Wednesday, June 30, 2021

In Hoc Signo Vinces


The boat responded
Gaily to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands ...

T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

*

The world is powered by symbolism. It drives and propels history. As Jonathan Pageau, for instance, points out here, Al-Qaida brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11 precisely because of its high symbolic status. They saw it for what it was - an expression of America’s most deeply held beliefs and values. In other times and cultures, Al-Qaida or their equivalents would have chosen a different target - a cathedral or a royal palace or an ancient stone circle. But they had done their homework and knew that economics and commercial exchange held the keys to the US psyche. They intuited that striking at these highest values would have a seismic long-term effect, altering the relationship between the government and the governed, exposing the inherent contradictions of Western society, and ushering in a process of unravelling and disintegration. Twenty years on, who could say that they were wrong?

The West today is a civilisation barely worthy of the name, its lifeblood poisoned by a witch’s brew of extreme decadence and technological tyranny. The tapestry that once wove us together and told our collective story has been decisively unpicked. We drift along listlessly in a sea of uncertainty and have no idea as a people of who we are, what we stand for, and where we are going. It is hard to know how to push back - how to pin down and define an enemy whose attacks seem to emanate from everywhere and nowhere. What do we even call this slippery set of structures which assails us? Post-modernism? Wokeism? The successor ideology? Who and what are we who fight it? Conservatives? Traditionalists? Reactionaries? Post-liberals? Unlike in The Iliad, say, where Homer tells us plainly who is fighting who and why, it is not always obvious today who the combatants are, who is friend and who is foe, and what the stakes truly are in this great 'Battle for Being' raging all around us.

Part of the problem, of course, is the nature of our age - the acid bath of post-modernity, which corrodes and dissolves all fixed meanings and identities. But this is not the full story. St. Paul, long ago, discerned the deeper truth: 'For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.' (Ephesians 6:12) As the hard materialism of the modern, industrial era, forged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, melts away, so we sense a welter of chaotic forces tugging us this way and that with no pattern or stability or overarching set of values. These are the 'fissures in the great wall' already observed by Rene Guénon over seventy years ago. (1) The demonic and the infra-human surge through, but at the same time a space is cleared which makes it easier to discern the fundamentally spiritual nature of the struggle. 

This is a war which cannot be fought on the level of political parties or legal proceduralism. That would be to play within the rules of liberalism, the ruling mentality which must be transcended. Symbolism offers us a more creative path - understanding and acting upon a symbol's latent power to change the historical narrative and set a new dynamic in motion. How do we do this? Violence against an enemy symbol à la 9/11 is clearly out of bounds. We cannot wage war with the Devil by adopting his weapons lest we morph into demons ourselves. Symbolic gestures such as storming civic buildings or burning contentious flags are equally pointless in their own way as they are purely reactive and serve only to reinforce the dominant narrative. 

What we need, more than anything, is a unifying symbol, something we can focus on and meditate upon, alone or in a group, online or off, until we tap into the deep reality underlying it and the image becomes manifest in the world. There are numerous possibilities, but none better to my mind than this Roman coin struck to commemorate the relief of London in AD 296 by the Emperor Constantius Chlorus, the husband of St. Helena and father of Constantine the Great.

 

In 286, the Romano-Belgic naval commander, Marcus Carausius, usurped control of Britain and part of northern Gaul and declared himself joint-Emperor. His claim, unsurprisingly, was rejected, but the Roman authorities found both Carausius and his successor (and assassin), Allectus, obdurate opponents, and it was a full decade before imperial rule was restored. The Anglo-Welsh poet and artist, David Jones (1895-1974), refers to this episode in his epic poem, The Anathemata(1952) and in a footnote reflects on the coin's wider significance:

He (Constantius) is mounted and with a lance, his horse stepping from a gang-plank of a boat at a turreted gateway inscribed LON, where a kneeling female figure greets him with welcoming arms. The words REDDITOR LUCIS AETERNAE (Restorer of the Eternal Light) are inscribed above the figure of the Emperor. Although this may but commemorate a chance victory in a war of rival generals, none the less Constantius, at that moment, was the outward sign of something and was himself the implement of what he signified, namely: in the domain of accidental fact, the saving of London from immediate sack; in the domain of contemporary politics, the restoration of Britain to unity with the West;  and in the domain of perennial ideas, the return of Britain to the light of civilisation. (2)

