Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The First and the Last - 'That Hideous Strength' Unveiled (Part One)


I heard this story from a monk who lives in a small community, whose humble house stands in the shadow of the mighty walls of Caenarfon Castle in North Wales. He didn't tell me anything about how he discovered the tale, only that what follows is 'what C.S. Lewis either forgot to include or deliberately left out.' 

The story is in three parts - Part 1 today, Part 2 on Wednesday April 1st, and Part 3 on Wednesday April 8th.



*

'The Director will see you now,' said Grace Ironwood. She held the door open as Jane walked in, then closed it softly behind her and left. Jane was alone with the Director. He stood up immediately and started to speak, but she was so taken aback by the power and grace emanating from him that she couldn't take in a word he was saying. He had a full golden beard, and shoulders and arms which looked strong enough to hold up the whole house. Then she saw that he had gone quiet and was waiting for her reply. 'I - I'm sorry, Sir,' she floundered. 'I didn't quite catch what you said.'

'I was saying, Mrs. Studdock, that these difficulties we are having with the Belbury people are not so important as we think.'

'But, Sir...'

The Director nodded. 'I know, I know. Your husband is their pawn and soon they hope to have the whole world likewise under their power. Hitler was the same. But I am the Pendragon, and I am compelled to take a longer view. As it was in the war which has just ended, so it is now, and so it will always be. Come now, let me show you.'

He walked across to a wall packed from floor to ceiling with books and pulled a pair of shelves apart, exposing an empty space lit faintly by a spark of orange light. 'Follow me,' he said, stepping forward into the half-light. Apprehensively, Jane obeyed. The Director pressed the orange light - a button, Jane saw - which turned to green as the shelves closed of their own accord and she felt the floor drop down beneath her. They were in a lift; rapidly descending. After a minute or so, it stopped. The Director punched the button with his thumb and the doors slid open.

Jane looked out onto something like a huge underground cathedral, with pillars and arches everywhere and a dazzling array of candles. The Director led her along a wide central aisle; and through these arches, as she walked, Jane saw richly-coloured mosaic portraits of crowned figures, both male and female, adorning the walls.

They came to a round chamber, its floor-space almost entirely taken up with beds fashioned out of grey stone. There were no bed-clothes as such, but each bed had its own carved pillow. Jane couldn't make head nor tail of it and stood there with her mouth open and her hands on her hips, trying to discern some kind of pattern. There was a bed in the centre, she observed, and the others seemed to radiate out from it like the spokes of a wheel. But the Director had kept on going, and had gone ahead of her into a smaller chamber. Jane caught the glimmer of candlelight on a rough stone altar and scrambled after him, ducking under the arch to catch up. Then she heard the unmistakeable sound of a train clattering past nearby. She gazed questioningly at the Director, who was heading back towards her, carrying two strange objects - a golden circlet in his left hand and a ball of green and blue crystal topped with a silver cross in his right. He stopped and looked Jane in the eye, but she could tell straightaway he had no interest in explaining the sound. His eyes were keen and bright but their focus and attention were entirely on herself, not on what was happening around them. He handed her the circlet - it was warm to the touch - then carried on walking, out of both chambers and back into the nave before turning briskly right. He paused, with Jane at his shoulder, on the threshold of a lantern-lit passageway, between two royal mosaics.

The Director gave two small bows, first to the King on his left, then to the Queen on his right. An inscription in purple italics beneath the left-hand mosaic read, 'Mark III', and under its partner, 'Thomasina of the Northern Marches.' They crossed the threshold and pressed forward along the passage. Another train hurtled by - closer now - and Jane felt a gust of cool air on her cheeks. Soon the passage widened out and they were standing in a circular ante-chamber on a floor of polished marble. Through high rectangular openings - one straight ahead, one to to left, and one to the right - Jane perceived the metallic gleam of railway lines. Directly in front of her was a tall wooden post with signs jutting off towards the three pairs of tracks. Jane managed to read four of the place-names - Tintagel, Rome, Jerusalem, Mount Kailas - before the Director whisked her away.

'This way,' he said, ushering her off to the left. Already she could hear the train, and they hadn't been on the platform more than five seconds when it appeared - sleek and silvery to look at but as noisy and rattly as an everyday Tube service. The doors opened automatically and Jane and the Director climbed on board...

Friday, February 28, 2020

A Cup, A Sword, A Tree, and A Green Hill

There is a bookshop down a cobbled street where, as a boy, I discovered Narnia, Middle Earth, and the Norse, Greek and Arthurian myths as retold by Roger Lancelyn Green. For almost forty years now, I have had a recurring dream about this shop, in which it boasts an extra room - an evocative, lamplit space with an atmosphere of calm and serenity and the faint but discernable aroma of incense.

In the dream, I am looking for the Magician's Book which Lucy encounters in The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, and in particular the story she reads about 'a cup, a sword, a tree, and a green hill.' Lewis describes it as 'the loveliest story she has ever read', and I know it's on the shelves somewhere, but just as Lucy is not allowed to turn back the pages to reread it, so I always wake up before I can find it.

Yet I never feel bereft or cast down afterwards. On the contrary, it feels immensely reassuring to know that such a book and such a room exist. But where? On what level? These are questions I have been mulling over for decades now. Until recently, I have tended to interpret the dream as either a symptom of deep nostalgia or as a shaft of insight into the Platonic reality of the bookshop - its inner form and essence.

