Hail the yew, the first Christmas tree

Bright red berry on stem of yew

The first British Christmas tree was not the perfectly proportioned Scandi fir that adorns the ideal living room.

It was a single yew bough, introduced to the English court by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, decorated with ribbons and candles. She went on to display an entire yew tree and from that the Christmas tree tradition, whether yew, fir or plastic, evolved.

A native British tree, the particular qualities of the yew made it the object of reverence long before the advent of Christianity. Its old wood can put forth new shoots and drooping boughs take root, with the result that a single tree can live hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.

According to Yew expert Fred Hageneder, it was these qualities that contributed to its sacred status among the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic people of northern Europe. ‘The Tree of Life is an image of the whole universe, or at least of planet earth, which embodies the notion that all life is related to each other and that all that lives is holy,’ he writes. ‘To serve as an ‘earthly representation’ of the Tree of Life, different cultures chose different tree species, according to which species grew in the region and – since all tree species have different characteristics and qualities – which tree character resonated best with the spiritual ideals emphasized by any given culture.’

It’s not hard to see how, in the northern hemisphere where life was historically dominated by seasonal cycles and the darkness of winter, the yew became an emblem of death and renewal. As the darkest point of the year shifted into the beginning of the new year, for the Druids it was the quintessential solstice tree. And, poisonous in all but its berries, it could provide an arboreal portal to the underworld …

Although it’s not known exactly why, under Christianity, yew trees continued to be planted in churchyards – there’s a summary of many possible explanations here – it seems likely that as churches were built on or close to pagan burial sites, they inherited the long-lived yews that grew there. To make their presence theologically sound, all that was required was a small lexical tweak from ‘rebirth’ to ‘resurrection’. In tooday’s churchyards yews still provide shelter for the modern pilgrims, as does this one at Wilmington in the summer of 2016.

So it’s good to conclude my final blog of the year with this thought of the happy coexistence of the pagan and the Christian, nature-based faith and institutional religion, outdoors and indoors. Happy Christmas tree!

The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent. But in the spirit of unreformed Scrooge, the offer ends at Christmas. Humbug!

St Lucy – the Catholic goddess of midwinter

St Lucy with her eyes on a plate
Not a lot of British people know this, but December 13th is the Feast of St Lucy, a young girl who died under the Roman persecution of Christians in the 4th century.

Until a few centuries ago, under the Julian calendar that preceded the modern Gregorian one, St Lucy’s Day was also the shortest day, the darkest point of the year just before the rebirth of the sun, as celebrated by John Donne in his Nocturnal about ‘the day’s deep midnight’.

Sound familiar? The intertwining of pagan with Christian elements means that St Lucy the Catholic martyr is also the goddess of the Winter Solstice, her feastday a festival of light. (Lucy derives from lux=light)

St Lucy is celebrated in various ways in different countries, from processions of girls wearing headdresses of candles in Sweden and other Nordic countries, to the planting of Christmas wheat in Hungry and Croatia. It’s a syncretic feast that the modern Catholic tradition seems to have integrated with ease.

Facts about the historical Lucy are few, but myths abound, and they have a contemporary resonance. One version of her life puts her firmly in the tradition of virgin martyrs, telling of her torture and death as a result of her refusal to marry – a counter-cultural option taken up by a tiny minority of women. Another gory story tells of how her torturers torn her eyes out, a legend that made her the patron saint of the blind, pictured with her eyes on a plate. Then theres the tale of how Lucy smuggled herself into the catacombs of Rome to take food to the persecuted Christians hiding there. Think foodbanks, humanitarian aid!

So I like St Lucy, and the way she embodies key elements of the Christian and pagan traditions that shape the way we experience winter. And I like the richness of the myths about her, and how they provide resources for thinking about different and difficult aspects of life – misogyny, religious persecution, brutality. She’s a good example of how both Catholic and pagan traditions use human figures, whether saints or goddesses, to bring into focus qualities and experiences that might otherwise seem remote.

And I like, finally, that as I was born an hour into December 14th, my birthday* coincides with a woman who went against the orthodoxies of her society to live the life of the spirit.

This is the third in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.

*The author would like to apologise to users of Facebook who were led to believe that my birthday was on April 1st and took the trouble to send me birthday wishes. This was a joke conducted for data protection reasons.

Pagan Advent: a time of silence and secrets

Winter field with frozen stone and grass in the foreground
Photo by Nicklas Lundqvist

Behind the Christian, the pagan: it’s now generally accepted that the origins of Advent and Christmas lie in the midwinter festivals celebrated by ancient cultures.

