The itchy footed hobbit (no, they are not hairy) got in the car and set off on a mission. It wasn’t so much ‘if you choose to accept it’ .. more a biting off the hand of opportunity…the morning had got to me. So the chance to actually scratch the itch, so to speak, was more than welcome.
The email from my friend some 200 miles away was clear. It transpires that in spite of upwards of a thousand photos, I hadn’t got a good shot of a particular shadow on a church wall. And, of course, this is precisely the shot he needs.
In my defence, I don’t generally go around photographing shadows… though it has been known. Shadows can be exquisitely beautiful. But this one in particular had escaped my attention. Mainly because I had no idea what it was.
I have written before of how, in a tiny, sleepy hamlet my partner in literary mischief and I had stumbled across a veritable cathedral where we had expected little more than a chapel. We had done no homework… it was another of those spur-of-the-moment turns down a country lane. The church, given its rural hideaway, is a stunning example of Perpendicular Gothic… if architecture in itself is your thing. From the medieval vaulted ceiling of the porch to the crown tower with its pinnacles and flying buttresses, it is an astonishing place.
What caught us, though was the 15th century stained glass windows that had survived in such a blaze of detail and colour, showing scenes from the life of St Nicholas. The church today is a light, airy place… we could only imagine what it must have looked like were all the windows of the same calibre and colour.
It was only afterwards, leafing through the literature at home that we learned about the shadow.
Intrigued, we tried again a couple of days later, only to be foiled as the church was in use for the day. A delve through earlier photographs showed what we were looking for…but not very well. Hence today’s trip. Or partly, at any rate.
Attended by a low-flying red kite I drove out of the village. There were birds everywhere, from unaccustomed flocks of seagulls to a jay, hundreds of crows, flights of swallows… and always the kites.
It is not far… a mere twenty minutes saw me pulling up in the little car park.
Why had I not noticed the door in any detail before? I had seen its antiquity… you can’t help it.. but the carved, weathered symbols and the peppering of musket shot had escaped me. We can’t claim ignorance… we are so used, now, to seeing the changes wrought by the religious politics of Henry VIII and later Cromwell, that we should have noticed.
Of course, we knew now that there had been a battle here… a house besieged, razed to the ground, and the lord of the manor hauled off to die in the Tower of London. We knew Cromwell’s troops had destroyed most of the beautiful, idolatrous glass. Only fragments are left of the rest. Oddly though, the shadow remains.
I had to wonder if they knew about it. Or if they simply dismissed it. It is true that what was called the Miracle of Hillesden is little known today, and perhaps after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the pilgrimages ceased, the story had fallen into myth. It is also true that one needs a fair imagination to see the form of the Virgin in the shadow… or a good deal of faith.
Be that as it may, the legend says that the shadow has withstood all attempts to eradicate it, from paint to cleaning…and for those whose faith painted it in their hearts with other eyes, it was a place of prayer and pilgrimage.
Sitting by the ancient, stepped cross in the churchyard my imagination took flight back to those times and I watched their stories play out on the inner screen of vision. They were stories much like ours today… of emotion and business, debate and laughter, simply dressed in different clothes and time. Through their stories is intimately woven that of changing religious belief, tolerance and intolerance, shifting paradigms that shaped the world that shaped them.
Yet faith… of whatever Path or denomination… can be a beautiful thing. I do not speak of organised religion here, with its dogma and politics, but of personal faith… for all faith is personal to the heart that feels it, regardless of the tenets and doctrines we may be taught or how the world labels our beliefs.
In this strange, out of the way church there is evidence of real faith today. And it is a living thing that permeates the very stones of the place. Inside the door are fun things for children to do as they learn about the building, and for the adults there is a pilgrims trail with guided prayers… little bags packed with texts and objects to focus the heart and mind, as the pilgrim engages in a tour of the building and their own inner heart. There is fresh water and an invitation to drink … and the place, in spite of its lofty walls and magnificence, has a homely feel.
The Silent Eye does not impose any faith but encourages the Child in each of us to seek its own concept of the Divine. This is a Christian church, and lately we have visited very many. Here, however, it is heart-warming and refreshing to see such gentle provision for young minds and curiosity, with no attempt to indoctrinate. Which, after all, the Christian Bible says was the way Jesus taught, “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not.” I left with a warmth in my heart for the place and those who serve their own Light there, and the words of the late comedian, Dave Allen playing in my mind,
“May your God go with you.”