Monday, June 24, 2019

The Shining Ones


In Tir-na-Moe, the land of the Living Heart, Brigit was singing. And the other gods, drawn by the resonance of her voice, stood in a circle around her - Manannan the Sea Lord; Midyir the Mighty; the Dagda (who is also called the Green Harper); Gobinu the Wonder Smith; Nuada, Wielder of the White Flame; and Angus Og, the youngest and most playful of the gods.

Brigit's song was charged with depth and yearning, of pain and regret mingled with hope and the hint of a mysterious, softly approaching joy. And at the end, Angus Og said, 'Rich and strange is your song, O Brigit. I felt, as I listened, that I was falling down and down, fathom after fathom, until Tir-na-Moe itself was nothing more than the memory of a dim and distant dream. And the further I fell, the more I sensed that it was not yourself singing but someone or something else. Tell me, O Flame of the Two Eternities, who or what was it singing that song?'

'It was the Earth,' replied Brigit.

'The Earth!' cried the Dagda. 'But the Earth is in the pit of Hell. It has no beauty, shape or form. Serpents crawl on its surface and all is chaos and despair.'

'Yet the Earth has dreamed of beauty,' said Brigit. 'There is something high and pure trapped beneath the murk and gloom, and it is calling to us, the Shining Ones, to set it free so it can shine like the diadem it is and take its rightful place at the heart of God's creation.'

Angus shook his head. 'I wish I had never heard your song,' he said. 'Now that I have, I cannot take the Earth from my mind and I am unable to return to my games with a clear conscience.'

'Then come down with me,' said Brigit, turning to him, 'and help me make the Earth afresh. You are clothed in all the glories of the Sun and have nothing to fear and everything to give.' But Angus just smiled and plucked a blossom that turned into a dove and whirled six times around his head before vanishing into the sky.

Then Midyir the red-maned shook out his hair and beard, and sparks danced and blazed around him. 'I will go with you, Brigit,' he declared. 'I will strike the serpents and clear a space for you to spread out your mantle and renew the face of the Earth.'

Then all the gods, except Angus, cried out, 'We too will come with you, to end the Earth's agony and release the beauty held captive by the dark.'

Angus, however, still demurred. 'I would come indeed,' he said, 'if only we had the Sword of Light.'

Then Brigit laughed and clasped him by the shoulders. 'We will not only have the Sword of Light,' she said, 'but the Spear of Victory, and the Cauldron of Plenty, and the Stone of Destiny too.'

And all the gods, including Angus, shouted out as one, 'We will take the Four Jewels.'

So Angus set out to fetch the Jewels and bring them back to the gods. He flew first to Findrias, the wind-washed, dawn-streaked city in the East of Tir-na-Moe, which holds the Sword of Light. Then he went to Gorias, the flame-bright city of the South, where he took the Spear of Victory; then West to Murias, the city of sunsets, flowing waters, and the Cauldron of Plenty; then onto Falias, the city of adamant and stone in the far North of the world, where the Stone of Destiny is to be found.

When all was ready, the Shining Ones descended on the Earth like a rain of stars. Midyir took the Spear of Victory and cut a swathe through the serpents, thrusting them into the sea and making space for Brigit to lay down her mantle. She took it off and set it down, rolling it forward and out - a silver, billowing carpet tinged with flame. On and on it rolled, pushing the waters ever back, until the mantle appeared on the point of wrapping the whole wide world in its warm, nurturing embrace. But then Angus, his playful spirits restored, jumped down on it and called on the other gods to join him, which they gladly did.

The Dagda, laughing as he ran, reached into the Cauldron of Plenty and hurled chunks of green putty into the Earth's dark air. Angus, with his own hands, merrily shaped and moulded the green, but then Mannanan, the Sea Lord, saw the serpents preparing an attack from beyond the shoreline. So he stopped the mantle's rolling, bade the gods be silent, took the Sword of Light, and held it high above his head. And a great wave three times his height, of jet black flecked with green, reared up before him, poised to come crashing down on top of him and all the gods and the new world they were making. But the Sword shone in the darkness with a fierce and burning light and the great and venemous wave drew back across the sea as if in fear and trembling.

Mannanan held the Sword higher still, and a second wave rushed up - white and blue like a sea horse - the same height as the Sea Lord. And it broke and crashed before it reached him, bowing down, it seemed to the other gods watching, in submission. Then came the third wave - a quiet gentle ripple like a whisper or a breeze. And then there was silence -  stillness, peace, and a dawning, rising, spreading light, which little by little illuminated the world the Shining Ones had just created.

They looked around and beheld a fresh, fertile land of green hills, valleys and trees. And they were amazed at what they had accomplished.

Then Brigit took the Stone of Destiny and laid it down at the centre of the island. As she did so a tinkling, bell-like music resounded from the Stone and the new world started to run with the happy splash and tumble of a million rivers, streams and rivulets.

And the gods stood in a circle around Brigit as she solemnly declared, 'This land we shall call the White Island. And its other name shall be the Island of Destiny. And its other name shall be Ireland.'




Note - I told this story last Wednesday (17/06/19) at the monthly storytelling night at The Blue Bell pub in Conwy, North Wales. The above is an almost word for word transcript of my retelling. The story is based on the opening chapter of Ella Young's Celtic Wonder Tales (1910), The Earth Shapers. The illustration at the bottom of the piece is from the end of that chapter and was drawn by Maud Gonne, a classic poetic 'muse' (and an Irish revolutionary, suffragette, artist and actress) who inspired a number of W.B. Yeats's finest poems, e.g. No Second Troy. The painting at the top is The Kings of the Faery Race (c.1900) by the great poet, artist and mystic, George William Russell (1867-1935), better known today by his nom de plumeAE.



Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Fire in the Sky - Ambrosius Aurelianus, Last of the Romans

This piece is based around the passages which concern Ambrosius in Rosemary Sutcliff's novels, The Lantern Bearers (1959) and Sword at Sunset (1963). In neither book is he the main protagonist. That honour falls to his two companions in this story, Aquila in The Lantern Bearers and Artos (Arthur) in Sword at Sunset. But Sutcliff, in my view, saves some of her richest and most atmospheric writing for Ambrosius, and I have always suspected that he held some deep, perhaps spiritual, significance for her. Take this description from The Lantern Bearers, for instance:

'His eyes, under brows as straight as a raven's flight pinions, were not the eyes of the Little Dark People, that were black and unstable and full of dreams, but a pale, clear grey lit with gold that gave the effect of flame behind them.'

I hope I have done justice, in this foray into fan-fiction, to Sutcliff's historical imagination and also to Ambrosius himself. He stood strong against external invasion and inner disintegration and restored peace and good government to southern Britain after Rome withdrew. He paved the way for his successor, Arthur, to stabilise and expand the realm further, and more importantly to set in motion that great body of myth which has fired our national imagination since and has, I believe, its highest fulfilment ahead of it still.

* * *


I am Ambrosius, High King of Britain. Tomorrow, when the sun reaches his zenith, I shall depart from the circles of this world and cross over into the Great Light, where the God beyond the gods will welcome me home, heal my sickness, and give me rest and respite before I am called down into service again.

For it comes to me clearly, this winter's night, that I have achieved two things only in my three-score years. I have held the pass and built a bridge - rolled back the darkness and relit the Roman light - so that the next High King, Artos (I hope), has the platform and stage he requires to free us from Saxon, Pict and Scot once and for all.

Politically speaking, it has to be Artos, though due to his irregular parentage I cannot name him successor. No-one else - though some claim purer birth - is capable of binding the tribes together and banishing the enemy. I have done what I could in this matter. I have given both Roman and Celt a vision to live for and die for. We have restored the ancient Kingdom in the South, and the Saxons have fled to the eastern fringes. But they have not been expelled and reinforcements arrive every day. Picts and Scots harass us to the North and West. We have laid a foundation but nothing more. It will take one like Artos - a hero, a leader, an inspirer of men - to preserve and build on our work. And that is why I must die at once. Suddenly, with no time to plan the succession. Our survival hangs by a thread. This is no time for dynastic squabbles. An unprecedented, co-ordinated attack will fall on us this summer. All our spies say so. With the stakes so high, men will rally around Artos, our renowned Count of Britain, out of necessity. The Council will undoubtedly see that he is the only man to lead us and save us.