Lately, however, I have started to suspect that the dream might be less to do with nostalgic pangs or a static Platonic order and more about a physical reality which will tangibly appear in the world at some point - what the theologian John Zizioulas calls 'a memory of the future.' Again, the level on which this will happen is open to debate, and God alone knows what turns of fortune's wheel we might have to endure or enjoy between now and then. But that the vision will be made manifest and the bookshop will one day look and feel as it does in my dream is something of which I am increasingly certain.

The Holy City, St. John says, will come down from God out of Heaven like a bride adorned for the bridegroom. So it isn't just individuals who will be redeemed and transfigured on the Last Day but the whole material creation, towns and cities very much included - streets, squares, houses, office blocks, shops, everything.

This eschatological understanding, I feel, fits better with the tone and content of my dream than either the nostalgic or the Platonic interpretations. 'Indeed,' as Aslan assures Lucy, 'I will read that story to you for years and years.' It is the dynamic Platonism we see at play in The Last Battle, where the protagonists journey 'farther up and farther in', into the heart of the Great Story we all long to read and hear, 'which goes on forever, and in which every chapter is better than the one before.'

And the meaning of the story is the Author of the story. The Author is the story, the Alpha and the Omega, for in the beginning, as St. John also shows us, was the Word ...


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Stewards of the Spirit


Arthur Machen's The Secret Glory, condensed, reworked, reset, and retold for the monthly storytelling night at Yr Glas Loch (The Blue Bell), Conwy - Wednesday 19th February 2020.

*

There was a glow in the sky, as if great furnace doors were opening. That was all Mark could recall now of the magical evening he had shared with his father, shortly before his dad's sudden death and Mark's removal to his uncle's in Cheadle - two South Manchester suburbs away from his Didsbury home - a household with no interest, belief in or affection for anything otherworldly.

That, he knew, was when life had started to go downhill. He was 10 then; 45 now, stuck in a call-centre selling pointless insurance, with a failed marriage behind him and two teenage children who laughed him to scorn. His old friends were preoccupied with family and career, and he found it hard to relate to the younger, screen-fixated generation, as they doubtless found it hard to relate to him.

Mark was growing old fast in other words, increasingly at one, or more, removes from those around him. As this feeling grew, he assumed that he would follow that host of lost souls down the well-trodden path of drinking, binge-eating, trash TV, and general numbing out. On the contrary though, as winter turned to spring that year, something very different started to happen. Different, yes, but also disconcerting, alarming and unsettling. Buried memories from Mark's childhood surged up from within. At least that's what he thought they were. The more worrying possibility was that he might be cracking up - going insane.

These memories did not involve Mark's mother. That would have been impossible, for she had died not long after he was born. He had no brothers or sisters. The memories concerned his father - a grave, bearded man - and the patch of woodland, not far from the business park where he now worked, which lies between Didsbury Village and the River Mersey. But while he could remember his school days at that time (1984-85) with absolute clarity, there remained a deep sense of hiddenness about those evening walks with his dad. They had been looking for something. Maybe they had found it? But whatever it was, it stubbornly resisted his mind's strained efforts to call it back to life.

So after work, as the days lengthened, Mark took to walking in the nearby woods. He went at weekends too. But the more he explored, the more the glory receded. There were trees and paths and streams and slabs of broken stone, but nothing out of the ordinary, nothing special, nothing magical.

Then one afternoon, while chatting with a colleague, he remembered part of the story. It was high summer, his dad had shown him a stone well, then pointed to an avenue of poplars and a white house with a brown door. The house had something rare and wonderful inside. Mark didn't know what just yet, but he did know exactly where the house was, just to the left of one of the paths he walked up and down every day.

The next evening was clear and fresh and Mark went straight to the spot after work. His disappointment was all-consuming. The well was there alright, but three-quarters ruined and stinking with stagnant rainwater. There was no house, no poplars, just a mass of impenetrable thorns. He slumped down with his back to a giant oak, his head in his hands. The metallic roar of the M60 mocked him from the other side of the river. There was no hope for him now, no escape, no way out. He had been chasing an illusion, a will-o'-the-wisp, an insubstantial dream. He would stand up in a minute, get back on the path, cross Simon's Bridge, climb to the top of the flyover and cast himself down. But before he could even get up, his head started nodding and he was soon fast asleep. Straightaway, he began to dream.

He was standing in a barren, lifeless place - drab fields pockmarked with stunted trees. It was late afternoon, but as evening approached, a welcome breeze sprang up as the stars popped out above. Mark noticed a well close beside him. There was just enough light to read the inscription: Fons Vitae Immortalis. He drank of the water and felt instantly renewed in mind and body.

The night passed quickly, the sun rose, and Mark saw that he was in a fertile valley with wooded slopes and tinkling streams. He heard the sound of a choir like a mighty rushing wind. Gloria in Excelsis Deo they sang, and he beheld a a cathedral on top of a hill at the end of the valley. A crowd of men, women and children, all dressed in dazzling white, were streaming in from all sides. Then Mark was among them, chanting an ancient liturgy before the high altar, as the morning sun poured down on his head through the round, many-coloured Eastern window.

