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.'


  1. Thanks for this John - it gave me a salutary jolt.

  2. A really good post. Thanks John. This made me laugh. “I am technically 49 years old yet in no way have I outgrown the raw, spiky and vulnerable teenager I was”. So true for me too except for the age bit for which you’d have to add a few more years!

    But your main point in well made. It can be hard not to get angry amidst so much corruption and evil disguised as good with so many people going along with it and passionately arguing for it like your man on the train. We have to resist that temptation and just focus on the real good and the divine reality or we become sucked into the world and politics. Know evil for evil but remain completely fixed on the good. I think the words “resist not evil” which I have never fully understood are taking on a new significance at the present time.

  3. @William - "We have to resist that temptation "

    I think you are temperamentally a much more placid individual than either John or me. Losing my temper is not something I can prevent altogether - without the aid of some kind of powerful tranquillizer, I suppose!

    All I can do, as John has here, is resist the temptation to justify myself, and instead repent the loss of control.

    In that respect I have made *some* progress since my teens (and my even angrier twenties!), when I was not only irritable but self-righteous about it, and usually blamed the person who 'made' me lose my temper. The post seems to suggest that John has done this too.

  4. " temperamentally a much more placid individual ". If only that were true. I do apparently give that impression but inside I get very cross and worked up sometimes. Now is one of those times actually both in my home life and as a matter of what's going on in the world. Only last night I shouted out of the window at my neighbour's 18 year old son who had congregated along with half a dozen friends in his garden and were talking loudly at midnight - for the third night running.

    Sorry to use your blog for moan, John!

  5. If I had the same encounter as you on that train I would consider it a significant breakthrough! Anger does boil up inside me at times but my greater deficit is a lack of courage. If life is a series of trials we're reaching some of the most difficult ones yet. For all types it seems.

  6. Thanks gents. That's an interesting observation, Sean. And maybe that's one of the virtues of the current time - that we start to see in clearer and clearer ways what are presiding sin or area of weakness is. That's what's being exposed in the harsh light of the virus. Like a raw nerve. That's where the work is.

  7. Wonderful post. Glad I found you from Francis's blog.

  8. Thanks Jake. Yes, Francis is a top man with a top blog!