Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Singing Head

Summer Solstice by Rob Floyd - www.robfloyd.co.uk


Many centuries ago, a thousand years and more before Julius Ceasar came to this isle, a dire and dreadful war broke out between the princes of Britain and Ireland, a clash of arms which lasted ten bloody years, beginning and ending on the same day as the start and finish of the siege of Troy. Victory came at last to the invading British forces, but it was a bitter, barren triumph. They had sailed to Ireland in a fleet of a thousand ships, yet only one was needed to take the survivors back home, and that, like all their ships, had been designed to hold a hundred warriors. Just eight men and one woman now remained out of all that mighty host: King Bran the Blessed, Manawydan his brother, Pryderi son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, Glifiau son of Taran, Taliesin the Poet, Ynawg the Tall, Heilyn son of Gwyn, and Branwen daughter of Llyr, over whom the war had been fought.

Bran gave a last set of instructions to his followers as they boarded the ship: 'Cut off my head,' he said, 'and carry it with you to the Island of the Mighty. Take it first to Harlech and remain with it there for seven years. You will find the head an endless fount of song and story, more so than it has ever been while fastened to my shoulders. You must travel then to Gwales in Penfro, and you can stay there for as long as you wish. In the upper room, behind the High Table, you will behold three doors. Two of them will be open - the door on the left that looks out onto Gaul and the door on the right that looks out at the Northern Lights. But the door in the middle will be shut, and that is the door that looks out onto Aber Henfelen in Cornwall. You do not have to open that door, but as soon as you do open it - if you open it - then you must leave straightaway and head south to London and bury my head there, my face turned towards Europe, five fathoms deep beneath the White Tower. The head will guard this land from that day on, ensuring that men of ill will, be they outside the island or within its sacred precincts, do not succeed in making captives of ourselves or our descendants.'

At this, Bran's followers were aghast. He had led them so well in war and in peace, and they all held a fierce loyalty to his person and his crown. But they knew better than to disobey him - for Bran was said to be a prophet who had walked and talked with God Himself - and at length it was Manawydan, his brother and successor, who drew his sword and severed his head from his shoulders.

Sorrowfully they sailed across the Irish Sea, wondering if they had fallen prey to a collective delirium brought on by the trauma of war. For the head made no sound during the three hours of the voyage and its eyes remained glazed and vacant throughout.

They came into harbour at Aber Alaw in Tal Ebolion. Once there, Branwen looked back across the sea and saw in the distance the smoke still rising from the ruined Irish towns and villages. 'Alas,' she cried, 'that all this destruction should have been wrought on my account.' But Taliesin put his arms around her and comforted her, and they all set out after a short rest towards Harlech.

After half an hour they passed a group of peasants in a field. 'What news?' Manawydan asked. 'Is Caradog, the King's regent, still seated in power in Westminster?'

'My lord,' replied the chief peasant. 'He is not. The land has been wracked with civil strife since 'ere you left. Caswallon, son of Beli, Bran's ancient enemy, rebelled against Caradog, made himself invisible and slew the regent and his men. Now he reigns as tyrant in London and every man, woman and child in Britain suffers for it.'

Branwen wept. 'Not just one land wasted,' she wailed, 'but two.' And she died there and then of a broken heart. The seven men left buried her in a high, square grave, then pushed on mournfully for Harlech.

When they arrived, however, they found a lordly castle waiting for them on the cliffs. Everything was there that they could have hoped for. The gardens were fertile and the hunting runs excellent. But it was the birdsong that softened their hearts with its poignant beauty and moistened their eyes with tears. Far out to sea, they could dimly discern three birds wheeling and circling above the ocean. No other bird did they see all the time they were there, yet the birdsong seemed to be coming from much closer than that - from above, beside, and all around them. 

The tears that flowed were tears of grief and mourning for all those who had perished so senselessly in the Irish War. Now the head began to sing too - psalms of lamentation and supplication, invoking the High God to welcome the souls of the departed into the light of his heavenly dwelling. And gradually their spirits started to rise, and they spent those seven years at Harlech in a state of calm, peaceful rest and recollection.

After that they moved on to Gwales in Penfro, and it was the same for them there as at Harlech except even better. Here there was no need to hunt or forage as three times a day - breakfast, dinner and supper - a wonderful meal was provided by invisible hands in the castle's upper room. As they ate and drank on their first night they saw the three doors at the far end of the room - the one looking out onto Gaul, the one looking out at the Northern Lights, and the one in the middle which was shut. 'That is the door we must not open,' said Manawydan. 'The one that looks out onto Cornwall.'

The seven stayed there for eighty years, and it was the happiest, most blissful time any of them had ever known, each year richer and more fulfilling than the one before. They did not age at all throughout this time. On the contrary, the longer they stayed the more youthful and radiant their faces and bodies became. They had forgotten all about the war and everything they had suffered in Ireland. The head sang to them continually, prophecies of extraordinary events to take place in the far-off future. They were astonished, and as there was little need for sleep in that enchanted place they gathered around the High Table as often as they could, day and night, and deeply imbibed the vision and insight pouring forth from King Bran's head.

Then one morning Heilyn son of Gwyn found himself alone in the upper room. The head was silent and the King's eyes shone with a strange light, which puzzled and unsettled Heilyn. He looked up at the middle door and an irresistible compulsion surged up within him to open it wide, bring an end to this episode, and move the story forward.

So Heilyn flung the door open and looked out onto the Cornish coast. For a long time afterwards he hated himself, for the castle straightaway lost its mystic sheen and was now a shabby, run-down semi-ruin. And all the pain and loss of a decade's worth of war and woe came crashing down upon them so that it felt like no time at all had elapsed between the burial of Branwen and the opening of the door. It was all too real and raw once more.