The pagan take on Advent is pretty familiar to anyone concerned with the interplay between nature and the human: it’s the season that approaches the turn of the year, moving inexorably (in the northern hemisphere) to its darkest, deadest point.

Then, after a short period of ‘standing still’ – the meaning of ‘solstice’ – the sun resumes its journey, bringing light and the renewal of life. As in Christianity, it’s thought of in terms of birth, but rather than a single, human and dramatic interruption of history, the re-birth of the sun is part of the cycle of life and the earthly nature of things. In both versions of Advent, Sun-days – the days of the sun – are significant.

This sense of stopping, of the (temporary) deadness of the natural world, is central to the pagan understanding of midwinter, and is fed, each and every year, by our experience of what’s (not) going on outside in the natural world. It’s so powerful that it seeps into one of the best-known, oft-sung Christian responses to the season: ‘In the bleak midwinter … Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,’ writes Christina Rossetti, acknowledging the intractability of the hibernal, before returning returning to the sentimental Christianity characteristic of the Victorian age.

At this time of year, I find I’m instinctively looking for complements in the human realm. As night falls, there’s a desire to stay in and be quiet. But it’s also a time of year when, unusually, I feel a strong pull to attend a church service. One year I found a perfect liturgical match in a kind of dramatic enactment of Advent at St Martin-in-the-Fields: the service began in total darkness, gradually illuminated by candles. I loved it, but it was too much for about a fifth of the congregation, who left early on. One pagan winter solstice gathering, by contrast, proved so busy and chatty that I never went back to that group again.

Perhaps, then, to put it another way, this time of year is about silence and secrets. It’s no secret – with a book title like the one to the right – that I’m drawn to the hidden and the unacknowledged – so I especially like the way this anonymous writer on Patheos characterises Advent:‘Perhaps the season between Samhain and Imbolc is meant to be focused on Silence.
On Secrecy, and things kept very close to the heart.’

This is the second in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.

Alternative Advent 1: a season of mindful preparation

A bright star over a dark horizon featuring trees and boats
Photo by Edoard Costa

Advent. ‘Tis the season of consumption and frantic socialising where, in a tacit acknowledgement that everyone is overloaded, mention of any unrelated project is prefaced with ‘after Christmas, obviously …’

Traditionally, of course, Advent – from the Latin for ‘a coming’ or ‘arrival’ – derives from a religious season marking precisely the opposite: a time of waiting and preparation for, variously, the baptism of new Christians at Epiphany, the birth of Christ, and the second coming. In the Eastern tradition, the run-up to Christmas is a period of abstinance and penance known as the Nativity Fast. The season commemorates the time when the Israelites awaited deliverance from their suffering in a spirit of anticipation mingled with uncertainty – a waiting characterised as ‘watching’ with a range of emotions by John Henry Newman.

Every year, Christian leaders remind us of this, the religious significance of Advent, although in a culture as incorrigibly materialist culture such as ours they’re careful not to push the point too hard. As Rowan Williams points out in his former role as Archbishop of Canterbury, in modern times the word ‘advent’ is primarily associated with ‘calendar’ which reframes the waiting for Christmas as a time so dull that we need daily treats of chocolate to get through it.

The features of our culture that occlude the qualities of reflectiveness and receptivity that are supposed to characterise Advent seem stronger than ever. Amazon – hot on the heels of yet more reports about the human cost of its business model – is now offering delivery within an hour in some London shops. On Black Friday, I switched on Radio 4’s You and Yours to hear the chief executive of Argos boasting that customers can now expect their in-store orders fulfilled within a minute. This commercial fostering of instant gratification sits oddly with our growing understanding that working to relentless, unrealistic targets militates against what people need to maintain health of body and mind.

We can’t, I think, opt out of the culture in which we live, at least not during the season which is most about spending time with family, friends and community. Impossible to adfast, unless you want to be like the ultra orthodox Jews who avert their eyes from the contaminating nature of the adverts on Oxford Street. And who wants to sit in and miss every festive gathering?

Yet I think it’s still possible to do Advent differently, and to build on the customs that have emerged over the last decade or so to limit the frantic shopping of the modern Christmas.

I’m thinking of the limits that families put on spending – say £10 per present, or outright present bans for adults. Then there’s the rise of the home-made present, a trend which combines nicely with a custom I share with a couple of friends of trying a new Christmas craft, such as wreath-making, every year. Last week I went to an auction with a friend who bought a lot of glasses and linens with which she plans to make cushions and candles. Since she’s on the go most of the time, the home-made presents only rule agreed by her family means she’ll perforce be spending a few quiet evenings sewing and making.