I am, in any case, a sick and dying man, and this is why I have returned at my end to a place dear to me in my beginning - this woodland lodge to the north of our capital, Venta Belgarum (which the Saxons call Winchester). It was here that my father, Constantine, took myself and my brother, Utha, with him on his hunting expeditions, though in truth I was old enough to come only once, when I was nine. That was the happiest month of my life, but it all turned to ashes when my father was slain that very summer and Venta set ablaze in Vortigern's coup. The chaos and agony of that burning, blood-red night - the flames, the smoke, the screams - have stayed with me always. They will be with me tomorrow when the royal stag's twelve-pointed tine rips through my groin. I had not heard the tale of the sack of Troy at that time, but when I did, I felt like a brother to young Ascanius, shepherded to safety by his father, thrice-great Aeneas, that high and noble Trojan who founded our holy city of Rome. But our father was dead. Utha and I were spirited away by a handful of loyalists to northern Cymru and our grandmother's lands in the mountains of Arfon. There, on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa, we mourned our dead and gathered our strength until that glad day fifteen years later when we marched on the South and won back our father's city.

Dinas Ffarraon, we called our mountain hideaway. The Fortress of the High Powers. It is a good name, and I miss that blessed patch of Cymric rock and earth. For I am a man of two worlds - the Roman and the Celtic - and this is my blessing and my curse. Our grandfather, Maximus, was a Spaniard by birth and lieutenant to the great Theodosius. When, a hundred and thirty four years ago, the Picts stormed the Wall and set northern and middle-Britain ablaze, it was Maximus and Theodosius who beat them back and slowly, steadily restored order. When Theodosius returned to Rome, Maximus stayed and married a princess of the northern Cymru, thereby winning the loyalty of both the Roman and the Celtic parties. Flushed with success, he made himself Emperor and set out for Italy to vanquish his rivals. And there he perished, but he left behind a son, Constantine, our father. And when the province was stripped of its Legions, Constantine swept down from Arfon and routed the Saxons, ruling in the Roman style for thirty years from Venta. And that was the world that Utha and I, the children of our father's old age, were born into.

I greatly admired, as a boy, our city's order and precision. It counterbalanced my often colourful imagination. I was on affectionate terms with every piece of granite, stone and marble in the city - columns, statues, squares, Praetorium, Basilica - so perhaps it is no wonder that it is my triumphant return there, when we took the Durobrivae Bridge nigh-on forty years ago, that stands out now. How often have I lived it again in my mind, that raw, slate-grey, sleet-spattered morning. I was shocked, I recall, by the city's appearance - weeds running riot and pavements strewn with masonry - but the people cheered and lined the streets and gave me a royal and hearty welcome.

'I knew your father, Sir,' an old man called as he tossed a branch of glowing winter berries under my horse's hooves. 'I served under him in the old days.' I rewarded him with a smile and a coin and would have given him more if I could. But that night, around the fire, with Aquila and the others, I remember how struck I was by the sadness and vulnerability in my voice. 'They remembered me for my father's and my grandfather's sakes,' I said. 'One day they may remember me for my own.'

For a moment it felt like I no longer belonged in the old, familiar Governor's Palace I had been so happy to reclaim earlier that day. I wished, to be honest, I was somewhere else - high up in the cloud-capped peaks of Arfon, close to the stars, with time and space to pray and reflect on the past, present and future of my own life and the life of this sacred isle.

*

Artos, Aquila and I spent the night gone by roasting chestnuts over the brazier, as I had done so merrily so long ago with Utha and my father. The windows glittered with frost, but I felt warm and content inside, at ease with myself, my companions, and the world. When the time for serious talk came, Artos understood at length the method in my madness and then, I'm not sure why, Aquila - my longest-serving comrade - wandered over to the window and told us there was fire in the sky beyond the hill called Ink-Pen. Artos shot up. 'Saxons!' he cried as Aquila opened the window. But swiftly they saw that this was none of their doing. It was the Crown of the North my brothers in arms were gazing upon. The famous Northern Lights.

I pushed back my chair, shuffled across the tesserae, and was astonished at what I saw. Many times, in years gone by, have I observed the Northern Lights from the flanks of Yr Wyddfa. But nothing on this scale - nothing so wide, bright and high as this - a curving, flame-red scimitar of light, arching up from behind the hill, conquering first a quarter, then a third, then half of the sky. Banners and streamers of blue, green and gold - brighter than the moon and stars combined - flared out into the night like heralds of Mithras, god of battles and victory and invincible Lord of Light.

A deep sense of peace and reassurance came down on me. Here was a sign from the Most High God that my intuitions were true and I was departing at the right time and leaving the country in safe and inspiring hands. And so, if folk do remember me in the future, it will not be for my father's sake, nor for my own, but for my successor's, and from where I am now at the the end of my life, having spent fifty years dragging Britain back from the abyss, that is a happy prospect indeed.

'Yes,' I said to my friends. 'There will be many pointing to the North and bidding each other look tonight. And later, all Britain will say that there were strange lights in the sky on the night before Ambrosius Aurelianus died.'

Artos went white. He had not, I think, realised until then that I intended to die so soon. I am, after all, the only parent he has known, for Utha, his father, perished on the tusks of a boar when he was three years old. His mother (who was not Utha's wife) died when he was born, so I took him in and he has been as a son to me ever since - an unanticipated, but receptive, diligent and exceptionally gifted son. So it is a sorrowful parting for me as well, I who gave up thought of wife and child to focus everything I had - mind, body and soul - on the salvation and resurrection of Britain.

The lights outside began to fade, but in myself I felt some measure of strength and vigour return. There was nothing more to do now. I had done what needed to be done and was blessed and fortunate enough to have done it well. I had fulfilled my fate and was now going gladly to the fulfilment. 'I think that the frost will not be hard enough to spoil the scent tomorrow,' I remarked casually.

'Ambrosius,' cried Artos. 'Don't be playing the madman! You could never last an hour's hunting!'

I walked back to the brazier, picked up a flagon of wine, turned to my comrades and smiled, holding the flagon up high. 'Brothers, I drink to tomorrow's hunt. Good hunting and a clean kill.'

And as I stood there before them, I felt a glow and a shine about me and knew that the Lords of Life would take what little strength I had left and squeeze it into the handful of hours that it will take to bring down the royal stag tomorrow.

No, I do not think the frost will be hard enough to spoil the scent. I shall mount my horse and the company will be amazed at the speed and ferocity of my riding. Some might even hope that my illness is passing - and that will be partly true - but it would be better to say that I am starting to transcend my sickness. And I will drink in everything I see, hear and feel as I ride - sun, sky, hills, trees, my horse beneath me, my dear ones around me - until we bring the noble beast to bay and I leap off my horse, brandishing the King's knife and claiming the kill as my own. We shall look each other in the eye then, the stag and I, not as hunter and hunted, but brothers and sovereigns - monarch to monarch - then as the blade plunges into his breast and his antlers tear through my innards, I will catch a glimpse for an instant of the world that awaits me, and Aquila and Artos, having sprinted through the bracken to disentangle my body, will find, I am sure, a look of surprise on my face.





Friday, May 17, 2019

Many Mansions: Charles Williams, Modernity, and the Mass

I have just had a guest post about Charles Williams published on Bruce Charlton's Inklings blog -

I hope you like it.

Thanks and best wishes,

Jf

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Birth of Galahad


Now the birth of Galahad, the Great Restorer, happened on this wise. After the Battle of Mount Badon, the Saxons were banished from the land and Arthur reigned over the holy realm of Logres from his three great cities of Canterbury, London and York. He ordered churches to be built up and down the country, from mighty cathedrals to tiny wayside chapels. Schools and colleges sprang up across the island, and Logres became known in Europe and beyond as a beacon of faith and a bastion of learning and civilisation.

