The path winds around the embankment of an ancient hillfort… a fairy fort, they are sometimes called, gateways to the Otherworld of myth and legend. There is silence save for the rustle of leaves, the ever present birdsong and the high keen of a red kite overhead. The sounds of the modern world do not intrude here.
The ground is soft beneath my feet, pliant and yielding with a thick carpet of last year’s leaves as I walk through the green tunnel that feels like a track left by some great serpent. The old ones knew of the great beasts; they saw the dragons that slept in the curve of the landscape and they carved their coils into their sacred hills. Hills such as this.
There is a liminal feeling to this place, a ring of earth high above the valley, guarding still the sacred space within, a gold topped tower now at its heart; a younger expression of an ancient power half glimpsed through symbols.
Through the green a portal of light… a window perhaps that shows a glimpse of that Otherworld, a door to another dimension? What will I see if I walk into that light… or will it blind the eyes, leaving other senses to find a way and a meaning? And what is that world… which is the reality, here or there… and can I pass through?
The landscape itself seems to mirror my mood with its path that moves in circles until I see the point at which I can break the endless round and move to a different level. A path that circles a sacred space within, older than years, but as old as being.
The walls of earth enclose, wrapping me in a silent isolation from a greater reality I cannot see with eyes, yet I know it is there, I feel its presence. The landscape beyond is veiled from view by trees that seem to be the ribcage of a serpent through whose belly I must pass, as in the myths of the old ones, day after day, perpetually swallowed and excreted until I can reach that place where the light comes in, that chink in the scales that leads to a place beyond.
And I can find it, that shaft of light. But only if I walk this path, and only from the dimness of the shadows of this place could I see the brightness of where I must be. If I walked within that light, could I see it? Would I recognise it? Could it lead me so clearly onward? A guiding beam must be brighter than the shadows it chases and the shade serves to make visible its path of light.
I walk once more around the wooded hillfort, marvelling at the beauty of this liminal place. A simple walk has become meditation, awe and prayer. Words fail as understanding opens. Words no longer carry meaning. To be here and now allows a glimpse across the threshold of worlds… my own and a greater, the worlds of legend and dream, of faith and aspiration… of Knowing and Being. A glimpse from shadow into the light and the reassurance that even in the deepest shade, because of that deepest shade, there is a bright path waiting to be found to take the traveller’s feet beyond the circled coils.
The soft colours of dawn were painting the sky as I left for work. The village streets, preternaturally quiet now that the schools were on holiday, were, for once, easy to negotiate. Parked cars take up half the width of every street and, on a school day and with oncoming traffic, getting out of the village becomes a slalom exercise in courtesy and patience.
By the time I reached the long stretch into town, the sun was cresting the horizon, setting fire to the skyline and casting long shadows across the road. Another mile, a bend in the road, and the brilliant disc had revealed itself in all its golden glory. I, and every other motorist in the now-queuing traffic, hit the brakes, dazzled by the low-lying orb on a road that runs due east.
There is, I thought, such a thing as too much light.
As the traffic crawled into town, I thought about that from another perspective. Is there ever such a thing as too much Light on the spiritual path? That Light could be said to be our goal, and so you would not immediately think so, and yet I concluded that yes, it was entirely possible.
As far back as I can remember, aspects of the spiritual path were part of my life. I was brought up in a family whose members each found their own way towards a shared goal. Their paths took many forms, encompassing the magical, mystical, spiritual and religious, but their goal seemed essentially the same, and whether they sought to attain the Christian Heaven, a Buddhist Nirvana, or a more abstract Union, each saw Light… formless, timeless and ineffable… as a perfect symbol for what drew and guided them. How could there be too much of that?
The car in front came to an abrupt halt, brake lights blazing. I saw the driver pull down the sun visor. He could not see the road ahead nor its hazards, any more than I could and had reacted by almost causing an accident.