They left that place immediately and took the head with them to London as Bran had instructed. It made no sound now, though they eyes were still open and did not have the glazed, vacant look they had on the voyage back from Ireland. The head was alive, but silent.

So they buried it five fathoms deep beneath the White Tower and came sorrowfully away. Not long afterwards, Caswallon died unexpectedly and the Great Council asked Manawydan to become King in his place. He accepted gladly and began the arduous task of rebuilding the shattered country. When he himself went to God three years later Pryderi was chosen to succeed him, and he reigned for three-score years and transformed Britain into a strong, stable realm and a beacon of prayer, learning and the arts - 'a jewel set in a silver sea,' as Taliesin wrote on the occasion of the King's golden jubilee.

Manawydan and Pryderi had great confidence in what they set out to achieve because they knew the head of Bran the Blessed was guiding and protecting them from deep below. Things stayed this way for a millennium and a half until Arthur, in his pride and hybris, had the head dug up, thinking that he and he alone should have the honour of defending the land from its foes. 

Taliesin, who had lived through all these centuries, was there to see this happen, but no-one, himself included, had any idea what Arthur did with the head - whether he tried to destroy it or hid it away somewhere. And Taliesin will be there again when - as Bran prophecied at Gwales in Penfro - the head will reappear at a time when Britain is threatened and almost overcome by a foul, unprecedented darkness. It will carry out the same salvific work then as it did after the ravages of the Irish War - that deep, eternal labour of healing, redemption, restoration, and national transfiguration. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Marble of Exchange


I remember how struck I was as a boy when I read about the fate of the Roman Emperor, Valerian (253-260, pictured above). According to the early Christian historian Lactanctius he was captured by the Persians after the Battle of Edessa and used for years afterwards as a footstool for the Persian Emperor, Shapur I. When Valerian offered the Emperor a ransom for his release, he had molten gold poured down his throat and was then killed and had his skin flayed off. Lactantius' account does not make clear whether the killing or the flaying took place first. No time was wasted anyway in hanging the skin up as a trophy in Shapur's Great Hall.

There are any number of tragic cases closer to home - both in time and space - which should have affected me at least as much but did not do so. After all, I did not know Valerian - how could I? - and I also had no idea whether he was a good man or not. But deep down none of that mattered. What trumped everything was the strong conviction that a Roman Emperor should never have had to suffer such indignities. It seemed to me then - and still does now - profoundly against the natural order. There was the personal element too, as in the title of Graham Greene's book, The Human Factor - the feelings, emotions, and propensity for suffering common to men and women of all eras - and I could imagine only too clearly the terrifying blend of humiliation, dread, isolation, hopelessness and despair that Valerian must have felt.

Not every historian, I hasten to add, shares Lactanctius' view. Other accounts claim that Valerian and the men seized with him were treated honourably and were in fact set to useful work, building dams and bridges and so forth, the type of engineering enterprises Romans traditionally excelled at. So that's a comforting hope. But it is the first version that has stuck in my mind and which somehow - viscerally, I mean - seems more likely to me and certainly more realistic.

This unfortunate Emperor, as I say, has often been in my prayers these past four decades. For fifteen years or so I would simply ask God to look after him in eternity and grant him a place of 'happiness, refreshment and peace' as Eucharistic Prayer Two of the RC Church expresses it. But when I discovered Charles Williams in 1994 a whole different mode of prayer opened up before me. Nowhere is this better articulated and embodied than in the poem appended below, Taliessin on the Death of Virgil, taken from Williams' Taliessin Through Logres collection (1938).

Williams expands on this concept of prayer in many places, most notably in his novel Descent Into Hell (1937). He makes of prayer a more elastic, dynamic thing than I had thought possible. Not only can we pray for a person's post-mortem salvation but also that they might be given comfort, hope and strength here on Earth in the darkest moments of their most intense physical and mental pain. The implications of this are staggering. Through our prayers, for example, we can make a tangible difference to a martyr (of any denomination) enduring a brutal hanging in sixteenth-century London, or to a child forced to watch the slaughter of parents and siblings in the Rwandan civil war of the 1990s. 

I find it extraordinary that the Christian Churches have not picked this idea up and ran with it with gusto. What is the Church for if not deeply salvific deeds such as these? It shows to me just how far Christianity still has to go before it can become the religion it is truly capable of being. In a sense it hasn't done anything very much yet. So much of it is still latent, still in a state of potential, raw and undeveloped. And this should give us both cause for concern and grounds for real hope.

Charles Williams was a forerunner, I believe, of this coming Christianity - richer, deeper, more creative and three-dimensional than much of what we see in our churches today. In this poem, Virgil - the archetype of the virtuous pagan who never knew Christ - tumbles down to Hades at the moment of his death. Nothing can break his fall. The words and images which served him so well in life and came at his beck and call dissolve into a meaningless welter and babble. The underworld awaits. Then grace takes a hand. 'Unborn pieties lived,' as Williams succinctly puts it. Prayers of gratitude from his subsequent readers descend upon Virgil, rescue him from the pit, and bear him up towards that heavenly home where he truly belongs. He is 'set on the marble of exchange' - a fine, gratuitous act, like the 'deeper magic from before the dawn of time' in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, cutting through the iron laws of necessity and paying the poet back in justice and truth for the miracle of his oeuvre.