Then Arthur, the High King of Logres, acceded to an even mightier throne. In a great ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral, the Archbishop declared him Ceasar Augustus in the West and crowned him with the laurel wreaths of Rome. Missives were sent to Justinian, Emperor of the East, announcing the restoration, after a fifty year interregnum, of the Roman Empire in the West. Arthur conceived a long-term plan to occupy Gaul, push on through Italy and retake Rome itself, restoring thereby the ancient Western Imperium in almost all its fullness. But for now he was content to enjoy some years of hard-won peace and transform Logres into a harbinger and forerunner of the New Jerusalem described by Saint John the Divine in his Apocalypse.

Everything seemed set fair for the future. It looked that way, on the surface, to Merlin, the King's Enchanter, too, yet doubts and anxieties nagged at his mind. He sat on the rocks on the Gwynned coast one late-spring evening, meditating on these things and gazing out onto the Irish Sea. He knew that the Great Restorer - the redeemer of the Wasteland, the healer of King Pelles, and the next Grail Priest and King - must soon be born, but how, where and when he had no idea, nor if it would happen of its own accord or whether he, as Logres' spiritual guardian, needed to take steps to ensure that it did.

There was also a wasteland at the heart of Logres that worried Merlin more and more each passing day. For after seven years of marriage, Arthur and Gwenevere were still childless, and it seemed to Merlin that the Queen increasingly preferred the company of the King's right-hand man, Lancelot of Brittany, than that of her husband. Lancelot, Merlin had noticed, clearly enjoyed the attention. He had seen the look in his eyes and the flush on his cheeks whenever Gwenevere came close. He began to wonder, nonetheless, if it was to avoid temptation that Lancelot had started to absent himself from the Royal Cities and disappear into the mountains and woods for sometimes weeks on end, whether in prayer or on some obscure quest of arms no-one knew. But Merlin thought he knew. He threw a stone into the waters, turned his back on the sea, then walked back to his ivy-clad tower. He spent the night polishing his Stone of Vision, in which he could catch glimpses, from time to time, of anything or anyone he focused his attention on.

Two weeks later, around the middle of May, Merlin caught sight of what he was looking for - Lancelot, walking alone through a rocky, barren land of ash-grey trees and blackened soil. Somehow, by judgment or chance, he had discovered the Wasteland. The vision in the Stone faded, but Merlin knew what Lancelot, sooner or later, would find there.

And so it was that Lancelot came one evening to what must at one time have been a mighty castle but which lay now half in ruins. He was given a hearty welcome, however, and invited to dine that night with King Pelles and his household. And as they were sat at meat a strange and wondrous thing occurred. The Royal Doors slammed shut and a deep and grace-filled silence descended on the Hall, filling Lancelot's heart with peace and joy. Three women in white appeared from nowhere and walked slowly and purposefully around the Hall. The first carried a tall, thick candlestick, marked with a red cross. Its quivering flame shone upon the faces of the men and women in the Hall, so that everyone, to Lancelot's eyes, looked radiant and saint-like. The second woman bore a spear with a bronze shaft and blood-red tip. She held it point down and drops of blood fell from the tip onto the marble floor as she walked. And behind her came a light like Lancelot had never seen or imagined before - so warm, bright and cleansing that he thought for a moment that the Sun had somehow squeezed itself into a ball and dropped down into the room. Certainly what the third woman held was as dazzlingly golden as the Sun, so much so that Lancelot struggled to make out what the object was - some kind of cup or bowl, he thought.

The procession arrived at the High Table, where Lancelot was sat with Helayne, the King's daughter, to his left, and Pelles himself, stretched out on his litter, to his right. He bowed his head, closed his eyes and wept, aware of holy things and holy people close by, but feeling in his heart again, as so often in those days, the dark, compulsive power of his infatuation with Queen Gwenevere. Yet there was hope in his heart as well, and the hope, at least for now, was stronger - a bracing, refreshing, invigorating hope that blew away the choking clouds of addiction and made him feel like a little Breton hunting-boy with all the world before him again.

The procession passed by and the guests resumed the feast. Pelles turned and said to Lancelot, 'You must know, Sir, that I too was brought face to face with my blackened heart on the day when Balyn of Tyneside took the Sacred Spear you have just seen and struck me through the side with the Dolourous Stroke. And he was right, in many ways, to do so. For I had grown idle and corrupt and had first neglected, then forgotten my priestly vocation as steward of these holy and venerable objects. So now my Kingdom lies in waste and ruin, while I writhe in agony here, waiting for the advent of the Great Restorer.'

'Who is the Great Restorer, my Lord?' asked Lancelot.

But Pelles shook his head. 'He is not yet born,' he replied. 'Perhaps he never will be.'


*

And Lancelot stayed at Carbonek one whole month. He poured out his heart each day to Nasciens, the Hermit of the Grail, who lived in a little stone chapel half a mile from the castle. Nasciens gave him guidance and instruction, and Lancelot vowed not to think of Gwenevere again but to keep what he had seen and felt in the Royal Hall uppermost in his mind.

Nasciens told him the story of Carbonek too - how it had been built by Jospeh of Arimathea, the first Grail Priest and King, and how his successors had guarded the chalice and spear for almost five hundred years until Pelles, two decades before, turned his back on his holy calling. Then came Balyn of Tyneside, the Dolorous Stroke, the half-ruined castle, the three wasted counties, and a wounded but once more penitent and prayerful Grail Priest and King.

Lancelot was astonished by all that Nasciens said. He did not see the Grail procession again but felt happy and renewed in mind and body - at peace with himself and the world around him. He was attended to daily by the Princess Helayne, who read to him, played chess with him, went out riding with him, and bit by bit, day by day, fell gradually and perilously in love with him. And when Merlin caught sight of this in his Stone of Vision he knew that the time for action had come. He called to his sister, Brisen, with his mind, and she came to him from her tower on the banks of the Humber and they spoke together about what Merlin felt now needed to take place.

So one afternoon Brisen appeared in Helayne's chamber and declared to her who she was - Brisen, the sister of Merlin, the King's Enchanter. She told her that no-one on Earth, however skilled in magic, could make Lancelot love her for life but that she did know how to make him love her for one night. Helayne replied that just one night with Lancelot would be more than she ever could have dreamed or hoped for. So Brisen took her to Case Castle, seven miles from Carbonek, just outside the Wasteland. And there, by her art, she gave Helayne the likeness of Gwenevere and fashioned a ring that was the very image of the Royal Ring of Logres that Gwenevere wore on the middle finger of her right hand.

Brisen disguised herself as a wizened servant woman and called at Carbonek, showing Lancelot the ring and saying, 'Sir, the Queen resides for one night only at Case Castle and desires your company.' And Lancelot, forgetting all had happened in the Royal Hall and everything Nasciens had said, left Carbonek straightaway and came to Case Castle at nightfall. When he saw Gwenevere waiting for him it was like an enormous black power shook him all over and gave him no choice but to embrace her and spend the night with her But when he awoke next morning and saw Helayne beside him, he was overcome with remorse and flung himself out of the window, clad only in a shirt. He landed in a bed of thorns and ran out of the castle grounds, foaming at the mouth and beating himself about the head and chest.

Lancelot ran wild through the country for months upon end, eating nuts and berries and drinking from rivers and streams. Summer gave way to autumn, All Souls came and went, and by Christmas there had been neither sight nor sound of him in any of the towns and cities of Logres. When, by Ash Wednesday, he had still not appeared, King Arthur sent search parties out to scour the land, but still they did not find him.

