I’m delighted to announce that I’ve just received 2 boxes full of copies of a new Christmas Anthology, for which I am one of the contributing authors. This is “a festive feast of stories, poems and reflections” and entitled Merry Christmas Everyone.
The anthology is published by the Association of Christian Writers. It covers the entire spectrum of emotions that this season can arouse, and I have contributed a piece called The Christmas List.
The book’s available on all online retail sites and I have two dozen copies myself which you may order from me if you live in the UK, at the retail price of £8.99 plus p & p £1.50. If you do wish to order please contact me via this website and I will mail you a copy enclosing the invoice.
The book is a wonderful resource for Christmas readings – whether that be for parties, gatherings of friends and family round the fireside or dinner table, or church services.
If you read the book I do hope you find something in there which speaks to your heart, however you feel about this season – across the entire emotional range.
A place of inspiration is any place which arouses strong emotions, or perhaps memories, dreams, or reflections. The Castle Inn at Edgehill Oxfordshire is one such place.
A tavern was first built in this high location in 1742 – one hundred years after the date of the Battle of Edgehill which took place in the valley below. There, on 23rd October 1642 the forces of the Parliamentarians and the Royalists faced each other in the open field between Kineton and Radway. The English Civil War was just beginning. The King’s forces had been on their way to London via Birmingham and Kenilworth. The Parliamentarian forces had been heading for Worcester. And they accidentally came together in this bloody battle. The Civil War should have ended there. But it didn’t. The battle ended indecisively, but if the royalist forces had marched straight to London they would have gained the advantage, and the war would have been over.
Instead, they made one of those fateful wrong decisions upon which English history so often turns. The Parliamentarian forces got to London first, and a cruel war ensured. King Charles I had lost his best chance to win. His own personal story ended when he paid the highest price for his errors and bad choices, by being beheaded.
One of England’s most evocative and compelling ghost stories lingers around this place too. Since the time of the battle, haunting sounds and apparitions have been reported by many, at night, and particularly around the anniversary of the battle.
Above all this, the Castle Inn sits with its folly in the form of a castellated tower (in which you may book an overnight stay), a picturesque and intriguing attraction at Edgehill, offering refreshment, delicious meals and excellent service in its delightful beer garden, refurbished dining room and historic bar.
It’s one of my favourite pubs to visit, here in the heart of England. Though its attendant history is very sad – see the exhibition now on display at St Peter’s Church Radway – being a story full of tragedy and cruelty and fate, of the kind we love to reflect upon from our safe distance of centuries: until we start to compare it with several current situations of conflict in the world today.
Such, to me, qualifies it to be a place of spiritual resonance, because it affords us an opportunity to reflect upon our own lives, and upon the human story and its twists and turns of fate, from our perspective of centuries after the original historical events. When a place evokes strong feelings of pity, poignancy, compassion, to my mind, that makes it a special place.
And by the way the interior is delightful, the views are magnificent, the service excellent and the menu thoroughly enjoyable!
Imagine you could step into the Monastery right now – perhaps like the one which we saw in the 2005 TV series, or even the one in this image – and move apart from all the frantic busyness and stress and tension of your life, and receive some deep wisdom from the heart of the mystics.
Yesterday I received something very similar at a Quiet Day in St Mark’s Church Leamington Spa where I heard three talks from Bishop John Stroyan, Bishop of Warwick – a man imbued in the literature of some of the world’s greatest mystics. Bishop John is someone who speaks in a lowkey way and yet treasures of spiritual wisdom emerge almost as asides. There is no stridency, nothing is declaimed; but those listening cannot but be aware that he speaks of the true underlying structure which drives our behaviour, our motivation and our attitudes and the way we react to events and circumstances in our lives.
During his talk he referred to the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin – which he described as “the most shocking church” he had been into. Figures of Nazi soldiers and members of the Hitler Youth are interspersed with figures from the Nativity, and an Aryan family of the type Hitler wanted in his Master Race also adorn the church. In addition, a strong, muscular, Aryan Christ is seen on the cross. It’s one of the hundred churches Hitler built, the only one that has survived, intentionally as a chilling reminder of how evil systems can recruit the Christian faith to their cause. Apparently, the Bishop said, both the Nazis and the apartheid regime used Christian clothing for their causes – making God in their images, recruiting Him to serve their agendas.
This is a very strong warning to us, as the Bishop said: “Beware of what we think we know.”
Some of the wisdom the Bishop shared with us included the observation that “you’ve faced the darkness and come through it, and God will use that as a gift to help others who struggle.”
How often do we see that those who have suffered the most are in the best position to support and comfort those who now suffer in the same way?
He said that pearls are tears shed around grit that irritates the oyster. Some people, as we know, become hard and embittered and resentful around that grit in their lives.
