My Best Beloved and I are in the Yorkshire moors and after a day of climbing about the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the wild, windswept headlands, I am exhausted and exhilarated at once. We drove up from York yesterday — and I’ve yet to write about that fantastic experience, although I will in the next few days (thanks John Rushton and Christopher Nolan!)
One of the books I’ve brought with me is Philip Newell’s CHRIST OF THE CELTS. In this book he says, “In the Celtic tradition, the Garden of Eden is not a place in space and time from which we are separated. It is the deepest dimension of being from which we live in a type of exile.” As I read these words, I remembered an apple orchard where, as a child, I had an early sense of sacred presence. It was a much neglected old orchard where no one but I ever seemed to go. The grasses had grown long, and the trees where gnarled, the air fragrant with apple blossoms in the spring and with the heady scent of rotting groundfall apples in the autumn. There was a little stream that meandered through the grasses, not much more than a trickle in the hot dry month of August, but in May and June it was a joyous, gurgling, burble. I spent more hours than I can count dawdling about in that place, dreaming the dreams of a young girl, watching the clouds, picking buttercups and reading.
I still remember the grief, futility and injustice I felt the day the bulldozers moved in, plowing down the trees, stopping up the stream, to make way for a row of spectacularly ugly town houses. No, more than remember that flush of anguish, when the thought of that morning crosses my mind, I FEEL it again. However, close on the tip of that dragon’s tail, is an instant recognition that the orchard exists still, right here, inside myself. I needn’t even close my eyes. It’s all around me, even as I sit in this charming room in the middle of the Yorkshire. I can feel the grass around my calves, the roughness of the tree bark, the coolness of the water in the stream. I can smell the rich smell of decaying apples and hear the lazy drone of wasps. The sky is blue, the robin is in her nest and her song mingles with the chirp of the sparrows, and the rustle of leaves in the warm breeze. The air holds the promise of rain tomorrow. The orchard is complete and alive and undeniably real.
Because I have loved that orchard, and because I felt something sacred there, it has become an eternal place, reminding me of that sense of perfect belonging, that perfect sense of ‘home’ I felt when I was there as a child.
I have found a few other places like that over the years. A garden in Normandy. A hillside in Wales. The ‘burren’ in Ireland. And now, today, I have found the Yorkshire moors. There is something undeniably mystical in the great, rolling land, equal parts sky and hill. The majesty is intense, and so is the beauty. I can only imagine what it might like when the ground is an exuberant riot of purple when the heather bloom. As we arrived on this landscape I felt as I have done over the years from time to time – this concentrated sense of coming home. Landscape, for me, is intricately tied to spirit, and some much more than others. I seem to have little control over it. For example, I would have loved to have felt that way about France, but somehow I never did, even though from an intellectual point of view I completely understood why others felt the way they did about that lovely land. It just wasn’t one of my soul homes. This is.
Caedmon’s cross in the graveyard near the abbey ruins on the Whitby headlands
I wonder if that’s part of the reason I’ve been drawn to write this novel of this place set during a time of powerful spiritual forces? Perhaps. I discovered today, from a lovely man in the visitor’s center of Whitby Abbey, that Hild’s original timber monastery was built on the site of a much older pagan settlement, which contained a recently discovered iron-age round house, facing east. It is speculated this site had been holy for long, long before Christians appeared on the horizon. This seems to me perfectly reasonable.
Hild came because God, the Sacred, the Holy (whatever you wish to call it) was particularly accessible here, in this place. As Sister Rita, my fabulous spiritual director, often says – “why not go where God is?” This is not to say, of course, that the sacred is not everywhere, always, in our time as well as in sacred time, but rather that some places speak to some people with a little more clarity. Who knows why? Who cares? I, for one, am just profoundly grateful to be able to enlarge my internal landscape in this way. No matter where I travel, no matter how confined the space, these grand, awesome, soul-inspiring vistas will always be with me, reminding me of what it is to be home.