[Geoffrey’s post yesterday put me in mind of one of Jessica’ best (to my mind anyway), and since we have a hole here, I thought I would bring it back to our attention. It stands exactly as she wrote it. Neo]
Dearest Neo wrote in the comments box on my last post:
I see the trees, dearest friend, the same way you do but, I also see them standing as sentinel, even in death for a civilization that was, and may be again, which is echoed in the remnant church, built long ago itself, in the ruins of the more magnificent that went before.
Much despair there but, also there is hope for the future where men still worship where they have for more than a 1000 years, amidst the ruins, waiting for the glory to return.
A last stand, the sentinels outlined against the darkening sky; an air, perhaps, of something that once was and has been again, and is now going? For there is, at Covehithe and Dunwich, evidence of Roman occupation, and how was it, I wonder, for those Roman Britons as the legions melted away and the sea raiders came? With the Romans went a sort of civilisation which would not come again for centuries.
We know, for example, that Christianity was here in Britain under the Romans – Tertullian, writing in about A.D. 200 records the fact, and Bede noted that St Augustine found there were still Christians here in the 590s when he landed on his great mission, although they had different customs, and had been out of contact with Rome for so long that no-one there knew of their existence.
The image of the once and future king is a powerful one, and part of the Arthurian legend. If there was an Arthur, he was most likely to have been one of the last of the Romans, using Roman cavalry tactics to slow down the advance of the Saxons, and like so many of his kind, he retreated into the fastnesses of Wales where the remnants of the Britons kept their faith and their guard for the long years when their country was the prey of invaders. Arthur, real or not, represented the need to believe that the old civilisation had not gone down without a fight, and that all it had represented could rise again.
That need is very human. Even as the light fades, to believe it is not forever; to hope that what has gone can return. Christ embodies that eternal hope, and perhaps in part that longing in us responds to or derives from that fact?
At Calvary and on Golgotha it must have seemed to those assembled at the foot of the Cross that all hope was gone; Mary’s only Son, in whom such hopes had been placed, was dying, nailed to the tree; the sky darkened and the lightning flashed. It was all over – finished. And yet, we know it was not.Tennyson’s King Arthur says at the last:
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of.”
In the end that is surely right? Empires and civilisations rise and fall, and there were those who could not see that if Rome or Constantinople were conquered by barbarians that the Faith would or could endure; yet it has been so. So why should it not so continue?
It may be that the ruined towers and bare choirs of churches no longer cherished by the dwindling band of Christians here will stand as monuments to what was, and that our hope in what might be dims and grows thin. But we should not forget so easily our history, and how only a few hundred years after Arthur had fought and lost to the Saxons, it was the greatest of the Saxon Kings, Alfred, who fought what had seemed an unwinnable battle against the Pagan Danes – and that Alfred was a Christian.
Chesterton, in the most stirring of his poems, ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ catches the spirit of that time so well, and remind us to have courage and not to despair. He has Our Blessed Lady tell the fugitive and fearful Alfred:
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
‘Faith without a hope’? Not whilst Mary’s Son calls.