These are the 'controlling hands' that renew the wasteland, bring order out of chaos, and restore the primal pattern to a land which had wandered off after strange gods, far from the divine, eternal source of light. David Jones, throughout his oeuvre, invites us to explore that fertile terrain where Catholicism meets and interacts with the deepest strata of history and mythology. In The Anathemata we see this develop over the course of millennia with specific reference to the island of Britain. But his theme is universal - it is the symbolic reality, not the physical location or the individual personage, that is definitive. In what Jones calls the domains of 'accidental fact' and 'contemporary politics' the historical record gives us reason to believe that Carausius was a capable and popular ruler. But this has strictly limited significance when set against the domain of 'perennial ideas', and it is this, says Jones - this 'light of civilisation' - that Constantius symbolises and incarnates. 

This, I believe, is our vocation too, here and now in 2021, in thought, word and deed, in matters great and small, each of us a Redditor Lucis Aeternae, shining the ancient, holy light - ever old, ever new - onto the ruins and fragments of what was once the West. If we can connect, therefore, to the archetypal theme at the heart of this engraving - the ‘Return of the King’ - then it can become for us what the vision of the cross in the sky was for Constantine before his rout of Maximian at the Milvian Bridge. In Hoc Signo Vinces. By this sign, conquer. 

Look again at the coin and the body language of Constantius and the representative of London. The Emperor arrives as a liberator, not just a conqueror, and as such he is gladly welcomed into the city. He comes not to subjugate but to rescue and redeem, and this again is the pattern we should seek to follow. Harsh, bitter judgmentalism has no place in the salvific, healing work we are called upon to perform. Compassion, forgiveness, and humility should be our watchwords, and with these the empathy to feel and share the human suffering ushered in by civilisational collapse - feel it in the marrow of our being; feel it to the point of tears. So much beauty and nobility going down into the dust, so much degradation and perversity, so many blighted lives, so much stunted potential. We carry our neighbour's cross. We do not stand aloof in splendid isolation. ‘Without a vision the people perish.’ But any transformative vision, any New Jerusalem, is worthless unless accompanied by the beating of a massive human heart.

Our manner, our attitude, our bearing, will all make it plain that a life informed by order, hierarchy and tradition gives a man or a woman the optimum chance of finding meaning and fulfilment. It will soon be crystal clear, as Joseph Ratzinger prophecied as long ago as 1969, that secular liberalism leads to a dead-end at best and suicidal despair at worst. He foresaw a new age of persecution, which will push the Church back to the catacombs. There, in extremis, she will find again her original purity and be rebaptised with that Pentecostal fire which will give the lost and abandoned of that time exactly what they need:

A great power will flow from a more spiritualised and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret. (3)

Only at this stage, with a critical mass of 're-traditionalised' people, can we start thinking about society, moulding and shaping it so that it reflects and embodies the Heavenly order. Public life, step by step, will be re-orientated towards the Divine, with the Good, the Beautiful and the True serving as the ruling principles of political thought and action. Because this is a society based on love, all minorities will find their place easily and naturally in the wider whole. It is not a question of some tick-box 'duty of care' to an abstract citizen or individual, but rather the attention and respect that every son and daughter of God commands by right. By the same token, this will not be a society that essentialises the exception as ours likes to do, using minority groups as battering rams to reduce age-old understandings of anthropology to rubble. What we are looking at is something more akin to Dante's Paradiso, where each of the blessed finds his or her proper level in the hierarchy of Heaven. There is no envy, no resentment, no restless striving after something 'better.' Everyone is facing the same way, towards the source and fount of life that bestows upon us purpose and direction - 'the love,' as Dante puts it, 'that moves the sun and the other stars.' 

