Sunday, 23 October 2011

Our oldest Christian artefact?

I once asked a devout gathering of Christians if they could name the oldest artefact believed to bear witness to British Christianity. You probably won’t have heard of it, no matter how devout you are. But it tells quite a story.

A lady in the crowd nearly threw me completely by answering at once: “The thorn tree at Glastonbury.” She was right - in a way. This tree supposedly sprung to life from the staff carried by St Joseph of Arimathea, a contemporary of Christ. Medieval legend claimed that Joseph visited Glastonbury after Christ’s death, bearing the Holy Grail and his miracle-working staff. You can still see an offshoot of this holy thorn tree in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, pictured above. If the legends are correct, it was created by miracle soon after Christ’s death, so it is nearly 2,000 years old.

But a thorn tree is not technically an artefact, a manufactured object. So my tale can continue.
Rather than the enigmatic hill of Glastonbury, the actual location of our earliest evidence for Christian activity is a museum in Manchester.

There in a display case sits a fragment of pottery discovered during an archaeological dig in the city centre, on Deansgate in 1976. It is said to date from around the year 182, and has scratched on its surface part an enigmatic riddle, thought by many to be a secret Christian code. The BBC has a picture of it here.

This code is known as the Sator Square, and it looks like this:


The words read the same in all four directions, an amazing piece of wordplay that is almost impossible to arrange in any language. The five Latin words do make sense up to a point, since they translate as: ‘Arepo the sower guides the wheels with care’. But hidden within them are the words ‘Pater Noster’ with the two additional letters A and O, or Alpha and Omega.

You can read much more about the meaning, history and claimed Christian associations of the enigmatic Sator Square on the internet, starting with Wikipedia.

At the simplest level, however, it serves as a reminder that the earliest Christians in the 2nd century were forced to celebrate their faith in near total secrecy, often in the face of persecution and death. Quite how Christianity survived – let alone prospered – in such adverse conditions gives pause for thought.

Now it is a common lament to hear that Christianity is being marginalised from society, that it is losing its public voice, its influence and its respect. I know many religious, church-going people who claim to have little interest in church history and traditions, but we can take comfort by knowing our past.

An ingenious cryptogram scratched on shard of ancient pottery is a reminder that we have coped with worse.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What the pagans did for us

“You mean somewhere like Stonehenge?” is a common reaction when I tell people I’ve written a book on our main sacred sites, Britain's Holiest Places. If only my task had been that simple. Stonehenge is absent, an omission that will certainly raise a few eyebrows – so I will begin this blog by looking at the curious reality of such enchanting early sites.

We love our pre-Christian heritage, and rightly so. Britain’s standing stones are recognised around the world. They are archetypes of the human instinct to make our mark on the landscape, a permanent monument to a transitory life.

The first place I took my father-in-law, to whom my book is dedicated, on his only trip outside Russia was Stonehenge. As we paced the perimeter, he spotted two people who had been on the same flight as him three hours earlier.

It is sacred and spiritual to a level that is almost iconic. And yet…

There are no written records, nor even cave art yet discovered, that tell us the first thing about what the people who built Stonehenge did there. Bizarrely it was Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor, who gives us the first known written reference to pagan practice in Britain, though Stonehenge was over 2,000 years old by the time his invasion force set foot here in 55BC.

Archaeologists continue to announce new discoveries that might indicate some of Stonehenge’s functions: mausoleum, temple, palace, parliament, astronomical observatory – or a combination of any of these.

We simply don’t know whether they even considered it holy themselves. We don’t know what gods or god they followed – if any. Having had meaningful interaction with 500 holy places across Britain, I would dearly wish as much as anybody to know how to approach the evocative henges and enchanted stone circles that draw us to them with their primal energies.

There is an absence of authentic ritual that many would like to be addressed. I am sure organisations such as the newly recognised Druid Network will help to fill this void, with fresh interpretations of landscape and ritual that will satisfy those in search of spiritual experiences with a pre-Christian complexion. The Network was registered as a religious charity in September 2010 by the Charities Commission, the first such neopagan body to stand on an official footing. See the BBC News report for more information.

But I also hope that the reinvention of an older faith makes room for creative dialogue with the one that supplanted it. I can’t speak for the neopagans but I suspect many Christians won’t be happy at the prospect. It would be a loss for both sides, because there is a surprising amount for us to explore together.

I am talking mostly about the many places listed in my book where Christian and pagan activity overlapped in the earliest years of the conversion of Britain. Those who seek the original Christian church will find themselves increasingly bumping into pagans as they chart back through our history. Every single person in the early church knew pagans, and we can get closer to that original context ourselves.

Take just one example, the tiny holy well at Invermoriston in Scotland, which is named after St Columba and lies a short walk from the shores of Loch Ness. It appears in my book on page 505, and you can find information on the internet too. It was restored in 2005 and should interest anyone with a sense of the sacred.

St Columba came to Invermoriston himself in 565 when the area was still pagan. A Life of the saint records that a witch had cursed the well, which is pictured at the top of this blog entry. Local druids hoped it would poison the interfering missionary, who had come to see their king. Instead he blessed the waters and then drank without harm. Such anecdotes are invaluable: thanks to this story alone we can say confidently that pagans believed in black magic at natural springs, and we also understand how a previously pagan landscape was written over by the blessing of a saint.

I know what to do at this and other holy wells, thanks in large part to our pioneering Celtic missionaries. They adopted these sites from earlier faiths, and in doing so provide a continuity with the past that is entirely absent at monuments such as Stonehenge. The limpid waters of St Columba’s Well ripple with meaning when you touch their surface – a glimpse at secrets our ancient stones can not so easily yield.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Sacred sites online

It took five years to write and publish my new book Britain's Holiest Places so it seems like cheating to set up a blog on the same subject in a mere five minutes. But here it is, an updated and online resource for anyone interested in the amazing adventures to be had by visiting our country's extraordinary range of sacred sites.

I will post some of my personal views about Britain's most alluring holy sites over the coming months, pass on some of the rather touching tales I have recently heard from people using the book, and add any updates on the subject as a whole.

I loved every one of the hundreds of holy sites I visited, which come from all the main Christian traditions and beyond, to recycled pagan sites and places where other faiths have found meaning. So this blog will continue as a labour of love, offering positive experiences that reach far beyond the confines of religion to touch eternal human connections to culture and to nature.

If you're interested in seeing a few pages of the book you can preview them in Amazon, and buy it if it takes your fancy, or have a look first at the book's promotional website