That’s the problem with too much Light. The road we travel through life has hazards enough as it is, without our eyes being so firmly fixed on the Light that we fail to see them. We are, I believe, here for a purpose. Whether we are an incredible accident of Nature as evolutionary science would have us believe, or part of the design of some Cosmic Intelligence, we are here for a reason and with a purpose to fulfil, whether we are thinking at species level or as individuals.
If you accept that we are part of the design, and that there is a spiritual purpose to that design, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself, “Why right here? Why right now?” And, if there is indeed a purpose to our individual presence here and now, surely we need to be paying attention to where we are? This is practically impossible if your eyes are fixed firmly on the dazzling Light ahead and are blinded to all else.
The true mystic sees that Light and seeks to become one with it. Worldly considerations cease to matter… all else is but a shadow. While this is a rare and beautiful path to follow, it is a path for the few who feel called to that life. Those who follow the esoteric path see the Light and seek to align themselves with it, moving towards it while moving through the world with attention. This path is open to all. No path is better than another, as long as you are following the one that speaks to your heart.
My personal belief is that we may need the mystics to show us the way, but that for most of us, paying heed to the lessons, possibilities and opportunities of this life is more likely to answer the need of the inner self, allowing us a chance to learn why here and why now. Few of us are able to divorce ourselves from the mundane business of living, but that need not mean that we cannot address those needs with due regard to spirit.
The spiritual path should not need to separate us from the earthly and physical life we have been given; it should enhance our awareness of it and bring us to an understanding that shows us that living is a spiritual journey.
I stood at the window, doing the dishes and watching the sun set behind the houses. The old lady who lives at the end of the street walked by and smiled at me through the glass; there is no sense of privacy when the footpath runs right outside your kitchen window. Another window looks through the kitchen of my little flat to the bathroom and I panicked a few times, just after I moved in, realising that I was in the bath with a clear view to the street… The bedroom and living room look out onto fields, but they are also visible to the cows, the birds and anyone who happens to be in the gardens either side. When I notice, I still find this odd.
I was raised in Yorkshire, at a time and in a place where everyone had lace curtains. They were important. You could hide a good deal behind net curtains, from the poverty that neither asked nor expected to be helped, to the tragedies and comedies that are played out in every family home. As long as the ‘nets’ were white and the doorstep scrubbed, all was right with the world…at least as far as your public image was concerned. The curtains, often discoloured by coal fires, would be washed with ‘dolly blue’ to counteract the natural fading of the white fabric, or with lemon juice, borax or soda… it didn’t matter, as long as they ended up white.
My own generation grew up and the nets became more of a style feature than a social necessity. Heavy cotton lace gave way to light, synthetic fabrics that allowed more light in, but still preserved privacy…and still needed laundering once a month on principle. I never grew out of that.
As modern housing incorporated more efficient heating and glazing, the windows, and therefore the nets, got bigger and so did the washing of them. Status… according to some unwritten, underlying hangover from an older era, came with having matching nets throughout the house…and although you could suddenly buy coloured nets, if they were white, they had to be properly white.
But for all our new-fangled fabrics and fancy designs, the net curtains still hid the tragedies from public view and kept the sordid secrets of many a family and gave but a hazy view of the outside world. There was a time when the heavy lace curtains served a very real purpose, giving dignity by protecting the poverty they so often hid. When they became a fashion accessory for the home, I wonder if we missed the point somewhere and, instead of preserving dignity, they served only to help us isolate ourselves.
These days, modern decor trends state that, unless you are going for a romantic, country or shabby chic look, net curtains are passé. When I moved in to the new flat, my own net curtains were never going to fit…and they were already passed their best. I didn’t fancy clambering over the sink once a month to launder them and the ‘look’ I was going for was sparse and practical, largely due to the new limitations on space. From what had been a fair-sized family home, I was downsizing to a place just for me, the dog and an aquarium full of inherited fish. Lace curtains were the least of my problems.