Then they were outside, walking side by side along time-hallowed pilgrim pathways. Mark was astonished by his fellow-travellers. Some had eyes that shone like lanterns, others golden aureoles around their hair, while one or two were borne aloft above the ground on little clouds of white and silver.

Suddenly he was alone again, following a winding path uphill through the trees. He came upon a clearing and a small stone church. He heard the choir again: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison, and without hesitation he went inside. He saw a wall in the middle of the church. The bricks were shining and translucent jewels, but their lustre was dim compared to the brilliant white light shining through the cracks from the other side.

A door opened in the wall and the light cascaded through. Mark knelt on the floor, bowed his head and covered his eyes. When he looked up, he saw an old man with a crown on his head standing in the doorway. He was holding something in his hands and the light pulsated out from it, but the object stayed hidden, wrapped around with cloths and coverings. Two young men with flaming torches stood to left and right. The trio walked forward, turned to the left, then disappeared through another door. And Mark heard a voice from behind the wall - a woman's voice - calling to him:

'Mark be secret, Mark be strange - dark, true, dissonant and ancient. Cherish your flame. The dawn is at hand.'

The dream ended. Mark sat bolt upright against the tree. It was not yet fully dark but the sky was clear and the first stars twinkled like little glow-worms. The well was still broken, the thorn bush impassible, but Mark's spirits had risen because the memory of what he had seen long ago in the house had returned to him.

Yes, there had been a house and an avenue of poplars, and his dad had led him along it to a brown mahogany door in a wall of white stone. 'This house isn't always here,' he said. 'It comes when it chooses.'

The house was choc-a-bloc with old books, and the smell of those ancient texts filled the young Mark with wonder and joy. Their host was a tall, bespectacled man, completely bald on top but with a wildness of brown frizzy hair around the back and sides. 'Ambrose the scholar,' was how Mark's father introduced him as they sat down to tea and biscuits in the study. Mark found the conversation fascinating, though difficult to follow and bewildering at times, as much of it referred directly to him.

''Tis a great blessing, as always, to be here,' said his dad. 'The occasions grow rarer as time wears on, yet whenever the house appears it renews our faith in the deeper, truer Britain behind the grey façade of getting and spending.'

'The chain will hold fast,' said Ambrose, stirring his tea. 'But it comes under strain, and it is as hard for us in Heaven as it is for you on Earth. We need each other, don't we?' And they both laughed.

'And now it is the boy's turn?' he asked, looking enquiringly at Mark.

'It is,' said his dad. 'He is of our Company. I have no doubt. The light of the Grail shines in his eyes.'

'Let it be so then,' said Ambrose. 'The house has revealed itself and the great ones have spoken. Prepare to behold, young Mark, the mystery of this island, the Holy Grail itself, which you will subsequently forget, as do we all, only to remember again at a time and place of God's choosing.'

They left the room and descended a short flight of stairs to an underground chamber. Mark's dad lit two tall candles on a table near the back wall, while Ambrose opened a cupboard high up by the door and pulled something out which glowed fiercely through its covers.

Ambrose crouched down. Mark couldn't see what he was doing, but when he stood up again he saw a goblet in his hands with a long stem and a round base. Ambrose laid it reverently between the candles, then they knelt down together - Mark in the middle, Ambrose to his left and his dad to his right.

The grown-ups began to chant in a language unknown to Mark. It was a bit like Latin, a bit like Greek and a bit like Welsh, yet it was none of these and certainly not English. But it was the goblet that compelled his attention. There were so many colours alive on its surface - red, blue green, gold, all the colours in the world - but there was a blue and white pattern that particularly drew him him; that ink-dark blue - like the sky at night - and that clear, crystalline white, brighter than the moon and stars. Instead of the chant now, he thought he could hear the sound of waves as a wind nipped at his cheeks, then lashed across his face.

The room vanished and Mark was standing on a shingly beach at night, looking up at a gigantic cliff-face. At the top was a mighty cathedral, hewn out of the rock. Golden light blazed forth from its windows as a choir of a thousand voices sang the Creed: Credo in Unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentens ...'

Mark knew that the Grail - and more than the Grail, the meaning of his life, his heart's desire - was up there too and he prayed that he might see it, sense it, feel it, hold it.  And then he was inside, lying prostrate on the floor before a screen of gold and silver icons. But behind the screen was a greater glory still, its light streaming out between the cracks and joints. Mark stretched out his hands. Et Vitam Venturi Saeculi sang the choir, but no Amen followed, just the sound of Ambrose and his father continuing their chant.

Mark was back in the room and the Grail was in front of him again and he felt, without knowing quite why, like a mysterious blessing had come down upon him. He had never thought such a thing before, but he felt part of a long and noble lineage now - guardians of the British Mysteries - a line stretching back to Arthur and beyond, to Joseph of Arimathea, who first brought the Grail to Britain, then past him to Brutus the Trojan, who founded this land, and through him to mighty Aeneas, High Prince of Troy, who Virgil sang of and who established the city of Rome.

Mark told all this to his father later as they walked back through the avenue of trees. 'Yes,' said his dad. 'That is the way of it. We - Ambrose, myself, a handful of others, and now you, Mark - we are the stewards of the spirit of this land, all called to different forms of service and none of us knowing where the Powers will direct us. Some, like Ambrose, work mainly in the other world, others, like myself, more in this world. We all, as he said, forget our first experience of the Grail, but the memory grows like a seed within us, until the heavenly ones bring it back at the right time.'

