Feast of St. Thomas a Becket
Today is the feast of St. Thomas a Becket, and his shrine is Canterbury. As Chaucer writes in his Canterbury Tales:
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende
The hooly blisful martir for to seke...
But pilgrimages are more about the experience of the journey than the arrival at a destination. I remember standing atop the hill of Harbledown — or "Bobbe-up-and-Doun" in Chaucer’s storytelling -- where I caught first glimpse of Canterbury Cathedral in the distance. This is actually the last place of the pilgrimage road noted by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. In fact the journey seems to end here, and his pilgrims never actually arrive in Canterbury! He writes that they stop at "Bobbe-up-and-Doun" where they stop to tell one of the final tales of the pilgrimage.
Life and art are like pilgrimages in that way… what happens along the way is more important what happens at journey’s end. Indeed, at the end of our life or our art, we may judge our journey a failure. Henry Vaughan was such a pilgrim, one of the great poets of Wales. I have visited his grave more than once (it is near Old Gwernyfed Manor that I wrote about on the Second Day of Christmas.) Vaughan had inscribed on his tombstone: “Your Useless Servant”.
I think about his harsh self-judgement a lot. He clearly suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and was very sensitive to light and its absence. His gift was that he understood the power of the dimmest light — not sun, nor moon, but stars — to illuminate the darkness. It is easy to have hope when you are bathing in the sunlight. But to have hope when all you see is the twinkling of a star on a winter’s night?
No, Henry Vaughan, you are no “useless servant”, but a joyous pilgrim. I imagine that you woud have been overjoyed standing atop Chaucer’s Harbledown on a moonless night and seeing one star burning bright above the towers of Canterbury Cathedral. It would have been enough for you. Your pilgrmage to Canterbury would have ended there, for in that dark moment you would have arrived.
As a young man Henry Vaughan studied law at Oxford and dabbled in romantic poetry of courtly manners and high society. But he then fought on the wrong side of the English Civil War… a Cavalier Royalist who lost everything to Cromwell’s Roundheads. This crisis led to a spiritual crisis and to his writing some of the best poetry in the English language. Meanwhile, he studied alchemy and medicine. This led to still another crisis, and he abandoned all his poetry for the remaining forty years of his life. Henry Vaughan toiled as an itinerant country doctor -- riding on his pony through long nights and dark seasons -- to bring healing to cottages strewn across the Welsh hills with sick and suffering people.
Let me share some of Henry's poems with you. They lift my spirits through the long winter journey. And I thank Henry Vaughan for his joy that springs out of sorrow, for light that leaps out of darkness.
No, Henry Vaughan was no “useless servant” to his God, but a pilgrim on the perilous journey of life. Here are four of Vaughan’s verses about the dim light that is brighter than the darkest night.
"I Saw Eternity the other night
like a great Ring of pure and endless light
all calm as it was bright.
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d. "
“Stars are of mighty use
The night is dark and long.
The Road foul, and where one goes right
Six may go wrong.
One twinkling ray
Shot o’r some cloud
Might clear much way
And guide a crowd.”
“Death and darkness get you packing,
Nothing now to man is lacking.
All your triumphs now are ended
and what Adam marr’d is now mended.
Graves are beds now for the weary,
Death a nap, to wake more merry.”
“There is in God (some say)
A deep but dazzling darkness,
as men here Say it is late and dusky,
because they See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!”
Finally, listen to a complete poem by Henry Vaughan, told so beautifully by Anghared Rees. Here the image is not light, but water.
Your comments are always welcome. Email me here.