Brother Peran, as he introduced himself, was unlike any pre-conception of a monk she had ever held. He had sat her down on a leather chair in his vestry while he boiled a kettle on the top of the woodburner and made a flask of filter coffee. “Two of the greatest things the outside has given us,” he had smiled, “coffee and the modern wood-burning stove, from them comes warmth of body and warmth of companionship.”
She looked around her at the little room crammed with a small oak desk, two upright leather strapped chairs, a rug partly covering the stone floor, and oil lamps hanging from hooks. What caught her attention most of all were the shelves full of books, some modern looking, others clearly very old. They were piled up across the desk, spilling on to the floor. He passed her the coffee and milk, noticing her searching eyes, trying to read titles. “Oops, sorry, what a mess!” he stepped back and picked up the pile of books lying on the floor, simply to create another stack on his desk.
“Father Abbot would make me do a week’s penance if he could see them like this. He thinks me too fond of the world of learning and libraries. That’s why he sent me here, told me I had to do a real job serving people before I could return and really understand the wisdom in books. Ten years at least he said, well six to go, but he’s at heart a kind man and lets me borrow some from the library every month. Besides, I have more freedom here in some ways, so it’s not as bad as I thought back then. So, what can I do for you today?”
He sat down, the end of his robe slipping aside to show a pair of black jean clad legs underneath. He readjusted his robe and smiled bashfully, “Just because we are given up to His Service does not mean we should torture ourselves with the cold…”
“Father, I think I need to confess, things of which…”
“I wasn’t aware you were a Roman?”
“No, I’m not, just a sort of Anglican, that’s all.”
“There’s no ‘that’s all’ about it. It has always struck me that the Anglican tradition has been a sensible compromise in the outside world, the golden mean the Hellenes called it. All these divisions are the scandal of Christendom, arguments over power and position, minor points of theological speculation, matters adiaphorous to the Lord. He must weep more tears over them than anything. Each tradition should be free to commune with all others as long as they believe in the resurrection and its meaning.”
She had clearly got him on to a subject of some passion. “What does adiaphorous mean Father?”
“Sorry, it means ‘matters indifferent’, minor matters which followers of the Way shouldn’t quarrel about; mysteries of the divine you might say. I understood you knew some Greek?”
News travelled fast here she realised, they didn’t seem to need social media. “Very little really, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
She needed to see if she could talk to him, if he could really understand. How could a sworn celibate understand the challenges of marriage in the modern outside world? Keep him talking while she weighed him up; see if he could be trusted.
“Can you tell me more about this place? How it happened, why you have cut yourselves off?” She could see he was becoming uncomfortable, “Your faith, what it’s about here, what’s special about it, why you hold onto it?”
She sensed he was relaxing again as if he perceived she was letting him stand on home ground once more. She felt again the evasions of some of the answers to the questions she had asked others, as if there were an invisible barrier within the Pocket itself, separating her from others settled here, they can’t still trust her. She was being unrealistic; she’d only been here a couple of days, but had been starting to trust them, well at least Martha, Iltud and the doctor. She was still disappointed though, surprised how she had started to fit it and wanted to be liked here without realising it.
“I can’t, won’t try to answer some of your questions. Those you will have to ask of much more learned and senior authorities than me. But I can explain something of our history, our folk lore, if you like and our traditions. Some you already know I believe.”
“Tradition says that the Celtic Church was founded by the refugee Joseph of Arimathea, at what is now Glastonbury, less than ten years after our Lord’s Ascension. He and his followers found a welcome among the Celtic tribes of Britain, it is said, at least some of whom were already effectively monotheists, as were some Druids, the Culdees. They were suspicious of the growing attention of the Roman Empire and welcomed anyone they thought its enemies. A few years later Rome invaded and fought brutal campaigns against us which took decades, hundreds of thousands died or were enslaved. The Britons fought back, Roman historians said they were the hardest nation to conquer they had yet come across, and indeed a sort of truce was arranged in the end. Never fully conquered, they retained much self-government in treaty with the Emperors while notionally being part of the empire.”
He nodded at the books his eyes were sliding back to longingly.