Leaning into the oak, with the canopy of stars above him, Mark felt the tears rolling down his cheeks as something hard, knotty and gnarled dissolved and melted away in his chest. He had looked forward so much, after that miraculous day, to many more talks and trips to the woods with his dad, but it wasn't to be, for his father left this earth shortly afterwards and in the practical, money-driven milieu of his uncle's house, his vision of the Grail was choked with thorns and squeezed into irrelevance like the seed in the parable.

Mark stood up, said a prayer for his dad and walked to the right, away from the thorn bush and the broken well, and into his future. And then in the starlight he saw to his left an avenue of poplars and a white house with a brown door and the moon shining full upon it. And a woman's voice called to him on the night air:

'Walk on now, Mark. Step into your father's house. Take the Grail and hold it up for the whole world to see. The night is over. This is the morning.'

And Mark saw a glow above the house, as if great furnace doors were opening in the sky.



Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Golden Age That Never Quite Was


The Anglo-Saxon era in English history is usually taken to run from the departure of the Roman legions in 410 AD to King Harold's defeat at Hastings in 1066. That seems like a very long time, yet there is a sense, I feel, in which Anglo-Saxon civilisation, despite its longevity, never really got going. It failed to fully blossom. It was cut short, in other words, not once, nor twice, but three times.

To begin with, it took the Angles, Saxons and Jutes almost two hundred years to quell the British resistance and pen the natives back into Wales and Cornwall. There then followed what we might call the first Anglo-Saxon golden age, the epoch of the 'heptarchy', the seven kingdoms (illustrated below) of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, Sussex, Kent, Essex, and East Anglia. 



From the mid-seventh-century to the mid-ninth century power shifted progressively southwards from Northumbria to Mercia to Wessex. Stable leadership, allied to the saintly witness of holy men and women such as Wilfrid of York, Hilda of Whitby, and the Venerable Bede, transformed seventh-century Northumbria into a standard-bearer and standard-setter for Christian and European civilisation. Mercia took up the mantle in the eighth-century. Offa's reign (757-796) saw strong links forged with Charlemagne, the great Frankish king and first Holy Roman Emperor, and the first suggestion or 'showing forth' of what would, in time, become a unified English realm.

It was the pressures of war and the existential threat of conquest which made such unity a necessity. In the 870s, under Alfred the Great, Wessex alone proved durable enough to withstand and repel the waves of Viking incursions which had brought such a brutal and bloody end to the first Anglo-Saxon golden age. After Alfred (871-899), his son Edward (899-924), and his grandson Athelstan (924-939) extended English rule further north and east until by the time of Edgar the Peaceable (959-975), the Anglo-Saxon king - sitting in Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex - was regarded by all, albeit grudgingly in some quarters, as sovereign and overlord of the whole island of Britain.

Military success was only part of Alfred's gift to his country, however. Once peace had been established, he switched his focus towards scholarship and church-building, and we see this trend continuing right up to the time of Edgar and the wide-ranging monastic reforms carried out on his behalf by St. Dunstan. This whole era, from Alfred to Edgar, can be seen as the second Anglo-Saxon golden age.

Edgar's England, in the year 975, seemed set fair for greatness, but the King died suddenly, aged just 32, and his realm descended into internecine strife and foreign occupation all too swiftly. Edgar had two sons - Edward, who was possibly illegitimate, and Ethelred, the child of his queen, Elfrida. Edward, as the elder son, acceeded to the throne, aged about 13, and was murdered three years later at Corfe Castle in Dorset, either by supporters of Ethelred or on the orders of the Queen. As the picture above indicates, he was very soon held up as a saint and a martyr in the popular imagination.

Ethelred replaced him as king, as his mother had intended, but was soon exposed as wholly unfit for the role. Viking attacks resumed and grew in intensity year upon year. The net result was a succession of four Danish kings and a chronic dynastic instability which was only resolved with the death of Harold and the annihilation of the Anglo-Saxon state in a single day at Hastings.

We see in 1066, therefore, the same pattern repeating itself of collapse and surrender
after a strong king's death. This was typical of the times in many ways. Monarchs died young, often before they were forty, with their sons still in boyhood and the land at the mercy of squabbling, vindictive nobles. The other misfortune to beset Anglo-Saxon England was the constant threat of piracy and invasion from the coasts of Scandinavia. Harold himself, just nineteen days before his demise, had successfully fought off a colossal Viking army at Stamford Bridge in North Yorkshire.

We do not know what would have happened if Harold had prevailed against the Normans. His battlefield triumphs might have given him the kudos and the breathing space required to establish a dynasty of his own and inaugurate the enduring golden age which up to that point Anglo-Saxon England had never quite had. Or, given that his claim to the throne was far from ironclad, he may have had to deal with a string of rival claimants and could  thereby have been deprived of the time needed to turn his mind towards long-term civilisational tasks à la Alfred.