This is a work of real beauty and power. The French word for 'strength' - la force  - captures its spirit well. I didn't notice it much, I confess, when I first discovered Taliessin Through Logres twenty-six years ago. I was too fixated on the Grail at that time to pay much attention to anything else. More fool me. Maybe this is the poem where the Grail was to be found all along. This is the poem, perhaps, that reaches down most emphatically  to the heart of things, to the nub of what Dante so memorably calls 'the love that moves the sun and the other stars.' Every time I read it, it unfolds - unfurls even - more and more of its secret power. May it do so for you and for all who read this post. It is a poem to pray by, and a poem to live by:


Taliessin on the Death of Virgil

Virgil fell from the edge of the world,
hurled by the thrust of Augustus' back; the shape
he loved grew huge and black, loomed and pushed.
The air rushed up; he fell into despair, into air's other.
The hexameter's fullness now could find no ground;
his mind, dizzily replete with the meaningless sweet sound,
could found no Rome there on the joys of a noise.
He fell through his moment's infinity
(no man escapes), all the shapes of his labour,
his infinite images, dropping pell-mell; above,
loomed the gruesome great buttocks of Augustus his love,
his neighbour, infinitely large, infinitely small.
In the midst of his fall others came, none to save.
While he was dropping they put him in a grave.
Perpetual falling, perpetual burying,
this was the truth of his Charon's ferrying - 
everlastingly plucked from and sucked from and plucked to
    and sucked to a grave.

Unborn pieties lived.
Out of the infinity of time to that moment's infinity
they lived, they rushed, they dived below him, they rose
to close with his fall; all, while man is, that could 
live, and would, by his hexameters, found 
there the ground of their power, and their power's use.
Others he saved; himself he could not save.
In that hour they came; more and faster, they sped
to their dead master; they sought him to save
from the spectral grave and the endless falling,
who had heard, for their own instruction, the sound of his 
    calling.
There was intervention, suspension, the net of their loves,
all their throng's songs:
Virgil, master and friend,
holy poet, priest, president of priests,
prince long since of all our energies' end,
deign to accept adoration, and what salvation
may reign here by us, deign of goodwill to endure,
in this net of obedient loves, doves of your cote and wings,
Virgil, friend, lover, and lord.

Virgil was fathered of his friends.
He lived in their ends.
He was set on the marble of exchange.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Between Carbonek and Byzantium - The Reign of Constantine IV


At the end of the Grail Quest, so many astonishing things happened - King Pelles was healed of his wound, Galahad was taken up into Heaven, and the waters of life flowed bounteously through what had once been the Wasteland. Of the remaining Grail Winners, Bors returned to Artorus' capital, Venta Belgarum, while Perceval married Pelles' daughter Blanchefleur, the Grail Maiden, and lived alongside her at Carbonek Castle, the home of the Grail.

When Pelles died, Perceval became King in his place, with Blanchefleur as his Queen. In time, they brought a son into the world - Lohengrin, the 'Swan King' - who continued the holy line of Carbonek after Perceval and his wife were themselves carried up into God's presence.

That happened twelve years after the Battle of Camlann and the spiriting away of Artorus into Avalon. In the decade leading up to that calamitous day, as the Companions of the Purple tore both the realm and each other apart, Bors would often return to Carbonek to pray before the Grail and ask God to protect and safeguard the land. He knew how grievous Britain's fall would be, for the country was more than a mere kingdom now. After the Battle of Mons Badonicus, the army had made Artorus Caesar Augustus in the West, the first Imperator since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus thirty years before. In the mind of Artorus, Britain now was the Roman Empire. The onus was on him and his people, he felt, to fill the Imperial gap left by Rome.

Bors, in his trips to Carbonek, prayed for divine intervention to keep this continuation of Empire intact. But in this he was disappointed. Kneeling before the Grail, with Perceval beside him as of old, the only voice he heard was a calm and gentle whisper, counselling patience and advising him that the time for fighting and striving was over and that the time for serious prayer and the long-term preservation of everything good and beautiful was at hand. So with Medraut dead and Artorus vanished and the civil war ended, the last living Companions - Lanslod, Bedwyr, Bors, and Hector - retired to Glastonbury Abbey where they professed monastic vows, remaining there in silent contemplation until the end of their days.

Then Constantine, Duke of Cornwall, was crowned High King and Emperor in Londinium. He had never sat at the Round Table and had never been a Companion. He had been a competent and capable ruler of his duchy, a loyal and dependable sub-king, as it were. The Council saw him as a safe pair of hands and, what is more, one of the few men left with a blood connection to the ancient Royal Line. His great-grandfather had been brother to old King Constantine, the father of Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, and the grand-father of Artorus.

Right from the start, however, the weight of high office felt to Constantine like too hard a burden to bear. Though he reigned for forty years, he never quite conquered this sense of inhibition - this consciousness of his own smallness - as if he was following on from men who had been more than human, like he was fashioned from some kind of dull bronze or tin compared to their vibrant, lusty gold.

He lacked the charisma and force of personality needed to prevent the British tribal chieftains from quarrelling and falling out with each other. But the memory of Artorus' power and might kept the Angles, Saxons and Jutes penned inside their enclaves along the eastern coast. For now, at least. It would be a good while, Constantine knew, before they dared to challenge the British dragon again, but he was painfully aware that when they finally did so, they would find only a paper-thin resistance barring their way.

Britain needed strengthening and something had to be done, but what exactly Constantine did not know. He thought of Carbonek first, for he had known Perceval well and also his father, Gerren the Fleet Owner. But the problem was that Carbonek was not a place to be found on the maps. One got there by grace alone, and so far Constantine had not been given that grace. So no matter how far and fast he rode and how much he prayed and pleaded for admittance, that strange and secret kingdom refused to open its gates for him.

