Shadowlands and the magic lantern…

Every so often, I need a break from whatever is currently occupying my attention. Occasionally, I will watch a film. These are usually whatever I can find online and I seldom have a clear idea of what I fancy until something catches my eye.

Now, I freely admit that I am useless where films are concerned. I have neither been a movie buff, nor followed fashion. I’ve never… except for one brief period in Paris… had access to a cinema that showed arthouse films and even many of the cultural and cinematic classics escaped me, including those popular movies counted as old favourites by many.

Most movies aimed primarily at women have never really attracted me; Gone with the Wind was fifty years old before I saw it, I never did see Grease and I only watched Dirty Dancing only because it was a Christmas present. Anything more modern than that has probably escaped my notice until recently. Most of the films I know well are the black and white ones that hit the TV screen during my childhood. Stuart, who has excellent taste in films, has stopped asking ‘if I have seen’ and merely assumes, quite rightly, that I probably haven’t.

Wandering through what is available free online, I can be drawn by some weird and wonderful things. It may be a name or a screenshot, a title or a premise. I have watched some appallingly bad films… some so bad I just had to keep watching… as well as finding some real gems. Just because everyone else has seen them, doesn’t stop them being new to me… and within those gems are sometimes odd details that set me off thinking.

One such detail was a moment in Shadowlands, a biographical film by Richard Attenborough, based upon the marriage of C.S. Lewis, creator of the Narnia stories to American author Joy Davidman. Having read much of his work and being completely unaware of this film, I felt almost duty-bound to take a couple of hours off to watch Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Lewis. The dialogue was well written, his performance as well crafted as always, and it is a very moving film. There is a moment within the film when the grief-stricken ‘Lewis’ cries out, and it stopped me in my tracks…

“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time – waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

For one, brief and fleeting instant, I understood something I have always known. ‘It doesn’t change God – it changes me.’

Prayer can take many forms, prayers are offered for many reasons… but prayer, as I personally understand it, need not always be religious.

As a child at Sunday-school, we were taught a very simplistic idea of prayer. Given that our world was but a pale shadow of the heaven to which we were supposed to aspire, we were taught how to pray in the hope of getting there. I could never quite get my head around the idea that by kneeling humbly in prayer we would be able to convince any god to give us what we want. I was never convinced, either, that a god big enough to create the entire universe was just waiting for my rote-learned praise and/or apologies and requests. The way we were being taught to pray made me feel as if we were treating God like a pick ‘n’ mix counter.

Didn’t ‘He’ get fed up listening to ‘bless Mummy and Daddy and Grandma and Grandad and…’ ad nauseum? Why should ‘He’ make me a good girl? If ‘He’d’ already made me, shouldn’t I at least be doing that on my own?

So I fell out with prayer for a while. Or with religious dogma. Or both. But the conviction of some vast and cosmic Intellect, the guiding Principle behind Creation, never left and, as I grew up a little more, I began to seek a new way to pray.

I found it in the land… in the way the heather covers the hills in summer, in beech woods carpeted with bluebells, in the sparkle of minerals in rocks and the chorus of birds that greets the rising and going down of the sun. Prayer was not about mouthing a few platitudes to a god, abasing oneself or presenting him with a shopping list. I felt it should be a continual celebration of the life we have and share. Prayer was not something to do at all… it was something to be.

With that revelation came the beginnings of joy and an inner freedom that remains to this day. That was why the phrase from the film had struck home; I recognised it… “because I can’t help myself.” And seeing life as the prayer has certainly changed me.

I am not sure I agree with the rest of the quote though. ‘It doesn’t change God’… I think it might, though not in the way we were taught as children, when we were given to understand that our supplications might change the mind of God and convince ‘Him’ to grant our wishes, like the genie in a magic lantern.

I no longer believe this world to be a pale shadow of anything… I believe it to be itself, just as it is and, that, if we are here, it is for, and with, a purpose.

If we, and all we know as life are part of one universal Life, do we not ‘change God’ through the essence of our experience? And, if we see life itself as the prayer, and live our lives within it, then we are adding to a well of understanding from which we may all drink.

Going west – Carreg Samson

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The jaws had dropped, the expletives had escaped and the cameras were out almost as soon as we exited the car. Even from a distance, Carreg Samson was spectacular, set against the backdrop of the coast… a smiling dragon resting his maw on folded wings as if he was casually looking over the cliff top at the approaching party. We should have expected dragons in Wales, but we could never have expected this.

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Even at close quarters, the resemblance remained. We had dutifully noted that, from the correct approach, the contours of the great head seemed to shadow the shape of the headland beyond. The location alone is stunning and the stones are simply enormous. The capstone is over fifteen feet long, nearly nine feet wide and over three feet thick. There is plenty of headroom to stand beneath it. When you consider that the legends say that St Samson lifted the capstone into position with his little finger, you can only imagine that the Welsh saint had been well named.

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Whether through soil subsidence over the five thousand years since it was built or, more likely by design, the capstone is only supported by three of the six remaining orthostats. The stones are different in colour and texture, the supporting stones rich with veins of quartz… and stone was the technology and the artistry of the builders, I doubt that they would make such choices without reason. There are several outliers still half hidden in the grass.

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Excavations showed that there were once four more stones… one support and three that may have formed a passage into the tomb from the southeast. They also found that the tomb was built over a deep, rubble-filled pit. Burnt bone, sherds of pottery and worked flints were also found. Like Coetan Arthur, there is debate over whether or not this tomb ever wore an earthen mound. Be that as it may, at some point in its history, local shepherds had used loose stone to block the gaps in the walls and had used the tomb as a sheep shelter. I wonder what the dragon had thought about that… I have never imagined dragons as herbivores. Even from the other side, the head neck and serene smile are visible.

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We gathered in the chamber of a place once held sacred by our ancestors and, for the first time, shared a version of the Gorsedd Prayer, composed by Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826), that has been adopted by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids:

Grant, O God, Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all life;
And in the love of all life, the love of God.

God and all goodness.

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It mattered not at all by what name or with what vision we each turned our thoughts to the One. We stood on sacred ground, though the names and faces of its gods are lost beyond time. Both faith and belief are personal, unique to each individual, regardless of any religious affiliation. Every prayer that is offered, in praise, thanks or supplication, flies on its own wings.

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With the cameras and the laughter, a casual observer could have been forgiven for putting us down as a just another group of tourists. There is no need for robes, arcane symbols or chanting… okay, sometimes we chant. And wear robes. And symbolism is everywhere anyway. But the heart of a spiritual weekend is in the sacred intent of those who are gathered, not in its outward expression or in pseudo-spiritual posturing.  It is not by the overt and visible form that the inner intent can be measured, nor can it be dismissed as absent when it is veiled by mundane normality. In the quiet spaces between breaths, when a few come together and turn their thoughts to the One, sometimes that intent can be seen,  just for a moment, as beautiful and as tangible as a flower.

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