I hasten to add at this point that I would not want to over-romanticise the Anglo-Saxons. They could be as barbaric as anyone when they put their minds to it. Yet it is clear that rule by Harold, or someone like him, would have been infinitely preferable to the ordinary man and woman than the rod of iron thrown down by William the Conqueror. It would have maintained the close bond between the king and his people that was sundered by the Conquest and steered the body politic away from from the needless expansionism and mercantilism which was so often the Norman hallmark. A third Anglo-Saxon golden age would, I believe, have concentrated on the things that truly matter - religion, learning and art - after the example of King Alfred and his understanding that temporal exigencies, while they have their place, are in reality just steps on the way towards an appreciation and understanding of the eternal verities.

Maybe one day it will happen. Perhaps the golden age that never quite was is stored up somewhere in the the national collective psyche - a 'memory of the future', as the theologian John Zizioulas writes of the Eucharist - a potent archetype which will manifest on the physical plane at the time and point of history of God's own choosing. If we ever see turbulence again on the level of those Viking invasions, let us pray in that day for a second Alfred to emerge from the destruction and lay once more the foundations of a peaceful and unified 'Isle of the Blessed', which will enjoy better luck than its Anglo-Saxon predecessor, and shine out to a world in sore need of political and social models which take the City of God as a template to build up and bring the best out of the City of Man.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Thursday's Child



The first two chapters of Alan Ganer's Elidor, retold for the storytelling night at Yr Glas Loch (The Blue Bell), Conwy - Wednesday January 15th 2020.

*

This story is about four children, whose surname was Watson, aged between fourteen and eleven. Nicholas was the eldest, then Helen, then David, then Roland. The year is 1965, and the city Manchester.

On the day the adventure began, Mr. and Mrs. Watson were packing boxes and crates at home. The family were due to move house shortly, from the South Manchester suburb of Didsbury, further south again to Alderley Edge in Cheshire, not far from the airport. The children had gone into town for the afternoon to get out of the way. But the day was cold and hostile and they had long ago ran out of things to do. Nicholas, Helen and David sat on a bench in Piccadilly Gardens, arguing about whether to have another mooch around the shops or get the train back home. Roland stood a couple of yards away, twirling the handle of something we don't see in city centres any more - a revolving street map like a glass drum - an A-Z of central Manchester in short, with a street index in a separate panel on the right-hand side.

'Hey,' said Roland. 'Have a look at this. It's brilliant. You can find any street in town.'

The others gathered around. 'Nice piece of machinery,' said David. 'Some pretty smooth gears in there, I'll bet.'

'Let's walk over to the street it stops on,' said Roland. 'I'll let go the handle and point my finger here on the index.'

The street map whirred around, gradually started to slow down, and came to a halt with a click. Roland lifted his finger off the glass and jabbed it down again. 'Thursday Street,' he said.

'It's titchy,' said Nicholas. 'Can't be anything worth seeing there.'

Thursday Street was certainly very small, jammed in the midst of a rabbit warren of streets and alleys at the top end of Oldham Street - so small, in fact, that there was only room on the map for the letters 'Th. St.' But Helen didn't seem to mind. 'Let's get across there,' she said. 'It'll keep us from scrapping anyway.'

So off they went, out of the gardens, across Piccadilly and along Oldham Street. Remembering the map as best they could, they turned left about half-way up, into the shabby realm behind the shopfronts, a world of loading bays and warehouse spaces lit by unshaded light bulbs. After a while, this gave way to the maze of back to back streets they had seen on the map. Old men and women in carpet slippers sat on front doorsteps chattering. A group of teenage boys stood on a street corner talking to a girl with curlers in her bright yellow hair.

'Maybe we should go back,'  said Roland.

'No,' said Nicholas. 'They'll think we're scared. Act like we know where we're going, taking a short cut or something.'

They expected a similar scene on the next street, but everything was so quiet there that it didn't take them long to work out that the houses were empty. Some were even boarded up. 'Leave post at Number Four' said a message in chalk on one front door. 'Number Four's empty too,' said Helen, peering through the window.

The streets carried on like this for a while, before they came to an area where the houses had been partially knocked down so that they could see past the broken brickwork into what had once been living rooms and bedrooms. Then the houses stopped altogether and there was nothing at all except pavements and lamp-posts almost as far as the eye could see.

Nicholas put his hands on his hips. 'Where's your Thursday Street now?' he said to Roland.

'Here,' said David, picking up a street sign that had been left on top of a pile of discarded household goods. 'Thursday Street,' read the sign.

'Well, well,' said Helen. Then she pointed. 'Look! There's a church.'

They turned and saw and wondered why they hadn't noticed it before - just a hundred yards away - a black, Victorian edifice with buttresses and a high roof but no steeple. There was a mechanical digger parked alongside it.

'They'll be knocking it down,' said David. 'Let's ask the gang if we can watch.' But when they reached the digger no-one was there.

'The engine's still warm,' said Roland. 'They must be on a break. Here's a football though. Let's have a kickabout.' He pulled out a white plastic ball from behind the digger's front wheel. As he did so, he became aware, out of the corner of his eye, of a fiddler standing on the next street but one underneath a lamp-post. He wore a battered hat and overcoat and looked very shabby. But the tune he played cut Roland to the quick - brooding and dreamy yet wild and fierce too. He knew he hadn't heard it before but at the same time felt like he had always known it and that the music was calling him somehow.

'Here y'are Roland,' yelled Nick. 'What are you waiting for? Kick us the ball.'

Roland punted it over to where they were standing. He meant it to get there on the first bounce but it soared higher and higher instead, right over their heads, until it smashed through the round window at the top of the church.

