Petroc of Glastonbury
Blog post, 11/5/2017
I began writing this book in an attempt to reconnect with feelings of grief, which I felt I had lost touch with in the early years of my life. I wrote the story of my early life, up to the age of eleven, and then found myself writing a parallel story of a Celtic monk; I had been sent away to boarding school at the age of eight, and he at the same age had been sent to the monastic school in Glastonbury. His subsequent experiences were very different from my own.
It soon became clear, although I was pleased with both parts of what I had written, that my attempt at writing in ‘counterpoint’ was not working. I was becoming more and more engrossed in the adventurous story of this monk, whilst writing about my own life was more like therapy, and beyond the age of eleven it did not even seem very interesting. Petroc, for this is the name of the monk, had taken on a life of his own; so I surrendered to the inevitable and decided to write his whole story with his life unfettered by loud interruptions from mine.
Though I like to think of myself as spiritual, I am not a religious person. Nevertheless I do have a fascination with the Celtic Church. It has been described by Professor Nora Chadwick, the leading scholar in the subject, in superlative terms. In particular I have taken an interest in its fairly brief though significant manifestation in Somerset, which lasted, approximately, from the early sixth century until towards the end of the seventh.
I had written several short chapters on Glastonbury’s Celtic period in my book about the River Brue and its history. It was this part of the history that most excited me, and the research I did as part of that project serves as the historical background to the story contained in this book. The reason as to why I first embarked upon it in an attempt to reconnect with feelings of grief is a more complicated matter, and one that requires an explanation stretching somewhere deeper and somewhat further.
In the introduction to my book about the river I describe my overall project concerning the River Brue, and how I came to see the river as an allegory for the natural world as a whole. For me this has been given shape by the Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and what he has called his ‘Four Point Plan’. He presented this plan in response to people who had understood his concept of Spiritual Ecology, meaning the sacredness of the natural world and the environmental destruction that has come about in the absence of such an attitude, and who wanted to know, in practical terms, ‘what can we do?’
His first point, Witnessing, I explored in that earlier book, partly by describing ‘making friends with the river’ during a walk from the source to the sea, and partly through a study of its history – noting in particular that it is a disconnected river, cut in half and diverted during the middle ages. Most human beings living in our modern culture are just as profoundly disconnected, from the natural world. Llewellyn goes on to say that our witnessing of its desperate state will often lead to feelings of Grief, his second point, for the condition of the world has become so appallingly grievous.
In fact I have come to see grief as the only rational response to the state that the planet is in, and that a world-wide outpouring of emotion would be the healthiest and most useful thing that humans could now offer. What the world needs for her healing is our tears. However, it is not happening; and looking at my own life and my own numbness, I recognise that there are reasons that have contributed enormously to this lack of a real emotional response. I mean this both personally, thinking of the experience of my early years, and generally in our culture’s recent history through two world wars.
I have not, however, written a book of social history; I want to feel the feelings, not merely to describe them or explain intellectually why they might be difficult for us to access. To achieve this I decided that I must attempt a work of fiction. Having made that decision the subject matter, as I have done my best to describe here, has more or less chosen itself – however obscure ‘a story about a Celtic monk’ might sound. The characters, living nearly 1,500 years ago, are grieving for the loss of their culture rather than for the destruction of the environment. In an important sense the beginnings of that destruction were there, however, with the demise of the Celtic Church and the loss of its understanding that the natural world is the revelation of God just as much as is scripture. This understanding, indeed, was an expression of what might now be termed Spiritual Ecology.
Llewellyn’s third and fourth points are Prayer and finally Action. I have not yet figured these out in any depth for myself, so I shall say no more about them here. Accepting our feelings of grief, however, without which we cannot truly feel joy, is an issue of great contemporary importance. I have mentioned the world wars: I grew up as a child of a generation who, understandably but mistakenly, wished most of all to ‘get back to normal’ after the cessation of hostilities. Their most important feelings remained often, even mostly, unexpressed – and especially unexpressed in public, in polite company, and, of course, ‘in front of the children’. In these circumstances the resulting lack of emotional competence gets passed on down the generations.
This is not entirely about the war and it is not peculiar to our age, but the twentieth century’s wars have ensured that the epidemic of silence is now almost universal. This in turn means that more and potentially more destructive wars have inevitably followed. It is also the background to the last fifty years of environmental devastation. The third world war is being fought against the planet and its slender, vulnerable ecosphere. Beyond Llewellyn’s Four Point Plan I have no idea what to do about this overwhelmingly enormous subject; my only clue is that I must follow my heart. It shows me two things: a small boy of eight being sent away from home, and his arrival as an adult in the peculiar little Somerset town of Glastonbury. I can only hope that the story, as it has evolved from there, touches for its readers some vibrant chord in themselves.