Even so, for a good while I felt exposed… vulnerable. That veil between me and the world, I thought, had served me well over the years. Without the nets, not only did I have an unobstructed view of the world, but people could see in. I found this strange and disconcerting, until I got so used to it that I no longer notice until something reminds me.
It has changed a few things though, this living in full view. I now make conscious choices about where I stand in the bathroom, if I should close a door, where I dress or whether to pull the big curtains closed. I choose what I allow the world to see, rather than automatically being hidden behind the nets. It is a subtle but important distinction.
It has made me conscious too of how much, over a lifetime, I have hidden behind my own ‘lace curtains’, presenting a socially acceptable picture to the world regardless of inner turmoil, tragedy or personal distress. That may sometimes be a matter of dignity, but it can also hide a deeper significance.
It is easy to retreat behind a polite facade and hide from the world, as long as the ‘nets’ look white. It is even easier to use them to hide from ourselves, pretending that the ‘unwashed dishes’ and ‘unmade beds’ that cannot be seen through the veil, are not really there. It is not until the curtains come down and the light floods in, illuminating the dark and dingy corners of either a room or a life that we see what is really there…and it is only when we do so that we can begin to act to put it right.
Fewer windows, these days, seem to be veiled by lace curtains. I wonder how many others have noticed the difference it makes to their personal outlook on life as much as to their homes. Are we beginning to hide less, in this climate where so many things that were once swept under the proverbial carpet can be spoken of with an ever-lessening stigma? Spousal and childhood abuse, once so well concealed by those net curtains and never spoken of except, all too often, with blame for the victim, are no longer quite so easy to hide and are little better understood by the general public. Are we ditching the nets because we are moving towards a more open society or the other way round?
When I first moved in here, I could not help noticing just how much is blocked by those net curtains, looking from both the outside in and, more importantly, from the inside out. I no longer need to leave my home to be intimate with a dawn or a sunset. I can see the stars from my bed… or step outside; it is no longer a necessity, it is simply a choice. By allowing the light to stream in unfiltered, I look out at an undiminished world… knowing all the while that it could gaze back at me, yet most of the time, it has better things to do. That seems to bring an unexpected freedom, a new honesty to the relationship with land and sky as well as a new level of choice and responsibility. Unadulterated light shows me the dust ball under the bed as clearly as the ones in my own being… and once seen, both can be addressed. Living in the laight also makes the colours sing and the crystal sparkle and shed rainbows… and perhaps it could do that for me too.
For one reason or another, we have spent a lot of time driving backwards and forwards to Glastonbury since the birth of the Silent Eye. We never take the motorway, choosing instead to travel the slower, more beautiful route south and west into Somerset. The road leads through an ancient and sacred landscape, passing the White Horse at Uffington and beneath the stark contours of Barbury Castle before crossing an unseen threshold into Wiltshire. There is no need to be anything other than simply open to the moment to feel the difference; there is a change of gear, an indefinable frisson and you get a glimpse of the weight of ages carried in the memory of the land.
The road passes beside Silbury Hill and the stone circles of Avebury and it was a simply as a gesture of respect that we formed the habit of stopping by the great mound for a moment. Avebury is a huge complex, not ‘just’ a stone circle and a sense of presence seems to radiate out from its heart. We spent Saturday with a friend and were returning from Glastonbury in the dark. We had already stopped at Silbury on the way there and paid our respects to hill and stone in the sunlight; now, however, it was dark and while the land gathered its shadows, we decided to dine at the Red Lion, the reputedly haunted pub that has stood in the middle of the stone circle for the past four hundred years. The last time we had been here, we had been taking an extensive detour northwards to a Silent Eye workshop in Yorkshire. The time before that, it had been the midsummer workshop.