So Lancelot's cousin, Bors - the Count of the Saxon Shore - set out alone in search of him, trusting only to his intuition and his deep-rooted knowledge of his cousin's ways. So it was, three weeks later, that Bors found himself traversing the Wasteland, and after six days and nights of feeling he was going round in circles, the semi-ruined husk of Castle Carbonek reared up above him, and Bors entered and was welcomed royally, as Lancelot had been before him, by Pelles and his household. And there was a baby at the breast of the Princess Helayne, a boy-child with jet black hair and skin that shone like beaten gold. And as they were sat at meat, behold, the Royal Doors slammed shut once more, silence descended, and the three women in white appeared again and processed slowly around the Hall, bearing aloft the Sacred Spear and Holy Grail that Joseph of Arimathea had brought to these lands five centuries before.

And after the procession had passed by, Pelles told Bors that Lancelot had come to Carbonek ten months previously and that he was the father of Helayne's child. Bors was shocked and astounded and pressed the King to tell him more, but Pelles just smiled and said that he knew no more.

Bors stayed at Carbonek for ten more days. Though Pelles had told him remarkable news, he was still no nearer to finding Lancelot, and with the great feast of Easter just two weeks away, he knew he had to be on his way again soon.

On Bors' last afternoon, as he was walking along the balustrade with Helayne, a serving girl came running up and said that she had seen a strange man lying fast asleep on the rocks and stones in the ruined part of the castle. All three ran to look and as soon as Bors and Helayne saw him they recognised him as Lancelot. But he was greatly changed, clad in tattered rags and bony like a skeleton, with long, matted hair - part brown, part grey - and a wild, bushy beard.

Helayne cried out when she saw him and would have ran to him to hold him in her arms, but just then Nasciens appeared, held her back and urged her not to wake him. 'The madness might still be on him,' he said. 'And he may run wild again and attack us.'

So Bors, Helayne, and the serving girl - whose name was Annabel - carried Lancelot to Nasciens' chapel, where they laid him on the altar, lit all the candles they could find and knelt down to pray that Lancelot's mind might be restored. Nasciens went before them and lay face down in prayer on the stone floor just in front of the altar.

It had grown dark when Bors, Helayne and Annabel heard the chapel door click shut behind them. Stillness filled the air and straight ahead of them they saw the Holy Grail, hovering in the air above Lancelot's sleeping form. Rays of golden light poured out from it and none of them could hold their gaze for long. But as they bowed their heads and closed their eyes it felt to one and all like the Sun was shining in their hearts, radiating a raw, uncut beauty of pure depth and clarity from top to toe through every inch and fibre of their being.

And when they looked up again the Grail was gone and Lancelot was sitting upright on the altar while Nasciens clasped his hand. Then they came forward and took Lancelot down and sat him in their midst, as Nasciens sang a Mass for them in Latin, Greek and Cymric. As he began three women in white appeared from nowhere to assist him at the altar. The first offered him the Holy Book to read the Gospel and Epistle from; the second brought him malted bread and a beaker of wine; while the third rang a round bronze bell carved with sacred images as Nasciens lifted the Host and Chalice. And at that moment Annabel vowed silently to ask King Pelles to release her from his service and - if he agreed - to join the community of monks and nuns at Aberconwy and live a life of unobtrusive, watchful service to the greater good of God and the poor and sick of Arthur's realm.


*

After these things Bors sped back to London to tell King Arthur that Lancelot was safe, whole and on the mend. And there was great rejoicing in Logres as Bors' news spread. Lancelot himself remained at Carbonek for eight more weeks until he felt strong enough to return to Arthur's court at Pentecost. He tried his hardest for a while to avoid Queen Gwenevere and also, as Nasciens had advised him, not to picture her in his imagination. But whether he was in London, Canterbury, York or elsewhere he found it hard to remember what had gone on at Carbonek and why, both before and after his madness, he had felt so buoyant and rejuvenated. The Grail, especially when Gwenevere was close by, did not feel real to him. His insatiable and seemingly bottomless lust for her blotted all else out. His resolution faltered and his old ways possessed him again. But Lancelot's meetings with Gwenevere, while he felt powerless to stop them, left a bitter taste now. He began once more to take himself away from the three Royal cities, searching far and wide for the Wasteland's blackened soil and blasted trees. But no matter how far he roamed or how hard he tried he never could find again the rocks and stones of the Wasteland, still less the half-ruined castle, where so much of high import - for himself, for others, and for the realm of Logres and beyond - had so recently taken place. And Lancelot was sick again in heart and mind, bound to a wheel of addiction and desire and barred from the Paradise of new life and redemption, as Adam and Eve were before him, by an Angel with a Flaming Sword.

But while Lancelot languished, Annabel, Helayne, and the new-born child, whose name was Galahad, flourished like spring flowers. Brisen came to Carbonek again shortly after Bors' departure and told Helayne that it was the will of the Most High God that Galahad should be taken into the care of Dindrane, the sister of Percival and Abbess of the Aberconwy monastery and convent. As this was where, two days before, Annabel had taken the veil, Helayne decided to take the holy vows herself and it was there, through prayer, meditation, and the guidance and good counsel of Dindrane, that she was healed at length of her infatuation with Lancelot.

And Galahad, the son of Lancelot and Helayne, grew from a babe to a boy and a boy to a man, and in everything he did and said the monks and nuns were inspired and impressed by the stillness of his bearing and the calm attentiveness of his eyes. Galahad listened when people spoke to him, and he left those he came into contact with feeling better about themselves than before, as if their lives carried a greater depth of meaning than they had previously believed. And Galahad himself, from time to time, appeared to shine with a warm and golden light - generous and king-like - that lit up the faces of those he shared his life with and made it look like he had been born and raised not in Carbonek and Aberconwy but in the hills and valleys of the Sun itself.






Friday, March 29, 2019

Balyn and Balan



Balyn of Tyneside had brown hair, blue eyes, and a black and white striped shield. His father was a crofter and his mother a mender of shawls. He was twenty-five years old and wanted nothing more in life than to help King Arthur clear the land of Saxons and Picts, build the holy realm of Logres, and one day restore in this island the Western Roman Empire. So Balyn went to the High King's court in Caerleon to play his part, but he was a hot-tempered youth and trouble drew itself to him like a magnet.

One winter's night, after the evening feast, Balyn was attacked in the courtyard by a cousin of Arthur's who had fallen out of favour with the King and had taken out his anger on Balyn, who though of humble birth had risen high in the King's esteem. Balyn did not want to fight but the fellow was hurting him so he pushed him in the chest in self-defence. The man slipped on the wine-stained floor and cracked his head on a stone flag, dying on the spot.


Balyn spent six months in the dungeon for this unlucky act. On the morning of his release he walked up the stairs to the Great Hall at Caerleon and saw that King Arthur was in a state of high indignation. He hid behind a pillar to watch. A messenger was standing next to the throne, a dark lad with thick brown curly hair. Arthur stood before him, waving a scrat of paper in his face. 'Tell King Ryon of Gwynedd,' he bellowed, 'that I will most certainly not accept him as my overlord. On the contrary, he will take me as his overlord and I will bring my army to his stronghold and demand and receive his submission.'


The messenger departed, Arthur sat on his throne, and a young woman of about Balyn's age dressed in purple and white entered the Hall. 'My Lord the High King,' she began. 'The Lady of the Lake has by her magic arts strapped this sword and scabbard to my side and laid upon me a heavy enchantment of sorrow, gloom and dread. And I am destined to carry this burden for ever unless I can find a man of princely heart and noble intention who can draw the sword from its sheath. I have travelled the land these past five years and have not found such a man. So now I try my luck at the court of King Arthur.'


So one by one Arthur's men tried to draw the sword from its scabbard but none of them could do it. Balyn, sensing his moment, sprang from the shadows and drew the blade quickly and easily. The woman in purple and white thanked him, then asked for the sword, but Balyn refused to return it. He stood there gazing at the glistening blade, as if he was under enchantment himself. Balyn had never seen such splendour and glory in his life and he wanted to take it and possess it for ever and ever.


