Friday, February 28, 2020

A Cup, A Sword, A Tree, and A Green Hill

There is a bookshop down a cobbled street where, as a boy, I discovered Narnia, Middle Earth, and the Norse, Greek and Arthurian myths as retold by Roger Lancelyn Green. For almost forty years now, I have had a recurring dream about this shop, in which it boasts an extra room - an evocative, lamplit space with an atmosphere of calm and serenity and the faint but discernable aroma of incense.

In the dream, I am looking for the Magician's Book which Lucy encounters in The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, and in particular the story she reads about 'a cup, a sword, a tree, and a green hill.' Lewis describes it as 'the loveliest story she has ever read', and I know it's on the shelves somewhere, but just as Lucy is not allowed to turn back the pages to reread it, so I always wake up before I can find it.

Yet I never feel bereft or cast down afterwards. On the contrary, it feels immensely reassuring to know that such a book and such a room exist. But where? On what level? These are questions I have been mulling over for decades now. Until recently, I have tended to interpret the dream as either a symptom of deep nostalgia or as a shaft of insight into the Platonic reality of the bookshop - its inner form and essence.

Lately, however, I have started to suspect that the dream might be less to do with nostalgic pangs or a static Platonic order and more about a physical reality which will tangibly appear in the world at some point - what the theologian John Zizioulas calls 'a memory of the future.' Again, the level on which this will happen is open to debate, and God alone knows what turns of fortune's wheel we might have to endure or enjoy between now and then. But that the vision will be made manifest and the bookshop will one day look and feel as it does in my dream is something of which I am increasingly certain.

The Holy City, St. John says, will come down from God out of Heaven like a bride adorned for the bridegroom. So it isn't just individuals who will be redeemed and transfigured on the Last Day but the whole material creation, towns and cities very much included - streets, squares, houses, office blocks, shops, everything.

This eschatological understanding, I feel, fits better with the tone and content of my dream than either the nostalgic or the Platonic interpretations. 'Indeed,' as Aslan assures Lucy, 'I will read that story to you for years and years.' It is the dynamic Platonism we see at play in The Last Battle, where the protagonists journey 'farther up and farther in', into the heart of the Great Story we all long to read and hear, 'which goes on forever, and in which every chapter is better than the one before.'

And the meaning of the story is the Author of the story. The Author is the story, the Alpha and the Omega, for in the beginning, as St. John also shows us, was the Word ...

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Stewards of the Spirit

Arthur Machen's The Secret Glory, condensed, reworked, reset, and retold for the monthly storytelling night at Yr Glas Loch (The Blue Bell), Conwy - Wednesday 19th February 2020.


There was a glow in the sky, as if great furnace doors were opening. That was all Mark could recall now of the magical evening he had shared with his father, shortly before his dad's sudden death and Mark's removal to his uncle's in Cheadle - two South Manchester suburbs away from his Didsbury home - a household with no interest, belief in or affection for anything otherworldly.

That, he knew, was when life had started to go downhill. He was 10 then; 45 now, stuck in a call-centre selling pointless insurance, with a failed marriage behind him and two teenage children who laughed him to scorn. His old friends were preoccupied with family and career, and he found it hard to relate to the younger, screen-fixated generation, as they doubtless found it hard to relate to him.

Mark was growing old fast in other words, increasingly at one, or more, removes from those around him. As this feeling grew, he assumed that he would follow that host of lost souls down the well-trodden path of drinking, binge-eating, trash TV, and general numbing out. On the contrary though, as winter turned to spring that year, something very different started to happen. Different, yes, but also disconcerting, alarming and unsettling. Buried memories from Mark's childhood surged up from within. At least that's what he thought they were. The more worrying possibility was that he might be cracking up - going insane.

These memories did not involve Mark's mother. That would have been impossible, for she had died not long after he was born. He had no brothers or sisters. The memories concerned his father - a grave, bearded man - and the patch of woodland, not far from the business park where he now worked, which lies between Didsbury Village and the River Mersey. But while he could remember his school days at that time (1984-85) with absolute clarity, there remained a deep sense of hiddenness about those evening walks with his dad. They had been looking for something. Maybe they had found it? But whatever it was, it stubbornly resisted his mind's strained efforts to call it back to life.