“Or so tradition says. Strangely, some of your latest historians are now saying the much the same thing as our tradition: my brother gets books for me when he goes into the outside world on business. I can let you see one if you like? Anyway, what Rome’s armies couldn’t achieve, its peace and wealth did. Some of the Britons abandoned their ways for those of Rome and servitude in the pursuit of luxury, but not all. Those north of the wall remained free, as did those of the west, particularly the Dumnoniae of Devon and Cornwall, and we here. Meanwhile Joseph’s foundation spread slowly among the freer tribes in the south and west, despite Roman persecution in the areas they controlled, so much so that one hundred and eighty years after the incarnation of our Lord, Lucius, the prince of the Atrobates, became a Christian along with his people, the first nation in the world to do so. Rome remained dominant, but could not contain the spread of the faith so that even junior western Emperors such as Constantius wouldn’t implement in Britain the persecutions ordered by senior Emperors like Diocletian the Terrible. And then Constantius’ son Constantine the Great converted and went on to reunite the whole empire. So, the British were never subject to the Roman Church and had ultimately saved the empire from paganism. We therefore respect the Roman church, but pre-date it and hold fast to our God-given tradition. Do you understand? I’m not boring you I hope?”
“Well then, the empire passed in the west, falling to the tribes from the east and north. Here our tribes fought one another, led by leaders greedy for power and then the barbarians came: Irish, Picts, Saxons and others from across the sea. Saxon speakers were already here; some had lived in the east of Logres since before Roman times and others had settled as Roman mercenaries. They made a grab for power and the British, weakened as they were by their faithless civil wars, tried to fight back under leaders like Ambrosius Aurelianus, with some success. You probably know the story. After decades of peace, the plague came from the east and the princes started to fight again, and then the Saxons and their allies overran the lowlands of Logres, marrying the women and enslaving the men, but God preserved us.”
“Dumnonia fought on virtually alone and in vain, but in the wreckage the Lord took pity on a remnant of his faithful and protected this little land. The Pocket we call it; it sits in a hidden fold in the firmament, still part of the world, created so that the first people to embrace his salvation would not be entirely annihilated by the pagan invaders. Some say prophecy from that time says we are a fortress for the faithful for the end times, a gateway for the forces of the Lord to break into the world to cast down the Anti-Christ. Who knows? Trust not prophesies not contained in the scriptures we say. Anyway, since then he has maintained us and we have kept our faith. How could it be otherwise? Gildas himself wrote his final books here, but never mentioned this place for the obvious reason. He’s buried in the Abbey grounds; you should be able to see his grave one day if you wish.”
He sat back, looking at the impact of his lecture on her. He had clearly enjoyed giving it. She had heard the stories, the legends and the folk tales of course. What Briton hadn’t? But not all of it, and this affable, scholarly man in this unreal place clearly believed the thread of it even if he ascribed some of the earlier parts to ‘tradition.’ He looked up as if he had realised he had forgotten something.
“Please don’t think me rude with my talk of murderous pagan Saxons, that’s long in the past, such hatred long since forgiven. The Saxons became our brothers in Christ, followers largely of our tradition, intermarried with us so closely over the years that we became one people. They have their language, we have ours, but here we speak both and welcome both if they find us.”
“Eventually they, like the Celtic peoples of these Islands succumbed to the lure of Rome, but here we have remained untouched. In time most of them, Celt and Saxon, repented and found their freedom again and are not so different from us in some ways, certainly some of the Anglicans, but again we welcome all traditions here so long as they respect ours.”
She decided to move him on before she had to sit through a detailed rendition of the theological events of the last millennium. “What about today, more recently?” She gestured. “Wood-burners, coffee, steam trains, medicines, books,” she shuddered, “weapons of war? You seem to be well connected with the outside today. Why? Isn’t it risky coming and going across the barrier?”
He looked uncomfortable again, and paused before responding. She could see that now he was picking his words carefully, not in full heart-felt flow like before, as if fearful he would reveal more than he felt empowered to.
“Well the centuries passed and things went on as they were. A few strays found us every decade or so, and we sat here, perhaps complacent in our security and certainty of divine favour, interacting little with the outside. What you call the Reformation came along and then the civil wars across Logres, bringing new refugees with new learning, stimulating us to take more of an interest in the outside again in case the prophecies were coming true. It went quiet again, but outside the world speeded up. Then came the terrible wars, firstly against the French Emperor and then two more, far worse, against the forces of darkness from the east. Each time we wondered if we had reached the end times, but each time they passed. Yet still it speeded up, new ideas, new machines, and outside the faith declined and the people were enslaved to the new gods they erected, and one day, just after the last cataclysm, the Ducal Council decided to prepare, fearing that creation could not survive another.”