The woman left the Hall, but no sooner had she gone than another came in - older and taller, with a golden circlet around her head like a queen. 'My Lord the High King,' she said. 'When I gave you your sword, Excalibur, a short time ago, you promised in return to grant me anything I desire should ever I have need of your bounty.'


'I did,' said the King.


'Then,' said the Lady, 'bring me the head of this impudent thing who refuses to return my sword. He should know that it bears a curse and that if he keeps it he will kill the one he loves dearest with it, then die himself.'


Rage descended on Balyn and Arthur never got chance to respond. For Balyn, fearful beyond measure that his sword of glory might be taken from him, leapt forward and cut off the Lady's head with one blow.


The King rose up in fury. 'Go from this place and never return,' he commanded, 'unless by some great deed of arms you can redeem yourself. For you have brought shame on yourself and the whole realm of Logres this day.'


So Balyn packed his bag, mounted his horse and rode out into the summer morning, heading for Wales. He was almost there when his brother, Balan, drew up alongside him, and Balyn was delighted, as always, to see him. Balan was two years older than Balyn and had always been a good influence on him. Nothing bad ever seemed to happen to Balyn when Balan was around.


Balyn told his brother everything that had happened and about his intention to find Ryon of Gwynedd and bring him captive to Caerleon, as that way, he believed, he could regain King Arthur's favour. For Balan, until then, had known nothing of Balyn's misadventures. He did not belong to Arthur's Company; nor did he serve any of the other kings and petty chiefs. He came and went as he pleased and served the common good in his own manner. This gave him an independence which most others lacked, but it often meant that news was slow to reach his ears.


It was almost dusk when the brothers crossed a tinkling stream and saw a man with a long grey beard and a robe of silver and blue standing in their way on the other side. Balyn recognised him at once - Merlin, the King's enchanter.


'Listen now, Balyn and Balan,' said the mage. 'Though the Lady of the Lake's prophecy carries some truth, there is still great good to be achieved, and if you follow my instructions you will achieve it and much more besides. Remain here until midnight, for King Ryon will pass this way then with twenty men at arms to seize the Lady of Caergybi, whom he has long desired and who has only two men to guard her. I know your valour, you two, and have no doubt that you will best those twenty men and fight Ryon himself to a standstill. I will then reappear and lead him to Caerleon, where I will tell the King of the great deed you have done. Balan will then escort the Lady of Caergybi north to her father's lands, but Balyn must ride west and further west into the secret heart of Wales, for a greater adventure awaits him there.'


Everything fell out exactly as Merlin had predicted. At sunrise next morning, Balyn was on his own again, riding up into the mountains. He was weary and sore, for he had taken it on himself to engage Ryon in single combat and without the exceptional sharpness of his sword, which continually pierced the King's armour and drew blood every time, the fight might not have ended well for him.


Then Balyn saw a man and a woman ahead of him, both on horseback. But the man was lying sideways on his saddle, groaning in pain, while the woman led both horses up the path with her bridle. When Balyn asked if he could help she replied, 'Only if you can see the invisible, for Garlon of Carbonek, who has the power to go unseen, has come on us by stealth and gashed my bethrothed with a wound which I fear may be mortal.'


'Why?' asked Balyn.


'Because my father defeated him in an arm-wrestle in the summer festivities at Carbonek. Garlon, you see, is the son of King Pelles of Carbonek. He is pampered and spoilt, like all Pelles' household, and not used to coming second, even in sport. But my father is not in awe of Carbonek's wealth and does not show deference to the King's family as so many others do. Garlon was so offended, in fact, that he also attacked my brother, who now lies grievoulsy ill at our home, Castle Melyot.'


Balyn escorted the woman and her lover to the walls of Castle Melyot, but just as they arrived the man breathed his last and gave up the ghost with a great cry of pain. Balyn knelt down, buried his face in his hands and wept. He swore vengeance on Garlon and asked the lady's father, the Master of Melyot, where he might be found.


'At Castle Carbonek still,' he replied. 'The festivities continue till Michaelmas and he will be wanting to regain his pride.'


It took Balyn five days and five nights to reach Castle Carbonek. It was a difficult place to find but he tracked it down at last, tucked away in a pleasant country of valleys, woods and streams. But Balyn was too angry and upset to notice, much less rejoice, in the glories of nature around him. The rage was on him again.


In the King's Hall that night, he asked one of the serving boys where Garlon might be, and when the boy pointed him out, Balyn rushed towards him, pulled out his sword, and cut off his head there and then. The whole company turned and gazed at him in horror. King Pelles rushed from his dais and struck such a blow with his mace that it clove Balyn's black and white shield in two. He swung the mace again and Balyn lifted his sword to protect his face, but the mace was so big and heavy that it thrust the sword from his hand and sent it flying through the air, out of Balyn's sight and reach.


Without a weapon, Balyn had to run. He ran through the castle for what felt like hours and hours with Pelles in hot pursuit. He sprinted down long, dusty corridors, through high-vaulted chambers, up countless spiral staircases, and in and out of tiny cubby-holes, until he came at last to a tower which seemed to have no end but just went up and up and up until Balyn felt his legs turn to jelly and knew he could run no more.


The staircase ended and there was nowhere to go except for a little wooden door straight in front of him. He pushed it open, not knowing what else to do, and as soon as he did he heard a woman's voice - strong and clear - call out, 'Balyn of Tyneside, do not enter this place, for it is holy ground.'


Balyn looked into the room, but there was no-one there. It was a small space with an arch carved into the ceiling at the far end and under the arch a stone table with six tall candlesticks blazing on it, three to the left and three to the right. Between them, in the middle, stood a golden chalice, which glowed and shone with such a fierce and vibrant light that Balyn thought the sun must be pouring down on it through a window above. Balyn looked up, but there was no window. The chalice was ablaze with a light entirely its own.


He stepped forward into the chamber and noticed a long spear behind the table, suspended in mid-air with the point down. Its shaft was gleaming bronze and the tip blood-red. Then he heard footsteps and heavy breathing behind him. He turned and saw King Pelles standing in the doorway, all anger vanished from his face, his mouth wide open in amazement, wonder and (so Balyn thought) surprise.


The mace fell from the King's hand and rolled along the floor. But Balyn was enraged by the sight of Pelles and lunged across the table for the spear. No other weapon would do, and he did not know why. The voice came again, 'Balyn of Tyneside, touch not the spear, for it has pierced the side of Christ Jesus.' But Balyn was too far gone. He seized the spear and whirled it around his head, and a veil was lifted from his mind as he saw and understood the deeper reason for his hatred of Pelles. And when he cried out it was not with his own voice but the voice of the woman who had warned him not to enter and not to take the spear. And this is what she said: 'Now, Pelles the False, you see what has been in your castle all this time. You stand there gaping, yet you knew this was here and you chose to forget it and turn your back on your sacred calling as Priest of the Grail and embrace a life of sin. Balyn of Tyneside will take the blame in this world for the devastation to follow but know that I, Constantina, Angel and Maiden of the Grail, lay the fault fully at your door.'


And Balyn flung the spear, straight at Pelles' heart. But his arm was heavy and tired, and  the spear dipped at the last moment and pierced the King through the side instead. Pelles screamed in agony and fell in a heap on the floor. Then came a mighty wind and a great shaking and roaring. The stonework collapsed, the masonry tumbled down, and Balyn felt the ground give way beneath him. Down and down he fell and down again until darkness covered his eyes and he had no idea any more of who or where he was.




It was raining when Balyn opened his eyes. He felt sick, and his head and body hurt like they had never hurt before. Castle Carbonek lay around him in ruins - bricks and stones and dead and mangled bodies scattered and strewn as far as his eye could see. He staggered to his feet and spotted his sword gleaming like a ship's lantern about ten yards away. The better part of him wanted to turn his back on it for ever, but even at this stage he could not resist its allure. He scrambled cautiously through the debris, picked it up and went sadly on his way. And Balyn saw that the fertile, wooded valleys which had formerly surrounded the castle had vanished and been replaced by a barren land of dried-up streams, blackened trees, and ash-grey grass that looked like it had been burnt to a cinder. And everywhere he went, poor people dressed in rags pressed around him piteously and called out, 'Ah, Balyn of Tyneside, what have you done? For by your impious deed you have laid three counties waste and condemned us to a life without beauty and hope.'