But the Bishop spoke about the weaving of God’s good purposes through events in our lives that we would never choose to happen. “Crises can be the bearers of grace.”
Julian of Norwich said, “In falling and rising again we are always held close in one love.”
An image the Bishop likes to use in his talks is one taken from his life as a dog-lover. He may be taking his two dogs for a walk and when they get the smell of an exciting rabbit, they rush off away from him after the rabbit. He calls loudly for them to come back. They know his voice. And yet they practice what we all do: “selective deafness”.
Another image comes from the bird world. The mother eagle puts sharp pointed uncomfortable things in the nest to make the eaglets fly.. Otherwise they would stay cosy in the nest. This is the only thing that makes them leave the nest, take wing and soar on the thermals.
My dream, wrote the designer William Morris, is a dreamof what has never been… and therefore, since, the world is alive, and moving yet, my hope is the greater that it one day will be… dreams have before now come about of things so good… we scarcely think of them more than the daylight, though once people had to live without them, without even the hope of them.
Among all things most romantic to me is a high place.
I go to high places for calmness and peace.
There are a number of high places I love to visit, from where I live in Warwickshire.
And just such a place, 35 minutes drive from my home, is Broadway Tower in the heart of the Cotswolds, which I have visited many times, most recently the day before writing this post.
From the top of the tower one may see, on a fine day, thirteen counties.
No wonder idealists and romantics went there in the nineteenth century after their friend took a lease on the Tower, following the death of the Tower’s creator and original owner, the Earl of Coventry. For the Tower, a picturesque folly on the summit of Broadway Hill, emerged from the romantic movement. So, too, flambuoyant, theatrical and sensual, did Painswick Rococo Garden emerge from this tradition, as I wrote in a recent review on Trip Adviser.
William Morris was just one of the many idealists and romantics who came here. His rich, complex and exquisite designs now adorn soft furnishings, and a selection of them may be seen on the second floor of the Tower.
He is a beacon of romantic idealism, combining a love of medieval craftsmanship and Gothic design elements.
And his association with Broadway Tower – together with that of his contemporaries of like mind – is appropriate.
It’s certainly true that I, too, feel an affinity with the Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites, the members of the Arts & Craft movement, and their dreams and visions.
For where would we be in this life if none among us aspired to, or dreamed of impossible ideals?
Read the full text of The Dream of William Morris here.
The most profound emotions, the deepest experiences of the human spirit may be evoked by the sound of a heavenly choir.
There has often been debate about which is the greatest musical instrument. And of course each of us will have different favourites. It has been said, for instance, that the grand pipe organ is “the King of Instruments”.
But I believe the greatest musical instrument is the human voice.
The other day I listened to a heavenly choir – the Armonico Consort – sing some of the most sublime choral music ever composed in St Mark’s Church, New Milverton, Leamington Spa.
As I listened to Barber’s Agnus Dei, and Allegri’s Miserere Mei float through the church, I heard with new ears, and saw with new eyes. I’ve been going to this church for 14 years and had not previously realised quite how beautiful it is. The power of the music had opened up not only the sense of hearing.
Why do we respond so instinctively to the sound of those voices? Because, I suggest, they give us a glimpse of eternity.
Whenever a film director wishes to evoke in the audience pity, grief and sorrow, or joy, bliss, peace and gladness, the best choice of background music is that provided by a heavenly choir.
In the first part of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, we find this used to good effect on several occasions.
When the Fellowship of the Ring meet Haldir of Lorien, we hear the first long sustained notes of those ethereal voices. The Lady of the Wood is waiting. The Lady Galadriel appears, and the voices of the heavenly choir crescendo.
In Lothlorien, again the massed voices are heard in the background, an aural tapestry evoking mystical power, visions, prophecy, wisdom, insight.
And at the end of the film, they are heard once more, immediately after Frodo has turned to his faithful companion and said, “Sam, I’m glad you’re with me.”
Here, the heavenly choir evokes values like love, loyalty, courage, determination, self-sacrifice.
In the bible we find these words: “God has written eternity on our hearts”.
I can affirm this by personal experience, again and again throughout my life.
Please share your thoughts on this. Have you too experienced the sublime through music? And do you too have a strong sense that God has written eternity on your heart?
Does an experience of joy and spiritual upliftment only count as a mystical experience if it changes your life?
I believe these experiences gather significance cumulatively, over the course of a lifetime, through the repetition of events grouped around a similar theme – just as in a recurring dream.
And for me the recurring theme is mountains.
When I was about seven years old our family went on holiday to Wales. Early one morning, a few of us got up and set out from our guesthouse for a walk before breakfast. To me, the world was fresh and new, everything was full of potential and wonder, the air held a miraculous clarity, the sky was a pure translucent blue… and at the end of the road was a mountain.
All I could think was “At the end of the road there’s a mountain – and we’re going to climb it.”
