Saturday, June 27, 2020

Beyond the Ruins (V)

'I was with the Logos in the light and silence of the Blessed Trinity before time and space began. With your assistance, I made his vision reality at the foundation of the world and was with Him again when He took on flesh and blood and lived among us. Like Marcus, I am known by more than one name and have been active in many times and places - from the Persian mountains to the walls of Troy - and on all these occasions I have had very little notion, almost until my dying day, of who I truly am in the mind of God. So it is for all of us on this turret when we are asked to engage with this world. The memory of our heavenly home never leaves us but it comes in hints and flashes only. And we would do well to pay attention to these. Anamnesis, the poets call it. Remembrance. Recollection. Until the day dawns when the truth breaks in on us and we see and feel things in the round again.' 

I felt sure, in my youthful naïveté, that the truth she spoke of was already breaking in on me and would never depart. I had no conception of how far I still had to fall and how deeply I would forget - and worse than that - to deny to myself, though mercifully not to others, that these events had taken place. But I knew no better at the time. What I did know was that her words were true. They had the mark of authenticity. It wasn't just the evidence of my senses - the hunger in my belly (because, of course, I was now very late home for my tea), the cool evening air, the breeze whipping her hair across her face. It was more than this. It was that sense of homecoming again, that consciousness which had been growing ever since Marcus beckoned me over, of being in the right place with the right people - my place, my people. 

'I was last on Earth in Arthur's time,' she continued. 'My name is Dindrane. I have been nearly fifteen hundred years in the sacred city of Sarras, which is invisible to human eyes and will remain so until the day of the Great Unveiling. Upon my return, two nights ago, I found the Empire more shattered and broken than ever I could have imagined. Not so much in its physical form, which is ephemeral and far from essential, but in spirit and imagination. So much has been lost; so much forgotten. And we have brought it on ourselves. Neither Saxon nor Turk could have wrought such inner havoc. To forget is the gravest sin of all, both for an individual and a civilisation. And that is why I have been sent - to kindle the fire of anamnesis and to guide and inspire you as we rebuild the Empire, first as a counterpoint to the darkness and then as its conqueror. 

'I was born in Dumnonia, in the far South-West. My father, Gerren the Fleet Owner, was King there, and my brother, Percivale, as is well known, later supped from the Grail with Galahad and Bors. There was no High King in Britain at that time. Vortigern, who had last claimed that title, was dead and gone, duped by the Saxons he had hired to keep the Picts at bay. The country was a chaos, a smoking ruin, a formless, pirate-riven mess. Our father mourned the Romans' departure and hoped that Brittania would one day return to the Imperial fold. But there was very little of the Empire left after Vortigern's death, so he swore allegiance instead to the young Romano-British prince Ambrosius Aurelianus who was quietly gathering his forces in the mountain fastnesses of northern Cymru. And when the call to arms came, my father's ships harried the enemy so effectively in the Channel that the campaign was already half won before the cavalry routed the Saxons at the Durobrivae Bridge. Then Ambrosius became High King and ruled southern Britain from Venta Belgarum for fifteen years, while Arthur, the Dux Brittaniorum, pushed the barbarians back in the North and East as far as the Antonine Wall. 

'I was just three when our father sent us to live with Ambrosius at Venta. Gerren had an eye on our education, for the High King had a passion for learning and had invited scholars from Hibernia and Gaul to teach Latin, Greek and Divinity to the children of rich and poor alike. Ambrosius was a slight, dark man with clear grey eyes that glimmered with a soft and secret golden light. He was unmarried and childless and treated us as his own offspring. We loved him greatly and sorrowed deeply when he died, gouged on the antlers of a royal stag while hunting in the woods one frosty Friday morning.

'So Arthur was crowned High King in his place, and with his magus Merlin beside him extraordinary things started to happen. Camelot was built and Caerleon remade. Churches sprang up across the land and the flames of countless votive shrines were lit along the Roman roads and our ancient British trackways. Arthur consecrated his realm to the Mother of God in a solemn Mass at Canterbury, and there was joy and expectation everywhere, a sense that we were standing on the brink of something wonderful and unprecedented. 

'Arthur was like the Sun. Like Christ. With his brown hair and beard he reminded me of the icons of the Saviour at the convent at Almesbury. Ever since coming East, I had wanted to join the sisters there and spend my life in silent adoration. And now I was seventeen, with just a year left before I was deemed old enough. But I became very close at that time to the Lord Taliessin, the King's Poet and Captain of Horse. I see him now. I see him always - thin and intense, with wide blue eyes and a shock of wild blonde hair. I came alive in his presence in ways I had thought impossible, and my heart and mind were torn. I would accompany him sometimes on various official trips, and on one of these, to the Roman fortress of Rutupiae on the Isle of Thanatus, my fate was decided in a singular and unexpected fashion. 

'It was an August afternoon, the sun concealed behind banks of high white cloud. Taliessin had gone with Bors to inspect the new sea defences and I was left alone to wander the jetties, with the cries of gulls and the hammers and saws of the stone-mason's yards and the boat sheds ringing in my ears. Then, in a quiet place I had found to pray in - an ancient store room lined with sandstone blocks of fallen vaulting - I beheld, as if waiting for me there, Merlin and his sister Brisen, both tall and slender, he with hair as black as a raven's pinions, her as bright and golden as Venus herself. I could tell by the intensity of their gaze that they had come to tell me something serious, but I had no idea that after fifteen hundred years in Sarras and with the weight of eternity behind me that it would be only now - this very night on this very tower - that I would start to sense the full import of the request they made. I am only glad that I said yes. It has been a cross as well as a joy, but I know how easy it is to miss a vocation and I am grateful to have had my destiny shown me so clearly. Not once but twice, as it turned out.