Since my people don’t go the home-made route, this Advent I’ll be indulging my love of slow shopping to the max. Slow shopping involves making careful decisions about things you consider useful, beautiful or funny (Think William Morris with a sense of humour) fitted to the person you’re buying for. It’s ideally done locally – perhaps at a good Christmas market such as the Kennet and Avon floating market – and can involve quite a bit of chat.

So hail Advent, season of mindful preparation. Long may you take!

This is the first in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.

Why I’m a Remembrance dissenter

Lone soldier with rifle marching in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington DC

The following is an extract from The Secret Life of God

On the Sunday closest to the eleventh of November, I set off to see how the Newington Unitarians mark Remembrance Day. This year, the day has acquired an added poignancy, with record poppy sales attributed to a rise in support for the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. A generation that has never known war finally has a conflict of its own, with real dead people to commemorate.

Fate, or rather my own incompetence, is against me. I miss the train by seconds, my hand smacking against the closing door. I know there is another Unitarian church just a bus ride away, although I don’t have the address. And so it is that, at a few minutes to eleven, I find myself careering around the concrete jungle that is Croydon, asking directions of the policemen posted at street cordons in readiness for the military parades. One officer helpfully walkie-talkies another to ask the location of the Unitarian Church, but he doesn’t know either. Cantering off in a likely direction, I enter the United Reformed Church just as the two minute silence is ending. The minister, seeing a woman in spiritual need, comes and put his hand on my arm, looking empathically into my eyes. But I am just physically lost, and in a hurry to get to a rival church.

Croydon Unitarian Church is a few hundred yards further on, a modern building crouching by the flyover. The service is well under way as I take a pew behind a sea of white heads. The interior has a utilitarian plainness and an abstract mural hangs in place of the east window; I feel momentary disappointment at the lack of the visibly numinous. But the proceedings have pace and interest: an American minister with a walrus moustache reads a poem by Mark Twain with aplomb, and introduces a silence with eloquence.

Yet as he moves to the pulpit to give the address, the Revd Art Lester seems gripped by hesitancy. It is a day on which it is easy to give offence, he begins slowly, a difficult day for ministers obliged to preach. Perhaps it has something to do with Britain in November, the loss of the last of the warmth which gives the time of year a bleakness like no other: he pauses, and mops his brow before finally getting to the point.

Remembrance Day is very different in the Spanish village where he and his wife once lived, he tells us. Every year, the whole village troops up to the hilltop cemetery for a service followed by a picnic among the dead. Graves become tabletops and commemoration gives way to fiesta because, for the locals, the dead are all around. ‘Here’s my father,’ a village woman had once said, and the minister had turned, hand outstretched, to find, instead of the bent old man he expected, a tombstone.

Unlike the Spaniards with their enviable connection with their dead, the Croydon minister continues, Britain’s remembrance of its war dead is dominated by a feeling of them ‘not being all right’. The country strikes him as being stuck in the first stages of grief – anger – and the triumphalist trappings of its annual commemoration suggest there are unresolved feelings. Their belligerence left out something that was important yet difficult to think: the fact that the conflicts had created deaths which were ‘early and probably senseless’. Maybe, he suggests, it would be better to ‘remember differently’ rather than continue to mark the day with brass bands and bugles. He pauses. He had often met with anger when expressing this unorthodox view, and had hesitated to give this sermon today, even though he knew he was among friends. Then he leaves the lectern and goes and sits down at the back of the dais with the air of a man who has got something difficult over with.

I gauge the silence that follows for signs of tension or discomfort, but find only calm. As the next hymn fills the air, I find to my surprise that I am suppressing a strong urge to cry. I master myself in time to notice the elderly lady in front dabbing her eyes with a white cotton hanky. ‘Is it the emotion?’ asks her neighbour sympathetically. The white head, doubtless full of its own war memories, nods wordlessly.

As the congregation gathers itself to leave, an elderly gentleman sporting an outsized poppy gets to his feet. The sermon leaves us with an important question to take away, he declares: how do you remember the dead without celebrating the war? He had been to a number of services in various churches that week but – he inscribes the air with a rhetorical flourish – he was certain you wouldn’t find anything like this anywhere else.

I should mention The War.

