Wednesday, July 29, 2020


I became involved in an altercation on a train last week concerning the wearing of masks. I was 'anti', my fellow-passenger 'pro' and, let's just say, heated words were exchanged. I would like to think that I had truth on my side but I did not, to be frank, conduct myself in a manner worthy of a representative of the truth. I was far from cogent or congruent in the approach I took and the words I used. Much pent up frustration at the willingness of so many to embrace authoritarian solutions - and then insist on them for others - came spilling out. I lost more than I gained in short.

What this farrago underlined for me, however, is the truly apocalyptic nature of the Coronavirus era. I use the 'a' word here in its original Greek sense of Apokalypsis - an unveiling or a showing forth of what has always been there but has previously remained hidden. The virus and our reactions to it are telling us so much about ourselves, both individually and collectively. From this perspective we can perhaps see the present moment as a time of mercy and illumination, with the onus on ourselves to make the most of what is being shown us before the door of spiritual opportunity slams shut again.

What I saw in garish neon lights last Thursday was that I am technically 49 years old yet in no way have I outgrown the raw, spiky and vulnerable teenager I was in the mid-1980s. I still am that boy. He remains my deepest, most essential reality. Everything I've done since - in thought, word or deed - is a sham, a veneer, a pretence. I am not who I think I am. That explains why I had the odd sense during the argument that I was wearing my old petrel-blue High School jumper, even though that would have been impossible and of course I wasn't.

Later that evening, while reflecting on the matter, I saw very clearly why it is that two novels in particular - Alan Garner's Elidor (1965) and William Golding's Free Fall (1959) have become such foundational texts for me. I carry these books around in my heart. I relate to them in a very intense, very personal way, and that is because the protagonists in both - Roland Watson in Elidor (above, front) and Sammy Mountjoy in Free Fall - are archetypal teenage figures, railing and raging against a world of straight lines and hard edges that refuses to see them, refuses to recognise them, rejects the qualities they possess, and repudiates their dreams and visions. Roland (who might actually be a bit younger than thirteen) invests everything he has, spiritually and emotionally, in the parallel world of Elidor. He wants to save it, needs to save it, pours his heart and soul into it, and believes in it with such ferocity that his siblings, who are less enraptured by the adventure and its repercussions, find him almost impossible to handle.

"Elidor! Elidor! Elidor! Have you forgotten?"
"OK," said David. "We don't want the whole road to hear."
"But you're pretending it doesn't matter ... Didn't it mean anything to you - Malebron and the Treasures, and that golden castle, and, and - everything."

Roland's visceral, deeply-embedded loyalty to Elidor and its fugitive king, Malebron, pushes him to the brink of madness and possibly beyond. The book does not tell us what happens to him afterwards. Sammy Mountjoy, in Free Fall, is driven past the point of mental endurance and emerges on the other side with a transformed, transfigured understanding of the world and his place in it. But it is a hard won vision. Sammy, a successful artist who hangs in The Tate, is emotionally wounded to a profound degree and is compelled to write his book by the need to find that moment when, as he puts it, 'I lost my freedom' - the ability to think and act from the centre of his being and not be pulled around by unconscious forces and other people's agendas. As a teenage boy he transposes this drive for pattern and coherence onto his contemporary, Beatrice Ifor, with long-term results that are the opposite of Dante's life-enhancing, fructifying relationship with his own Beatrice. He learns the hard way that you cannot project the most essential part of yourself onto someone else. Roland's experience vis-a-vis Malebron is similar. What they see as signposts to Heaven are in fact just pointers to different parts of Plato's cave. They are still stuck in the world which oppresses them. They have failed to transcend it, and the original wounds which propel them like Furies remain unacknowledged and unhealed.

Later in life, during the Second World War, Sammy is flung into solitary confinement in a German prisoner of war camp. There, in the darkness, he senses the presence of something soft and slimy in the centre of the room - a horrible monster, he supposes, which will sniff him out, crawl all over him and perform all kinds of unspeakable acts on him. The terror of this prospect 'fast-tracks' him to a place beyond thought and reason - the edge of insanity which Roland approaches at the end of Elidor. But instead of a breakdown and subsequent disintegration, Sammy achieves a breakthrough and a radical restructuring of the mental and spiritual categories which had hitherto framed his life in a series of one-dimensional, self-sabotaging ways.