And that “start of the holidays” experience of mine was to inform all subsequent “glimpses of eternity” throughout my life.
Several years later I joined the Yoga for Health Foundation which was then led by Howard Kent (1919-2005). I wouldn’t describe Howard Kent as charismatic – probably one of the things I appreciated about him – but I liked and respected his character – wisdom, spirituality & a dry sense of humour.
I went on a Yoga Tour of North India and Nepal with Howard Kent and a group of yoga enthusiasts.
We flew to Delhi and our trip included Agra (the Taj Mahal), Varanasi (the Burning Ghats by the Ganges), the erotic temple carvings of Khajuraho, as well as the Red City of Jaipur, and finally Khathmandu in Nepal.
I have a vivid memory of time spent at twilight on the roof of a derelict maharajah’s palace in the jungle near Khajuraho, with Howard Kent and another member of our party, during which we talked about whether it was a good idea or not to renounce the world. (We concluded it wasn’t). Out in the jungle we heard a tiger growl. Otherwise there was an overwhelming silence and tranquility. And I even remember the cloud formation in the sky, which presented itself to me in the shape of a giant fish.
But this post is about one other aspect of that Indian tour – our journey through the Gharhwal Himalayas, (known as “the land of the gods” ), a journey which took us from Rishikesh to Badrinath, centre of Hindu pilgrimage.
And there, in Badrinath, one peak – Mount Neel Kanth – encapsulated all my recurring experiences around mountains.
I quote here from a passage in my journal, written on the night of our arrival in Badrinath.
“this town and the mountains around it have an awesome quality… an almost palpable presence filled the valley… the source of this power was Neel Kanth, a mountain of white crystal whose peak appeared between the two dark slopes of Naryan… luminous in the full moon.. it shone out like a mystical vision.” The next day, I wrote,”the spiritual intensity of the night had vanished but a deeper serenity remained.”
Is there a recurring image in your life – in your dreams, or in the real world, which means a lot to you on your journey? Whatever you believe, does this ring any bells for you? Do you identify with this journey? Share your thoughts and feelings with me about this journey of the spirit. I’d love to have your comments!
Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon Sanctuary I only recently discovered.
It’s in St Peter’s Church at Wootton Wawen, situated between Henley-in-Arden and Stratford-upon-Avon. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.
Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the “manor”) of Wootton before 1066. And I thought of him as I looked through the exhibition. When William the Conquerer took over, he swiped that land from Wagen and gave it, (as was the way of many English monarchs) to a pal of his. In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.
As I wandered around the church, I mused upon the lessons of history, and whether I can learn anything from them, in my life.
Along with the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought played into my musings – a recent TV programme on the 50 greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC TV drama production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”; and our planned visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III was killed, thus signalling the end for the Plantaganets and the rise of the Tudors.
Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind, in no particular order:
A Viking with “bad attitude” buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found by chance 1300 years later.
Henry V triumphed at Agincourt, then married Catherine daughter of the King of France. Their son Henry VI was a bit of a wash-out as a king, and would have preferred not to be king at all; he shrank from the role whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Following Henry V’s death when his son was 9 months old, Catherine went off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.
When Richard III fought Henry Tudor at Bosworth, Henry was the rank outsider, and Richard would have been expecting to win. Shakespeare has him saying, “A horse! A horse! my kingdom for a horse!” He probably never said it but with those words Shakespeare exactly captures not only the poignancy and significance of that moment, but gives us a metaphor for human life many can recognise.
Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future – but whatever she achieved was only temporary. Her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.
So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune, and how they interface with our lives.
Consider the following:
What might have happened if:
– Richard III’s (metaphorical) horse had been available at the moment he needed him?
– Mary I had had a successful pregnancy which led to the birth of a healthy baby, thus securing a Catholic Tudor dynasty in England?
– if Harold had beat William at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?
– if James II had won the Battle of the Boyne?
– if Charlotte, the beautiful daughter of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, (as beloved as Princess Diana was when she died in 1997) had safely given birth to a healthy child, and lived to claim the throne and reign for 60 years, before Victoria was ever thought of?
– if Edward VIII had not met Mrs Simpson?
Some of these events could be interpreted as arising from errors of judgement and human failings; others from quirky twists of fate.
Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of the world; and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.
So what do I deduce from this? And is this something that can apply to anyone who has a dream or vision or sets out upon a course of action with a great goal in mind – such as a creative writer who would like their words to be read by many?
Simply that success or failure is not determined by hard work and striving.
Certainly “hard work and striving” cannot just be dispensed with. But perhaps we have to live with a healthy knowledge that that they may in a moment be swept away, and rendered irrelevant, by a quirky twist of fate.
What do you think? Do you share my fatalism? Or are you a historian who disagrees with my interpretation of English history? Do consider leaving a comment!