Eventually, Balyn left the wasteland behind him and arrived in a greener country. He came to a river early one morning and crossed it along a wooden bridge. On the other side was a fortress, but between Balyn and the fortress, at the end of the bridge, stood a large number of men and women who gathered around him in a very tight circle.


'Sir,' their leader said. 'Our custom is that any man who passes this way alone must fight the champion of our realm in single combat. If he loses he goes down into the dust, but if he wins he becomes champion in his turn.'


It sounded like a rotten custom to Balyn but he was so fed up and sick at heart that he no longer cared whether he lived or died. So they took him and put a suit of white armour on him with a red shield to replace his broken black and white one. And by noon he was locked in battle with the champion of that land, who wore a black suit of armour and had a golden shield. Both men wore their visor's down, so they could not see each other's faces. They fought beneath the fortress walls and were so well-matched that Balyn wondered who he was up against, for no-one, not even King Ryon, had given him such difficulty in one-on-one combat. But for all his opponent's skill he was unable to land a decisive blow and the fight went on and on until both men were grievously wounded and past the point of exhaustion. At length, the black and gold champion pitched forward onto his hands and knees, unable to continue. But Balyn was so spent that he could do nothing at all except stand and lean on his sword, for without that he would have fallen down too.


'Who are you?' Balyn gasped. 'Never have I fought a man such as you.' But then his sword split in two under his weight and he flopped to the ground. The champion crawled across the grass and when he spoke his voice was choked with tears.


'I am Balan of Tyneside,' he said. 'And you are Balyn of Tyneside. knew you by your voice, my brother, the voice I love best in all the world. And this is a sad and desperate day for us both, for within minutes we shall cross into the Otherworld, each slain by the other's hand.'


Balyn sighed and groaned and held his brother's hand and the two wept together. Then Balan said, 'Where is your black and white shield? For I would have known you by it and would not have fought you and together we would have routed these people.'


And Balyn tried to tell him but it seemed such a long and convoluted story that he did not know how to start, but even before he could attempt to begin Balan died there and then in his arms and Balyn himself breathed his last a few moments after.


Then Merlin came with his sister, Brisen, and said to the people of that country, 'You pack of worthless curs. Now your wretched custom has caused the deaths of two of the finest men ever to draw breath in this island. Logres has been deprived of great strength and potential this day through your decadence and corruption.'


And they beat their breasts and took Merlin's words to heart and revoked their custom from that hour. They wore sackcloth and ashes for five years and five days as an act of penance and a mark of remorse for the great harm they had done.


Then Merlin and Brisen took the bodies of Balyn and Balan and laid them to rest in a little copse by the side of a stream. And Merlin mended Balyn's sword and set it in a block of silver marble and pushed it down the stream. 'This sword,' he told Brisen, 'will be found and drawn at the appointed hour by the one who will heal and restore the wasteland and hold the Holy Grail in his hands, bringing blessings beyond measure to Logres, the Empire, the world beyond the Empire, and all the ages to come.'


They took a smaller block of marble and fixed it in the ground above where they had laid Balyn and Balan. And Merlin wrote an inscription on the headstone, which ran, 'Here lie Balyn and Balan, brothers and princes, who by their passion and nobility made possible the advent of the Great Restorer.'


Then Merlin and Brisen left that place, but always, even when it was cloudy and wet, passers-by would say that the headstone seemed to glimmer, gleam and shine with a fierce and vibrant light, which came from no outside source but appeared to emanate entirely from itself.




Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Return of Oisin


The old man with the stick hobbled around the room. 'Mother Bridget's cell,' they had called it, but the old man neither knew nor cared who that woman was. He heard a low, continuous chant of female voices from somewhere nearby, but was too preoccupied with his spectacular fall from grace to listen or admire.

It was a round, stone-walled room, with a fire burning steadily in the middle of the floor. Two wooden chairs faced each other across the hearth. A square window, opposite the door, looked out onto the monastery grounds. Above it was an image of this strange new god - this 'Christ' - who had banished so successfully it seemed, all the honour and respect due to the old man's father, Finn MacCool, and the mighty men of the Fianna, who had rescued Ireland from savages and bandits on countless occasions.

The new god's big brown eyes were intolerable to the old man. He flung his stick at the picture. It cracked against the paintwork and clattered to the floor. Then the door clicked open behind him. He turned and saw a tall woman in a grey alb and red mantle. She shut the door and gazed at the old man with luminous, sea-green eyes. "Oisin," she said in a voice like rushing waves. "Sit down for me please."

Oisn picked up his stick and sat on the chair closest by him. Something deep inside him told him straightaway that this woman had seen into his heart and knew and understood the pain that tore him apart there. Now she sat facing him on the other side of the fire, between Oisin and the picture of Christ. "You are Mother Bridget?" he asked.

"I am," she replied. "And you are Oisin, the son of Finn MacCool, and I believe you when you say that, no matter how many hundreds of years it has been since the Fianna fell. For I can tell by the light in your eyes and the radiance on your brow that you are a poet and a warrior with a profound respect and reverence for holy things and places."

Oisin sighed, leant forward and warmed his hands to the fire, feeling the yearning and the loss well up like a wave within him again. "Tell me your story," Mother Bridget whispered. And Oisin began.

"I am, as you say, Oisin, the son of Finn MacCool, who was Captain of the Fianna and the mighty right arm of the High King of Ireland. I have been told that Finn and the Fianna, including my beloved son Osca, fell four hundred years ago at the Battle of Gavra. Oh how I wish I had fallen there with them and crossed into the Otherworld alongside them instead of with Niamh of the Golden Glory as, in my blindness and infatuation, I did three years ago. At least I thought it was three years ago. But I see now, Mother Bridget, that I was wrong. I am learning the hard way that time flows differently in the Otherworld.

"It was a May morning when I saw her first, on the beach close by my father's stronghold, Almu of the White Walls. We were out hunting, all the chief men of the Fianna, the white hart darting through the trees, and the pack, led by Finn's beloved hunting dogs, Bran and Skolawn, snapping at its heels. Then it was as if the dogs were deceived or took a wrong turn. All of us, men and hounds alike, crashed out of the wood and onto the sands, with the hart gone from sight and a woman of indescribable beauty and light sat astride a magnificent white charger at the point where the sand meets the sea.

"She had long dark hair in waves and eyes like burnished bronze. She was clad in gold and purple and red, and shone from top to toe with a light seven times brighter than that of the sun.

'Greetings, Finn MacCool,' she said in a voice like pealing bells. 'I am Niamh of the Golden Glory, daughter of Bres, King of Tir-na-Nog. The renown of your son, Oisin - his prowess as a fighter and potency as a bard - has reached the shores of the Blessed Realm, and I will have no other for my husband. I am here to take him to be my man and share my bed forever in the Land of the Young.'

"My heart leapt and I felt the call of the Otherworld on me, and knew in that instant that I would go. I must have said something back, but I can't recall what. Doubtless I said I'd go with her, because I remember my father laying his hand on my shoulder and spinning me around so I couldn't see Niamh any more, but only his own face - that craggy, king-like, kind, courageous face. Finn begged, implored, and even commanded me to stay. 'I will never see you again if you go,' he cried. But I paid no heed.

'Surely I will come back,' I said. 'Often and often will I visit.' But I didn't mean it. I didn't care. Finn, Osca and the rest were shadows to me now. Wraiths and ghosts. Only Niamh of the Golden Glory was real.