'Bulls-eye Roland!' shouted David. 'How'd you do that?'

'I ... I didn't. I just kicked it normally.'

'I'll go and fetch it,' said David, and he ran over to the church, tried the big front door, which appeared to be locked, then disappeared around the back.

Roland was shocked by how fast and far the ball had travelled. He looked around. The fiddler had gone. 'Where's the fiddler?' he asked.

Nicholas shrugged. 'Dunno,' he said. 'Maybe he got bored playing to no-one.'

'He looked blind to me,' said Helen. 'Perhaps he didn't know.'

'But didn't you hear?' When I kicked the ball the fiddle got stuck on a note and got higher and higher while the ball went up and up till the window smashed and it stopped.'

'Oh give over, Roland,' grunted Nicholas. 'You're always imagining things.'

Helen smiled. 'David's been a while,' she said. 'I'll go and see what he's up to.'

Nicholas and Roland talked for a bit about the slum clearance going on around them. Then Nicholas looked at his watch. 'They're having us on those two,' he said. 'Hiding. I'll go and surprise 'em.' And off he went in his turn, leaving Roland alone in the wasteland.

Rolan felt isolated and uncomfortable, like invisible eyes were watching him. Then the music started again - a whirling jig this time. But the fiddler was nowhere to be seen. Then it stopped and in the sudden silence Roland felt not only alone but afraid. He ran to the church and found the way in through the back, stepping over a couple of wooden slats, which were all that remained of the back door. 'Nick, Helen, David,' he called, but no answer came save for the echo of his own voice.

The church had been gutted. Stripped of its wood. Above him, at the far end, Roland saw the smashed window but there was no sign of the ball. To his left was a flight of stone steps leading up in a spiral. 'Nick, Helen, David,' he shouted as he climbed. 'Come out. I don't like it.' But no-one came. At the top was a corridor, but Roland hadn't gone very far along it when he heard footsteps on the stairs. He froze. He knew it wasn't the others. 'Who are you? What do you want?' The steps were louder now  - ponderous and heavy - then around the turn of the last spiral a figure appeared. The fiddler. He held out his bow for Roland to touch.

'Guide me,' he said. 'The stairs are steep and I am blind.'

Roland reached out and touched the tip of the bow and felt a shock surging through him, from finger to hand to arm to shoulder to neck to head. Lightning flashed in his brain and images flared before him and were gone again instantly.

'What did you see?' said the fiddler.

'See? I ... I don't know ... falling towers ... a golden altar ... a prince singing ...'

'Guide me.'

'Yes.'

Roland took the bow and guided the fiddler down the stairs. 'This way,' said the fiddler, and Roland tooked him from one end of the nave to the other, towards the great Western door, which David had found to be locked. 'Open the door,' the fiddler commanded.

'I can't,' said Roland. 'It's locked.'

'You must try.'

'No.'

'There is not much time.'

'No.'

'Yes.'

'But ....'

'Now!'

And he played the jig again. Lightning flashed through Roland's mind as before. He grabbed the handle and twisted it this way and that but it wouldn't budge. Then he flung himself at the wood with his shoulder and the door broke into two and he was outside again, running on the cobbles and holding his head in his hands because the music was stuck on a note again. Then he saw that the cobbles had turned into pebbles, seagulls were squawking above, the air was keen and fresh, and there was a great expanse of water before him. He had no idea how it had happened, but he was standing on a shoreline. He looked behind and saw a black castle with three half-collapsed towers on top of a rocky cliff face. He felt the water lapping at his feet. The tide was coming in. No choice but to climb the cliff and try his luck in the castle.

Five minutes later Roland was walking through the courtyard, picking his way between masses of fallen black stone. He saw that the fourth tower had come down completely. Before long he came to the keep. Nothing much to see. Just a big empty space. But there were steps leading up to his left. Roland ascended. The first room, which occupied the whole length and breadth of the keep, was a well-stocked armoury, packed to the gills with swords, shields, pikes, halberds, and all kinds of weapons. He pulled out a sword, quickly and easily, from a jewelled green scabbard. No rust, no cobwebs. The ruin which had come upon this castle had clearly been both sudden and recent.

The next room up had nothing in it except a few scorched tapestries. But the third floor was much more interesting. Roland saw a marble table built into the wall, like the altar he served Mass at in Didsbury, with a fine covering of cloth of gold hanging half on, half off. He pulled it back into place, looked up and saw the broken window above him, then the football in front of him, squashed between the wall and an empty candle-holder.

Roland picked up the ball and held it tight. It felt like an old friend. Then he heard someone singing outside, a male voice, young and full of life, and the tune was the same as what he had first heard the fiddler play - that high and noble air that stirred so many deep things inside him. The language moved him tremendously, though it was one he had never heard before. His heart quivered at the sound of it - great syllables of words that resounded like castles, like they were singing of their own volition with the singer as their chosen vessel, flowing through him from some strong point at a distance. Or maybe that there were no words at all, and that what Roland heard was the music of the sun and the stars as they wheel around the Earth day and night far, far above.

He ran to the window and saw the fiddler walking across a drawbridge towards a ring of stones on a green hill. 'Stay!' he cried. 'Wait for me.' And he dropped the ball - bounce, bounce, bounce it went, towards the foot of the altar - and ran out of the room and down the stairs, chasing after the fiddler and following that great yearning and longing for he knew not what which the music and the fiddler - by the presence and quality of his being - had called forth in his soul.