'My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour.'

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Beyond the Ruins (IV)

We met her in the middle of the hall, half way between the dais and the door. As we approached, I observed a slender golden chain attached to the cross she was holding. She handed this to Marcus, then lowered her head as he placed both chain and cross around her neck. Then she passed him the bowl and he raised it to his lips and drank from it. When he looked up it was as if a shining jewel had been fastened to his brow. His already noble face was lit with a new and princely light. Marcus gave the bowl to me and I drank too, then passed it to the companion on my left, whose name was Adam, a portly gent with white hair and tweeds, whom I yet remembered as a mighty force of nature at the beginning of the world, a titan of ice and fire who fashioned the poles with his bare hands and fixed the extremities of heat and cold from North to South and East to West.

The drink was cool and invigorating, and laced, I felt, with a secret, subtle power. My mind felt clear and my body sharp and alert. The woman in red and gold was standing in front of me, the bowl back in her hand. She had such a compelling presence that it was hard to look elsewhere, but my eyes, nonetheless, were drawn more to the picture of the purple staircase behind her on the wall. I felt like Edmund and Lucy at the start of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when the painting of the ship comes alive and they see the sails billowing and feel the wind and spray on their cheeks. I had no idea why or how but it seemed that the purple stairs were standing out somehow from their golden backdrop and inviting us to take the first step up.

So when the woman said, 'Come, let us ascend to the top of the tower,' it came as no surprise. She led us to a corner of the hall, to an alcove beside the dais and a plain wooden door which she opened with her foot, not even breaking stride. A stone staircase swept upwards before us, curving around from right to left. We followed in her wake and started to climb.

The stairs were surprisingly broad, and we were able to walk two or three abreast. It was, however, rather dim. What light there was seemed like a blend of the torches in the hall below and the moon and stars above. There were little slits of windows every twenty paces or so and I paused at the third one and looked out at the poplar trees waving in the breeze. Beyond them, on the other side of the disused railway, I could see the brick façade of the laundry and the corrugated gleam of the old air raid shelters.

I became convinced, as I resumed my climb, that I had called the tower into being, albeit unwittingly, through my contemplation of the purple stairs. I was sure I hadn't seen a tower when I'd stood up on my pedals before to look at the transformed ruins, though admittedly the light had been weak and there were lots of trees about. And what, I asked myself, if my eyes had focused on another image - the eagle, for instance, or the book? Would that have become the focal point for the adventure instead? I recalled Malebron's remark to Roland in Alan Garner's Elidor on the power of the imagination: 'What appears only fleetingly in your world is here as real as swords.'

The staircase, I noticed, was starting to feel brighter, as if it had its own source of light after all. Then, as we turned a corner onto small, square landing - more like a platform really - we saw where it was coming from and we stood stock still before it, spellbound and amazed. It was a door, thick and sturdy and carved from the same grey stone as the slabs surrounding it. A round, iron handle tempted me momentarily, but deep down I felt neither the need nor desire to go inside. The same could be said for all of us, I think. It was enough to stand outside and let the silver light that streamed out from the gaps between the door and walls work its magic on our hearts and minds.

I say 'silver' because that's the closest approximation I can find, but in reality it was like no other colour I've seen before or since. No words can do it justice. It was like the sun and moon and stars all rolled into one. That silver fire brought me so much peace and joy - as if the Holy Spirit was holding and caressing me - that I have searched for it ever since, in all the wrong places usually, and will remain forever restless until I meet it face to face again.

There was a smell as well, a mingled scent of daffodils and incense. I heard bells and voices too - a high angelic chant - the same song we had sung around the blessed throne before the dawn of time. Then Marcus spoke, cutting through the rapture and bringing me back to the ground beneath my feet and the round solidity of the tower. 'Friends,' he said, 'the time will come again, when this work is done, to enter in and sing once more the liturgy God gave us long ago, the Solemn Mass that brings the Dark Age to a close and baptises the returning Golden Age. But that is for the future. Tonight we have our mission to receive. Let us climb higher and hear the story Dindrane has returned to tell us.'

I don't know how long after that it took us to reach the top. I had lost all track of time to be honest. But when we got there the woman Marcus had called Dindrane was waiting for us, as tall and straight as a spear-shaft against the scudding clouds and sparkling stars of Orion's Belt. To her right, above the trees and beyond the railway and my house and street, loomed the Byzantine-style dome of St. Andrew's RC church. To her left, past the bowling green and the hedge and across Wilmslow Road, the spire of the Anglican Shrine of King Charles the Martyr pointed up to the quarter-full moon. And it seemed auspicious to me that we should be standing on this mysterious turret - this thin place, this place both in and out of time - exactly midway between these two great symbols of local Christianity.

The bronze bowl each of us had drank from in the hall stood perched between two battlements on Dindrane's right. She picked it up and drank from it, and the cross on her chest appeared to glow with a fiercer, more insistent light. She put the bowl back and I saw in her eyes, like summer lightning , the same silver, Pentecostal fire that had given us its blessing on the parapet below. Then she started to speak ...