‘Singing’ (detail from an exhibition by Penny Volkofsky)
‘Thou goest home this night to thy home of winter,
To thy home of autumn, of spring and of summer;
Thou goest home this night to thy perpetual home,
To thine eternal bed, to thine eternal slumber …
Sleep this night in the breast of thy Mother,
Sleep thou beloved while she herself soothes thee;
Sleep thou this night on the Virgin’s arm,
Sleep thou beloved while she herself kisses thee.
The great sleep of Jesus, the surpassing sleep of Jesus,
The sleep of Jesus’ wound, the sleep of Jesus’ grief,
The young sleep of Jesus,
The sleep of the kiss of Jesus of peace and of glory …
The shade of death lies upon thy face beloved,
But the grace of Jesus has his hand round about thee;
In nearness to the Trinity farewell to thy pains,
Christ stands before thee and peace is in his mind.
Sleep O sleep in the calm of all calm,
Sleep O sleep in the guidance of guidance
Sleep O sleep in the love of all loves
Sleep O beloved in the Lord of Life
Sleep O beloved in the God of Life.’25
This prayer is from a collection by Alexander Carmichael, which he gleaned from the oral tradition of the people of the Western Isles. His research was timely in that their tradition was close to extinction. Extermination in fact, would be a better word, for in the late 18th century (100 years earlier) a cold-hearted and systematic ‘cleansing’ had been forced upon these fisher-folk and farmers. The campaign was a joint effort between corporate land-owners and the church and met with surprisingly little resistance from the victims.
Historians speculate about the cause of their passivity but one such cause may well be the jaw dropping to the floor in astonishment. ‘Isn’t this a Christian country?’ they might easily have been thinking. ‘Surely our brothers and sisters in the church will do something!’
But those brothers and sisters had other things on their mind. ‘Mankind,’ declared the Church of Scotland’s confession of faith, ‘is wholly defiled in all parts and faculties of soul and body … utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good and wholly inclined to all evil.’ Indisposed indeed. And so it was that an unfortunate meeting of minds happened: government, sheep merchants and the church all stood to benefit from this ridding of heretics, property owners and un-administered riff-raff. Land was confiscated, villagers were taken captive and the ‘Year of the Sheep’ fell in 1792.
One of Carmichael’s interviewees, an old lady, had this to say: ‘Many a thing I have seen in my own day and generation. Many a thing, O Mary Mother of the black sorrow! … I have seen the women putting the children in the carts that were being sent from Benbecula … while their husbands lay bound in the pen and were weeping beside them, without power to give them a helping hand, though the women themselves were crying aloud and their little children wailing like to break their hearts.’26
We all know the script: organised religion cosies-up to the establishment; establishment goes after a minority group; clerics play scolding grandmother; persecution falls. I believe it was James Barry (the author of Peter Pan) who said, ‘Cowardice hath no fury like that of a non-combatant.’
The irony in all of this is that Celtic spirituality emphasises our essential goodness, a vision that is highlighted in George MacDonald’s classic The Princess and the Goblin. ‘In there an eternally young and beautiful old woman (combining the freshness of youth with the wisdom of the ages) sits in a secret room in the home, spinning a thread of light that is woven through all things, and which she instructs the young princess to hold wherever she is in order to feel her presence and to be led to her. Others in the house see neither the beautiful woman nor her thread of light, and her room, which is to the young princess the most wonderful of places—filled with the scent of roses and the sound of the world’s flowing waters—is to others merely an empty attic: dusty and forsaken.’
Along with the Western Isles and a thousand other places … a city, a palace and a temple witnessed the same thing two thousand years ago and we visit it today as the Via Dolorosa, meaning the ‘way of grief’ or of ‘sorrow’. What about those roadways and tracks of the Western Isles? You may be sure that some of those were made into personal and private Via Dolorosas. And more than that, have become secret rooms where the eternal mother sits spinning her thread of light, which we can find and touch and keep touching the way the princess did in the tunnels of the goblins. You don’t have to look far to realise that this story is always with us, maybe even tonight it’s happening in a house in a street in your own town.
Yes, you are busy and already ‘do stuff’ for others, but love has a big heart, an infinite heart and still sees and remembers the fishermen of the Western Isles and those people of your street and perhaps even thinks of you and at the same time as it’s thinking of you it may even be thinking of those other brothers and sisters, which we Aussies see on the cheap travel brochure ads, but who are also suffering martyrdom at the rate of 465 every day (and that is just the Christians).
You might not be able to fix the ‘problem’, but what if you are the one who has the greater ‘problem’, who sees nothing more than a dusty attic? What if you travelled to that forgotten room in this global home and found that they were the ones touching that thread of light much more closely than you ever will? Hundreds of stories are being told to the effect that they have a great gift for us, if we will only stop feeling sorry for them, forget ourselves and go and walk with them for a day or a year.
What if you actually just went and stood with them—irrespective of whether they were of the same or of a different faith to yours—for one hour, next time you visit their country. In fact, to visit one of those lands and to not at least seek out and talk to these virtual ‘heretics of the Western Isles’, would have to put you perilously close to behaving like the Church of Scotland in the 18th century. Some of them and their friends are out there on facebook.com/13.3australia and at www.persecution.com.au.
In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, God speaks as a mother who cannot forget her children and in the book of proverbs as Sophia, a loud and out there Mother of Us All: ‘Wisdom shouts in the streets for a hearing, she calls out to the crowds along main street and to the judges in their courts and to everyone in the land. “You simpletons!” she cries. “How long will you go on being fools? How long will you scoff at wisdom and fight the facts? Come here and listen to me. I have called you so often but still you won’t come. I have pleaded but all in vain, for you have spurned my counsel and reproof.” (Prov 1:20 -30)
Why not go looking for that golden thread and, as a part of the journey, make a link on your fb that is your own private and personal Via Dolorosa? Or choose a street in your town where some dreadful tragedy has happened in recent times and walk there with this in your heart. You might be surprised at what happens, for love is her brother’s keeper and her eyes roam all over the world looking for others with the same heart. And she is always practical. She can’t help herself. She has work to do. If we follow her, she will take us to where her heart is, at the very gates of hell—thank God. I dare you to try it just once 🙂