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Sacred City


The New Jerusalem by Aidan Hart

*

Then, when the moment had come, the doors opened of their own accord, and in a beam of clear and crystal light the Grail procession entered the hall for the last time. The same white-clad women led the way, bearing the silver dish, the bleeding spear and the seven-branched candlestick. Behind them came the Grail Maiden herself, holding aloft the sacred vessel so that the faces of all those present were transfigured and made holy in its paradisal light.

The procession passed beneath the royal dais, where Galahad, Percivale and Bors were sitting with Pelles, the wounded king, and Nasciens, the Grail hermit. 'In the name of God, stay a moment,' cried Galahad, springing to his feet and jumping down the steps. He stood in front of the woman with the dish and held up his sword by the scabbard. The hilt, reflected in the light of the Grail, formed a cross of blazing, golden light. He began to walk forward. Nasciens, seeing this, signalled to Percivale and Bors, and they picked up the litter which bore the wounded king, one at each end, and followed the procession behind the Grail Maiden and the salvific light shining between her hands.

They wound their way through Castle Corbenek's corridors, chambers and moonlit spiral staircases. At the top of the topmost tower was the plain wooden door which led to the chapel of the Grail. Someone was waiting for them there at the altar, a tall man with short dark hair, dressed as a priest in a chasuble of blue and gold and swinging a thurifer of incense in wide circles around the sanctuary. He seemed familiar to them somehow, yet neither Bors nor Galahad nor Percivale could recall when and where they had met him.

'I am Prester John,' he told them. 'I am the voice of the Grail, the touch and sight and scent of the Grail, and the Grail itself.' And it was Prester John who said the Mass of the Grail that night and unveiled the lesser mysteries to the three Companions of Arthur who drank from the chalice.

After Galahad had healed King Pelles with a touch of the bleeding spear, Prester John said to him, 'You must go now to the sacred city of Sarras and lay down the Grail in the tabernacle of the Cathedral where it belongs. Leave before dawn. The ship and the Grail and the table of the Grail will be waiting for you.'

Next morning, while it was still dark, Galahad, Percivale and Bors set off from Corbenek. At the moment when Pelles was made whole the night before, the Wasteland surrounding the castle was renewed as well. As they walked, they heard the sound of running water all around and could literally feel the grass growing beneath their feet. Galahad rejoiced at the great restoration taking place, but part of him was downcast too, for he knew that the redemption of the Wasteland meant the dissolution of Logres, the fall of Arthur's kingdom and the postponement of the Parousia.

They beheld a ship with five white sails awaiting them at the quayside. In a little room below deck they beheld the Grail again, standing on top of a small, silver table. The ship set sail of its own volition, westward for seven days and nights, around the coast of Ireland and over the trenched waters of Broceliande. Galahad, Percivale and Bors needed neither food nor drink all this time, not even sleep. Simply standing in front of the Grail gave them all the replenishment they required and more.

The sun was warm and the wind fresh. A raucous colony of gulls, numberless as the stars in the sky, followed the ship on its voyage from east to west. Galahad stood in the prow, with Percivale and Bors close behind him on either side. He prayed in a long, melodious chant for all those soon to die in the deep schismatic war to come. He implored the Most High to forgive Lancelot and Guinevere their illicit love and to have mercy on King Arthur for his vanity and self-conceit. He asked that the black heart of Mordred might be softened and lightened and turned back towards the Divine. He prayed especially for Dindrane, the sister of Percivale, who had raised Galahad as a boy in the convent at Almesbury. She had poured out her blood, earlier in the Quest, to save the life of another, a lady who now, in the last candles of Logres, danced in the fading light to bring joy to her family and friends. Above all else, Galahad prayed for Logres itself - soon to be subsumed into Britain - that the country might be given a second chance, that in the fullness of time the Grail might come again, and that Albion's sacred precinct might fulfill its high calling as the site and cradle of Our Lord and Saviour's second coming.

Just after sunrise on the morning of the eighth day the ship drew in to the holy city of Sarras. The buildings shone like sapphire and topaz. Percivale, Galahad and Bors lifted up the table of the Grail and carried it through the golden-paved streets which led up to the Cathedral of All the Angels, overlooking the city from on high.

As they ascended, they saw a ship with a blue sail enter the harbour below. On the deck lay the body of Dindrane, arrayed with summer flowers, just as they had left her when they had pushed the boat out to sea after her dying promise to meet them once more in Sarras.

'See,' said Galahad to Percivale, 'she has kept her vow.'

Percivale nodded but made no reply. He was out of breath and struggling with the weight of the table. It had four legs and there were only three of them and it seemed to be getting heavier all the time.

They came at length upon a man with a withered leg begging beneath an archway. 'Friend,' said Galahd. 'Lend us your strength, for as you can see we are a man short.'

'Sir,' the beggar replied. 'I have no strength, for I am lame and halt and have not walked these past twenty years.'

'Look now upon the Grail,' commanded Galahad, 'and be strong again at once.'