Here is our model; here is our goal. But it will take time to get from here to there. Turbulence too. 'We can count on terrific upheavals' as Ratzinger also warns us. But this is all as it should be. Nothing of lasting value springs up instantly and without difficulty. Think, for example, of the peregrinations of Aeneas and the bloody war he had to wage against the Latins to set the story of Rome in motion. Some Catholic Integralists, especially in the US, seem to wish to short-circuit this process, aiming to seize control of the State in as short a time as possible to impose their worldview on an untransformed populace. This approach will reward us with a sticking-plaster at most. It is too rational and head-based, unable to engage with the heart of the matter - the metaphysical malaise that engenders a vacuum of values and sets the stage for the multiple firestorms now engulfing us: spiritual, moral, intellectual, social, and political. Something more profound is needed to kickstart the restoration - a high act of the Imagination; unforeseen and unrepeatable - at once archaic and future-facing, both pre-and-post-verbal (if such a thing is conceivable), and in the closest and most intimate of relationships with the sacred. 

It is time to choose our symbols and to choose them well. After Constantius, remember, comes Constantine, inaugurator of the long golden age of public faith that built Hagia Sophia in the East and Chartres Cathedral in the West. That civilisational paradigm has run its course now, and it is not our task to resuscitate it – to follow 'an antique drum' as Eliot has it in Little Gidding. We inhabit a world of clashing, competing narratives, and the onus is on us to fight and win the Battle for Being anew as those royal figures did seventeen hundred years ago. Our vision is grounded in and inspired by the past, but our eyes are fully focused on the future, which remains an open book as always, inviting the winner to write his story on its pages. 

We are at the start of a long and exacting journey, but this is the only road to take and the only place to be. The future is born this very minute, at the midnight of history, in the débris of the Constantinian settlement and the silence of abandonment and apparent defeat. It begins in stillness, with the contemplation of an image which unfurls into a symbol – the rallying-point and spearhead of a new culture and aesthetic - fresh, bold, and radical. It ends in victory and renewal, then begins again. 

Redditor Lucis Aeternae. The Return of the King. 

By this sign, conquer. 

*

(1) See especially The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945)

(2) David Jones, The Anathemata (Faber and Faber, 1952) p.134.

(3) See here for the full transcript of this 1969 radio address.  

 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Berdyaev and Tarkovsky - The Apocalypse and the Zone

 

‘It would be wrong to consider that the Book of Revelation only contains within itself a concept of punishment, of retribution; it seems to me that what it contains, above all, is hope. The time is near, yes indeed; for each one of us the time is very, very close at hand.’[1]

 Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986)

 *

We live in an age of widening and deepening chasms – spiritual, cultural, social and political. 'Things fall apart,' as W.B. Yeats famously put it in The Second Coming. 'The centre cannot hold.' I will begin this essay by briefly describing why I feel the centre is dissolving, but I do not intend to speculate on how it might be recreated or restored. Discussion of this kind can easily be found elsewhere. I want to work instead from the premise that things are already too far gone and that no amount of rampart-bolstering will stop the wheels of de-spiritualisation that were set in motion long ago. We will not see the chasms bridged, in other words. Not in a worldly sense anyway. And this is as it should be. For, as Christ tells Pilate, 'My Kingdom is not of this world.'[2]

It is easy to caricature the centre as some bland, 'picket fence' type of place, but in reality it is the most exciting ground of all. The centre is where the common good is championed and different worldviews honoured, but also where a shared set of values – civic, national, or both – gives those views a local shape and context. There is a sense of belonging. People feel at home.

Regrettably, this is not where we are today. The centre has lost its imaginative hold. Social and economic liberalism have driven a coach and horses through the practices and traditions that grounded men and women in reality. 'You can be anything you want to be,’ we are told. But this is a pseudo-liberation, which divests us of our patrimony, both in this world and the next. It denies the existence of a heavenly home, while at the same time severing us from our roots on Earth – from the past, the future and, increasingly, from the limits set by Nature herself. 'Liberated' from an objective awareness of who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going, we run the risk of becoming something less than human – 'a thing with one face' in Louis MacNeice's phrase[3] – putty in the hands of those who wish to enslave us.

