The small churches and cemeteries that dot the landscape of England are captivating, a thing you don’t see much of here in the States. In the first few days after moving there, I discovered one nearby. It’s not uncommon to encounter village churches that are 1000 years old, and the forgotten, tilting gravestones that surround them often go back to the 1500s. We’re not used to that here, something that dates back to the 1800s is old to us. In Britain, that would still be considered a new structure, and met with a typical nonchalant English shrug.
This cemetery was as quaint as the others, private and overgrown, out-of-control hedges serving as a living shroud around its borders. Walking among the headstones, tilting and overgrown with moss, I noticed that the native earth energy in England is different than the US. It is very old, green and fertile, and exudes a very feminine feeling. They are the energy of creation, but even as creation blossoms in its good time, so the time of its death is preordained. This must happen for the circle to be renewed. The Celtic goddesses, you can still feel them there. Warrior mothers, ruthless and loving.
It was a warm, sunny day, odd for the island constantly battered by the moisture of the Gulf Stream, as I would come to find out. Summer is about the middle two weeks of July, if you’re lucky. England in the sunshine really gleams; it was lovely to be out. One benefit of living there is that your skin really takes on a soft, porcelain finish; on the downside, your hair does anything it bloody well feels like doing.
Back to our overgrown cemetery–as I was walking among the stones, an odd thing happened; a rabbit emerged from the undergrowth. He was black, and had a preternatural look and manner. Hopping slowly among the flat markers, he seemed unafraid of people. He would not let me near him, yet he trailed behind me as I walked around the stones. I half-expected him to be wearing a waistcoat and pull out a pocket watch, and declare he was late. It was as if he knew me, and was trying to tell me something. He was beautiful, large for a rabbit with dark matte fur and shiny pebble eyes. He seemed a harbinger of things to come.
It brought to mind the ancient goddess, Andred, the Celtic goddess of rabbit magic. The warrior queen, Boudica, defending her tribe from further abuse by the Romans, invoked Andred’s good auspices before battle for good fortune in war. As the leader of her clan, she was also priestess, a diviner. After her impassioned speech about the inequities that the Romans had inflicted, Boudica let loose a hare from her robes. The story tells that the path the animal ran gave good omen for the outcome of the battle by the direction it took. It was in hopes that the Romans would give chase, thereby robbing them of their courage in battle. That is the myth surrounding Andred’s rabbit magic, that the hare, its defense made in running, would cast its spell and ensnare the Romans to do the same. Boudica won her battle, massacring the Romans, including the women, as they had done to her Gallic tribe. The goddess is also an ancient mistress of creation and fertility, but there is definitely a warrior essence to her. The animal’s presence was an interesting portent on my first few days in this island keep.
My visits to Italy were quite different in feel. The Roman Catholic Church has indelibly left its stamp there. It’s not like England, where the old stone monuments are much more common than the crumbling churches and monasteries. In Italy, the cathedrals and basilicas dominate the landscape. The earliest architectural references are those of the Etruscans’, and they are overwhelmed by the militaristic quotidian of the Roman Empire. The land and its spiritual culture has a decidedly masculine feel to it, also creative, sacred, but decidedly hierarchical in look and feel.
Two places near Tuscany in particular come to mind, both in the same town–Assisi. Certainly Rome has a majesty that is beyond description–you can see St. Peter’s Basilica from the air–it’s gargantuan. “Upon this Rock you shall build my Church,” and that they did. But Assisi is magical. Set on a high top in the hills of Umbria in central Italy, it is exactly like you would envision, marble and granite cobblestone streets, brilliant flowers hanging out of window boxes and narrow pathways, with the crown jewel, the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi precipitously overlooking the valley below. The burial crypt of St. Francis is in the lower level of the church, and indeed has a sacred feel to it. This is the burial site of a unique human being.
St. Francis saw his visions that started the Franciscan Order in the Chapel of San Damiano, a small little hole of a church, with its low roofs and humble decorations, and his experience there was life-shaking. He was never the same after it. Jesus exhorted him from the cross that hung in the mean little room that his Church had fallen in disrepair, like this rude shelter, and Francis was to repair it, and bring it back to its roots of charity and love for others, “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in his footsteps.”
Even by the standard of the day, Francis was regarded by the more materialistic of the area, eg., his father, a wealthy businessman, as a bit of a loony. I kept thinking if this had happened today, he’d be considered delusional and treated with psychotropic drugs. More seriously, there is a sweetness to his energy that is difficult to resist. He had some presentiments that made the Church a little uncomfortable, his love of the Sun and Moon’s energy and to venerate animals smacked a bit of paganism, to their way of thinking. He was a bit of a pantheist.
These tiny chapels that dot Assisi are unpossessing–the Church of San Damiano is cramped and almost hovel-like. To enter, you walk down a narrow passageway and then make an immediate sharp left into the chapel. With deteriorating frescoes that are indiscernible on the walls, the pews can seat no more than thirty comfortably. The lighting is poor, the roof close. But despite having moved the cross that was the source of St. Francis’ speaking visions to the Basilica di Santa Chiara, this little room nearly knocked me down when I entered it.
Turning the corner of the passage, and I felt hit in the face by an alive, vital force. I didn’t see anything, but I felt and heard it. Something–or someone–is still there. What was odd was the cross, the source of his initial visions had been moved, a replica of the original is suspended rather high up in the chancel, as high as it can be, probably to discourage vandals, as the church is usually empty. There is nothing compelling about the replica–the energy resides inside the chapel itself, the walls, the floor. It was like electricity, and unmistakable. It is a very active energy, ecstatic, joyful. Whether it was emanating from the room, the earth the tiny chapel stood on, or something else, I couldn’t say. I can tell you that it would have lit Francis up like a lightening-struck bonfire. No wonder he was never the same. He went on infecting everyone with the same energy until it burnt him out, at forty-four.
Francis was trying to tell us something–there is divine energy in all things. We’re not very good with this; even at this late date we’re too often seduced by flash, rather than substance. In submitting it to the rule of law, we chase it away.
What we have built needs to fall away to reveal the Divine within. The masculine and the feminine need to join again, that is the lesson of this age. We are most assuredly still the students. We are of this Earth and of the Energy that created All. It is still available, to those that will see, and choose to listen.