Sarn Helen

Part of this old Roman way Sarn Helen runs from Dolwyddelan to Capel Curig, sometimes known as the priest’s road and on to Caerhun.  I was particularly struck by some of Tom Bullough’s opening remarks in the new book of the same name. He was hoping to find “what, these saints who perceived the divine in the landscape of wales might bring to our relationship with the natural world.” For I too have searched the ancient stories for the wisdom of those who lived in the world when Sarn Helen was an important route connecting Wales.  Towards the end of the book, as Tom swims across Llyn Bodgynydd in the shadow of the Carneddau, (a North Wales Wildlife site not far from Llyn Geirionydd) so far, there has been no big reveal of what this saintly wisdom might be.  There have been gentle murmurs from the age of the saints whose lives were entangled with those of the other celtic figures of mythology and of course with the lives of the Roman invaders they fought to repel. I’m listening carefully to the narrative of the book for the ‘fruit that will last’ from our Celtic ancestry, that which is entwined with our world so deeply that it chimes within our souls as the psalmist suggests ‘deep calling unto deep’.  Yet it might be no surprise at all that you have to wait until the final chapters to hear that the world the saints dwelt in held a far richer relationship to the natural world. As Tom describes, it could be called a ‘common universal compassion’. Compassion as in to suffer with rather than to dominate, subdue, dictate and destroy which has been the more prevalent human culture towards the world we cohabit.  Tom arrives at Llanrhychwyn reflecting “that traditional religion was naturally animist.  A system of belief which reverences all things and often attributes a spirit to non living things at springs and rock.” This of course has been dismissed throughout christian history, though the number of sacred wells speaks rather a different message that, though dismissed, it is still there and of great importance. Amidst all of this St Rychwyn founded his Llan. As Tom arrives, commenting on the detritus piled up beside the churchyard, he writes: “It is a place to transport, to transform. It’s church has no need for a spire or tower, for an architecture to guide your eyes towards some other, ethereal heaven, rather like the holy well, the building marks a point in the landscape possessed on an inherent power an intensification perhaps of the force the saints called god. As with the stories of the saints, with their stags, their foxes, their mice, wrens, curlews and badgers, you need only look to see in Llanrhychwyn a reverence for the animating principle as it is revealed in the natural world.” That animating principle we might still attempt to call god and pretend to understand something of it in high voluted theological language. If there is to be a fruit of this age born to last, surely it is the gift of the Celtic age of the saints, to encourage us once again not to look up, but out and to all that is around. I should have known at the beginning of the book that there is nothing particularly saintly about perceiving the divine. Their daily life was lived much closer to the earth. Like many a spire, latter generations have tended to be aloof in their religion making. Our task then, still, is about re-connection for we have lost the simple art of paying attention.

~ rhannu os ti isio ~ do share ~



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