Or rather, the first and second world wars and how the deaths and enforced separations they brought worked subterranean influences which rippled down through the generations of my family, leaving their traces in absences and silences. It was a common enough story, shared by many British families.What made mine different was having a parent on each side of World War Two: a mother whose childhood was shaped by Blitztime London and evacuation to the country, and a Viennese father who had been conscripted at seventeen to fight for the Nazis and subsequently taken prisoner-of-war by the Americans.

Both histories came together in an odd postwar confluence in San Francisco in 1960. My mother was fleeing the gloom of 1950s’ Britain, with its greyness and rationing: with her best friend, she packed her trunk and sailed across the Atlantic. Other young Europeans were also escaping to the New World. At a party in San Francisco she met my father, who was building a new life in a society which, he said, had treated him better as an enemy than the one for whom he had fought.

Elements of life on the Home Front often entered my youth in fragments, like findings from an archaeological dig: vivid, yet lacking in context. There was the story of how a freshly docked sailor endowed my mother, then about eight, with the ultimate wartime rarity of an orange; references to the moving around and making-do of the time were always getting into admonitions about how you should be grateful for what you had, and look after your things. But while the facts of my father’s very different war were never hidden, he rarely talked about his experiences. Ebullient in company, at home he was a man of long silences from which it was difficult to recall him.

One day, in possibly my tenth year, as yet another battle played out on the TV screen, it dawned on me that being a soldier involved physical violence. ‘Dad,’ I asked, wide-eyed from my place on the sofa, ‘Did you ever kill a man?’ ‘Oh no,’ said my father, almost contemptuously, and relapsed back into silence. His wartime legacy manifested itself in other ways. There was his habit of bolting his food and then absent-mindedly helping himself to more when the rest of us had barely started eating, which he put down to his time in prison camp where, if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat much. At village parties in the 1970s, the fact that some of the men had fought on the same battlefront entered the small talk. ‘Oh, were you at Monte Casino, too?’ a neighbour would ask cheerfully as he sipped his sherry. Decades later, when the village amateur dramatic society put on a production of ’Allo ’Allo! to mark D-day, my father, who could not act but was valued for his innate ability to play the funny foreigner, was General Von Schmelling. The play ended in satirical chaos, with a row of goose-stepping, uniformed Nazis – a part for every older man in the company – lining up on stage while the audience howled with laughter. The horrors of war had been tamed, rendered hilarious and made available in a village hall near you.

But within the family, the solution of not talking about the war prevailed. One day, a man from the Imperial War Museum in London came to record my father’s experiences for the oral history archive. Afterwards, hoping to get some real sense of his past, I listened to the tape alone. I was disappointed. The recording had the same tone of faux jocularity that coloured the rare occasions he did talk about his past, the anecdotes of his life as soldier and prisoner-of-war recounted as if they were part of some great escapade. This was my father the raconteur, the persona he used to entertain visitors and villagers. As a personal response to a youth blighted by war, it didn’t ring true, and I sensed that some sort of emotional burial had taken place.

It wasn’t the only war burial in the family’s emotional history. As long as I could remember, I had been familiar with the central story of my grandmother’s life: her love for Jack. She had waited patiently for him to finish a long-running dalliance with an older woman before he finally proposed. But four years after they married, Jack was dead, leaving her a widow at twenty-nine. It was the age before the welfare state, so she returned to junior school teaching, farming out her baby daughter as best she could. She taught until retirement. She thought then of the prophecy, made years before by a fairground fortune teller, that she would spend all her life surrounded by young children. My grandmother was puzzled. She was getting married, and married women didn’t work; that phase of her life was over. But the fortune teller couldn’t or wouldn’t explain, merely repeating: ‘All your life, I see you surrounded by small children.’

I was twenty-one before I learnt the truth about my grandfather’s death. One afternoon during the university holidays, my grandmother told me how, in her late twenties, she had needed medical treatment for gynaecological problems. But the NHS did not yet exist, doctors were costly and Jack didn’t have the money to pay the bill. He was discovered having ‘borrowed’ from the petty cash at work and given the sack. Facing financial ruin and social shame, he sent his employers an ultimatum via a messenger boy: ‘Reinstate me, or I will jump from Waterloo Bridge at two o’clock.’ It’s not known how the employers would have responded, but by the time the boy arrived at the office just after two, Jack had jumped. His parents refused to talk to his widow about the death, but my grandmother’s sanity was saved by some good friends who invited her to stay and encouraged her to talk. She talked for a week. My grandfather’s suicide was later put down to shell shock stemming from his time in the trenches of the First World War.