There are no lights on the road that leads into the village; the darkness is complete save for the light you bring with you. The circles and stones of Avebury have stood here in silence for around five thousand years. The stones that are overwhelming by their sheer scale and presence during daylight hours seem immense and overpowering when they loom out of the darkness, caught in the headlights like frozen ghosts. In summer, this is a place of rich green adorned by swathes of wildflowers. But winter has the land in its grip; the ground is iron-hard and the trees as leafless skeletons, stretching hoary fingers to the stars. It is an eerie sight. It does not look like the kind of place anyone in their right minds would want to explore.
So, of course we did. The sub-zero temperatures of midwinter meant we had the stones to ourselves. Without light, there is no way to see a clear path across the uneven surface of the grass… yet for some reason, our footsteps were sure and confident. Without light, the stones should have blended into the moonless darkness, yet they stood clear and luminous, reflecting back at us, or so it seemed, more than the meagre glow from the darkened village should have allowed. They even cast shadows on the embankment of the henge… confusing shadows that seemed to replace the lost stones with ghostly memories.
There was too little light to take photographs without a flash…and my flash doesn’t work and it wouldn’t have seemed right either to intrude upon the darkness. The few pictures I did take rendered only blank screens…until I got them home and lightened them. Their grainy texture reminds me of ultrasound scans, looking for life…and that was pretty much how it felt as we looked for the life within the stones. And it is there. A life deeper, slower and older than our own, whispering of mysteries we have both forgotten and are yet to comprehend… and yet which seems to reach in and awaken a hazy awareness of something we ought to know. The stones were not silent, though their voices are not heard. Their mystery seems to be tantalisingly just out of reach… a whisper in another room, barely heard and indistinct, yet almost, almost enough to sense what is being said. Even time seemed to cooperate; improperly dressed for such temperatures, we could not stay out as long as we would have liked… yet the clock seemed to think that we had.
Avebury is a magical place at any time; there is no place quite like it and none of such a scale where you walk so intimately with the stones. Whatever their purpose in sunlight, at night both their purpose and their presence is something very different. There is a palpable sense of being within a place that is gathering itself in the shadows… almost like being in a battery while it charges. It is not a fearful place, but a place of awe and wonder and against the backdrop of darkness, far more than in the light, the stones come to life. Darkness only hides the detail from a distance. Once you step out into it, immersing yourself in what looks like utter obscurity, it is only then that you realise just how much light the apparent darkness still holds. Even the faintest light from the village is reflected back from the surface of the stones, seemingly magnified and revealing faces and forms unseen by day. It is only when you are caught in blinding glare of artificial light that the shadows become truly dark and your footsteps falter. Maybe that is one of the lessons the stones still hold, even now when we have forgotten their true purpose.
As a little girl, I loved the tale of Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson. There was something wholly magical about the battle between the Summer King and the Winter King facing each other in within a circle of stones to wrest the season from each other. That story was set at Beltane, but the ‘battle’ between summer and winter is never more obvious than at midwinter. The period around the winter solstice is the dark time of the year. The sun appears to stand still for a few days, hovering on the horizon. The nights begin early and end late. The days are short and cold. As the winter weather closes in, grey and forlorn, for a little while it seems that there is only darkness.
Yet it is at this very moment, when the winter has its strongest hold, that the light triumphs in the age-old contest as the nadir of winter passes and the sun begins to renew its ascendance. No matter what the calendar says or how dark the day, the renewal of the light has begun its journey towards spring and many traditions honour this moment in time, each in their own way. It is for this reason that so many of the Lightbearers have been celebrated to the dark of the year throughout our history. It is in the midst of darkness that the birth of hope is both most needed and renewed.
