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.


  1. Fantastic! Is this your original story? The Angel of Albion, I think, is a reference in Blake? It also reminds me of the angelic doctor's explanation of the angel hierarchies. I have many holes in my knowledge, but about four times a year I contemplate the dominions, principalities, etc. I do wonder if the angel of this island hasn't prepared me since I was small to come home here. How terrifying and rewarding to meet one of them, even in death!

  2. Thanks Christie! Yes, it is my original story, but also a distillation of much work by other people that I've read and meditated on over the years. I really enjoyed writing this piece. I felt at home in it, if you know what I mean. In that Albion Awakening book which was in the photo you posted the other day, there's an essay by William (or was it me?) about the Anglican mystic/white magician, Dion Fortune, and the group visualisations she did during the darkest days of WW2. One of them was concerned with visualising the angel of this island standing over it with wings outspread in a protective attitude. I've done that visualisation on my own more than once, I admit, especially when I've felt that the land might be in some sort of peril. I find it really powerful and moving. Undoubtedly that was an unconscious source for the above story. Cheers, jf