Love is Always in the Mood of Believing Miracles

“It is strange how few people make more than a casual cult of enjoying Nature. And yet the earth is actually and literally the mother of us all. One needs no strange spiritual faith to worship the earth.”

John Cowper Powys,   A Glastonbury Romance,  published 1933

It is perhaps a truism that disparate faiths sit uneasily together in West Penwith, Cornwall.  Evidence of its strong Christian tradition, both Celtic and later,  can be seen everywhere in its wild landscapes and its settlements.  The latter contains its Methodist heritage, reflecting the impassioned ministry of John and Charles Wesley who undertook journeys of 7 days duration from London to Cornwall on horseback to preach both in natural ampitheatres and selected chapels.

These arduous journeys and committed preaching occured in the mid to late 18th Century and a combination of both old religious torpor and new industrial energy can help to explain the rise of Methodism in Cornwall. To understand this growth of interest,  and several subsequent revivals,  acknowledging the specific appeal of Wesleys’ inclusive message is vital. Bernard Deacon ably explains the background to why Methodism blossomed in Cornwall,  particularly in the mining communities of the West, in his blog.  Methodist chapels are ubiquitous in West Penwith.

The Wesleys’ message was relatively simple,  assuring people that redemption was open to all and anyone with sufficient faith could be saved.  However it was also uncompromising.  Here is part of a sermon he delivered at St Mary’s, Oxford, highlighting the difference between being ‘almost’ a Christian and ‘altogether’ a Christian :

Now, whoever has this faith, which purifies the heart, (by the power of God, who dwells therein,) from pride, anger, desire, from all unrighteousness, from “all filthiness of flesh and spirit;” which fills it with love stronger than death, both to God and to all mankind; love that does the works of God, glorying to spend and to be spent for all men, and that endures with joy, not only the reproach of Christ, the being mocked, despised, and hated of all men, but whatever the wisdom of God permits the malice of men or devils to inflict; whoever has this faith, thus working by love, is not almost only, but altogether, a Christian….

The Christian landscape in Britain only became legitimate in the 4th Century; previously  Christians had been persecuted until the Roman Emperor Constantine legalised its practice in 313.  It co-existed as one of the official religions of the Roman Empire with paganism until 392, when subsequent Emperor Theodosius passed legislation prohibiting pagan worship.  The Saxon invasions of the UK delayed the complete integration of the new religion and Christians fled to Cornwall, Wales and Scotland to avoid persecution again. Early Christianity in Cornwall was spread largely by the saints, including Saint Piran, the patron of the county. Cornwall, like other parts of Britain, is sometimes associated with the distinct collection of practices known as Celtic Christianity but was always in communion with the wider Catholic Church. The Cornish saints are commemorated in legends, churches and placenames. This Celtic landscape has lasted until today.

Some 25 years ago I intended to visit the Holy Well at the small village of Sancreed and began to take the old path leading from Sancreed church. This led through a farmyard and along a track which eventually brought me to the well and its ruined baptistry.  The farmer’s wife was outside and we struck up a conversation.  Her name was Mrs H.  Our conversation was something like this :

Me :  Hello

Mrs H : Hello.  Are you going to the Well?

Me: Yes,  I hope you don’t mind me walking through your farm.

Mrs H :  Not at all.  Its those coaches I cant stand.

Me : What coaches are those?

Mrs H : Those filled with Americans which come to worship the Devil.

Me : Devil worshippers?

Mrs H : Yes.  Idolators. 

Me : Why,  what do they do?

Mrs H :  They tramp across my yard and spend hours at the Well.  Singing and worshipping.  Then they look at the stones.  Some of them think my gateposts are old stones and hug them. 

Me : I hope you don’t think I’m a devil worshipper?  Do you have faith?

Mrs H : Of course,  Church of England.

Me :  So you are the guardian of the Well?

Mrs H : Guardian?  Me?  No.  I just clean the path after they go.

I think times have now moved on a little though it is difficult to know precisely without living in the area.  Several weeks ago I spent time looking around the large Methodist chapel in St Just and saw large puppets and costumes from the Lafrowda procession which had passed through the town just 1 week before.  These had been a part of the annual week-long Festival of the same name and were costumes certainly derived from non-conventional Christian influences.

The title of this blog entry and the quote above are from the English novelist, philosopher and lecturer John Cowper Powys,  whose father was a vicar in the Somerset parish of Montacute.  Although living in America Powys, rather like Joyce writing in exile of Dublin, wrote 4 acclaimed novels Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, Weymouth Sands (1934) and Maiden Castle (1936) often referred to as his Wessex novels. Reflecting his love of Thomas Hardy and Hardy’s landscape as well as his own origins, these novels are set in Somerset and Dorset. As with Hardy’s novels, the landscape plays a major role in Powys’s works, and an elemental philosophy is important in the lives of his characters.

In his novels Powys creates a complex landscape where his characters have intimate relationships with the elements, including the sky, wind, plants, animals, and insects.  He ascribes life and vitality to inanimate objects such as rocks.  Words such as ‘mysticism’ and ‘pantheism’ have been used to describe Powys’s attitude to nature, but what Powys wishes to portray is an ecstatic response to the natural world.  Epiphanies such as Wordsworth describes in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”  ( below ) convey a similar ecstasy but with the important difference in that Powys believes that the ecstasy of the young child can be retained by any adult who actively cultivates the power of the imagination. 

His views on the nature of religion are an extension of these views :  ‘Only when the co-ordination of our human activities rises to the height of a supreme music, can we regard “religion” as the most beautiful and most important of all human experiences. And at the moment when it takes this form it resolves itself into nothing more than an unutterable feeling of ecstasy produced by the sense that we are in harmony with the rest of the universe. Religion, as I am compelled to think of it, resolves itself into that reaction of unspeakable happiness produced in us, when by any kind of synthetic movement, however crude, we are either saved from unreality or reconciled to reality.’

The photographs here are of Tregeseal Stone Circle,  close to St Just in Penwith,  taken on a summer’s evening in late July 2017.  The glory of the occasion manifests in the combination of all the natural elements contained both in the macro-landscape panorama of the stone circle and the tor of Cape Kenidjack on the distant skyline as well as the micro-landscape of individual stones,  their unique striations and the various ribbons of grasses surrounding and embracing them. 


Ode : Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.
Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.
Behold the Child among his new-born blisses,
A six years’ Darling of a pigmy size!
See, where ‘mid work of his own hand he lies,
Fretted by sallies of his mother’s kisses,
With light upon him from his father’s eyes!
See, at his feet, some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly-learn{e}d art
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart,
And unto this he frames his song:
Then will he fit his tongue
To dialogues of business, love, or strife;
But it will not be long
Ere this be thrown aside,
And with new joy and pride
The little Actor cons another part;
Filling from time to time his “humorous stage”
With all the Persons, down to palsied Age,
That Life brings with her in her equipage;
As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation.
Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That Nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction: not indeed
For that which is most worthy to be blest;
Delight and liberty, the simple creed
Of Childhood, whether busy or at rest,
With new-fledged hope still fluttering in his breast:—
Not for these I raise
The song of thanks and praise
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised:
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young Lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.,
William Wordsworth