What could be more poignant than a formerly grand mansion, standing on a cliff, now partially demolished, abandoned and desolate?
Gaping staircases you cannot climb; stone balconies you long to stand on to gaze at the view; empty windows you feel sure a shadowy figure should flit past.
Just such a gaunt mansion is Guy’s Cliffe House, our local romantic ruin, perched atop a cliff above the River Avon, catching the imagination of all who pass by on the other side of the river.
Gothic stone tracery, an ornate balcony, evidence of a flambuoyant builder, remain to tantalize you.
For one of those who occupied the house embellished it with Roman, classical, mediaeval and Gothic elements.
Guy’s Cliffe House so caught my own imagination during the past few years that I occasionally wished that, if I was hugely wealthy, I could pay for it to be restored to its former glory.
In reality, I’d like it to be made safe for people to enter and explore, and for new timber staircases and walkways to be constructed, so we could climb to those balconies and gaze at the view.
And I’d like all the original formal gardens to be restored so people can wander around in them and enjoy the romantic setting.
I feel that Guy’s Cliffe is a poignant illustration of what happens when wealthy property owners do not successfully pass on their property to an equally rich and prudent and competent heir.
One developer/house-breaker deliberately demolished part of the Guy’s Cliffe House, then all the contents were auctioned off, and and accidental fire and neglect did the rest.
We all find it difficult to understand how such a grand property gets damaged, ransacked and neglected like that.
8 foot tall bamboo now crowds close to the cave in the cliff, where Guy of Warwick, in the tenth century, returned from the Holy Land and mysteriously chose to live for two years, rather than reuniting with his wife and child in the house above.
I’ve written before about sacred spaces. In that article, I looked at some renowned locations in England where people have felt they’re in touch with something bigger than themselves – a sense of the numinous.
All of these places work symbolically or metaphorically to express a place where we may be or a situation we may encounter in this life, that we recognise from our own experience.
And one such renowned location is Stonehenge – which I visited a few days ago with family members.
To walk slowly and attentively around Stonehenge, using the audio guide provided by English Heritage, is to experience something numinous, much bigger than ourselves.
The stones arrived here some time just before 2500 BC, to begin transforming the previously existing simple enclosure to something much different. And as we considered the huge effort that our ancestors put into moving the stones 19 miles from the Marlborough Downs in north Wiltshire, and 150 miles from the Preseli Hills in Wales, to this location, in order to construct this massive circle, we were drawn in to the wonder and the mystery.
Those who accept the theory of ley lines know that Stonehenge stands on the Old Sarum Ley which is aligned with Salisbury Cathedral, among other sacred places.
As the English Heritage guidebook points out, Stonehenge can perhaps be seen as the prehistoric equivalent of a great cathedral like that at nearby Salisbury, built for worship and as a place where believers could come to find healing and hope and where important people can be buried.
Salisbury Cathedral, described as Britain’s finest 13th Century Cathedral, is another inspirational place.
From its glorious chancel roof
The chancel roof of Salisbury Cathedral (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
to the stunningly beautiful lapis lazuli of the Prisoners of Conscience windows,
this is a place to move and uplift and fill you with awe.
Here, the hearts and minds of all those who enter, for worship or just to visit, may be lifted up to a bigger and clearer understanding of God.
Or, perhaps, they may receive fresh glimpses of eternity, in much the same way, perhaps, as the hearts and minds of those who built and used Stonehenge over the course of 1,400 years.
Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
came into my hands the other day, recommended by a friend. The book was published by Penguin in 2012.
I’ve now finished the book and given it a rating on Goodreads & Amazon of 3 out of 5 stars
Initially, this book held great possibilities for me. It seemed an intriguing thesis.
De Botton, an atheist, acknowledges that although he has no supernatural beliefs, there are many good things in religious practice – and he cites the examples of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism – which would be of benefit to secular society. So he proposes that the secular world should take all that’s good in religious practice, and apply it in secular institutions – minus the supernatural beliefs.
“Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular rituals and encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence.” All tasks should be done through relationship. (This is a quote from a Christian source, Annie Naish, who is a missioner with the Lee Abbey community.) And De Botton has taken this on board well, as he sets forth his ideas.
I like books of philosophy which ruminate about our society and our presumptions and our contemporary culture. The author’s premise seemed to enable him to come from a fresh perspective, free of ‘attitude’, of the kind we associate with the over-exposed Richard Dawkins.
But ultimately I felt that de Botton’s ideas (which he illustrates in various photoshopped pictures throughout his book) would work best on the walls of the Hayward Gallery as part of their exhibition: “An Alternative Guide to the Universe.”
I will however admit that his book works well as a stimulant for discussion. And I agree that many people who have no ‘supernatural beliefs’ would appreciate and benefit from numerous good things about religious practice and customs. And it should not be necessary to hold those beliefs, in order to benefit from all those good things.
I was amused by the author’s argument about using culture in place of scripture; I myself know very well how, for instance, the operas of Wagner can be “secular society’s new sacrament”, and how the profound messages to be found in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” can (to quote de Botton) “take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms.”
On page 113 he says “Christianity concerns itself…with the inner confused side of us.” I accept that this in many cases is true.
Then on pg 122 he says that his university of the future would provide classes in:
1) reconsidering work,
2) improving relationships wth children
3) reconnecting with nature
4) facing illness.
His imaginary university would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying, and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.
Although I was amused by these suggestions, I could see that in reality they would not work at all.
De Botton makes several observations about the human condition, of which this is an example: on pg 192 he remarks how many go through life “dynamiting their chances of success through idiocy and impatience”. I can relate to much of what he says about the default setting of human life, but I don’t agree with his overarching philosophical premise.
One of his points is that religions have fully recognised how sad life is – unlike the false hope engendered by the secular world – and have evolved systems to deal with it. This is a good point and yet, for me, his thesis demands further questions: “But what then…?” and “Why should…?”
This is a book which carried me through for a long way… and then I got to the final third of the book and realised there’s a giant hole at the centre of the author’s argument, and it all ends on a down-note.
Beyond his thesis is my unanswered protest, “But I still don’t understand how…” and I believe many would share that position, having thought through how his ideas would work in practice.
As I finished reading this book, I found myself thinking about one of his statements, about how sad this life is – which is fully recognised by the religions he cites, unlike the false hope engendered by the secular world. Then I found this quote from one of the twentieth century’s greatest spiritual writers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. It was in the entry for 5 August, in the book Precious Thoughts of Thomas Merton: Daily readings From the Correspondence of Thomas Merton:
What is the trolley I am probably getting off? The trolley is called a special kind of hope. The streetcar of expectation… of things becoming much more intelligible, of things being set in a new kind of order, and so on. Point one, things are not going to get better. Point two, things are going to get worse. I will not dwell on point two. Point three, I don’t need to be on the trolley car anyway…. You can call the trolley anything you like, I have got off it.
Ultimately I believe that Thomas Merton is a writer whose words and spiritual authority I would trust more than those of Alain de Botton.