This Celtic cross in Gerrans churchyard, (in Cornwall where we are at the moment) spent at least a part of its life on its side as a coping stone on the wall; which is a fairly ignominious fate for what must be the oldest Christian relic in the village. I have to remind myself that although we like to think that artistic, spiritual or historical value is intrinsic to the objects we treasure, it’s clear that what it’s worth is what we think it’s worth. So there were obviously times when this cross was valued more highly than it is today – and what’s more, by the 19th century it was no more than a handy lump of stone.
But hold on; what goes around comes around. What if objects, like words, accumulate meaning, and like words, also shed them. For instance while we were walking the Camino we found several enormous stone frames standing outside old farm buildings. One of them had an immensely strong looking set of straps, but I had to read some history to discover that these frames were used to restrain oxen while they were being shod by the local blacksmith. I’m perfectly content for the frames to be both redundant for practical use – because there’s not much call for oxen with shoes these days (perhaps there should be but that’s another argument); but now they are charged with meaning and resonate as object metaphors for a lost age.
Looked at in this way, the Celtic cross still resonates meanings from the past and still, if we choose to allow it, carries a kind of accumulated spiritual meaning for us. But it’s important to stress that whatever that meaning is, it will take the form of a dialogue. We take questions to these powerful objects; questions such as “what is your name?” “what was in the mind of your maker?” “what kind of world did they live in? and what were their beliefs? “What is your purpose?” Happily we know the answers to some of those questions; this stone began its life as a wayside cross, perhaps in the so-called Dark Ages after the Romans had left, taking their form of Christianity with them – whilst the Celtic church of an earlier – perhaps 3rd century – period which had been most powerful in the westernmost fringes, continued as before. The two spiritualities were very different and so too were the forms of organisation. The reason I think the wayside cross is significant is because the Celtic church was monastic and its monks were great travellers; setting up cells and monasteries wherever they could. In an age where people travelled on foot or by horse on more or less unmarked tracks and footpaths, waymarkers were vital, and continue to be so on pilgrimage routes.
So much then for their accumulated meanings, but could it be possible that the questioning I just mentioned is, in fact, a two way conversation? Would, or could the stone and other treasured artifacts speak back to us? I don’t think that’s a step too far towards some kind of wooly, ill defined spirituality. It would depend on the quality of the question of course, and the intensity of any meditation on the reply. This can sound a bit religious, but for me, the answers to good questions are almost never concrete but – let’s say – Delphic. The symbolism of the crossroads is crucial, because it involves choosing – the ultimate derivation of the word crisis is the Greek crino – to choose. So instead of answering the question where now? the function of the Celtic waymarking cross is to ask it – where now? All I know is that once I’d seen the 7′ high stone I felt compelled to go close to it and see. The stone called me.
Inside Gerrans church there are other speaking objects. A 14th century font carved from granite – Cornish stone; 15th century pew ends bearing the pineapple crest of Katherine of Aragon; the remains of candleholders from the early 20th century, Victorian floor tiles – and so it goes on. But the church is on its knees. The systematic withdrawal of support from these little parishes towards the centre exactly mirrors the social depredations of successive governments. Oblivious to the cultural and social significance of village churches they are being allowed to close.
As we went into the church I read the notices and after we left, I googled up their web page and it was enough to break your heart. These parishes with their 1500+ years of history are being abandoned. Here there are three voluntary churchwardens, but no licensed lay minister and no priest helping to keep them alive. You might think it seems as if the Romans are leaving all over again – which could, just could, lead to a rediscovery of Celtic spirituality. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our tired and bankrupt churches gave up trailing thirty years behind secular fashions and arguing about challenges long-since settled by the rest of us; gay marriage stops being a “problem” when marriage stops being a property relation; women as priests and bishops stop being a “problem” when women stop being a problem.
So there’s a huge opportunity to rediscover the hospitality, the creativity and the profound love of nature exemplified by a Celtic spirituality that’s open to all and most importantly refuses to define itself in a series of attempts to imprison God into a linguistic cage. There is no theology beyond poetry, song and music.
So where does this all lead me?
This is going to be a hard one to explain ..
I had to give up my futile search for some kind of overarching meaning on 18th March 2017. I know it was that moment because I’d taken this photograph and I just knew it was over. We turned our backs to the river and then I turned back for a moment and said goodbye to God. Then I waited for some kind of catastrophic reaction – the full Kübler Ross experience; anger, denial, bargaining and depression followed at a decent interval by acceptance. No such thing happened because I went straight to acceptance, feeling nothing but a sense of relief that at last I could stop trying to hold the tectonic plates together. What I didn’t realize until this week was that the flooding river wasn’t moving away from me; it was offering me an object metaphor which I could return to six years later with a second piece of the jigsaw – the Celtic wayside cross – with which I could continue the journey in the right direction. The river flows, which is the state of everything in nature. I could go on for ever embellishing and working up the idea but that won’t do because it’s the dreary job of theology to explain, when what the river demands is wonder, that’s all. I filled the ensuing years with the allotment and with learning the plants, and intellectually as well as physically it was absorbing and rewarding – but there was no music in my life; I wasn’t singing any more. My sense of wonder couldn’t tolerate being spread so thinly.
Which was certainly why, on walking into Gerrans church I felt the most extraordinary sense of peace. How strange and how unexpected?
The way inclines but never compels. (To steal a phrase from the astrologers)
Writing up my notes on the Camino we walked in 2010 has led to some provisional insights among which is the understanding that the full Damascus Road experience isn’t really what it’s about, and also that that once you’ve signed up and set foot on the path, you’ll always be on it whatever happens on the way and however far you ranged in search of an easier route.
For a long while I’ve had a set of photographs taken in Estaing that I couldn’t place anywhere in the walk, and so finally I’ve gone back to the map and figured out that it’s a fairly short walk beyond Espalion, and so we didn’t hang around apart from a coffee, I think, somewhere down near the bridge and the river. Then we pushed on. So having finally got this piece into the jigsaw I could see that – far from leaving the hill country behind we were still in the thick of it. Unlike the Aubrac Mountains, this landscape was heavily wooded and the footpath – marked all the way, I’ve never mentioned before, by white and red posts- balises was mostly easy to follow.
And there we are – I’ve probably tried to say everything and actually said nothing.
27th May 2010 ctd:
Bed at 9.00pm. It rained at night and it was raining when we set off so M was pissed of with the extra weight [the tent weighs half as much again when it’s wet]. Turned out to be a monster day again. Following the River Lot but crossing 3 tributary valleys so climbing maybe 1000 metres. 27K in all. M a bit hypo and cross. Found campsite in Golinhac (650m) very good. Pitched tent and had a couple of coffees before walking down to the shop to buy picnic tea. Sadly I’m too tired to eat so we’ll have to make up in Conques tomorrow. Easier day I very much hope.Journal