So he turned his attention to another project - the Quest for the head of Bran the Blessed. For long ago the head of that ancient, venerable king had been buried at his own instruction beneath the White Tower in Londinium. He had promised his followers that as long as it remained there Britain would be safe from invasion. But Artorus, in his pride and hybris, had it dug up, insisting that he and he alone should have the honour of defending the country. But now Artorus was gone and so was the head and no-one, no matter how many people Constantine asked, knew where it was. Once again his plans were thwarted. 

So he took a ship to Byzantium and met there with Justinian, Emperor of the East. Constantine was received with warmth and honour, and the two men prayed together in an all-night vigil under the dome of the Church of the Holy Wisdom. Afterwards, Justinian told Constantine that the Holy Spirit had asked him to build a tunnel running beneath both land and sea, from one end of Europe to another, with just two entrances, one in Byzantium and one in Britain.

Constantine was greatly cheered by this. He assumed that the tunnel would ensure a regular supply of arms and men from Byzantium to Britain. Then Justinian confessed that the Spirit had instructed him to seal both entrances up as soon as the tunnel was completed. They will open again, he was told, at the end of the age when East and West will finally be reunited after a long period of darkness and obscurity for the Empire and her servants. 

His hopes dashed again, Constantine reluctantly agreed. The workmen who fashioned the tunnel were sworn into secrecy, and - though many rumours abound - only a handful of people living today know where the entrances are, both in Istanbul (as Byzantium is now called) and in Britain.

*

Constantine had now been Emperor for twenty years and he saw very clearly the extent of his failure to bring outside aid to Britain - be it divine, mythical, or human. It had taken him two decades to learn the wisdom Bors had been granted in just two minutes at Carbonek. But it was the same insight - that civilisations rise and fall and that it was no good artificially bolstering or boosting what had already run its course. The inner impulse that had animated Artorus' Britain had lost its force and motive power, and there was nothing that Constantine or anyone else could do to resuscitate it. He started to see that what he needed to do was shift his focus onto that which was essential and unshakeable, the permanent truths and realities that lie beyond the rise and fall of empires and kingdoms. 

Recognising that he was unable to prevent the bulk of the country from ultimately being overrun, Constantine spent his time sowing the seeds of what he hoped one day would be a full-scale national revival - spiritual, political, cultural and social. He ordered copies to be made of books and manuscripts and had them stored in secret caves in the mountains of Wales. Many of these underground libraries, it is widely believed, remain yet to be discovered. He also established a number of monasteries and convents in remote places, and these would go on to play a crucial role in the eventual conversion of the Germanic tribes to Christianity.

In the week before Constantine died, when he was already on his deathbed, the Angles of Deira made an incursion from the east which took them almost as far as the walls of Eboracum. Yet Constantine died a calm and happy man. Twenty years of failure followed by twenty years of prayer and preparation had given him a wider perspective than many of his more panic-stricken contemporaries. It is said that on the last night of his life Blanchefleur herself came to him in a vision and that he was given the supreme grace of looking into and drinking from the Grail. The next morning, his hands and arms shaking, he took off the Imperial Crown - the famous Roman Circlet - and placed it on the head of his eldest son, Anastasius. Both father and son knew that the Royal Line would now have to go into hiding, and no-one knows what became of Anastasius and his children if he had any. But tales are told that this high lineage has been passed down in secret from generation to generation even till now, and that one day, at the hour of Britain's direst need, the Emperor will reveal himself at the very spot where the Byzantine tunnel emerges onto British soil. With his right hand, so the story goes, he will hold aloft the head of Bran the Blessed and with his left he will unseal the opening, and the help that Constantine worked so hard to obtain will bring salvation to his country at the last.

A steady rain was falling on the afternoon that Constantine IV died, and the sky was as grey as slate. But when he breathed his last, the rain ceased abruptly, the clouds parted a touch, and a shaft of sunlight lit up the branches of the great Royal Oak that stood in the Palace grounds. And all the people marvelled and gave thanks to God for the sign they had witnessed and for the life and reign of their High King and Emperor.



Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Hidden Sun


It is disheartening to observe how normalised and embedded all these Covid restrictions are becoming - social-distancing, masks, limitations on movement, etc. A relentless tide of propaganda and social pressure internalises this 'new normal' for us, and it feels increasingly difficult to think and act outside the narrow parameters hedging us in.

Yet as the outer world drifts into darkness, so the inner world - like the stars at night - shines out in new-found vigour. 'He must increase; I must decrease.' It is a universal law, though we need the gifts of discernment and attentiveness to perceive it, two qualities which our anti-contemplative contemporary milieu does its level best at all times to quash.

So what do we find now in November 2020 when we stop, look and listen to what's happening within? In my case this year it has often been a case of passages of familiar text - prayers, poems, or parts of novels - springing to new life like a string of pearls in my mind. An example is this intense, deeply-metaphysical reflection from the second chapter of Charles Williams' novel All Hallows' Eve (1945). The recently-widowed Richard Furnival is paying a visit to his artist friend Jonathan Drayton. One canvas in particular compels his attention:


' ... It was a part of London after a raid - he thought, of the City proper, for a shape on the right reminded him dimly of St. Paul's. At the back were a few houses, but the rest of the painting was of a wide stretch of desolation. The time was late dawn; the sky was clear; the light came, it seemed at first, from the yet unrisen sun behind the single group of houses. The light was the most outstanding thing in the painting; presently, as Richard looked, it seemed to stand out from the painting, and almost to dominate the rom itself. At least it so governed the painting that all other details and elements were contained within it. They floated in that imaginary light as the earth does in the sun's. The colours were so heightened that they were almost at odds. Richard saw again what the critics meant when they said that Jonathan Drayton's paintings "we're shrill" or "shrieked", but he also saw that what prevented this was a certain massiveness. The usual slight distinction between shape and hue seemed wholly to have vanished. Colour was more intensely image than it can usually manage to be, even in that art. A beam of wood painted amber was more than that; it was light which had become amber to become wood. All that massiveness of colour was led, by delicate gradations almost like the vibrations of light itself, towards the hidden sun; the eye encountered the gradations in their outward passage and moved inwards towards towards their source. It was then that the style of the painting came fully into its own. The spectator became convinced that the source of that light was was not only in that hidden sun; as, localised, it certainly was. "Here lies the east; does not the day break here?" The day did, but the light did not. The eye, nearing that particular day, realised that it was leaving the whole fullness of the light behind. It was everywhere in the painting - concealed in houses and in their projected shadows, lying in ambush in the cathedral, opening in the rubble, vivid in the vividness of the sky. It would everywhere have burst through, had it not chosen rather to be shaped into forms, and to restrain and change its greatness in the colours of their lesser limits. It was universal, and lived. 

Richard said at last: "I wish you could have shown the sun."

"Yes?" said Jonathan. "Why?"

"Because then I might have known whether the light's in the sun or the sun's in the light."

"And very agreeable criticism," Jonathan said. "I admit you imply a whole lot of what I only hope are correct comments on the rest of it. You approve?"

"It's far and away the best thing you've done," Richard answered. "It's almost the only thing you've done - now you've done it. It's like a modern Creation of the World, or at least a Creation of London."


These are especially salutary words, I feel, for where we are now in the UK. Williams depicts light as a tough, sinewy thing, not easily shifted or extinguished, neither cowed nor intimidated by this 'wide stretch of desolation.' The sun may be hidden, but it is still very much present, obdurate and patient, waiting for its moment - like the Hidden Imam of Shia Islam - to emerge from occlusion and transform the barren world below. 

Williams' reflection is very much worth living with for a while and meditating upon. We should let it seep into us and inform the way we see and apprehend the world, now more than ever as the air grows colder, the days shorten, and the sinister notion of the Great Reset shifts from conspiracy theory to hard fact. As is often (and truly) said, what we focus on grows. 

'Let there be light,' said God in the beginning, and there was. It's still here too - resolute and tenacious - emanating from a source behind and beyond the screen of surface phenomena which we cannot see or grasp with just our earthly eyes. 

'The light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.' That is true. But the darkness has never conquered it and never will. The light remains invincible - our ally, friend, protector and guide. It will strike out, just as day follows night, when the hour to push back comes round at last. All we have to do is watch, wait, contribute and create where we can, and pray.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Roman Canon

 

It was the day the national lockdown started - Friday March 20th. I was in Llandudno - about four or five o'clock, I think - doing some run of the mill stuff - taking books back to the library, buying stamps from the Post Office, that sort of thing.

It was a lovely day, I remember - sunshine and clear blue sky, with the smell of the sea as enticing as ever. Yet it felt to me like I was a bit-part player in The Towering Inferno, taking one last gulp of air before the smoke overpowered me. On some deep level - even though on the surface everything looked the same as always - I think I knew that things would never be the same again.

My mind must have been in a bit of a haze with it all because I found myself in a part of town I had never been in before. I had no idea how I got there either - a tight network of streets and back to back houses, just behind the big hotels which run along the seafront. And there, between a house and a little builders yard, was a church. It was ordinary enough in appearance - late Victorian, I'd say - red brick walls with lots of ivy and a small, unobtrusive steeple. I had no intention of going in but the door was open and I could clearly discern the comforting and - for me - mentally cleansing scent of incense emanating from within. Instantly I realised how desperately in need I was of some close contact with the Divine, so without even bothering to read the sign I headed straight into the church.

A bell rang three times as I crossed the threshold and tried to get a sense of where I was and what was going on. The answer, at first sight, was obvious enough. 'Do this in memory of me,' I heard the priest declaim at the altar. He was celebrating ad orientem, so I could only see the back of his head and the purple chasuble he was wearing. He was a tall man with short brown hair and a bald spot on the top. He bowed down low then lifted the silver chalice above his head as the altar server - a teenage boy, I think, with flame-red hair - rang the bell.

There was a Mass taking place, and I had come in right at the end of the consecration. That was obvious, normal and welcome, but as I got my bearings I swiftly realised that this was a radically different Mass - in style and setting, if not in tone - to any I had previously attended.

The first odd thing was that this was a part of the Mass when everyone should have been kneeling - I very much wanted to kneel myself - yet there were no pews and no kneelers and no-one was kneeling down. All those present - about a dozen souls  - were standing around the altar, fanning out on either side of the priest. Some of them had hands extended out towards the consecrated gifts - in blessing, it seemed - as if they were priests themselves. Yet there was nothing impious or improper about the gesture. On the contrary, it struck me as rather touching. Maybe that was because of the kind of people they were - a variety of ages but all poor-looking and somewhat shabbily dressed. One elderly lady had holes in her mittens. A man who looked about thirty or so seemed to have some form of the shakes, as if he were a recovering addict or struggling with a health condition. There was a humility about them which I liked. Also a real focus and attention on the priest's actions at the altar. The atmosphere was at once homely and transcendent. There could be no doubt that something important was happening. 