Yeats, once again, read the runes aright. 'After us the Savage God,' he prophecied in 1896, stunned by the crudity of Alfred Jarry's play, Ubu Roi.[4] The poet recognized in this tale of an idiot dictator the potential for lunacy inherent in a free-floating world detached from its metaphysical moorings. Likewise, the revolutionaries of F.M. Dostoyevsky's, The Possessed, dazzled by the prolixity of Pyotr Verkhovensky, allow themselves to become vehicles of the demonic and conduits for nihilism. 'Listen,' declares this apostle of chaos. 'To level the mountains is a fine idea, not an absurd one. Down with culture ... The one thing wanting in the world is discipline ... We'll reduce everything to a common denominator!'[5]

One corollary of living in an epoch of moral and spiritual disintegration is that hope is gradually relegated to the margins. A transfigured world starts to feel possible in eschatological terms only. When we see secularism so deeply embedded in daily life and religious wisdom pushed so far to the periphery, it becomes hard to conceive of any constructive action we might take to help turn the tide. There remains, as always, the option of a retreat into literalism, but this is merely the flip-side of the relativism that assails us, and serves only to reinforce the dominant materialist paradigm.

Like Jacob wrestling the angel, this is a problem I do battle with every day. My romantic temperament (I am a monarchist and a Jacobite) pulls me perpetually towards certain Ersatz solutions. When the world grows dark, I find comfort in ancient Franco-German prophecies – visions of a 'Grand Monarch' and an 'Angelic Pope', who will restore the primacy of throne and altar, turn modernity on its head and, with their holiness and charisma, set hearts and minds ablaze for God. But this is a deception. It leaves the subject – myself in this case – unchanged and betrays a lack of faith in humanity's capacity for renewal and God's ability to surprise. That is why the life and witness of Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948) is such a blessing for our times. This great advocate of the imagination portrays what the genuinely transformative future awaiting us can and will look like.

History, Berdyaev claimed, is divided into three stages: the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Holy Spirit. The first age corresponds to the Old Testament and the Law of Moses. The age of the Son maps onto the New Testament and redemption from sin and death. The third age is still to come, and when it does it will change the dynamic and guide us beyond our habitual passivity in the face of the Divine. It will be our turn then to give something back to the Creator and thereby become creators ourselves. This, for Berdyaev, is the meaning of Apocalypsis – the unveiling in men and women of God's hidden purpose for the world. It is a transformation – a leap of consciousness – and an opportunity for ourselves, here and now, to quicken its advent. As he explains:

The Kingdom of God comes imperceptibly, without theatrical effects. It approaches in every triumph of humanness, in real liberation. In genuine creativity there comes nigh the end of this world, a world of inhumanity, of slavery, of inertia ... The end of time, the end of the world, the end of history is a passing over into another frame of consciousness. Within time the end is seen only as destruction, but in eternity as transfiguration.[6]

 *

Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, Stalker, prefigures this 'passing over' particularly well. A tract of land known as the 'Zone' is cordoned off after a mysterious environmental disaster in an unspecified European country. Hidden in its midst is a secret chamber (the 'Room'), which has the power, so it is said, to make one's deepest wish come true. The Stalker guides two men – the Writer and the Scientist – across the Zone's treacherous terrain to the threshold of the Room. It is a descent into Hades – a grimy trek through mud and slime; broken, blasted buildings; floods of stagnant water, and overgrown fields scarred with burnt-out tanks.

The Writer and the Scientist are a cynical, world-weary pair, unable to see any further or deeper than the wasteland that surrounds them. Pausing by a pool of water, the Stalker – a mystic and a dreamer – prays that his companions may repent of their hardness of heart:

'May everything come true. May they believe. May they laugh at their passions. For that which they call passion is not really the energy of the soul, but merely friction between the soul and the outer world. But mostly may they have hope and may they become as helpless as children. For weakness is great and strength is worthless.'

Under the water we see a series of objects, representative of our civilisation, which the catastrophe has rendered useless – gold coins, a hypodermic needle, a machine gun, and a painting of Christ. Tellingly, it is the religious image which comes last. The order which has passed away placed its priorities elsewhere and has paid the price.