I can’t honestly claim that some shadow-knowledge of these events played a part, but as soon as I was old enough to think about it, I was uncomfortable with Remembrance Sunday. Every November brought a drawn-out moment at the memorial cross, torn between reverential silence and embarrassed fidgeting until the Last Post cut through the damp air, signalling the resumption of normality. Later, as a young adult living in London, there were parades in the streets. In my early twenties, I once tried wearing a white poppy, but it wasn’t my thing: it was too partisan, oppositionist and, anyway, I wasn’t a pacifist. So I gave up any kind of observance and the biggest challenge on Remembrance Sunday became working out why the Archers were on early and then reaching for the off-switch. Not this, this faux 1950s’ solemnity from Whitehall.

Now, decades later in Croydon, I leave a Remembrance Sunday service having heard something that makes emotional sense for the first time. Maybe I have finally found a name for that sense of emptiness that always beset me when standing in silent communion around a village cross. Maybe I was a Remembrance dissenter.

Outside the Unitarian Church, the parades are in full swing. I stand and watch them go by under a pale November sun. First come the brass band, weaving carefully between the cordons, then the various regiments and, finally, the youth corps of teenagers, their arms moving stiffly as they march.

© Alex Klaushofer, 2015

No room for displacement: the language of moving

Cardboard box with picture of house on it

They say that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do. It’s up there, in the research, after bereavement and divorce, as one of the great life-events that shake your world. The articles list the sources of stress with empathic relish: the buying and selling of houses, the packing of boxes, the misplaced possessions, the domestic disorder that stretches into months, even years … The way we describe and frame this experience says a lot about our priorities and concerns in twenty-first century Britain.

My move last year from London to the West Country got me
thinking about the language of moving and what it reveals, often through omission, about our relation to place. Its vocabulary demonstrates an overarching concern for the concrete, the financial, the organisation of possessions, the paramount importance of our (dis)comfort and (in)convenience.

Yet it omits the fundamental process of dis-placement and re-rooting that moving involves, how our surroundings imprint in us mental images of place that endure long beyond their physical presence, the way that geography and environment shape our daily routines. The dominant discourse about moving betrays a partial, atomistic way of looking at what is an important rite of passage in our relation to place – the ending of a relationship with one place, and the slow process of forging a new relationship with another.

Born in London but having grown up in a Gloucestershire village, I am topographically schizophrenic. The choices of my adult life represent an attempt to bring some sort of resolution to these two formative places. For almost a decade, I found a compromise in Crystal Palace, the Janus-faced hill-suburb that looks to the centre of London one way, the green of southern England the other. Its garden, bordering allotments and neighbouring gardens, was a haven for local wildlife.

My cottage in Bradford on Avon at the southernmost tip of the Cotswolds close to the Gloucestershire border represents a reversal of my previous compromise: instead of inhabiting a patch of (relative) wild in the city, I now live at the edge of a town set amid hills and fields. But the move to the other side of my topographical self has brought with it an uprooting, a displacing not acknowledged in the dominant discourse, especially not by those of my generation. Social talk about moving tends to focus relentlessly on the positive, with comments on the excitement that a new house and surroundings will bring.

Perhaps not surprisingly, since they come from a time when life was less atomised, it is older people who seem to understand the rupture involved in changing place. My eighty-something godmother enquires solicitously again and again as to how I am feeling: am I settling? Do I feel strange? A psychotherapist friend of similar age elides from talk of gardening to the planting of me:

‘Transplanting us is not so easy,’ she writes. ‘It is full of surprises, however well we prepare for it, and it is by definition unsettling! Everyone seems to experience it differently. When we moved I found myself going through an amazing range of feelings and moods. Our invisible roots need rest and the comfort of familiar, beloved books and music for several weeks before they can begin to find their way into new soil. You must be prepared for that and look after them.’ Psychology, with its focus on relationships between humans, doesn’t pay enough attention to place, she thinks.

I’m coming to think that this absence is part of a broader lack in our language about our relation to place. Standard English has just one word for feelings of longing for a particular place: ‘homesick’. The word implies a polarity: you are at home or away, and suggests the simple solution of going home; it carries no sense of the process of adapting to a new place or of mixed or complex feelings. Other languages of the British Isles do much better at capturing the range of feelings and experiences that make up the human attachment to place.

