Thursday, November 1, 2012

A sacred space


So little happens there now: a service one Sunday a month, a few weddings and fewer funerals. Hidden by a cluster of mature ash trees, the chapel is almost unseen from the road, barely rising above the curve of the land. A single wicket gate leads only to the muddy margins of the field, the sign partly covered by lank grasses, the stone steps slicked with moss.
I climb the brow of the field as evening gathers. The rains have cleared, and the sky is stacked with tall clouds of gold and indigo, ranged like tall ships under sail. From the ash trees, rooks plume noisily into the thickening dusk As they cluster low over the trees, I am reminded that an old collective noun for the birds is a 'parliament', based on the archaic belief that rooks gathered to judge the souls of the recent dead.
Inside, the last of the day's light filters through the few small leaded windows. The single stained glass window, the eastern one, depicts a dove of peace and fronds of flowers. The chapel is dedicated to St. Michael, the archangel, the one who accompanies the souls of the dead to heaven, who stands, like the rooks, in judgement over them. The angels, I think, are our emissaries between this world and beyond, and there is some sense of liminality in this small sacred ground, perched on its shoulder of hillside, poised between the wet earth and the towering clouds. I ponder on the choice of site here for a chapel; the position which is elevated and yet inconspicuous, the distance from the old road, the fields to cross and gates to open to get here. It seems, perhaps, that the site chose the chapel, that there is and always has been something special about this place, some indefinable quality that we feel in our souls when we arrive at such unremarkable yet special places.
I find myself thinking of R.S. Thomas, and of his poem Llananno about a similar tiny chapel in mid-Wales. There are no poems in it / for me, he writes, hinting at the frail disappointments of a man struggling with the contradictions of his faith, the limitations of his body in older age:
...I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.”
In the valley below me, the fields are silvered with ponds; floods left by the heavy rains of late October. The sky is darkening to evening. Despite the wind, the rooks, the lowing of cows from the farm behind me, I am filled with a sense of peace, with the ineffable sense of vastness which comes with being out of doors on an autumn evening. As I walk back down the sodden field towards the gate, the rooks spill back into the ash trees, quietening to stillness.