"So I mounted the horse, who reared, turned, and sped off in one movement, and soon we were airborne, high above the waves and the little green isles of the Western Sea. I lost all track of time, conscious only of the air in my ears, my hands on the horse's neck, and my arms around Niamh's shoulders. Many a strange sight I saw, or thought I saw, as we raced across the sky - palaces of silver and blue, a maiden clutching a bright green apple, children playing shinty in the air. Eventually the sky grew dark and it was night, then grew bright and it was day again. 'Look below,' said Niamh. 'Behold the coast of Tir-na-Nog.'

"The horse touched down on the golden sands and there to greet us were the King and Queen of Tir-na-Nog and a vast retinue of ladies in waiting and men at arms. We were married that night and lived together for three years - as I say, I thought it was three years - in a state of unbounded bliss. My mind and body fizzed with energy and vitality all the time I was there. Everything felt more real, everything meant more - every rock, every stone, every blade of grass. They were harder and truer, more solid and substantial than they had ever been in Ireland. Tir-na-Nog, I was in no doubt, was the real and objective world - tangible and firm - whereas Ireland, where I had lived all the thirty-five years of my life, was like the memory of a dream in my mind, a vague, uncertain realm of shadows and phantoms.

"Then there was Niamh herself. No married couple - past, present or future - could ever have been or could ever be as happy as we were during those years. Which makes it all the stranger then that for no reason I can think of, towards the end of my third year in Tir-na-Nog, the image and remembrance of my father, Finn MacCool, and my brethren in the Fianna began to beat upon my mind and heart. At odd times of day or night I would start to wonder where they were and what they were doing. Now and again, while walking through the woods with Niamh, I imagined I could hear the Fian hunting horn and the baying of Bran and Skolawn.

"The feeling persisted, and at length I asked Niamh if I could visit Ireland for a short while to see my father and friends. She begged and implored me to stay, saying she was sure she would never see me again if I went, but though I loved her deeply the spell of my old life was on me and I was astounded at how deep those Irish roots were in me and how mightily they had returned and how unbreakable my bond was with Finn and the Fianna.

"Eventually Niamh relented and gave me permission to go, saying only that I must promise not to dismount from the white horse at any time during my stay. That seemed an easy enough thing to agree to, so I did. Then I kissed her for the last time, though I did not know that then, before the horse reared and turned, and we were on our way again, over the sea and into the air, the palaces, children and maiden passing us by once more, the horse alighting on the shingly sands of Connaught, and my heart swelling with joy at the knowledge that soon I would drink once more from the great Fian bowl with my father and friends.

"My exaltation was short-lived, however. I led the horse inland, and everything seemed changed. Familiar tracks had vanished and new ones appeared in their stead, but I had no idea where they went, and it took me many days and nights to find my way. The fields were wild and unkempt and the few people I saw seemed small and puny compared to what I recalled of Irish men and women.

"I grew bewildered and perplexed, and desperately so when I came at last to Almu of the White Walls and saw all the stones of that high and noble place lying scattered on the ground and moss and weeds running riot everywhere.

"Something snapped in my mind and I felt like I was going mad. Horror descended on me and I cried out in my desperation, as loudly as I could, for my father, Finn, my son, Osca, and for all the old brotherhood - Keeltan, Connor, Derig, Dearmid and the rest. I even called out to Bran and Skolawn, but neither man nor dog answered and I was left to continue my weary trek around the island, all baffled, bewildered and lost.

"So it was at last that I came here to Kildare and saw a group of men struggling to move a large boulder in the middle of a field. I asked them if they would like a hand and they said yes, even though they looked at me with gaping mouths and amazed expressions like I was one of the Sidhe or the Tuatha de Danaan.

"So I leant forward in the saddle and shifted the boulder with my right hand. But as I did so, the stirrup around my left foot snapped and I tumbled head over heels, fell from the horse and landed flat on my back on the turf.

"In that moment, Mother Bridget, I felt myself as a very old man in mind and body, more ancient by far than anyone who had ever lived before. The horse reared, turned, and sped off towards the coast. He was gone in a flash and I knew then that I had lost everything in an instant - my bride in Tir-na-Nog, my father, my son, and my brothers in arms.

"The villagers crowded around me and helped me to my feet. 'Why it's only an old man,' I heard one say. 'It must have been the sun on that bald pate of his that made us take him for one of the Sidhe.'

"They asked me who I was and I told them the truth. 'I am Oisin, the son of Finn MacCool', and they laughed and told me that the long ride and the sun on my head must have addled my wits, for Finn and his men had fallen more than four hundred years ago. 'How did they die?' I asked.

'Defending the King at the Battle of Gavra', replied an old man with a long white beard. Then a younger fellow with a round, red face spoke up.

'But nowadays,' he said, 'there are many who say that Finn, Oisin and Osca and the rest never existed except in the minds of storytellers and bards. For now Patrick, Columba and Bridget have brought the good news of Jesus Christ to this green isle, and the old gods and heroes no longer hold sway over men's minds.'

'Then shame on Patrick, Columba and Bridget,' I spat, 'and a curse on this Jesus Christ who has trampled over the memory of the finest brotherhood of all the ages. And a pox on every one of you, you litter of small-bodied, small-minded men.

"Their faces darkened and I thought for a moment they were about to hand out a beating, but then another man spoke, clad in grey, with a brown wooden cross around his neck. He looked like one of your men, Mother Bridget. 'It is a strange thing,' he said, 'but the legends tell us that Oisin did not die at the Battle of Gavra. They say that he rode off into the West some years before with a beautiful princess from Tir-na-Nog and never came back, though Finn, Osca, and all the men of the Fianna kept a constant watch for his return.'

'Yes,' I cried. 'That's exactly what happened. And now I have returned. But Finn and Osca are dead, and it's all too late." And I buried my head in my hands and wept.

"When I looked up again there was only the man in grey left. All the others had gone. 'Come, Oisin,' he said softly. 'It is time for you to be seeing Mother Bridget. She will hold your heart in her hands, by the grace which God has given her, and bring peace and healing to your soul.'


*

Mother Bridget and Oisin stayed silent for a long time. The fire's dancing flames held Oisin's attention, while Mother Bridget watched him carefully. Then he said, "What is that singing, Mother Bridget? This chanting? It has been going on the whole time we have been here."

"That," replied Mother Bridget, "is the perpetual chant, sung all through the day and night by the sisters of this Abbey over the Sacred Flame."

"The Sacred Flame?" said Oisin. "What is that?"

"This site, where we are now, has been a holy place since long before my time and long before yours, Oisin. No-one knows when or how the Sacred Flame came or who bestowed it on the holy men and women of this sanctuary. Some say it was a gift from the Most High Himself or from the Thuatha de Danaan at the very beginning of the world. Would you like to see it, Oisin? It would be good, I feel, for you to spend some time in the presence of something bigger than yourself, something ancient and mysterious which no-one can weigh or measure or explain."

"Yes," said Oisin. "I would like to see it." But he did not move. His eyes remained fixed on the fire. So Mother Bridget leant across the flames and laid her hand on his. Her voice was tender and imploring - imploring as his father's had been when he tried to stop him going to Tir-na-Nog, imploring as Niamh's had been when she begged him to stay in Tir-na-Nog, but where both those voices had called him back in different ways, this voice, Oisin felt, was somehow calling him forward - forward and on - further up and further in to the deep, underlying, still unexplored truth within him and without him - at the core of his being and at the heart of all things.

"Oisin," she said. "Christ is not your enemy. He is your friend, your brother, and the comrade and companion of Finn MacCool, of Osca, of all the Fianna, and of Niamh of the Golden Glory too. The Fianna have their place and Niamh has her place and you have your place and I have my place. Christ is the great Sun around whom we all revolve. This is a wide and spacious universe, Oisin, with many dimensions - wheels within wheels within wheels - all nourished and sustained by the grace and power of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit. Come now, my brother. Let us pray for the living and the dead before the Sacred Flame."

Oisin stood up, and his eyes met the picture of Christ he had thrown his stick at earlier.