Welsh has ‘hiraeth’, a word that connotes a yearning for a place that is lost or may not exist, a feeling of longing to be ‘at home’ in the sense of achieving a sense of belonging, of finding your paradise. Its cognate ‘cynefin’ denotes ‘habitat’ or ‘customary abode’; the place which formed you, and with which you are most familiar. In a definition which encompasses cultural, social and geographical influences, Nicholas Sinclair describes it as ‘the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.’

The Scottish Gaelic ‘duthchas’ conveys the collective nature of a heritage that connects people to a particular place, historically also the tribal system of land rights accorded to the members of a clan. The fact that the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of homesickness, nostalgia or longing for home, cianalas has given rise to a genre of Gaelic poetry written by emigrees called ‘bàrdachd cianalais’ is perhaps testament to how a profound sense of rootedness finds linguistic expression.

I apologise to speakers of these languages if I’ve mangled the meanings of these terms, untranslatable as they are into Standard English. But my lack of fluency with this kind of language is part of my point: as someone who has always lived somewhere along a horizontal line of southern England, it’s not part of my natural vocabulary. If I want to describe the psycho-spiritual and experiential elements of my relation to place directly, rather than through the more oblique forms of fiction or poetry, I have to have recourse, clumsily, to a vocabulary outside native tongue.

This helps to explain why, despite the conscious choosing of my move westwards, I sometimes awake with an image of a Victorian streets imprinted on my mind, or catch myself wondering whether a particular plant is in bloom in south London. In these moments I’m aware that I haven’t quite hefted, that I’m in the midst of a transition, the in-between time that goes unacknowledged in the dominant discourse about moving. ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,’ writes A E Housman, in a poem that is generally taken to be about the fleeting nature of human existence. Our culture is very good at talking about our relation to time, especially our varied and conflicting feelings about the past, but neglects the kindred feelings about place. And yet the blossoming cherry tree that Housman’s speaker resolves to see is a particular tree in a particular place: ‘the cherry’ (emphasis added) … ‘stands about the woodland ride’.

And so, as I cross the liminal territory between moving and settling during my first adult year in the West Country, I wonder how particular cherry trees in Crystal Palace are doing. I’m also charting the profess of my newly-planted apple trees which, grafted from local parent-trees and donated by neighbours, are uber-specific to my area. The element now needed to cement my relationship to my new habitat is the seasonal cycles that will bring the familiarity captured by the word ‘cynefin’.

This is an extract from an article published in issue 15 of Earthlines.

The Autumn equinox and the symbolism of the apple

Red and green apple held between fingers and thumb against a blue sky

The autumn equinox – one of two days in the year when day and night are of equal length and which, in the pagan tradition, marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, comes as Christian churches celebrate the gathering in of the crops with the Harvest Festival. This year, for me, it’s all about apples.

Six months ago, having moved to an area of the West Country
historically dominated by orchards, I took the first steps in creating my own garden-orchard by planting some saplings.

And now, the light half of the year later, the first fruit of my orchard is a single, golden Russet. It’s Applewatch! If I allow it to fall, it will bruise and get eaten; if I pick it before it’s ready, I will have bad luck till Spring!

Apples have a rich and complicated symbolism across spiritual and religious traditions. For the Celts, apples had the power of healing and rebirth; for the Druids, as host to mistletoe, it was a sacred tree like the oak.

But of course, in Britain, the most powerful story about the apple is the Biblical one, portraying it as the fruity incarnation of forbidden knowledge. The cause, along with the serpent and the weakness of Woman, of The Fall, the apple represents the power and risks inherent in knowledge. In other words, it’s the Freewill Fruit.

The idea of the riskiness of apples permeates western culture. The apple in ‘Snow White’ is the container of poison, the vehicle of the evil stepmother’s magic that places the girl into a death-like state. In ‘Cider with Rosie’, Laurie Lee chronicles his sexual awakening thanks to an illicit jar of cider under a hay wagon in a chapter entitled ‘First bite of the apple’.

I’m not sure what the apple represents in contemporary British culture, but I suspect it may something to do with an attempt to preserve community and local character in the face of
homogenizing, impersonal modernity. In a couple of weeks, my local community group is holding its annual apple pick in the community orchard, a child-focused afternoon which will result in apple juice for the rest of the year.

And it’s a quarter of a century since Common Ground launched Apple Day on 21st October,
suggesting that the apple be used as ‘a symbol of what is being lost in many aspects of our lives and shown that anyone can take positive action towards change’.

My final thought about apples takes me to Lebanon, where I once went on an apple-picking weekend with a local eco-tourism company. I was a lone foreigner among a group of Maronites, and we picked apples for a leisurely while before having lunch and a lie-down in the orchard. The Syrian seasonal workers – living in nearby tents – were the best pickers, scrambling fast up trees to protect the apples from a bruising fall. There’s a symbolism in that, too.