And the beggar lifted up his eyes and looked upon the Grail, and in that moment his leg was straightened and he felt himself able to walk again and even to run. He took the fourth corner and bore the table with them into the great nave of the Cathedral, up to the high altar and the tabernacle, where Galahad lay the Grail down with reverence and solemnity.

Then Galahad, Percivale and Bors returned to the harbour and brought the body of Dindrane back up through the streets to the Cathedral and the Grail. By this time a large crowd of onlookers had gathered in the nave. There were bishops and priests there too, and they were happy to assist Galahad at the altar as he sung the funeral Mass for Dindrane, before committing her to burial in the crypt.

When the King of Sarras, Escorant, heard of these things, he was furious with the strangers for stealing the limelight and putting him in the shade. He accused them of spying and flung them into jail, where they remained for a year and a day, nourished once again by the Grail, which came to them every night in their cell, just as it had done for Joseph of Arimathea long ago when he was cast into prison after the Resurrection.

At the end of this time, Escorant began to feel his death draw near. His mind was opened and he saw clearly that these were three good men and that he had imprisoned them unjustly. So he released them and called them into his presence and begged their forgiveness, which Galahad, Percivale and Bors gladly gave.

Not long afterwards, Escorant died, and the people of Sarras asked Galahad to become king in his place. 'For Escorant was a usurper,' they said, 'and had no royal blood in him, while you are of the high lineage of Joseph of Arimathea.'

Galahad did not want to be king, but he accepted their offer as he was convinced that this was God's will for him. The morning after his coronation, in the small hours while men and women still slept, he made his way to the Cathedral as usual with Percivale and Bors for the offices of Vigils and Lauds. And Prester John was waiting for him there, standing at the high altar with the Holy Grail in his hands.

'Come, Galahad,' he said. 'At Carbonek you all three drank from the Grail but now, as King of Sarras and Priest of the Grail, the time has come for you to look into the sacred chalice and gaze upon the greater mysteries.'

Percivale and Bors knelt down at the foot of the altar, while Galahad walked up the steps to the tabernacle, where Prester John held out the Grail. Galahad genuflected, and Percivale and Bors saw him look inside the Grail. He turned to them then, and his face was like the sun, but in that instant he fell down headlong and tumbled down the steps.

Percivale cradled him in his arms and exchanged glances with Bors who shook his head sadly. He understood that no man, not even one so exalted as Galahad, could look into the white-hot core of living mystery and survive.

Galahad rested his eyes on Bors. 'Commend me to my father, Lancelot,' he said, 'when you return to the Island of the Mighty.' Then he laid back his head on Percivale's shoulder and closed his eyes. And at once the Cathedral was filled with a mighty rushing wind, and when Percivale and Bors looked up again, Prester John and the Grail had vanished and there was no-one there at all except themselves and the lifeless body of Galahad.

After these things, Percivale became a hermit and remained in Sarras for a year until he too met Prester John in the Cathedral one morning and accepted his invitation to look into the Grail. Out of friendship and loyalty, Bors had stayed with Percivale while he lived but he knew in his heart, as Galahad also had done, that the lines of his destiny would draw him eventually back to Britain. One afternoon he was walking along the quayside when he saw Prester John by the harbour wall. 'There is your ship,' he said. Bors turned to look and saw the same ship with five white sails which had brought them to Sarras two years previously. He wanted to ask Prester John if Logres had fallen yet but when he looked again he was gone.

So Bors boarded the ship, which carried him over Broceliande and around the coast of Ireland to Britain. And when he arrived at Portsmouth he met the king's poet, Taliessin, who told him of the death of King Arthur and the subsequent overthrow of Mordred. Constantine, Duke of Cornwall, ruled over Britain now, though there was little he could preserve of it from the marauding bands of Angles and Saxons pillaging the land at will.

So Bors and Taliessin took counsel in the upper room of an inn and talked of saving the things worth saving and sowing the seeds of a future national rebirth. Then they went to the church of Saint Martin and prayed, as Galahad had done before them, that the country might be given a second chance, that Logres might one day be restored, that the Grail might come again, and that those holy feet might walk once more on the rocks, cliff-faces and pilgrim pathways of Albion's sacred precinct.


Monday, December 16, 2019

Coming in the Clouds


'Send not, send not, the rich empty away.'
Charles Williams, The Prayers of the Pope

*

In his book The Eleventh Hour (2002) the Traditionalist scholar Martin Lings (1909-2005) claims that the nearer we get to the end of the Kali Yuga the more the light of the Golden Age to come will inevitably shine into the darkness of our times. It would be fruitful, I feel, to focus as much of our attention as we can on this aspect of eschatology - less, perhaps, on the Sturm und Drang of a dissolute world in collapse and more on the 'Eighth Day' and the holy light of the Heavenly Jerusalem, which is even now, here and there, starting to make itself manifest.

Here is a related thought. What if the return of Christ at the end of the age 'coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory' (Matt 24:30) is not something which happens all at once, as we commonly suppose, but bit by bit, a little like a light with a dimmer switch? The eschatological Christ, in this case, may already be here, but at the moment very few can see him. It is too dark. But the more people start to perceive him - those compelled into vision by the force of their longing - those rich in sorrow, loss, yearning, and the pain of living in a world shorn of Divinity - the brighter He becomes and the brighter we all become until every person, place and thing is transfigured in His light.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last ... He which testified these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. (Rev 22: 13, 19-21)