So after work, as the days lengthened, Mark took to walking in the nearby woods. He went at weekends too. But the more he explored, the more the glory receded. There were trees and paths and streams and slabs of broken stone, but nothing out of the ordinary, nothing special, nothing magical.

Then one afternoon, while chatting with a colleague, he remembered part of the story. It was high summer, his dad had shown him a stone well, then pointed to an avenue of poplars and a white house with a brown door. The house had something rare and wonderful inside. Mark didn't know what just yet, but he did know exactly where the house was, just to the left of one of the paths he walked up and down every day.

The next evening was clear and fresh and Mark went straight to the spot after work. His disappointment was all-consuming. The well was there alright, but three-quarters ruined and stinking with stagnant rainwater. There was no house, no poplars, just a mass of impenetrable thorns. He slumped down with his back to a giant oak, his head in his hands. The metallic roar of the M60 mocked him from the other side of the river. There was no hope for him now, no escape, no way out. He had been chasing an illusion, a will-o'-the-wisp, an insubstantial dream. He would stand up in a minute, get back on the path, cross Simon's Bridge, climb to the top of the flyover and cast himself down. But before he could even get up, his head started nodding and he was soon fast asleep. Straightaway, he began to dream.

He was standing in a barren, lifeless place - drab fields pockmarked with stunted trees. It was late afternoon, but as evening approached, a welcome breeze sprang up as the stars popped out above. Mark noticed a well close beside him. There was just enough light to read the inscription: Fons Vitae Immortalis. He drank of the water and felt instantly renewed in mind and body.

The night passed quickly, the sun rose, and Mark saw that he was in a fertile valley with wooded slopes and tinkling streams. He heard the sound of a choir like a mighty rushing wind. Gloria in Excelsis Deo they sang, and he beheld a a cathedral on top of a hill at the end of the valley. A crowd of men, women and children, all dressed in dazzling white, were streaming in from all sides. Then Mark was among them, chanting an ancient liturgy before the high altar, as the morning sun poured down on his head through the round, many-coloured Eastern window.

Then they were outside, walking side by side along time-hallowed pilgrim pathways. Mark was astonished by his fellow-travellers. Some had eyes that shone like lanterns, others golden aureoles around their hair, while one or two were borne aloft above the ground on little clouds of white and silver.

Suddenly he was alone again, following a winding path uphill through the trees. He came upon a clearing and a small stone church. He heard the choir again: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison, and without hesitation he went inside. He saw a wall in the middle of the church. The bricks were shining and translucent jewels, but their lustre was dim compared to the brilliant white light shining through the cracks from the other side.

A door opened in the wall and the light cascaded through. Mark knelt on the floor, bowed his head and covered his eyes. When he looked up, he saw an old man with a crown on his head standing in the doorway. He was holding something in his hands and the light pulsated out from it, but the object stayed hidden, wrapped around with cloths and coverings. Two young men with flaming torches stood to left and right. The trio walked forward, turned to the left, then disappeared through another door. And Mark heard a voice from behind the wall - a woman's voice - calling to him:

'Mark be secret, Mark be strange - dark, true, dissonant and ancient. Cherish your flame. The dawn is at hand.'

The dream ended. Mark sat bolt upright against the tree. It was not yet fully dark but the sky was clear and the first stars twinkled like little glow-worms. The well was still broken, the thorn bush impassible, but Mark's spirits had risen because the memory of what he had seen long ago in the house had returned to him.

Yes, there had been a house and an avenue of poplars, and his dad had led him along it to a brown mahogany door in a wall of white stone. 'This house isn't always here,' he said. 'It comes when it chooses.'

The house was choc-a-bloc with old books, and the smell of those ancient texts filled the young Mark with wonder and joy. Their host was a tall, bespectacled man, completely bald on top but with a wildness of brown frizzy hair around the back and sides. 'Ambrose the scholar,' was how Mark's father introduced him as they sat down to tea and biscuits in the study. Mark found the conversation fascinating, though difficult to follow and bewildering at times, as much of it referred directly to him.

''Tis a great blessing, as always, to be here,' said his dad. 'The occasions grow rarer as time wears on, yet whenever the house appears it renews our faith in the deeper, truer Britain behind the grey fa├žade of getting and spending.'

