length. 'I will take you to your father. He will not only speak of the future, as we have done. He will show you.' He asked me then me to lift the golden bough above their bowed heads and pronounce a blessing on them. Me give them a blessing! 

He led me to the crest of a hill. From there saw my father below, standing by the bank of a swiftly-flowing river. He was alone on the near side of the water, while opposite him a great number of souls from a  variety of vocations, judging by their garb - soldiers, workers, holy men and women, and more - were kneeling on the ground, drinking from the stream.

I ran down the hill at full speed to greet my father, Anchises. I'll be honest. I forgot he was a shade. Three times I tried to embrace him, and three times I held nothing but air. That had happened with the ghost of Creusa in the burning shell of Troy as well. The memory stung, but I kept my eyes fixed on my father and the joy of seeing him again replenished my heart with gladness. After a while, I asked him who these thirsty souls were.

'Those, my son, whom the gods command to return to the world and live a second or even a third life after a short sojourn down here. Do not ask me why. It is a mystery beyond my ken. This is the river of Lethe. When souls drink here they forget this blessed realm, though some imbibe less deeply than do others, so Elysium returns to them in flashes as they journey through their lives above. Many of those gathered here now will be mighty figures in the future now unfolding for our race. They are keen to show you. So watch.'

Then began the most extraordinary flow of people, from right to left, each and every one of them saluting me with an upraised left arm as they filed by. My father named and announced them all, but there were thousands upon thousands and I recall very few. There was a series of kings first, then a legendary hero - Romulus; I remember him - then more kings, followed by tough-looking men my father called 'Dictators,' 'Consuls,' and 'Caesars.' Some of these Caesars' names I remember now too - Augustus, Trajan, Constantine, Justinian. It was a long list. Then the folk going by began to alter in looks and style: less royal and military, though both of these still featured, and more religious in demeanour, some with the rapturous gaze of the prophet and others with the focused serenity of the contemplative. I saw men as well with builders tools and the set-squares and protractors of the geometers. Then my field of vision changed and I was no longer reviewing a parade but gazing at a map of Europa, drawn in starlight on a cloth of ink-black sky. A great light shone in Italy for centuries, but dimmed eventually and gave way to another light in the East, near, it seemed to me, to where Troy once stood. After an even longer period, that disappeared too and a new light appeared - dimmer and a little less constant - further to the East and North. That was extinguished in turn and there was darkness over the land and even the starry outline of Europa grew blurred, faded, and then vanished into night. The Northern light sparkled again, flickered, and then disappeared as all returned to black. Then a light as strong as the first I had seen blazed out from the North West and all the other lights flashed back into life, fierce and purposeful as before. Others joined in, and soon I was faced with a myriad of lights, blazing from one end of Europa to another, from North to South and East to West until the whole continent was one long band of fire and glory.

In the end, all I could see was that light and in the midst of it three red circles - interlocking, interweaving, inter-relating - a dance, a diagram, a pattern, a thread, which somehow I began to grasp in my mind's eye and intuitively understand. I was wildly excited and felt on the verge of a tremendous discovery, both for myself and the world at large. But that was the moment when it suddenly felt all too much, and it must have been then that I fell head first into the river in a dead swoon.

*

I did not forget! I remembered! And when I opened my eyes there were three people with me - the Sibyl, my father and, most wonderfully, Creusa, my wife. In their different ways - for two were shades and one a living person - they dried me off, helped me up, and led me back to the silvery tunnel. The souls of the blessed lined the route, Misenus sounding his trumpet and all saluting in the manner I had seen on Lethe's bank. I turned to them and held the bough up high in a gesture of triumph and respect. They responded with a mighty roar, before Creusa left me for the last time and the Sibyl and I pressed on through the tunnel alone. I prayed for my dear wife's soul, while on the other side, in the country of the warriors, I blessed the soldiers with the bough and prayed that the sun might shine on that good and decent place and that some or all of them would graduate to the Elysian Fields. Agammemnon did not run away from me this time. He nodded as I passed, and I nodded back, and hand on heart I can say that I felt no animosity, not even towards Ulysses.

At the walls of Dis I prayed that soon some Mighty One would tear down those iron doors and cleanse and transform  that wretched city. It became clear and real to me that the traditional gods - even Apollo, even Venus - were not strong enough to combat and beat such intense levels of sin. Only a real god could win down here, and I knew there and then that this being, this entity, this person - this God beyond the gods - existed beyond and above our Pantheon and that He was calling me and had already revealed himself to me in the Underworld, though my conscious mind at that point could not grasp when. But I took this knowledge with me into the lovers' wood and Dido this time, just like Agammemnon, did not turn from me. She stood and made eye contact and seemed to listen to and even, perhaps, appreciate my prayer. I saw no love in her eyes, but no hate either. 

In the sorrowful regions, where the babes, the wrongly condemned, and the suicides cry and weep, I knelt on the path for hours, praying to that same strong God that some measure of relief - an opportunity for movement and growth - might be granted these unlucky souls. On the other side of Acheron, I saw no sign of Palinurus, and that was the moment when I knew that my job in Hades was done and that my mission was accomplished. Parting from the Sibyl in the temple was harder than I had expected. A bond had built up between us. But I was already looking forward to seeing my men again as I began my descent down the mountain. The world was transfigured - renewed and remade. All things - rocks, trees, sea, sky, grass - were brimming with vitality. I felt at any moment that a random gorse bush might catch fire and the God I had prayed to at Dis would address me from the flames. It was an odd conception - hard to explain, even to myself. Great Jupiter was in no way diminished - I want to stress that - but it was like a space had opened up above him and that the God beyond the gods was in that space, reshaping my soul, remoulding my heart, reorienting my mind, so that His desires were my desires. It was a strange and welcome sensation to feel aligned for once with the Power - previously unknown to me - that guides and directs the universe.

It was good to meet Achates on the beach, throw my arms around him and find flesh and bone and not fresh air. I was about to show him the golden bough when I realised that I no longer had it. I had no idea when it disappeared but I think now that it must have been the moment when the pattern of the circles (yes, that's when it was!) filtered down to my conscious mind outside Dis, that stronghold of sin, and I saw and understood how high the stakes were and knew that the God behind the gods alone could sack that evil citadel. From then on I had no more need of the bough. It had done its job and done it well. A new and greater power had broken through, into my life and into the world.