No presenters were sacked in the writing of this blog

Mother Teresa and the dark side of goodness

Face of Mother Teresa
Photo by Papa Lazarou

So Mother Teresa has finally become a saint.

In the matter of Mother Teresa as an exemplar of whether religion is Good or Bad, I’m neither for nor against, and certainly wouldn’t go along with Christopher Hitchens’ condemnation of her as ‘a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud’. It’s a view which, as part of an atheist critique of organised religion as oppressive and irrational, loses sight of a rather interesting human being and ignores some important questions about the nature of altruism.

Leaving aside the potentially fraught question of how canonization is achieved in the Catholic Church, saints are interesting. I’ve seen how, in countries which really ‘do’ saints, they can function as a human locus for spiritual meaning: the drama of a saint-based festival in a Spanish village involving the whole community in dancing and parades; the way a mountain-top shrine in Lebanon becomes the recipient of the hopes and griefs of people from miles around.

Even in secular, post-Protestant Britain, saints live quietly on, reminding us through the names they’ve given to churches and hospitals of the needs of certain groups of people. And, as exemplars or intercessors, saints have parallels in other traditions, in the bodhisattvas of Buddhism or the wali of Sufism.

The more worthwhile controversy surrounding Mother Teresa, in my view, raises a more interesting issue to do with the psychology of goodness. Testimony from a former nun in her order and investigative work by a journalist and an Indian medic reveal the horrors bound up with the good deeds: the harsh conditions that prevailed in the orphanages, for both patients and nuns, despite the millions of dollars in the charity’s bank accounts donated by those who wanted to help alleviate suffering. Mother Teresa, her critics concluded, was in thrall to a ‘cult of suffering’.

From Mother Teresa’s point of view, all this suffering was in the ultimate good name – that of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, she suffered, and encouraged her followers to do so too. But a good psychoanalyst wouldn’t take this kind of theological justification at face value. S/he might point to, for example, the denial involved in imposing unnecessary suffering on others, and ask questions about the feelings and repressed energy that drove such obsessiveness. Taking a further, sociological step, s/he might also question the kind of idealized view that the mainstream west has of Mother Teresa, asking why we as a society tend to think of public figures in black-and-white terms, as either entirely good or entirely bad.

Personally, I also wonder whether this tendency to split the world into good and evil is fostered by Christianity and its legacy. Pagan traditions, by contrast, are much better at acknowledging the dark side in life and all of us; in modern terms, they’re more psychologically realistic.

Incidentally, when I wrote briefly in The Secret Life of God about about the spiritual doubt expressed in Mother Teresa’s diary, I unwittingly came up against the dark, controlling side of the Catholic establishment to which the Hitchens critique refers.

The context – you’ll need to bear with some technicalities to do with copyright law here – was that I wanted to quote a paragraph from Come Be My Light and wrote to the Mother Teresa Center seeking permission. Now, I was almost certainly being over-zealous here: as a friend with copyright expertise reminded me, citing a short passage from a long work of prose comes under ‘fair use’, and no permission is required. But the request had gone in, and the answer came back: permission was conditional on Mother Teresa being ‘accurately represented’ in my book, and the MTC wanted to see the whole chapter in which the citation would appear. Without it, permission was withheld. ‘God bless you,’ the email concluded.

Obviously, no journalist worth her laptop would allow her writing to be censored in this way, so – on the offchance that the citation might, in a copyright case, be subject to the more stringent rules governing the use of poetry or song lyrics, I took the simple expedient of deleting it from my manuscript and paraphrasing its sense.

But I was left with mixed feelings about the body which represents the work of the now-Saint Mother Teresa. One of them was surprise that they’d managed to confuse copyright – which simply protects a creator’s rights to credit and remuneration for their work – with potential defamation. It was supplemented by a feeling of wry amusement at the hopeless hubris of seeking to control how a person is perceived in the world – whether it’s a boss trying to ban gossip among the workforce or a government to quash dissent, it never fully works. Bless them.

St Giles, patron saint of hermits

There he lived with only a deer for company – according to some legends, the hind provided the under-nourished hermit with milk – until one day he was wounded by a stray arrow from a royal hunting party. Refusing all worldly inducements, he went on to found a forest monastery under the Rule of St Benedict. And so, with the motley biographically-based portfolio given to saints, Giles became the patron saint of woodland, the disabled and diseased, outcasts, and hermits.