'Therefore,' he reflects, 'when the commandant let me out of the darkness he came late and as a second string, giving me the liberty of the camp when perhaps I no longer needed it. I walked between the huts, a man resurrected but not by him. I saw the huts as one who had little to do with them and the temporal succession of days that they implied. So they shone with the innocent light of their own created nature ... Beyond them 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 ... Standing between the understood huts, among jewels and music, I was visited by a flake of fire, miraculous and pentecostal; and fire transmuted me, once and forever.'

Sammy's 'monster' is wet and slimy. Mine is hard and splintery. Yours may be different again. When the commandant releases him, light pours into the cell, and Sammy sees that what he has been so terrified of is only a sponge left behind by a forgetful orderly. He is able now to see the evil that torments him in its true form - small-scale and insignificant - like the hunched and shrunken figure of Satan in Dante's Inferno. But he is only able to perceive its essence because the 'dark night' of solitary confinement has stripped away illusions and wishful thinking and forced him into a direct confrontation with the deepest, darkest aspects of himself - everything about him he has been running away from; everything within him he has been pretending (and hoping) does not exist.

Even then, Sammy's epiphany is only a voyage to a beginning. It is a start - a base camp - nothing more. It is only after this that that he can begin to see where his freedom was lost, make reparations for his many wrongs, and commit his insights to posterity. What matters is that he is facing the right way at last - towards the Sun; not away from it as before.

What then if this is the deepest, most essential element to keep in mind in our reaction to Coronavirus and its aftermath? What if the various political and social evils we see gathering momentum in its wake are in fact distractions and red herrings aimed at diverting us from 'the one thing needful' which the virus has perhaps been sent to offer us - an illumination of conscience, an awareness in our lives of unacknowledged wounds and deep-seated patterns of sin which keep us far from God and stop us shining like the beacons of light and goodness we need to be at this hour? Only then, in truth, can the decks be cleared, the dross purged, the gold revealed, and that Metanoia which Christ calls us to in the Gospels - that total, 360 degree reorientation of our spiritual compass - begin its vital work of salvation and renewal.

Maybe this is what is meant to happen at this time. After all, there are enough demons active in the world right now, and we cannot hope to overcome them without seeing and bringing to God those festering inner sores - so securely established, so craftily hidden - which poison our wellsprings, stymie our growth, and steer our actions, however well-intentioned, down paths dictated by the Evil One. In the words of the Anglican priest and mystic, Father Gilbert Shaw (1886-1967):

'Foremost must come penitence - for ourselves, for we are part of the failure of the Church. If we are to pray for unity, not only of the Church, but all mankind, it will be through acknowledgement of failure, praying in penitence, that God will fulfill his purpose through our self-emptying ... It will be out of penitence for the past and in the acceptance of the day of judgment that the patient endurance of the saints will give life and new meaning to the new age which is in the throes of its birthpangs.'

Friday, July 24, 2020

Beyond the Ruins (Announcement)

I had originally conceived this story as having no more than three episodes. It has grown and expanded considerably in my mind and I now find it no longer suits the format of posting a chapter fortnightly on this blog. So I'm going to go away and give it the time and attention it needs away from the self-imposed pressure of needing to 'get something out there' every two weeks. I will continue to post here on other matters.

Thanks and all the best,


Sunday, July 12, 2020

Beyond the Ruins (VI)

Dindrane paused and inclined her head to the right, towards the dome of St. Andrew's. The wind had dropped, the night was still, and it felt like the stars themselves, hoping to hear her better, had drawn in closer to the tower. And I saw her then as I'd seen her when I first picked up the coin two days before - the noble set of her jaw, the lips parted as if on the brink of speech or song, and the deep wellspring of emotion visible in the one eye I could see. I felt in my pocket. The coin was still there. Then she turned to us again and carried on with her story.

'We sat down together on the fallen sandstone, Merlin facing me and Brisen beside me. I noticed a chipped marble laurel wreath lying on the ground at my feet. I picked it up and turned it around in my hands as the High King's enchanter spoke.

'"Princess Dindrane," he began. "You will have heard how Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to Britain after the death and resurrection of Our Lord. You will also have been told how he settled in the Island of Apples and built a chapel there, which over time became a church and then an abbey, watched over by the Grail King, a descendent of Joseph, and by his spiritual counterpart, the Grail Priest, Nasciens, who, for a crime committed long ago against the Arimathean, was given the penance of living hundreds of years beyond his natural span, until he who is destined to take the titles of both Grail Priest and King comes into his maturity."

