Thursday 22 October 2015

In a Pagan Place

There's a wonderful track by those purveyors of wonderful music, The Waterboys. Actually, Mike Scott and his associates have made a remarkable number of wonderful tracks, mostly under the radar. The best-known of which, and the Beaker theme tune, being the sublime "Whole of the Moon".

Maybe actually sublimer than "Moon", on the subliminal level, is the supersublime "Pagan Place". Haunting, I think the word is. Obsessive, that's another good word. And I have to write the next bit carefully as there's another group - several, in fact - that use the word "pagan'. And I explicitly don't want to co-opt their own - sincerely held, often quite sophisticated - beliefs. But.

Why is the place that means most to the Beaker Folk the little Oxford/Warwickshire collection of limestone lumps, the Rollright Stones, not Westminster Abbey, Stonehenge or (close second) Walsingham? Because one frosty late October Saturday in 1983, very early in the morning, I passed the Stones while travelling down the little lane that leads from Little Rollright towards Great, and which is such a help to harassed middle-aged managers heading from the South-west to the Midlands.

At that time of the most evocative time of the year - redolent if not reeking with melancholy and the scent of decay - in a half-light, the Stones did not so much rest in their field as nuzzle against the fence. The old information shed wasn't burnt down that week, but its diagrams and archaeological information weren't terribly relevant. I wheeled the bike through the gate, went in and experienced a pagan place.

Why a pagan place? Firstly,  because on standard definitions that's what it is - a sacred place that was, we guess, dedicated to a divinity not defined by the Abrahamic religions. Not circumscribed by them, either. I'd like to say the word "numinous" at this point; if that's OK.

I was alone with a bunch of archaeological relics that I didn't understand - that nobody understands - there in the dawn light of a Cotswold ridgeway. And a presence was around me. A benevolent presence, sure. But not "a tame lion". A terrifying, wild, eerie presence. Just hanging there, in the air, kind of lurking. Like that presence always does.

But here's the thing. You want to know the thing that I (later) discovered is the nearest passage to the feeling I had that day? The passage I read and went "I understand that feeling"? It's in the Bible. Here in Genesis 15:12-21.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram...

And yes the last bit of this passage (not quoted) may have a bit of a genocidal implication. But I'm trying to focus on Abraham's experience here and maybe not that of the later writer who took what Abraham saw and wove it into a race history. It's Abraham, his God - the elusive, tricky, all-powerful YHWH - and a pagan place. A proper pagan place, where an elemental, awesome God makes the rules, not whichever sanctioned and established religion Abraham has been following up to now.

Then, for me, it's there again in  Matthew 14.

And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

The "walking towards them on the sea" sounds kind of ordinary - just delivered deadpan like a hilltop in North Oxfordshire. Until Matthew drops the disciples' response in. The use of the word "elemental" seems obligatory here again. Memories of the Holy Ghost hovering on the waters of creation. The shock of an ordinary bloke doing something utterly - utterly - look, you know I'm gonna have to say "numinous" again, don't you? Here's the disciples in peril. Here's the power of nature. Here's God wandering in. In a pagan place.

I'd like to draw your attention at this point to the words of HG Wells' s narrator, in "The War of the Worlds":

"I had uttered prayers, fetish prayers, had prayed as heathens mutter charms when I was in extremity; but now I prayed indeed, pleading steadfastly and sanely, face to face with the darkness of God . Strange night! Strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come , I, who had talked with God , crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place— a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed."

So here's my theory. The nameless Dread; the lurking Other; the beyond-reason presence that I met on a Oxfordshire hilltop; CS Lewis' s concept of "joy', every good thing - every wild thing which is yet benevolent, even if scary - every stunning coming together of life and death, hope and despair - lightness coming out of dark - and yet even there, eternal and incomprehensible in "the darkness of God" is in fact our perception, in our place and situation, of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That the lurking presence, in a wood or on a hill or in a burning bush, is in fact the eternal "I Am".

I would like to suggest therefore that we have tried to tame this lion, through custom and practice.  We have tried to pin this erratic Spirit, this wandering Messiah, this invisible God, into rules of our making. We have domesticated what we thought was this wild God, who scatters atoms across space and makes a world that can contain deep love, works of heroism, beautiful flowers and yet viruses and sudden disaster also.

He's there though. In a child's sudden grasping of a truth. In a piece of bread or a sip of wine suddenly changed. In a prayer in tongues or a rogue good deed.

In a scary place where the Divine breaks into the ordered, the I Am is recognised and the door is opened and heaven sneaks into the ordinary world.

In a pagan. In a pagan.

In a pagan place.


  1. Genesis 28 too - "a certain place" - IIRC at least one translation suggests it was a pagan shrine...

  2. There are places of power, yes. Our remote ancestors sensed this and they built altars, and rings of earth and timber and stone, to try to control and harness this power, whatever it is. Because the power isn't always benevolent. Wherever the Christians came, they replaced the pagan altars with shrines to the Virgin Mary and assorted saints, they built churches, to try to protect themselves against what they saw as demons. But go to the right place (such as Rollright) at the right time and you can still sense it.

  3. Thank you - definitely resonates and sort of fits with my ponderings on the 'I AM' sayings

  4. This quote from WB Yeats sums up Paganism, and the mythopoeic world-view, for me:

    "Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon, were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the thunder the sound of his beaten water-jar, or the tumult of his chariot wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild duck, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest; while they dreamed of so great a mystery in little things that they believed the waving of a hand, or of a sacred bough, enough to trouble far-off hearts, or hood the moon with darkness."


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