The Stalker, in the end, is disappointed by his colleagues' lack of faith. Like the contemporary world, they seem too far gone – compromised and blinded by their hard-nosed materialism. But two remarkable, unforeseen occurrences turn base metal into gold – a confession of unconditional, utterly selfless love from the Stalker's long-suffering wife, and an astonishing display of telekinesis from his crippled daughter, Monkey. The quest, on the surface, appears to fail, yet the wasteland is renewed in fresh and unexpected ways.

There is a price to pay, however. The wasteland in Stalker is literal as well as figurative. There will never be cast-iron proof, but it is highly likely that Tarkovsky's premature death, along with those of his wife and several members of the cast and crew, was caused by exposure to toxins during filming. The film had to be shot twice – from February to September 1977, and again from June to November 1978 – due to a fault with the first lot of stock. Shooting took place, on both occasions, in Estonia, close to a power plant pumping out poisonous, and probably fatal, chemicals.

Tarkovsky also suffered a heart attack in April 1978, which forced him into convalescence for two months, and became so ill again early in 1979 that he thought he might die. The cost of the film, in human terms, was colossal. Was it worth it? All I can say is that I was privileged and blessed, in April 2011, to attend a big-screen viewing in a basement room at Manchester University with half a dozen colleagues and friends. It was a shared experience of the utmost intensity. This slow, contemplative masterpiece brought both the characters and ourselves to the threshold of the Room. It stripped us bare. Skinned us alive. The silence at the end felt as numinous and charged with significance as the elevation of the Host at Mass. All those great intangibles – Faith, Communion, Mystery, Solidarity, and more – were alive and present in the space.

I often feel nostalgia for that miraculous night, but then I realise that the holiness we touched and felt points not to the past but the future. If only, for instance, we could find a way of conveying the Gospel story with just a tenth of Tarkovsky's imaginative force, I believe we would see a Christian Renaissance that would astound and rejuvenate the world.

The past will never be rejected. Obedience to God's law will always be central to our lives. The same applies, obviously, to salvation from sin and death. But Berdyaev is right. This is an hour of impasse and stagnation, and more is required of us now – a creative flair and visionary intensity that turns conventional wisdom upside down and draws its inspiration from the deepest wellsprings of Christian tradition: that Living Water offered by Christ to the woman of Samaria in St. John's Gospel.

The cost of such a transformation will be absolute. We will be burnt to a crisp on Ixion's wheel – dismembered like Orpheus and pieced back together by the gods. In Tarkovsky's next film, Nostalghia (1983) – set in Tuscany – the protagonist, Gorchakov, becomes irresistibly drawn to the village fool, Domenico. This Stalker-like figure sets him the task of crossing the hot springs at the Bagno Vignoni spa, holding a candle and keeping it alive at all costs. Gorchakov, like St. Christopher, carries the Light of the World over the waters. It is an act of high symbolism, which transcends the rational mind. He wavers and wobbles and it costs him his life, but he fulfills his mission, playing his part, as he sees it, in the redemption of the world.

The Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, called this nine-minute take 'a miracle', as by the time he completes his task, Gorchakov appears to be holding something more than a candle in his hand.[7] The scene is an artistic tour de force, and as such performs a vital religious function, especially today. It re-enchants and re-mythologises the world. Our mechanistic, post-Enlightenment assumptions are broken apart and space created for the Divine – wild, fierce and strange – to make its presence felt. Spiritually-resonant art, like Tarkovsky’s, is moulded by silence and refined by fire. It brings gifts of insight, perspective and depth, which can and should inform the way we practice and present our faith. It unveils pattern and meaning, and helps us see the turning point ahead for what it truly is – an end, yes, but also a beginning. A death too – most certainly a death – but with the light of the Resurrection already, even now, here and there, starting to break though. As Berdyaev assures us:

God will not judge the world and mankind, but a blinding light will pierce the world and man. This will not be only light, but a searing, purifying fire. In this purifying fire, it will be evil that burns, not living beings. And that will lead to transfiguration, to a new heaven and a new earth.[8]



[1] ‘The Apocalypse’, Temenos, Issue 8, 1987, 14-15.

[2] John: 18:36

[3] Louis MacNeice, ‘Prayer Before Birth’, in Louis MacNeice: Poems Selected by Michael Longley (London; Faber, 2001), 71.

[4] W.B.Yeats, Autobiographies (London; Macmillan, 1955), 349.