It is odd, for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, to think that while we are celebrating all the holidays and holy days associated with the winter solstice, those who live in the southern hemisphere are celebrating in the warmth and sunshine of midsummer. The original inhabitants of every corner of the world would have had their own celebrations, born of the turning wheel of the year. Then, when the Old World colonised the New, the colonists took their traditions, beliefs and festivals with them too. Now, at opposite poles of the world, we share, for a moment, common celebrations of Light.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice. – T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Perhaps that is something we can carry forward, beyond the celebrations, recognising our kinship instead of fearing our differences. Celebrating the fact that we can be poles apart in our beliefs and yet sharing a common desire for peace. This year has been a dark one for many, both at personal and international levels. There is a sense of unease and foreboding, a fear of encroaching darkness has touched many hearts. Yet in every heart is the spark of Light and each one of us can be a Lightbearer to the coming year.
It was still full dark when I left…it will be a while before dawn and I coincide again on the drive back from the north. I miss those intimate moments when the first rays of the sun creep over a horizon strewn with ancient stone… and no-one else is in sight. This morning, there was just the blackness and the vague, sulphurous haze on the edge of vision that marks the towns and villages, glimpsed as you pass over the wide, empty moorlands.
On the roads I travel, there is no other light until I pass through the sleeping habitations of man…only that which I bring with me. As I left the hilltops, the trees and hedgerows shelter the road and I was struck by the difference made by the headlights of the car.With the lights on full beam I can see a fair distance ahead, but the blackness beyond the brash light seems complete. Around me, the arching branches of the hedgerows and trees that line the road seem to form a solid tunnel…impenetrable walls beyond which I cannot see. I can only stick to my path, blinded to the road when my own headlights hit the reflective surface of a puddle or road sign. Blinded too by the lights of oncoming cars that seem to devour my light…especially those who forget to dip their beams as they approach… attracting curses, no doubt, if I forget to dim my own. Too much of this harsh light does not illuminate the path… it seems to erase it, leaving you disoriented and momentarily lost, even fearful.
The brilliance of other lights can be deceptive… when all you can see is the tail-light of another vehicle ahead of you, you almost automatically follow the red pinpoints, assuming they can see and are on the right line… when in fact, there are no guarantees of that at all… nor that they are taking the same road…You could easily follow them and end up lost or stuck in the mud of a ditch.
With my own lights dipped, I find the light more gentle. Although I cannot see quite as much of the road ahead, it softens into distance rather than being cut off by darkness. It illuminates the shapes of the bushes and reaching branches, so that each stands out clearly. Even in the all-encompassing night, you get an impression of the space both around and beyond the trees, catching glimpses of movement and the reflections of the eyes of wild creatures…. and the rain falls through the twin beams like a gift of diamonds or stardust dropped in your path…motes of light from the heavens.
The cat’s eyes in the road become a sure trail to follow… bright guiding pinpricks, navigating the darkness…yet they emit no light; they guide you onwards by reflecting your own… their only light is that which you bring to the journey.
As the sun begins to rise and the horizon lightens, the world starts to detach itself from the shadows and take on recognisable form. The familiarity of the shapes around you is reassuring, yet the half-light is probably the most difficult time to drive. You think you know where you are and what you see, yet it is an uncertain light and falsifies perception. The headlights seem to lose their potency against the growing dawn, becoming more of an affirmation that says ‘I am here’ than a help on the journey.
As the sun bathes the morning in gold, you can no longer see your light…it has been subsumed by a greater light and is no longer needed to see the journey ahead. It serves you not at all… yet it may serve others who travel the roads with you, warning them of bends and hills in the miles ahead or reassuring them that they are not alone on the road.
The dark road home is a long one, with plenty of time for musing and reflection… but one thing is certain, such roads cannot be travelled without light.
All my life I have visited sacred sites when I could, and I have been lucky enough to visit many. Whether ancient church, temple, stone circle or legendary landscape, there is something about these sites that touches a place deep within. Perhaps it is a sense of kinship with those who built them, perhaps a sense of shared reverence for that greater Something touched unseen beyond the veil.
It has never mattered to me how that divinity was approached or what form it took, only that it was perceived, recognised by the heart and present in the lives of the builders. They, and I, share perhaps, a common sentiment, expressed in my favourite Hindu prayer, “Thou art without form, but I worship thee in these forms”. In these often strange, yet somehow familiar, edifices and landscapes we can glimpse the very real place that divinity took in the lives of our forefathers.