'Merlin probed me with his eyes - testing me out, I thought. They were as black as his hair - as black as coal. I coolly returned his gaze. "Yes," I said. "I know that story." Most people did, in truth.

'"Eighty years ago," he continued, "when the Romans left these shores, my master Blaise made the Grail realm disappear, so that it exists now more in the Otherworld than here. He wanted to hide it from the Saxons, so that is why one cannot find it now as one would find Venta, Eboracum or Deva, by walking, riding, or studying maps. Blaise did not, however, separate it wholly from this world and nor did he wish to, for that would be to deprive our land of a matchless grace and beauty. And so it is that now and again a man or a woman might stumble upon this in-between place, as Balin of Tyneside, one of Arthur's lieutenants did three years ago. But Balin failed to perceive the mystery, and in his confusion wounded the Grail King, Pelles, with a spear he had no right to bear, let alone throw. Instantly the Grail lands became waste and desolate, the abbey collapsed into ruin, and only the tower which houses the chapel itself remained intact. Pelles lies on his litter now, racked with pain, in a room adjoining that chapel, awaiting the advent of he whom I told you of, he who will hold both crook and flail and will let loose the waters and cause the trees and flowers to blossom again in that parched and barren land."

'As I say, I had heard this tale, or variants of it, in the streets and squares of Venta and elsewhere. I was intrigued by it, as were we all to an extent, but the thought of visiting Carbonek (as the Grail realm was commonly called) or being in any way involved with it had never crossed my mind. Until my friendship with the Lord Taliessin I had never envisaged any other future than taking vows at Almesbury. But what Merlin told me set my thoughts in a different direction, towards an incredible, almost inconceivable possibility. And what if ...? Then Brisen - as soft and golden as her brother was dark and angular - placed her hand on my knee and said soothingly, as if reading my mind, "How and when this prince is to be born and who his parents will be is not your concern, Princess Dindrane. Merlin and I will take the matter in hand. But he will not be able to be brought up by his mother and father. The boy will need someone else to raise him, and we can think of no-one better, no-one purer, no-one more devoted to the holy and the beautiful than you. All we ask for now is that you take some time to reflect on what his coming might mean, both for Britain and for yourself. I will be honest. A sword shall pierce your heart - yes, more than one sword too - yet you will find in this vocation the deep and lasting joy your heart has always cried out for."

'I was shocked beyond measure at these words. There was shame as well, for I had hoped that they would ask me to be the child's mother, as the angel Gabriel had asked Our Lady to bear Christ in her womb. I told them to stay where they were while I went for a walk to clear my mind and beg God's forgiveness and help. I handed the marble laurel wreath to Brisen - I have no idea why - and stepped outside into the fresh sea air, with the white cloud above me and the shouts of workmen and soldiers ringing around. I stood at the foot of the old Roman Pharos and gazed up at the mighty stone tower, with its beacon brazier, recently relit by Arthur himself, blazing away on top as it had blazed for so long in the days of the Empire. Then I returned to the storeroom and asked, "If I accept can I still be a sister at Almesbury?" And when Brisen said, "Yes," my heart leapt in my breast, for I had seen in those flames what my true calling was and how everything else, even this weighty responsibility, would revolve around that.

'I told the Lord Taliessin in the lamp-lit Praetorium later, and there was sorrow and joy in the time we had together that evening. And so it was that some four and a half years later, on an ice-cold Wednesday night, I was sat at the door at Almesbury, listening for visitors, while the sisters sung Compline in the chapel. I heard a snuffling outside, so I undid the latch and beheld a white wolf with coal-black eyes and a new-born babe in swaddling clothes on his back, tied with scarlet bands.

'The wolf looked up and I smiled and went to the cupboard to fetch the knife. "Merlin and I will take the matter in hand," Brisen had promised. Indeed so. I cut the scarlet bands and held the babe up to the light. His eyes were green and translucent and his hair the colour of vivid flame, the same shade and tint, I recalled, as the burning brazier at Rutupiae. I glanced down but the wolf was already gone, a vanishing speck against the empire of ice. The sisters came rushing up and the babe began to cry, and we blessed and welcomed him and gave thanks to God for the unprecedented gift He had bestowed upon our house.