There was a time when every village in the Highlands and Islands would have had a taibhsear, a person gifted with the ability to see into the otherworld of ghosts and death. These people operated at a different level to the seer, whose concerns were less domestic and frequently strayed into national issues. No, the taibhsear was mainly plagued by visions of phantom funerals, of shrouds on his neighbours, and of the visitation of death to the locality.
In discussing these aspects of our heritage with students, I am frequently asked why the gift of second sight seems to be in retreat. Of course, I am not qualified to give a definitive answer to that – no one is – but I do have my own thoughts on it.
Firstly, why do we use the word, ‘community’ so frequently nowadays? It derives from the Latin, communitas and was originally a noun of quality, meant to name, not a physical place, but a feeling of fellowship, of unity, of oneness. In Lewis, my parents’ generation and all of those preceding would never have dreamt of using the word: in Gaelic, they talked about ‘baile’ and in English, ‘village’. The rest was implied. ‘Anns a’ bhaile againne’, meaning, ‘in our village’, was a frequently used phrase which took as read all of those attributes with which we now associate the word, ‘community’. People lived in close proximity to one another, shared a similar worldview and an almost identical experience of life.
Also, if you go back far enough, they feared the same things. The threat of illness, and of death hovered near them and manifested itself in belief relating to the fairies, to the evil eye and to witches. Many of life’s events can seem random and unexpected. If, however, you can anticipate them to some degree, you may regain a little power. To a certain extent, you can even take the sting from death if you see it coming.
And secondly, isn’t it possible that such closeness bred something else – an instinct, an intuition for your neighbours, as much as for your own family? Look at Derick Thomson’s description of a Lewis sky:
Probably there’s no other sky in the world
That makes it so easy for people
To look in on eternity
Did they get some deep sense of their own smallness against the vastness of Creation? Perhaps it caused them to cling more closely to one another in ways that we simply cannot understand. We have lost something more than just the gift of second sight along this way; we have lost the care for one another that used to operate at such a natural level. And, dare I say, we have lost our own innate sense of eternity?
This is how it is possible for division to emerge in our midst where none previously existed. It is sadly inevitable that atheists and Christians will not be able to agree on certain matters. This rift cannot be healed by arguing round in ever more ill-tempered circles.
It can, however, be healed by prayer and by the constancy of God’s people. In the past, many of those who were reputedly gifted with the second sight were ministers and ‘Men’. No less a person than Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall thought of second sight as hierophany – the Lord manifesting Himself to those lacking regular access to the Word. His own father was thought to be thus gifted and foresaw, amongst other things, the Disruption of 1843, though he did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled.
The Disruption, which formed the Free Church of Scotland, was much more than a mere political movement. It was preceded by a widespread spiritual revival in the Highlands and Islands. Otherwise, the people could not have taken such a radical, faith-fuelled step. And such revivals are always precipitated by prayer. Real, heart-felt, expecting prayer.
Recently, in a study on the life of Elijah, our congregation heard of his earnest petitions to God for rain in the midst of drought, with his head bowed between his knees. Though he entreated desperately, he did so in faith. And when his servant reported the appearance in the sky of a tiny cloud, Elijah knew this was the emerging fulfilment of God’s promise.
We are – right now – in the midst of what can sometimes feels like spiritual drought. It would be easy to forget that God does not wish us to sit back in despair, but expects us to pray in earnest. Notice, Elijah was so serious about prayer that he employed someone else to check the sky while he got on with the real business in hand.
Our problem might be that we just keep on checking the sky, shaking our heads sadly before once again fixing our eyes on the parched ground. We need to pray, and we need to be ready to spot the little cloud when it appears – because if we pray in faith, it IS coming. First the cloud, then the deluge and then, up from the barren earth, fruit.
God isn’t silent – He’s simply waiting for our prayers. These have to include the wilfully blind in our midst – for who is to say that one of them is not that very cloud?