Theories on the technologies and purpose of these places abound. Yet have you ever stopped to consider the amount of sheer hard work that went into their building? Silbury Hill, for instance. It has been estimated that it would have taken 500 people, working every day for 10 years to construct the hill from 500,000 tonnes of chalk and earth. Stonehenge with its small forest of stone, in excess of 1200 tons… and the bluestones transported all the way from Wales.
I have driven from Presceli where the bluestones were quarried to Salisbury Plain. Even in a fast car on a clear road you are looking at a four hour drive. And four and a half thousand years ago there were no nice smooth roads. I worked in transport for a long time with cranes and often had to organise the transport and installation of large sculptures. Even with modern technology it is no easy task. Can you imagine what was involved in terms of sheer effort for our ancestors to move these great stones so far?
Wonderful churches and cathedrals sit in the midst of our towns, passed daily with barely a glance by many of us, yet these edifices are a testimony to ingenuity, innovation and craftsmanship, lifetimes of artistry and work. Here at least we can understand in modern terms how an artist would work for a living, yet those who built the ancient places … what drove them to do so? Would they not have been better occupied pursuing the necessities of survival?
They appear not to have thought so. Someone must have fed them, cared for their children, their parents and for them, so in the harsh and uncertain environment in which they lived, not only the workers themselves were involved in the effort, but whole communities must have supported it and taken part, each sacrificing time and sharing resources to maintain the workforce.
These ancient places, sacred to their builders, speak of humanity. Perhaps the planners, the decision makers, saw power in the building… that too is a human trait… yet to be able to envision such great works, to organise and coordinate, to maintain a workforce and create these wonders of which we see but the remnants, would have taken powerful leadership. It is not as if the tribes were equipped with the weaponry to enforce and impose these projects so many thousands of years ago.
So what drove them? We cannot know for certain, of course, with the ancient places. No record exists except the enigmatic traces on the landscape. Yet the human heart and mind has not changed so very much perhaps that we cannot divine a recognisable thread.
With the great cathedrals, of course, the wealth and power of the church was displayed. Religion dominated every aspect of life and was a very real force for peasant and noble alike. They took it seriously, awed, fearful of judgement perhaps, loving too and worshipping from the heart. In medieval times the physical and political power of wealth and weaponry could have imposed, the organised power of a multinational religion would have been able to ensure that such works were completed. Yet they could not have imposed the obvious and loving dedication of the artists and artisans who created the beauty that survives.
Amid the simplicity of domestic architecture and the poverty of the cities, amid the homes we would see as hovels, the cathedrals were built, reaching high to the heavens, magnificent structures of lace carved in stone, towering above the surrounding rooftops to the glory of their God.
I can only think that the ancient places too were built for much the same reasons.
Was it simply an effort to propitiate the gods and ensure survival? Yet if so, would the tribes not have been more profitably occupied in smaller works and greater effort hunting, farming and working in known ways to survive? I think there was more to it than that. These places, when we stand among their traces, are so vast, entire landscapes shaped and altered by human effort, sweat and blood, that the only reason I can feel is awe at their perception of something greater and their efforts to somehow reach out to it and bring it into their own life and land.
When I stand in the nave of a tiny chapel, a lonely temple on the moors or amid the splendour of a cathedral, when my bare feet walk the grass between the stones and landscapes carved by human hands, I marvel at their skill and dedication. Yet beyond and beneath the awe at the human achievement is a sense of companionship on a sacred quest, a journey of the soul towards a Light perceived, however dimly, that pervades and illuminates the world and each of us.
It matters not how that Light is seen, what Name we use or the stories we have woven in our attempts at understanding. It matters only that It is, and that seeing It, we look for It within. The sacred landscape that is our self is enough.