I’m fond of St Giles. With the church in the village where I grew up named after him, I’ve spent many a dull moment staring at his image in the the east window, appreciating the presence of the animal and image of simple companionship.

These days, he strikes me as a useful emblem of the need for solitude in modern life and the stillness that can bring a deeper connection with nature. Modern society tends to discourage and dismiss solitude, portraying it as the loneliness which speaks of failure, those who seek it out as misfits and misanthropes. But, as this piece by Phil Daoust about the actively-chosen solitude makes clear, for some it’s the condition for exploration of both inner and outer worlds, creativity and, for some, just a peaceful life without the white noise of constant chit-chat.

Britain’s fractured religious history has contributed to the decline of the solitary, privileging busyness and action even in religious circles. The hermits and anchorites that were a part of society in medieval England largely disappeared with the destruction of the monasteries, and the Church of England has never been big on contemplation.

Hidden Hermits, launched on the Feast of St Giles, features a rare interview with a hermit of the old-fashioned variety – he’s lived on a hilltop for decades, doesn’t like speaking to journalists and yearned for solitude even as young monk. It also chronicles the rise of a new kind of solitary, a little-known network of modern people combining silence and solitude with ordinary life, without the requirements of an institution.

So as September ushers in a new season of busyness – back-to-school, off-to-uni, return-to-work – spare a thought for St Giles and his life of solitude among the trees.

Hidden Hermits is available on Amazon

To be a British pilgrim, 21st-century style

Weary pilgrims rest against the yew tree at Wilmington Churchay-pilgrimage/pilgrim-numbers/” target=”_blank”>Camino de Santiago which is now drawing an average of a quarter of a million pilgrims a year. Like the stewards of the Camino, who are argue that pilgrimage is for those of ‘all faiths and none’, BPT founders Guy Hayward and Will Parsons advocate a ‘bring your own beliefs’ approach.

I was curious about this new form of pilgrimage. It seemed to me a prime example of the kind of emerging, evolving British spirituality I documented in The Secret Life of God, in which the spiritually serious go in search of a form of faith based on experience and authenticity rather than doctrines or rituals handed down to them. While this quintessentially 21st century way of making meaning may still include organised religion, it involves reworking relationships with traditional institutions, along with an openness to other faiths and paths. I wondered whether I would meet the counterparts to the pioneering individuals and communities I’d found in the course of my research, ordinary people quietly discovering their own verions of the sacred while living normal lives.

And so it proved. Over two and a half days, two dozen people from a variety of backgrounds traversed the rolling Sussex hills, appreciating the beauty of churches – and the utility of their standpipes – honouring the ancestors of the land and doing a spot of yoga on a long barrow. Our guides sung to us – hear this ancient piece of British plainchant here – and led us in the singing of rounds they’d written to mark the connection between people and place.

New rituals emerged: drawing on eastern and Islamic traditions, Guy and Will encouraged the circumambulation of every church before entering it as a way of pre-empting the colonial ‘greed’ of marching straight in. And, as I write, there are probably some Japanese tourists telling their relatives how the British worship the cliffs edging their island in the way that Jews honour Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall – the fruit of Guy’s accidental discovery that placing your forehead against the east wall of a locked church can give you a powerful sense of the whole building.

I was surprised and yet not how readily the motley group embraced this easy syncretism: it clearly draws on a range of ideas and practices that have become commonplace in religious and alternative circles in recent years. I was entirely surprised by the way passers-by seemed to understand what we – identifiable as something more than a walking group by our pilgrim staffs – were doing, greeting explanations of a modern, non-dogmatic kind of pilgrimage as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I think the fact we were doing the most British of things – walking about the countryside for no practical reason – helped. (As we left the South Downs, we were awarded an impromptu medal by an YMCA worker, who said that collectively we’d done the same mileage as the walker who’d just spent four days walking from Winchester to raise funds.)

The vestry at Firle. That's my sleeping bag.
The vestry at Firle. That’s my sleeping bag.

As nature-loving inhabitants of a chilly island, we perhaps have a instinctual understanding that forging a relationship with the place which harbours us involves a degree of effort and travail.

For me, the experience fulfilled a lifelong ambition I never knew I had – sleeping in a vestry, in this case that of extreme pilgrim Peter Owen Jones at Firle. It’s also crystalised my intention of walking the pilgrimage routes that traverse Wiltshire: what better way of getting to know my new county than to be a pilgrim? Watch this space.