I took the Otherworld on a road-trip this week. Concerned that the folk of north Lewis didn’t have enough eccentricity in their lives, I loaded the Ford Kuga up with fairies, ghosts and witches, and headed for Galson. My brief was to give a talk on the relationship between the Gaelic community and the supernatural, which is the kind of gig my job gets me into. Well, my job, and the scary people I know.
Although I talked about a whole spectrum of supernatural beings, the overarching theme of my talk was probably threat. Our forefathers lived in fear of the fairies, always making offerings to them and speaking highly of them, for fear of incurring their displeasure. And then there was the evil eye, so if a neighbour complimented you, the proper response was rebuttal. That way, the power of their envy could not harm you. Yet, even if you managed to prevent the fairies stealing your baby, and repel the power of the eye, how could you be sure that a witch wasn’t cooking up a storm (literally, in the case of Lewis witches – a dab hand at making a gale) to drown you? There was latent danger Lurking everywhere.
That danger was deemed most overwhelming whenever the continuity of time was broken – at birth, and at the transition of the year in particular. Fairies, ghosts and witches were reckoned to be capable of drawing near at such moments, and of inflicting great harm. Many protections were invoked against their power: iron, oatmeal, and the Bible. But also fire. It was thought that fire had cleansing and protective properties – cattle would be driven between two fires, mother and child would be circled by torch-bearers, and young men would carry fire around the whole village to keep ill-fortune at bay.
God shone a light into this darkness. Eventually, there was no need to rely on fire for protection and, eventually, our people stopped using the Bible as a mere talisman against evil. They opened it and read His Word instead.
This did not keep the powers of evil away completely. God, for inscrutable reasons of His own, allows them some latitude. Just as in the old, Gaelic world, shadows draw near and try to take possession of that which is ours. We probably feel much as our forefathers did when something we can’t understand reaches into our lives and bewilders, or even hurts us. And we know, like they did, the power of fire. But not the superstitious setting of Druidical pyres, encircling and walking between them, or raising them aloft as torches.
No, for the bewildered Christian, there is only one thing to do with fire: go through it. We have to go through it, trusting that this fire will indeed behave as Isaiah says and refine us, ‘in the furnace of affliction’. It isn’t easy to endure the heat but, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, if we keep our faith and fix hearts and minds upon God, we will come through the testing and emerge from the furnace, refined and strengthened, like silver.
It used to be that silver was heated until it was ready. The one doing the purifying knew it was complete when he could see his own image in it. Only then would he withdraw it from the flames.
We do not understand everything today any more than our ancestors did. In many ways, we are still worried about what lurks on the edge of darkness and whether it means us harm. Sometimes, we can be buffeted by change, by disappointment, by disillusion. But we do not have to be afraid. Collective grief can be collective strength. Those grieving together, tested in the fire together, cling to one another, and to the God in whom they put their trust. Whoever else deserts us, He never will.
Remember, even Nebuchadnezzar could see the fourth person in the midst of the flames.