[5] F.M. Dostoyevsky, The Possessed, trans. Jessie Coulson (London; J.M. Dent & Sons, 1931), 391.

[6] Nicholas Berdyaev, ‘War and Eschatology’ in Journal Put’, Oct. 1939 / Mar. 1940,  No. 61, 3-14. Trans. Fr. S Janos, 2001.

 

[7] Sean Martin, Andrei Tarkovsky (Kamera Books; Harpenden, 2011), 163.

[8] Nicholas Berdyaev, Truth and Revelation, trans. R.M. French (Geoffrey Bles; London, 1953), 108-9.

 

Essay originally published in Jesus The Imagination (Volume III) in June 2019. JTI is a print-only publication, but there's a web portal at - www.thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com

 

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Circle of Great British Lights


Our monastery lies just across the road from the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. The Tor and the tower at its summit - what remains of the old St. Michael's Church - are never far from our line of vision.

Brother Simon's cell had the best view of the Tor, and that was fitting as he had such a deep, intuitive awareness of the spiritual essence of this land. He was absolutely soaked in it, and Brother Charles, Brother Andrew, and myself - Brother Mark - saw and felt this in the most extraordinary fashion last Friday evening, just after Vespers, when Brother Simon was carried up into Heaven at the estimable age of ninety-one.

For Brother Simon, of course, none of this was extraordinary. It was reality making itself manifest. Nothing more; nothing else. But he lived closer to that reality than myself or anyone else I know and he was rewarded, right on the threshold of death, when the reality became visible and guided him through the passage from this world to the next.

I had been Brother Simon's student for a long time so I knew how he viewed such things. Because of this, and as I had been so close to him, our Abbot had given me permission to be present at the end along with Charles and Andrew, our 'in-house' medical men.

As I reached the arch-shaped wooden door, I glanced up at the sky. It was one Brother Simon would have relished - varied, free-flowing, and typically English - blue sky and sunshine vying for position with two rival cloud-types: white and fleecy versus dark and sombre - all seasons, you might say, and all potential weathers on display.

I lifted the latch and crept in. Brother Charles and Brother Andrew were sitting pensively on wicker chairs, either side of the dying monk's bed. He was as still as death already, his complexion, beneath his snow-white hair and beard, ash-pale and lifeless. I spied a chair by the door, picked it up and sat down next to Brother Charles, just to the right of the bed.

Brother Simon's eyes had been closed when I entered. They were open now. Grey and filmy. Slowly, he raised himself into a sitting position. I watched his tremulous arms, ready to catch him should they give way beneath him. But they held firm, and when I looked in his eyes again I saw that they had changed, back to the vibrant emerald green I knew so well. They were gazing straight ahead, behind where we were sitting, towards the door and the stone wall surrounding it. But there was nothing there, just the square window looking onto the cloister and Brother Luca's little icon of the Transfiguration hanging from a nail on the door. I thought he might be looking at that. But no.

'Behold,' he whispered. 'The Kings are here - four indomitable guardians of the land - Alfred, Arthur, Edward the Martyr, and Harold.'

Brother Simon's face was ruddy now, glowing almost. A fresh new energy radiated from him. He pushed himself right up and sat bolt upright, his voice trong and resonant:

'Now come the poets - four prophets, four seers, four bards of Britain - Charles Williams, David Jones, Geoffrey Hill, and William Blake.'

Brother Charles, Brother Andrew and myself stood up as one. The atmosphere in the room was transformed, like a current had been switched on. The place had come alive. Brother Simon's face was shining now. There were literal rays - bright and golden - circling around it like a halo. His words were ringing and authoritative:

'Now am I truly blessed for four saints of this isle are with us in this cell - treasures of our realm; living, eternal jewels - Hilda, Cuthbert, Julian, and Bede.'

The light was so intense and potent now that we could only just discern Brother Simon's eyes and mouth and the oval outline of his face. Then a smell - rich, evocative, enchanting - permeated the air. Brother Simon spoke again. Quieter now:

'Joseph of Arimathea is present, the bearer of the Grail and the first to bring the Faith to Britain.' That was all he said this time. His face was like the sun and we all stepped back in awe and wonder. Did I glimpse a gleam of gold then by Brother Simon's head as I drew back? Was the Grail itself among us and had Brother Simon just inclined his head to drink from it? The  light was so powerful now, pulsing out not from only his face but from his whole body that it was impossible for me to be sure. 