The layout of the church clearly helped in this respect - lots of candles at the little shrines which ran the length of both side walls, each shrine with its own Eastern-style icon of an angel or saint. A second altar server with thick black hair and beard stood behind the worshippers on the left-hand side, swinging a sliver thurifer up and down. The incense swirled around the nave and I couldn't help but feel that I had somehow landed in a miniature version of the mighty cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The comforting, powerful words of the Roman Canon rolled on:

'In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through our participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and blessing. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.'

There was a stillness and inner strength to the priest which I greatly responded to. I hope I meet him again. I couldn't see the tabernacle, of course, because he as standing right in front of it, but directly above the altar, suspended from the ceiling by very thin cord, was a large reproduction of Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity. And as I focused my eyes on it, the great Eucharistic prayer lifted me up, as it were, until it felt like I was almost on a level with the holy image:

'To us also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia and all your Saints: admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing out merits, but granting us your pardon through Christ our Lord.'

It struck me there and then, with sheer and absolute clarity, that this liturgy goes on in Heaven all the time and that the Roman Canon is prayed there without ceasing for ever and ever, and that this in some sense is what Heaven is. At that moment I wished so much that I was there and felt, in fact, that such a translation might be close at hand. It was an extraordinary moment, like the start of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the picture of the ship on the wall grows bigger and pulls the children into the water and into Narnia. It seemed like Rublev's icon had somehow expanded in size and that the three figures were beckoning me in, inviting me to join them. But then I heard my phone vibrate in my pocket. I'd forgotten to switch it off. I'd better go out and answer it, I thought. It might be to do with the children.

As if recoiling from my distracted state, the icon shrank back to its normal size. But as I turned and walked back through the nave I was at least given the grace of hearing the end of the prayer - the end of the Roman Canon and in fact of all four Eucharistic prayers. Like a final blessing bestowed on me by the mysterious church, those ringing, holy words - sung now, not said - followed me out the door:

'Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.'

And the 'Amen' that boomed out in response was so loud and resonant that it seemed to come not from a dozen poor and broken people but from a congregation of thousands.

*

The phone call was nothing to do with the kids. It was a mere administrative matter - the same 'person from Porlock,' perhaps - who interrupted Coleridge when he was writing Kubla Khan. But it had turned cold outside and to keep myself warm while talking I walked all the way down the street with the aim of returning to the church for the end of Mass. 

I didn't pay much attention to where my feet were taking me, but when the call ended I found myself not too far from Mostyn Street, which is Llandudno's main thouroughfare, and realised that it was half five and that if I didn't get the bus soon I'd be late back home, and with all the hoo-hah about the lockdown I'd probably need to get back as soon as I could. 

Once on Mostyn Street I saw an X5 approaching. So I caught it and went back home, fully intending to revisit the church at the earliest opportunity. But as so many others have found out this year, Coronavirus and its associated myriad of restrictions have made havoc of all our plans. I took an extra job to keep us afloat as my main job had been affected by the lockdown. So now both of my jobs were in Bangor, a city about twenty-five miles west from Llandudno.

I worked full-time all through the lockdown and only started going back to Llandudno in the second half of the summer. I've had chance since then to look for the church again but every time I've the opportunity I've decided not to. And that's because I know deep down that both the church and the district do not exist on the maps, and that on the day the lockdown began - whether it was the stress of the situation playing on my mind or a deeper reality opened up to me by God - something exceptional happened, some level of supernatural insight, which can't and won't be repeated. Not in that exact manner anyway.

I've prayed about the episode since at Mass and given thanks to God for what occurred. But apart from recognising that it was something remarkable, I haven't been able to discern any meaning or pattern behind it. Until last week, that is, and Pope Francis' controversial remarks on civil unions for same-sex couples.

These comments confused and disorientated me, to be honest, but as I was standing on Deganwy beach last Sunday morning (the churches disgracefully shut again as part of the Welsh 'fire-break' lockdown) I felt again that same sense of certainty that came to me at the church when the icon drew me in. And what struck me very clearly was that the Mass in the strange church was a vision from the future - from a time not too far off now maybe - when the Western and Eastern churches will be united again. This, I realised, is Pope Francis' hidden work - his great task and secret project - and that all the hullabaloo about this, that and the other is a distraction, planted in the media to cause a fuss and keep the world's eyes away from this saving work until the time is ripe for Europe's two lungs, as Pope St. John Paul II put it, to breathe as one again. 

'Seems a long shot,' I said out loud to myself as I threw a pebble into the choppy waters. But then again, I reflected, when the disciples gathered in sorrow, shock and mourning on that most miserable of Holy Saturday's, the imminent resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour must have felt like the biggest long shot of them all. 



Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Prayer for King Harold


We pray today, O God, for King Harold Godwinson, his thanes and housecarls and all the men who died with him fighting for this land on this day, 1066. Welcome them, O Lord, into the light of your face. May they find in your presence the light, happiness, refreshment and peace they deserve.

Harold lost at Hastings, as it were, out of the goodness of his heart. Had he been sensible, had he been prudent, he would have rested his troops after his triumph at Stamford Bridge and gathered as many extra forces to his standard as he could. But he knew that William was ravaging his own Earldom, Wessex, and he could not sit and wait and let his people suffer.

Even against a tired, denuded army the Normans could find no way through. Harold's tactics were spot on and he should have won the day. But as with Hector in his duel with Achilles, the gods had turned against him, and his supporters (myself, for instance) have to accept that at some level the Conquest must have been your will.

So when our time comes to take a stand, may we enjoy the luck that deserted Harold that day on Senlac Hill. He fought fand died for Old England, a Christian Kingdom that once formed part of the wider, united body of European Christendom, Catholic and Orthodox at the same time. This was a country that remembered the old gods too, and it is these religious impulses - at once universal and deeply-rooted - that we must seek and find anew at this hour. Because as Martin Heidegger put it so well, 'Only a god can save us now.'