'The chain will hold fast,' said Ambrose, stirring his tea. 'But it comes under strain, and it is as hard for us in Heaven as it is for you on Earth. We need each other, don't we?' And they both laughed.

'And now it is the boy's turn?' he asked, looking enquiringly at Mark.

'It is,' said his dad. 'He is of our Company. I have no doubt. The light of the Grail shines in his eyes.'

'Let it be so then,' said Ambrose. 'The house has revealed itself and the great ones have spoken. Prepare to behold, young Mark, the mystery of this island, the Holy Grail itself, which you will subsequently forget, as do we all, only to remember again at a time and place of God's choosing.'

They left the room and descended a short flight of stairs to an underground chamber. Mark's dad lit two tall candles on a table near the back wall, while Ambrose opened a cupboard high up by the door and pulled something out which glowed fiercely through its covers.

Ambrose crouched down. Mark couldn't see what he was doing, but when he stood up again he saw a goblet in his hands with a long stem and a round base. Ambrose laid it reverently between the candles, then they knelt down together - Mark in the middle, Ambrose to his left and his dad to his right.

The grown-ups began to chant in a language unknown to Mark. It was a bit like Latin, a bit like Greek and a bit like Welsh, yet it was none of these and certainly not English. But it was the goblet that compelled his attention. There were so many colours alive on its surface - red, blue green, gold, all the colours in the world - but there was a blue and white pattern that particularly drew him him; that ink-dark blue - like the sky at night - and that clear, crystalline white, brighter than the moon and stars. Instead of the chant now, he thought he could hear the sound of waves as a wind nipped at his cheeks, then lashed across his face.

The room vanished and Mark was standing on a shingly beach at night, looking up at a gigantic cliff-face. At the top was a mighty cathedral, hewn out of the rock. Golden light blazed forth from its windows as a choir of a thousand voices sang the Creed: Credo in Unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentens ...'

Mark knew that the Grail - and more than the Grail, the meaning of his life, his heart's desire - was up there too and he prayed that he might see it, sense it, feel it, hold it.  And then he was inside, lying prostrate on the floor before a screen of gold and silver icons. But behind the screen was a greater glory still, its light streaming out between the cracks and joints. Mark stretched out his hands. Et Vitam Venturi Saeculi sang the choir, but no Amen followed, just the sound of Ambrose and his father continuing their chant.

Mark was back in the room and the Grail was in front of him again and he felt, without knowing quite why, like a mysterious blessing had come down upon him. He had never thought such a thing before, but he felt part of a long and noble lineage now - guardians of the British Mysteries - a line stretching back to Arthur and beyond, to Joseph of Arimathea, who first brought the Grail to Britain, then past him to Brutus the Trojan, who founded this land, and through him to mighty Aeneas, High Prince of Troy, who Virgil sang of and who established the city of Rome.

Mark told all this to his father later as they walked back through the avenue of trees. 'Yes,' said his dad. 'That is the way of it. We - Ambrose, myself, a handful of others, and now you, Mark - we are the stewards of the spirit of this land, all called to different forms of service and none of us knowing where the Powers will direct us. Some, like Ambrose, work mainly in the other world, others, like myself, more in this world. We all, as he said, forget our first experience of the Grail, but the memory grows like a seed within us, until the heavenly ones bring it back at the right time.'

Leaning into the oak, with the canopy of stars above him, Mark felt the tears rolling down his cheeks as something hard, knotty and gnarled dissolved and melted away in his chest. He had looked forward so much, after that miraculous day, to many more talks and trips to the woods with his dad, but it wasn't to be, for his father left this earth shortly afterwards and in the practical, money-driven milieu of his uncle's house, his vision of the Grail was choked with thorns and squeezed into irrelevance like the seed in the parable.

Mark stood up, said a prayer for his dad and walked to the right, away from the thorn bush and the broken well, and into his future. And then in the starlight he saw to his left an avenue of poplars and a white house with a brown door and the moon shining full upon it. And a woman's voice called to him on the night air:

'Walk on now, Mark. Step into your father's house. Take the Grail and hold it up for the whole world to see. The night is over. This is the morning.'

And Mark saw a glow above the house, as if great furnace doors were opening in the sky.