I became conscious then that a being of immense power had entered the space. A new quality occupied the air - silent, strong and resolute. We could not see this entity, but Brother Simon clearly could. He looked up, and we had to shield our eyes with our hands for the glory of his face was too much to look at - too fierce and all-consuming. I thought that I could hear the sound of beating wings, just above the bed. Then a great quiet came down upon us and there was no noise at all, just stillness, peace and light.

Minutes or centuries later, Brother Andrew spoke. 'What is happening, Brother Simon?' he asked.

'The Angel of Albion is calling me,' came the reply. 'I have asked him for a minute more so that I may repent more thoroughly.'

'You, Brother Simon, have no need of repentance,' said Brother Charles.

'Truly, I tell you, seeing these great ones here and measuring myself against them has shown me plainly that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of repentance.'

The aureole around him blazed even brighter than before and the holiness in the air was palpable. I had the strong impression that the invisible presences had arranged themselves in a circle around him. Some of them, therefore - those behind the bed - were now situated outside the cell as it stood in physical space - in the orchard, in fact - but that made no difference to what was happening. Walls and boundaries had become irrelevant.

My intuition told me that Joseph of Arimathea was in the centre of this circle, with the Angel of Albion above. Then, miraculously, the veil was drawn back and we were given a hint of the revelation unfolding before Brother Simon. I saw twelve solver lights, bright shining balls, floating in the air. Some, as I say (four, I think) were outside the room, behind Brother Simon's head. Even so, In the middle, near to Brother Simon's face, was a sphere of golden light, with the Angel's vivid red - like a scarlet lantern - watching on, it seemed, from just below the ceiling. All these lights appeared to me to be somehow still and moving at the same time. They hummed and whirred - in deep harmony, it struck me, with themselves, with Brother Simon, with us three watchers, and with the whole created world. But it was a harmony too deep and too refined for me to grasp and hold onto. In any case, I don't think it was ever meant to be grasped and held onto. But for just one instant I discerned a high music emanating from and between these luminous orbs, and everything that mattered to me, everything I fought for and believed in - divinity, sanctity, royalty, nobility - was contained within those sounds, and I longed to stay forever in that music, to inhabit its pattern and breathe its air unto the end of the ages and beyond.

I had come home, I realised. But I was there and gone again so quickly as the music faded and the lights steadily dimmed, though some of the magic - the calm joyousness of it all - remains with me still and hopefully always will. The halo around Brother Simon slowly disappeared as well. His head dropped gently back onto the pillow and there and then he died and his soul was lifted up to Heaven. 

Brother Charles and Brother Andrew knelt down beside him and began the Litany for the Dead. But I felt completely overwhelmed by what had happened, so I wandered over to the window, breathing deeply and praying silently, striving to reorientate myself.

A soft rain was falling on the summit of the Tor, then a flash of scarlet lightning lit the sky above the tower and I saw a mighty winged being standing there in triumph. In his right hand was a flag, and on that flag - gold on white - was depicted the Island of Britain. In his left I beheld the figure of a man, curled up and cradled, like a babe awaiting birth. Without seeing any more than this rough shape and outline, I knew at once that I was looking at Brother Simon.

The angel departed, the wall of cloud lifted, and the sun shone down upon the Tor. All the seasons were present and active again, and all the weathers - sunshine, rain, and wind as well - banding together, it appeared, in tribute to one who all his life - not just at the end - had heard the music of the spheres and seen and spoken with our nation's saints and sages, building up Jerusalem, brick by sacred brick, here in Somerset and everywhere in this green and pleasant land.

*

Adapted from The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell (1987) p.157 - the death of Abbot Sosois. Also with a nod to Dante's 'Circle of the Twelve Lights' in Paradiso Canto X - the Heaven of the Sun. The illustration above was used to promote the Glastonbury William Blake Festival in August 2018. Artist unknown.