The Normans were brutal and cold-heated but they at least believed in God and left us some wonderful cathedrals. Their descendants, however, who sit now in Westminster, have ceased believing in God. They have turned instead - subconsciously at first, maybe, but more and more openly now - to the Father of Lies who squats in the depths of Hell below.

As for ourselves though - sons and daughters of Albion - we turn to you, the Father of Lights, Blake's 'Countenance Divine', shining down upon us from above. Send Michael the Archangel to our aid, O God, and with him Athelstan, Alfred and Arthur. And at the heart of this sacred English host let us see once more the standard of King Harold - the 'Fighting Man' - rallying the men and women of this isle to the True King's side. Together again with our Sovereign - once fallen, now risen - we will cut to shreds the clouds of evil and illusion which assail our realm and build that New Jerusalem on England's green and pleasant land.

King Harold of England, pray for us. Pray for our country. Pray for Europe and for Christendom.

Christus Regnat! Christus Vincit! Christus Imperat!


Saturday, October 3, 2020

Beyond the Ruins (Update)

I am currently working on a condensed, poetically-charged (hopefully) version of this summer's Beyond the Ruins story. I'm hoping to submit it to a certain journal, which has featured my writing before, in a few weeks time.

I don't think I'll put it on the blog if they don't accept it. I'll probably try to use it as a base for a longer story-cycle. We'll see.

I will continue to post in this space, starting next weekend hopefully with a brief fictional meditation on what I feel (with no empirical evidence, mind you) might be the secret aim and destiny of Pope Francis' papacy.

Many blessings, and may all good things fall down, upon, and around you and yours, this week and every week.

Slainte,

JF

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Stamford Bridge Day




Today, September 25th, is the anniversary of one of the greatest military triumphs of Anglo-Saxon England, the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. King Harold II and his army comprehensively dismantled a colossal Viking force, captained by Harald Hardraada of Norway and Harold's renegade brother, Tostig. The English victory was as emphatic as they come and brought to a definitive end neatly three hundred years of incursions and invasions from Scandinavia.

Stamford Bridge is inevitably overshadowed, however, by what happened near Hastings nineteen days later when Harold lost his kingdom and his life on the ridge of Senlac Hill. The Norman Conquest, in many ways, was the price the Saxons paid for their dispatching  of the Vikings, though Harold could have helped himself more than he did by taking his time to rest and regroup and not rush down headlong, as he did in the end, to lock antlers with the Normans when there was no immediate need.

The tragedy of Hastings casts a long shadow over our history. It is present still today and there is a sense, I feel, in which it can be said that the English are perhaps the most deeply colonised of all the peoples who were subdued first by the Norman state and then by its outgrowth and development, the British Empire. To a large extent they have forgotten who they were prior to 1066 and, what is more, have forgotten that they have forgotten! They have come to identify themselves with the achievements and legacy of Anglo-Norman England, which is a very different thing and distinctly foreign in spirit to the Anglo-Saxon polity that came before. It is not for nothing that J.R.R. Tolkien intensely disliked the Normans. Perhaps he intuited the scale and depth of the civilisational takeover they so brutally and efficiently executed.

There are signs, however, that this might be starting to change. Paul Kingsnorth's 2015 novel, The Wake, is a case in point, with its description - in Kingsnorth's vivid interpretation of Old English - of an embittered, embattled English resistance leader in the immediate post-Conquest era - 


There has been chatter this year too about restoring some form of regional governance in England. If we had such a thing, the writer Ed West argues in this short piece, then our response to Coronavirus might have been more joined-up and coherent, as was that of Germany, a country well known, of course, for its strong traditions of regional autonomy. What better model could we have for this then than the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy? 


I will conclude this post with R.J Unstead's account of the Battle of Stamford Bridge from his The Story of Britain (1969), ostensibly for children but required reading, to my mind, for anyone with a stake in British politics, society and culture. We really need to tap into what is depicted here, own it, and make it ours - love of one's land and locale, and an absolute refusal to let an enemy (internal or external) dictate terms and set the agenda. King Harold's response to Hardraada and Tostig was simple, direct and clear, but he took the same approach to the south coast and William of Normandy and it proved his undoing. So we have to pick our battles and know when to go forward and when to draw back. But in my view it is the spirit of Stamford Bridge which is required right now, faced as we are with a 'conservative' government which does anything but conserve, led by a Prime Minister who is the very embodiment of the Anglo-Norman √©lite who have sucked the blood out of 'England's green and pleasant land' for nigh on a millennium. 

William 'English' Blake railed against their scientific and philosophical representatives, Isaac Newton and John Locke, and we should do the same. We should rail against the Anglo-Norman élite wherever we find them. We should 'rage hard', as the old Frankie Goes to Hollywood song says, and keep the sainted memory of King Harold alive and fresh, especially at this time with England teetering on the brink of tyranny. The winning and losing is not what matters ultimately. It is the stance taken and the attitude shown that counts. In this respect, 'these clouded hills', to quote Blake again, could have no better role model and exemplar ...
      

'... Harold had just disbanded his army (who had been waiting for the Normans all summer) and sent the fleet to the Thames, when a call for help came from the north. Three hundred longships had sailed into the Humber and an army of Norsemen, led by Harald Hardraada, King of Norway, was ravaging the land like a pack of wolves. Earl Tostig was there with the invaders, for he had invited Harald Hardraada, the giant Viking, who had fought all over Europe, to come to take his brother's throne.

