Hope is the Note

'Tree of Wishes' by Montserrat


I sorrow not though the world is wrapped in sleep

I sorrow not though the icy winds blast

I sorrow not though the snow falls hard and deep

I sorrow not this too shall soon be past

                                                                                    Scott Cunningham

The most poignant quality of the Winter Solstice festival is hope; a little spark of brightness at the darkest moment. No matter what our beliefs may be, hope is something we all endeavour to hold on to; being without hope feels deathly. But what is it that enables us to feel this most cherished of states even when all around us might suggest that our hope is merely an act of self-delusion?

A couple of Solstices back, we were in Tintagel in Cornwall. We had walked up to St Madron’s, the little church on the cliff. Once inside, I had lit some of the candles next to the beautiful Mary statue and sat contemplating the light that now filled the stillness of that simple space. The wind roared outside but the thick stone walls – so often buffeted by the fierce winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean – enclosed and held us. In the dusk, with the weather groaning and heaving outside and the candle light warming the greying light, I felt the most extraordinary peace. I felt safe, as safe and peaceful as the occasional times of sleeping in my mother’s bed as a child, an event that – like no other – made me feel that nothing would or could harm me. A couple of days later, we found ourselves back in St Madron’s on another windy night, listening to beautiful choral music; the voice of the powerful winds circling the building and the voices of the choir that filled its inner space, moved me to tears that night.

There is a beautiful modern altar window in St Madron’s that depicts the sun and moon and the changing of the seasons but there are also smaller, older windows that personify ‘faith’, ‘charity’ and, of course, ‘hope’. They seemed very apt standing before them at midwinter, knowing that the coldest weather was yet to come. So what is at the heart of these qualities that we might derive some wisdom and guidance from? It is true that we can be hopeful in happy times, when life is going well but hope really comes into its own when we ourselves are being buffeted by the fierceness of living; floored and wrong footed by the strength of it and the seeming powerlessness of our actions. Faith, hope and charity seem like such quaint Victorian concepts but on deeper inspection, they are all guiding lights in the darkest times.

For me ‘faith’ is not blind acceptance of dogma regardless of appropriateness; faith is about trusting in the direction that life and one’s spiritual journey will take you – it is actually a perpetual process of losing and regaining one’s faith and trust, moving into those moments of hopelessness that we might touch upon the mystery of Grace in our lives. Grace’s impact works best when all hope seems to be lost. Charity is not only about a duty of generosity to others, it is also about retaining an open heart, a generosity towards life itself; it is an unclenching of the spirit and an eagerness to share ourselves authentically; to step beyond our own fears, obsessions and self-preoccupations to truly be able to give of ourselves, to others and to the world, and in doing so, be willing and trusting enough to receive. In these ways, Charity and Faith feed and bolster our Hope; they give us the evidence that life and people are essentially good, that there is indeed much to be hopeful about.

However, there will be moments when we feel so low that hope appears lost. We need to sit and be, allow that darkness to enfold us like those meter thick walls in Cornish churches; let that enfolding take the brunt of stormy weather whilst we sit silently and wait for the light to slowly grow. Have you ever noticed that when we light a candle at night in an unlit room and focus on its flame, the periphery of our vision is filled with the darkness; this darkness – like those sturdy walls of St Madron’s Church – can enclose and support us; it is not the place where hope dies; it is the fertile and mysterious void where hope is born. Out of the darkness comes light and this is the simple and powerful message of the Winter Solstice. At this place of apparent lack, we find a small, still moment of Grace, sparking into being. Both Pagans and Christians symbolise this moment with the birth of a child – never a more appropriate image.

I started by asking what it is that enables us to hope beyond hope. I think it is because we know what it is to experience love – whether being loved, cherished and protected by our mothers or other loved ones or guardians, friends, lovers or children; we loving in return, knowing how extraordinary a feeling that is. Even if we are totally alone in the world and even if love feels utterly lost to us, the memory of love is powerful; the essence of love is everywhere, in the beauty of the natural world and in the simple gestures of human living whether it be the acknowledgement of self gifted by the passing smile of a stranger or any of the countless little things that fill our day with meaning.