"You forgot your stick," said Mother Bridget, pointing to the floor.

"I don't need it," said Oisin.

Thoughtfully, he studied the new god's face. It would be many years, if ever, he felt, before he could like that face, let alone love it and make it the centre of his life as Mother Bridget had done. Nothing and no-one could make up for his dreadful double loss, and yet there were clearly good people and good things in this house of the strange new god - the monk who had brought him here and believed in his story; Mother Bridget herself, who also believed in him; the holy women singing their sacred song; and this mysterious flame, of course, which Mother Bridget so very much wanted him to see.

The setting sun arrowed into the chamber, and for a moment all the objects in the room - the picture, the chairs, the stick, the window, the fire, the walls, the floor - glowed and shone with a sharpness and intensity which Oisin had never encountered before, neither in Ireland nor in Tir-na-Nog. It was as if they were on the brink of speech or poised to start moving of their own volition.

Oisin, as long as this revelation lasted, kept his eyes from Mother Bridget. He knew she would be transformed too - transfigured even - and that the sight would be more than he could bear in his current weakened state. Then the sun shifted and the glory passed, but something had changed for Oisin, both within him and without him. Things were different now and would be, he knew, for ever more. For the first time in a long time, he realised, he was looking forward, not back.

"Yes, my sister," he said. "Let us go to the Sacred Flame and pray for those who have gone before us, for those here now, and for those still to come."


Monday, January 21, 2019

The Didsbury Eucharist


It's January 2031, and this is my first visit to my home suburb of Didsbury, South Manchester, since the great calamities of 2019-23. The whole morning (today's a Saturday) has been a rollercoaster ride. The good news is that I went from blank despair to hope and joy in the space of fifteen minutes. So if it can happen to me it can happen to you and to us all. And that's a message, I think, that this stifling, technocratic age needs to hear more than anything else.

It has to be said, however, that I seemed the only person in Didsbury Village to find things stifling. Everyone else appeared perfectly content. I walked the length of the Village, from the Clock Tower to the Shell Station and back again, and I thought that it must be me, that I must be mad or traumatised or not yet recovered from some deep childhood wound that rendered me unadaptable to a world which everyone else clearly found so easy and palatable.


On the surface, everything looks the same as it always did. Cars and buses clog up Wilmslow Road. The pavements are bustling. The shops and cafés are ticking over nicely. But look a bit closer and you'll notice the differences. There are no beggars outside the Co-op any more. No wheelchairs either. Not as many prams or pushchairs as before. And the pubs, those time-honoured landmarks, have gone. The Station, The Dog and Partridge, The Nelson, The Fletcher Moss, The Royal Oak and The Crown. Fixtures and fittings of my youth. Places of banter, connection and fun. Vanished now. Gentrified out of existence by pointlessly unaffordable apartments.


Look closer still and it gets worse. The coffees and croissants in Costa are dealt out by robots. Many of the cars are driverless. Every single person, apart from me, is wearing a headset. But what upsets me most is the sight of these infernal chip things on everyone's right hand palm. It's a wonderful invention, they say. You can open car doors with it, buy and sell things with it, use it for ID, and even as a bus pass or library ticket. The global administration, set up after the disasters, is doing everything it can to promote it. They're not as expensive as they used to be, and just by having one you can boost your Social Credit Score (SCS) by 20% and get yourself cheap train tickets, cinema discounts and all manner of perks. It probably goes some way to explain why my SCS is so bad (-80 at the last count) and why I'm wearing clothes bought in 2018!


In some ways, I suppose, the U.K. branch of the global government has done a decent job. Everything's so spick and span and neat and tidy. You'd never think such terrible things happened so recently. I have to admit as well that people seem happier than they did before the calamities, when everyone habitually looked so miserable and put upon. But it's a brittle kind of happiness, I feel. There's something fixed about the smiles; something glazed and glassy in the eyes. And as I stood outside the former Royal Oak, weighing them all up, a line from a D.H. Lawrence poem sprang to mind - 'monkeys with bland grins on their faces' - and I grinned myself at the farce playing out before me. If Lawrence thought that about his compatriots a hundred years ago, what on earth would he think now?


It would be good, I reflected, if one could still go to church and kneel in silence and pray for inspiration, but both Christianity and Islam had been declared pathogens and the punishment for attending a secret mosque (I hadn't yet heard of a secret church) was instant disappearance.


Then I noticed a man in a blue suit looking at me from the other side of Wilmslow Road. He was standing by the little door between the HSBC and the Co-op. He had dark hair and a beard and his expression was clear and focused. There was no bland grin, no headset, no chip. So when he beckoned me over I had no hesitation in crossing the road. He opened the door and walked down a flight of steps, looking over his shoulder once or twice to make sure I was following. As I descended, I remembered another poet, Charles Baudelaire, and his Le Joueur Généreux, where the poet is likewise ushered through a door and down a set of stairs to a soirée hosted by the Devil no less, at which Baudelaire recklessly gambles away his soul.


To be honest, I'd probably have settled for such a scenario, given the soulless nature of what daily life has become, but it was no louche dinner party which greeted me at the bottom but a Catholic Mass with about thirty people present, everyone kneeling on the wooden floor. My companion knelt down at the back and I did the same. The were no lights, just a blaze of candles on the altar, and around that altar stood three figures dressed in white and gold: an old man with a long white beard in the middle, a young woman with dark hair and a round face to his right, and a tall African-looking man to his left. A boy in a red and white alb stood in front of them, swinging a thurifer.


The old priest bent low over the altar, while the other two pressed close, their hands outstretched in blessing. Behind and around them congregants started to gather and watch - people of all ages - from children, to the middle-aged, to folk in their eighties and nineties. I looked at their faces and felt a deep reassurance in my soul that all was not lost. Far from it. Their expressions were marked with suffering and care, yet their eyes shone with vitality, defiance and a faith and hope in God that had clearly waxed rather than waned under the current tribulations. The minds of these men, women and children had not and never would become colonised spaces. That, without doubt, was something to celebrate. Then the priest said the words of consecration:


"For when the hour had come for him to be glorified by you, Father most holy, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And while they were at supper, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.'"


He lifted up the Host and everyone looked at it in silence. It was then that I spotted a mural on the wall behind the altar. The colours were faded and the paintwork peeling, but like my companions' faces it blazed with a fierce inner light. It was an icon of the Transfiguration - Christ shining forth in white, with Moses to his left and Elijah to his right. The priest continued:


"In a similar way, taking the chalice filled with the fruit of the vine, he gave thanks and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying, 'Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me."


The priest lifted the chalice and everyone looked up again. And it struck me, as I gazed at the golden chalice, that the Eucharist is not just an act of witness which takes place in the present. Nor is it simply a commemoration of an event which occurred in the past. It is both of these and more. It is, in its most fundamental aspect, what the Greek theologian, John Zizioulas, calls a 'memory of the future', a harbinger and forerunner of a Christ-centred age of healing, reconciliation, integrity and wholeness to come.


I saw and felt with absolute clarity that today's 'here and now' is not the be-all and end-all and that one day it will dissolve and cede place to a wider, deeper, more essential reality - what Nicholas Berdyaev called 'the Eighth Day' - the transfigured world, of which the Transfiguration of Christ depicted on the wall is itself a forerunner and harbinger. The Eucharist is the sacred space where this transformed reality - this future beyond the future - is taking shape. It is a site of resistance - the only place in these dark times where the annihilation of the human subject is contested, denied and sent packing back to Hell.


"Offer one another the sign of peace," says the African priest, and I'm more than happy to turn to my blue-suited guide and shake his hand, clasp his shoulders and kiss him on the cheek, everything I would have run a mile from and damned as 'touchy feely' in the days when the Mass was legal. But none of that matters now. A new level of fraternity is being born. The first shoots of the transfigured world are springing up in this chapel. The foundations of the Heavenly City are being laid as I write. This is the Eighth Day. Here, now, and always.




Eric Gill, Chalice and Host (1927)