The Hermits Candle
All hundred and fifty psalms
I have described the weather of Devon in different ways, but the binding agent is usually rain. Buckets of the stuff. How I love it. Sky is sheet metal grey, the wintered trees have their skinny pale arms raised and imploring, but it looks like all mercy will be denied, that the sun will never return, that the trembling buds of spring will never surface. How deceptive life can be. I will watch from the door a little longer, till it is time to plunge the coffee, light the low lamp, take to my desk and write to you.
It seems popular at the moment to stress the importance of the darkness. It’s a wise thought.
To, in these early, short days of 2016, both observe the shifting weather outside and also that interior turbulence that can arrive in these first few days of the year. It is a salient council to be unavailable awhile, to be a seed under the dark, heavy body of the earth.
But i’m going to break with my own tradition here today. Or at least tune it up a little.
I want to think about light. The truth is, i’ve become a little skilled at the move into darkness, charged with fertility as it may be. And I say darkness, not necessarily depression, or melancholy or despair. Through they are sometimes the purple flowers brocading its door. You could think of it as walking the road to the Hermits hut. If you read these little notes I send, you probably know all about it in your own life, and your own way. I think of Rilke;
Strange violin, are you following me?
In how many distant cities already
has your lonely night spoke to mine?
I love the idea of lonely nights speaking to each other. I lean into it. It’s very dignified. It’s a marvellous image, what Gaston Bachelard calls a “counsel of resistance”. I’ve been gripped by Bachelard for at least twenty years, and he writes beautifully about the Hermits hut: “Its truth must derive from the intensity of its essence, which is the essence of the verb “to inhabit”. So we are being called to a concentrated solitude, and as we walk through the storm we glimpse the light of the Hermits distant candle from the window. More intense, more holy than a thousand lightbulbs.
We’ve walked many miles through the dark. The hut is small and warm. There is dry wood stacked, a bookcase, chairs and a fire. It is a place of absolute privacy. A place of shelter. The woods outside creak and groan to the mid-winter storm, but here, in this little den, is a place to rest. Let’s gather ourselves and look into the fire. Witness the bed of embers that’s been building over the last few hours. It’s in those embers that we first detect the slow return of the light. Each ember begins with attending to the Hermits candle.
We may not get many clues from the outwards appearance of things today: the rutted tracks and sopping byres of Devon spume rain from every crevice and gully – it seems that all greenness has gone from the land. But it hasn’t. There’s a secret afoot. In the wine-red earth and the spindle branches of the elm, those embers are starting to begin their journey of stirring. Incrementally, but stirring. Over these next weeks, even when we may feel caught in the vice grip of winter, some immense breath is starting to blow patiently on these little hidden embers of vitality. Pay attention to them when you walk in nature, there are clues everywhere. These are simple things i’m saying, but brook seasonal repetition.
And so it is with us. No matter what the catalogue of triumph or betrayal or nothing-much-at-all that this year invoked, there is a biological imperative to synch up the pure animal of your body with the wider seasonal progression. Just as there is a time for disarray, there is also a time for gathering in, for repair, for even – using a big word – for healing. So the council is simple, attend to the embers. Even if your fireplace feels only an ash pile, I know there is one, robin-red little glint in the dark. One is all you need. You can rebuild culture from one ember.
Old people say that only a little of your soul lives in your body, most of it is outside, and then a fair splash way out in eternity. This work down in the cinders – so very ancient mythologically – both honours psyche as deeply felt experience but opens it up into the fellowship of a wider cosmology. What you face is bigger than you can handle. It is. It is for all of us. Self-reliance can become an isolating and desperate habit. Remember prayer, and the fact that history is not a distant thing; it’s greatest attributes are a wild and snorting horse riding alongside us. Rub flanks with your ancestors. Get claimed by Delacroix, or Cezanne or Agnes Martin or Roger Hilton, visit art galleries and libraries: they are filled with gnostic information for your eyes only.
Show up to the miracle of your life as well as its ocean-bright tears until you realise they are in fact a braided knot: an ivory comb to untangle Sednas locks, the long arduous steps over tundra to steal a whisker from a Siberian tiger, a moment when you whisper an errant thought into your childs ear and they burst out with surprised wonder for the first time in months. I’m suggesting you keep going. Who has god blessed more than you?
This last year I have sometimes been close to people dying or terribly sick. Story has been a breath tenderly whispered into an ear as a soul moved like blue smoke from a body, or a confirming shoulder as we scattered the ashes of another, or as a staff of absolute heart-shuddering grief for a bewildered little boy as he chocked out a goodbye to his mother. All of this was correct to test and break me. What I learnt was something very simple. When Death the mid-wife comes, those gathered spoke absolutely from the heart. Certain useless sophistications fell away. Things were suddenly far less ambiguous. Don’t wait till the end to reach out in this manner. Don’t. Don’t. Find out what you love, and communicate it, shelter it, give it fidelity at the centre of your life. You have time. Be it. Speak it. That’s what I learnt. Much of the rest is mirage and cruelty. Have no part in it.
…I know there is room in me
for a second huge and timeless life.
Happy New Year.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2016