I wish for you a Solstice filled with love and the sure knowledge that the sun will always rise again. I wish also that you might discover, time and again, that Hope is the clear, bright note of the heart and soul, struck in the still darkness, its sound rippling out through the blackness to call you home.

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
than wisdom

e e cummings

Awen Rays over Tennyson Downs

Whatever you lose, like a you or me…

I never want to find myself landlocked.

I have always lived near the sea and would grieve the loss of it deeply if I ever had to move away. My memories are entwined with it as intimately and vitally as vein, artery, blood and heart.

I have had many special ritual moments by the sea. Once, a friend and I floated swan feather ‘boats’ as the sun rose at Eastney Point. The feathers were taken out to sea by the fast moving currents. We had ‘placed’ within them any pain that needed healing, surrendering it to the ocean that she might tenderly cleanse and uphold us. It was so moving to watch those little ‘boats’ riding the stream of such strong currents out into the ocean beyond the harbour entrance; the rising sun brightened the waters whilst terns and black-headed gulls dropped from the air like darts, the only sounds being the ‘plop’ of their bodies hitting the surface as they fished for their breakfast.

Whilst I lived in Portsmouth, Eastney Point was a favourite place to visit for both ritual and just to be quiet. It was there during a Summer Solstice ritual – once again at dawn – that we were honoured to witness the most spectacular of lighting storms. It was a powerful experience, the sun rising amongst clouds above Portsdown Hill to the northeast, these dramatic clouds channelling its light only to intensify the angry storm clouds above us and out to sea. Due to strange atmospherics, the lightning was an extraordinary pink. It came to ground on the other side of the harbour entrance, whilst out at sea, its enormous forks of electricity – vivid pathways from cloud to sea – split and multiplied the closer they came to the water’s surface.

Now that I live on an island, the sea has become even more entwined in the rhythms of my own being. I am quite literally surrounded by it. Even if you are inland here, all of the Island’s high places grant spectacular views of it.

My home, Sandown Bay, is a vast arch of sand that reaches from the white chalk of Culver Cliff right round to the dark sandstone of Dunnose Head. There are many beaches in between these two points but Yaverland – beneath Culver’s White and Red Cliffs in the east of the bay – is the one that draws me most. It is the loneliest and the most stunning and the one I go to locally if I want to be quiet, if I am feeling blue or in need of answers. I have written about it often here on this Blog.

I haven’t been there nearly enough this year and yet I see it when I walk into Sandown. This time of year, Culver’s great chalk face turns the most delicate pink as the sun sets. It’s a fundamental part of the landscape for everyone that lives here, and as such has become a fundamental part of my own inner landscape; its distinctive shape speaks of home.

The experience of living on an island naturally means that the ocean can become a kind of wall or barrier. You certainly feel this when you get on the ferry and find yourself, fifteen or so minutes later, in a different world. The insularity can be a problem; on the one hand that stretch of water that separates us from the life of the mainland – both its exciting and its troublesome aspects – can feel soothingly protective, however, for this very reason, it can also be stifling too. That beautiful stretch of water also separates us from those that we love and from experiences that can shake us out of our insularity.

And yet, the beauty of water is that it connects us too, not only by sailing it and journeying across it but by the simple fact that the oceans act like a vast and unifying flow that embraces all the land masses of the earth. The ocean’s powerful and magically fluid substance connects not only all the peoples of the earth but all life too. If I crouch down to touch the water as it moves up across the sand at Yaverland, the water I have touched will eventually be touched by everything that exists, whether by the contact with sea, or river or rain or snow, or even the water from a tap. When you next run your hands through the breaking waves upon the shore you will be touching me. We can send love and a longing for connection across this seemingly unbridgeable vastness and it will always find its target.

The paradox of water is that it both connects us and separates us. And here I am on my beautiful Island, trying to find the balance between that closeness and distance. I now understand why so many old stories of the sea are so full of longing…