Whenever the fairies took a child, it was an act of straightforward covetousness. They admired the beauty of human infants and, in a very practical measure, would effect a direct swap with an elderly personage of their own race. It was a way around care in the community: guilt-free residential homes for their cailleachan, and a pretty, gurgling baby into the bargain.
People took all kinds of measures against the felonious pixies. Oatmeal might be scattered on the floor to repel them – I’m unsure whether they were OCD about a clean floor, or if they just didn’t like the feel of it underfoot, but it was deemed efficacious in keeping them at bay. Another, more revolting remedy for fending off thieving elves was . . . well, there’s no polite way of saying this, really: daubing stale urine on the door jambs and lintels. This kept fairies and, I would imagine, any other semi-civilised person out. And remember, a lot of the race of little people had only the one nostril, so if it bothered them, what must it have done to everyone else?
Nowadays, stories about changelings are deemed to be a kind of folklore of disability – a way of explaining the kinds of ailments and conditions which are either not present, or not apparent, at birth. A seemingly ‘normal’, healthy child suddenly appears to have ceased thriving. Of course, today, we would take him to a GP, be referred to a specialist. In the days long before the NHS, though, when the path between cradle and grave was frequently much shorter, people looked to the supernatural world for answers.
Frailty of either the physical or mental variety was much more difficult to accept. A limited life meant that person was dependent on others who all too frequently struggled to provide for themselves. Small wonder that an explanation had to be found.
In a recent sermon, something was made very real to me, something that I perhaps knew already and yet, didn’t know, until I heard this: the Lord’s love for, and valuing of us is not dependent upon our physical or mental abilities. It is our life which is precious to Him, regardless of the earthly tent in which that is contained.
This set in motion a veritable cavalcade of thoughts. Not the kind of thoughts we can all sometimes have in church – how does her hat stay on, not that tune again, at what point in their training do ministers learn to pronounce ‘wholly’ as ‘holly’ – all of which are totally irrelevant. No, these thoughts were more productive because, suddenly, as can also happen in church sometimes, it was as though God had revealed yet another wonderful truth about himself. A palpable truth.
We know, as Christians, that this world is not our home. Our humanity, however, clings to it, and loves to play by its rules. If we accomplish anything, if we are praised, we revel in the credit. Yet, if we follow Jesus,we do know that He does not want us setting all our store by achievements in this life. Our treasure is to be in Heaven. This doesn’t mean being what the old folk used to call being too heavenly-minded to be any earthly use. Of course, we do have to live here for a time and engage fully with the life God has ordained for us.
But we do not walk the road alone. In ‘A Christmas Carol’, Charles Dickens spoke of the need for us to treat other people as what they are in truth: ‘fellow passengers to the grave’. Sometimes, I think that I concentrate a bit too much on my own feet along this route to ever notice whether the man beside me has shoes on his, or whether he might be lame and in need of my arm.
Last week, I saw people rummaging in bins for food, right here in Stornoway. There is vulnerability of every kind – people are poor, hungry, addicted, mentally ill, struggling financially, psychologically- on our very doorstep. God loves every single one just the same as us. We have also been commanded to love those people, whom we have seen, or to accept that we cannot, therefore love Christ, whom we have not seen. To love them, that is, not their circumstances, or their problems, or their sins.
In that same sermon, we were told ‘Poverty does not make people look up to God. We have to take that into account as we deal with them and pray that God’s power will turn them to himself and bring that hope that this world can never bring’.
When we meet with human frailty in all its forms, we must do what our forefathers did and turn to the supernatural world for answers. Not the fictitious realm of fairies and superstition, but to the Heavenly realm and the God whose thumbprint is on even the most despised of these.