'Hardraada defeated the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria, and made them promise to help him against Harold. Then they waited for the English King at Stamford Bridge, a wooden bridge that crossed the Derwent, seven miles from York.

'With housecarls and as many fighting-men as he could muster, Harold came north at furious speed. In York, he learned that the enemy was only a short distance off, so, refusing to rest, he drove his tired men on without a pause. They came to Stamford Bridge, where the Norwegian host was camped on both banks, their armour laid aside and their ranks unformed.

'Harold sent a message to Tostig. He would pardon him and restore him to his earldom if he came across to the English side.

'"And what land will my brother give to Harald Hardraada?"

'Angrily, Harold replied, "To the King of Norway, I will give six feet of English earth. No, seven feet, seeing that he is taller than other men and needs a longer grave!"

'Then he gave the order to attack. The English broke through the forces on the West Bank of the river but were checked by a gigantic Viking who held the bridge until he was speared from below by a soldier who had crept under the timbers. Once across the river, the English infantry cut the host to pieces and, as Harald Hardraada and Tostig lay dead in the field, they chased the remnant back to the ships.

'Harold had kept his word. The most famous war-captain lay in his seven foot grave, the pirate army was destroyed and only a few survivors were sailing ruefully back to Norway. The English buried their dead and tended the wounded, as the monks sang the Thanksgiving in York Minster.'


Thursday, September 10, 2020

C.S. Lewis and Our Current Moment

Last week I had to complete some unconscious bias training for work purposes. It seemed a relatively benign experience on the whole. It was an online course and only took half an hour. Certainly not a 'struggle session' or anything like that.

At the very end, however, in the recap section, a phrase leapt out at me: 'Don't trust your intuition. Rely on objective data instead.' And a million alarm bells rang out in my mind. I was reminded straightaway of the Objective Room in C.S. Leiws's That Hideous Strength, where Mark Studdock is taken by the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (NICE) to be re-educated. The aim is to rub out the individual's innate sense of right and wrong and make him into a tabula rasa so that supposedly objective, but in reality evil, assumptions can be implanted in him instead:

'To sit in the room, Mark understood, was the first step towards what Dr. Frost called objectivity - the process whereby all specifically human attributes were killed in a man... Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-Nature would doubtless follow: the eating of abominable food, the dabbling in dirt and blood, the ritual performances of calculated obscenities.'

Mark observes a number of pictures in the room:

'At first, most of them seemed rather ordinary, though Mark was a little surprised at the predominance of scriptural themes. It was only in the second or third glance that one discovered certain unaccountable details - something odd about the positions of the figures' feet or the arrangement of their fingers or the grouping. And who was the person standing between the Christ and the Lazarus? And why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made every picture look like something seen in delirium?'

This theme of the corruption of art led me to reflect on how something like the above might be achieved by the powers of evil in the world today but on a much wider, societal scale. The idea came to me that perhaps what Satan really wants out of this whole Coronavirus saga is a huge symbolic triumph. He knows that the symbolic level is the most important of all. It cuts far deeper than the political and social levels. So what if he was able to engineer a complete rewriting of human spiritual and cultural history, symbolised perhaps by a reworking of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, with some characters erased so that everyone on the canvas can be socially distanced and with all of them wearing masks?

It sounds far-fetched, I know, but what more potent, long-lasting and deeply Orwellian way could there be of embedding and encoding the 'new normal' into our minds?  

'We have always been at war with Eastasia. There was never a time when we were not at war with Eastasia.'

'We have always worn masks. There was never a time when we did not wear masks. There will never be a time when we do not wear masks.'

Another way in which Lewis has been prescient this year is with regards to this never-ending wave of riots and protests, particularly in America but in Britain and Europe as well to an extent. What especially concerns me is how these protests have often seemed to involve the desecration of churches and statues of Our Lord and the saints. I'm thinking especially of a statue of Our Lady which was recently decapitated in Canada. There have been plenty more statues which have met the same fate during the last few weeks. No-one has been hurt, defenders of this lunacy will say, but that's not the point. The symbolism, again, is everything, and this level of hatred and animosity is clearly a prelude to people getting hurt anyway.

On one level the whole thing seems completely bizarre and pointless. What responsibility does Christianity have for the death of George Floyd? None. But if we look at things from a demonic point of view it might be exactly this 'slippage' into attacks on Christian symbols that is the whole aim of the exercise. This is the direction, quite possibly - almost definitely,  I'm inclined to say - in which the situation is being guided.

When I look at the ongoing orgy of looting and destruction I'm reminded of the orgiastic frenzy surrounding the death of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe:

'A great crowd of people were standing all round the Stone Table and though the moon was shining many of them carried torches which burned with evil-looking red flames and black smoke... Everyone was at him (Aslan) now. Those who had been afraid to come near him even after he was bound began to find their courage, and for a few minutes Susan and Lucy could not even see him - so thickly was he surrounded by the whole crowd of creatures kicking him, hitting him, spitting on him, jeering at him.'

We begin to see now the pincer-movement which Satan has so far successfully deployed in 2020. Rudlof Steiner saw the exact nature of how this works, with what he called a Luciferic point of attack on one side - lustful, violent, furious - and an Ahrimanic assault on the other - cold, bureaucratic, soul-destroying. Ahriman is more powerful than Lucifer. The latter is the former's 'useful idiot' and serves, often unknowingly, to advance Ahriman's ends.

So there we are. This is exactly the current situation, and it seems to me that Lewis flagged both aspects up in his fiction. It is important for us to be aware of this. Our counter-attack (and there must and will be one) will have to take place first of all on the spiritual level and it needs to be based on, dare I say it, this objective assessment of where we are and who is pulling the strings and why.