The other day, quite by chance, a small card photo frame fell out of a book. It was a picture of me, my mother, and the dog Sybil. My mother was standing, I was crouching down beside her hanging onto the dog who was obviously dying to charge the photographer — whoever that might have been — in the way dogs seem to want always to do. We are standing between two upturned fishing boats that have been upturned so long they have metamorphosed into sheds where the fishermen keep their nets and probably a dram or two. In the background is the harbour on Holy Island, and in the far distance the huge rocky mound with the castle which Lutyens prettified for the once-owner of Country Life magazine (the one with those about-to-be-married displayed on page one in their pearls and twinsets) — now a National Trust property.
Every year my mother and I spent a week or so on Holy Island (aka Lindesfarne, off the Northumberland coast near Berwick-upon-Tweed) at the end of September, beginning of October. We had a marvellous time with hot water bottles, crab sandwiches, wellington boots, breakfast fry-ups and arguments about nothing in particular. The books we had brought remained unread (except for a cursory glance before eyes drooped and fresh-air-induced sleep hit one). All the food we had loaded into the car — “there’s far too much; it’s ridiculous!” — was consumed in half the time as we came back starving after long walks across the island, up dunes and down, in coves and caves, along deserted beaches, calling back Sybil from chasing rabbits, getting confused as to the right path back … and all the rest. Sometimes guests came to stay for a night or popped over, as tides permitted, for lunch. Sometimes it rained awhile but soon drifted on and over with the wind. Island visitors came and then as the tides called them, they left and we were, thankfully, lords of all we surveyed again.
I have never prayed as much or felt God was as close to me since childhood days. Everywhere there were reminders of the ancient Celtic faith — crosses and graves, statues and holy rocks and places. Here S. Cuthbert went and stood in the sea up to his neck to ‘get away from it all’ There, in the far distance, were the even more remote Farne Islands where he had to take a boat and row out and live in a stone hut with just the birds for company. There was a hermitage tower in the dunes where it was said some holy lady lived (never saw her) and the church, Priory ruins, gravestones and oddly named places (Shepherd’s Hossel, Devil’s Parlour, Cuthbert’s Cove) reminded me of the days when saints were made and spirits roamed around after dark for good or ill. No wonder I prayed then as now at Compline (night prayers),
From all ill dreams defend our eyes
From nightly fears and fantasies;
Tread under foot our ghostly foe
That no pollution we may know.
How many of us, though, really believe in these ghosties and goulies and things that go bump in the night — or at any rate in that very literal way our ancestors did? Or do we? Or should we? Some people do believe in ghosts I know. I never have — but maybe that is because I have never seen one? My super-rational friend, who is a lawyer, and I have always looked to for super-rational explanations or wholly logical advice, said the other day, “Oh I wouldn’t want to live in that house. I would be afraid of the ghosts.” I couldn’t believe it! So pretending we are totally rational and immune to the spirits as well as the Spirit, to the ‘other’ world and its powers, despite every rational explanation to the contrary, may be foolish; even the super-rational may not be so sure (when cornered by nightly fears and fantasies).
One of the great differences between our modern world and earlier centuries and their ghostly anxieties is electricity. We have not lived in a world before the miracle of instant light at the flick of a switch (unless we have lived in Africa or other very rural undeveloped countries) and so cannot imagine what life was like when there was no immediate and foolproof way of illuminating a space inside, let alone out. Stepping outside your house, hovel, or monastery in 900 AD was scary after dark I am sure. Who was there in the shadows? In all probability they were up to no good. No wonder you prayed to be protected through the hours of darkness.
Totally rational judgements — about ghosts or spirits — cannot not really and wholly encompass the world as we experience it. Scientists tell us the spirit world is a child’s fantasy. Wish fulfilment. But doesn’t ‘faith’ encompass this range of wish-fulfilment: of poetry and mystery, of imaginings, longings, desires, day-dreaming and hope, that enrich our lives far beyond our basic rational explanation of the world and each other. What is the point of music, of poetry, of art, theatre and cinema if not to draw us out of ourselves and into different, fantastic and fabulous worlds of greatness and goodness, beauty and boundlessness? Wish-fulfilment or mind expansion? Surely it is a way of extending our love and understanding (of those we meet in art). A way of deepening our sensation of good and evil — of making our universe bigger, our hearts larger and our sympathies and charity wider?
Today, as I write this, is the day my mother died (from a terrible fall while walking the dog) over thirty years ago. It was a very few days after our last early autumn break on Holy Island. I did remember that date, obviously. But I didn’t cause the photo of her between those two upturned boats to fall out of a book which I ‘happened’ to pick up from the shelves. Sheer coincidence my rational mind says. My mind of faith and hope and longing for communion says: her guiding hand, an angel unawares. Certainly a felicitous, serendipitous, happenchance which brought happy — and as I also decided when writing the title of this blog — holy memories to me which will, indeed, comfort me in the hours of darkness and in the times of prayer for those from whom we are now parted (my father had drowned the very next day some 35 years earlier). Wishful thinking? Maybe. But harmful, wasteful of my energies, pointless, childish, silly? I don’t think so.
Incidentally the changing meaning of the word ‘silly’ shows us how cultural shifts in meaning occur. Silly was once spelt ‘saelig’ which meant holy. During the late medieval period and over the time of the reformation the positive cultural and social connotations connected to holy (saelig) shifted to critical or even mocking ones. The use of the word became ‘someone too foolish to act rationally and ‘sensibly’ — a fool, a silly billy’ and no longer one that indicated a person dedicated to God in prayer and other ‘useless’, religious activities, like lighting candles, staring at statues, listening to masses.
I don’t mind being a fool for Christ’s sake. I don’t mind being silly. I do sometimes fear ‘the terrors of the night’ and am glad to see and feel again the times with my mother on Holy Island and to be comforted by memories of her and that special place, and thankful for all the good she did and was. That Compline hymn above was translated (from S. Ambrose circa 350 AD) by the great priest and writer John Mason Neale, just like these lines below from another of his great hymns (Christian, dost thou see them). The rational scientist tells us, and all my education taught me, that there are no spirits, no ‘goblins or foul fiends’. But I prefer to do battle with the devil and the evil thoughts that can torment me in the hours of darkness, or in panic, anger or despair during the day. I feel stronger if I can ‘fight the good fight with all my might’. If I can, “up and at’em” (as Dad’s Army recommends!).
And so I shall continue to follow Neale’s advice:
Christian, up and smite them, counting gain but loss,
In the strength that cometh by the holy cross.
Christian, never tremble; never be downcast;
Gird thee for the battle, watch and pray and fast
What about you?