He was in full flow again, almost poetic in his delivery, the words in his thickly accented second language becoming stranger sounding, stretching out towards song, hardly breathing. “They started, ever so slowly, so carefully, establishing a presence again in Logres, to observe, to search, bringing back what was useful. And then, unexpectedly, they found us, from the Ocean, the men from the Middle Sea. They had thought themselves alone, isolated for centuries, granted a final refuge by an ultimately merciful Lord after centuries of punishment for their arrogance and folly. But the second cataclysm, that of a century ago, had affected even them: the heaps of the dead by their barrier, the stench and weeping of the afflicted, piercing their hearts in their sanctuary. So, they had started to search, to learn, to make ready. But they had one advantage over us; they knew of one place in the outside where they would be welcomed, helped and not betrayed; the Mountain they call it. They started to travel further afield, building their strength within and without, and finally, after decades, they found us. How I don’t know, but they did. Praise to the Highest! We were not alone anymore!”
She focused on him. He was almost in a trance, eyes closed, mind elsewhere, joy suffusing his features, verging on ecstasy. She couldn’t tell him he had ceased making any sense; she just had to let his story run its course.
“But they were still proud, haughty and untrusting. Only slowly and reluctantly, they started to share with us some of what they knew. They say that even today they have not disclosed half their wisdom to us. But trust grew slowly, we were patient, we had been waiting over one and a half millennia and, finally, they allowed some of us to go back with them, to establish trade and exchange.”
“Then fourteen years ago, twice the holy number, that of the Father Himself, he came to us. He was no stray, no fleeing refugee, he was brought here, not by chance, but by a broken and contrite spirit they say. I met him once you know, down by the Abbey, just before he went back. Some say he came to answer the old prophecies, someone from the deep past sent back, but he seemed just a man to me. What he and the Council, and then the Duke and the old man themselves, discussed is not known. But he was touched and after only a short time sent back, something unheard of before. And then others of us followed him, crossing to and fro, bringing back new things, exporting our wares in exchange. And all the while, since the final cataclysm, the land itself began to expand. We didn’t notice at first you know, but more like you started to find us, a dozen or more each year, and more were found and brought back by us from the outside. Our people began to grow strongly again, no longer a small, fearful diminished rump of what had been lost so long before, but planting new villages, settling the outer valleys. Building wonders of science such as the railway.”
“And then you come, with a young child, so rare, so precious to us all, a mark of His continued favour. Now Easter approaches, His Blessings on us and you! and you sit there before me, in my little sanctuary, so wondering, so fearing, so doubting, so regretting, not sure whether to mourn or sing, to trust or distrust.”
Suddenly, he seemed to run out of steam, the engine of his poetry exhausted. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, looking at her directly for the first time since she had sat down. “What do you really need of me?”
She was dumb-founded, this bewildering, unpredictable, eccentric, kind man. If forty-eight, seventy-two hours before someone like him had recounted even half of what he had just said to her she would have been calling the mental health authorities and edging away. She couldn’t believe the half of it, but he clearly did, and then again he was a scholar of some description. She had lost track, she needed time to process it. What had she wanted to ask of him? Ah yes, but could she? Start gently and see.
“Father, I’m not sure why I and my son made it through the barrier. But I know that things in my life weren’t right and I was adrift in the world. My husband and I…” She couldn’t say it.
“You still use the present tense of him; you still wear his ring, yes? Have either of you been unfaithful?”
“Why no, not me and I don’t think so for Andy, I would have known.”
He smiled. “I have not been outside, my place and purpose is here within. But I have had this conversation, this confession you call it, with others who have come here for the first time. It is not for me to judge; there has been no adultery you say, of the heart or body?” She shook her head. “From what I know, the life currents of the outside have become too strong for many to withstand, they are swept this way and that, slowly going under in their despair and faithlessness. It strikes me that you were swept here into a safe harbour, guided by your faith perhaps, so while you may have much to confess and repent of, it is not this. It is the Lord’s will, Blessings upon Him! I will not question His Judgement. May He, in His holy wisdom, direct the currents carrying your husband here to your side in His own time.”
He reached out and grasped her hands in his with surprising strength and said a brief prayer.
She walked through the open door and into the light outside as if it were a new day and made her way back to the house, where her son and his new friend were busily demolishing lunch.
© 1642again 2018