Fairies in the Church Hall & Light after Dark

Last Sunday, I sat quietly as the minister wagged his finger and said severely, ‘you know fine that was bad and wrong’. Trying to remember if he’d maybe seen me parked on a double yellow line, or if he knew about how I mess with the audio controls in the Seminary, I finally had the courage to look at him. To my relief, I saw that he was addressing his little dog. Once again, I had got away with it.

But, if he hears about this Friday , and the subject matter of the talk I gave at the senior fellowship, it’ll be the Session for sure.

I can say with some confidence that I’m the first person to talk to them about ghosts and fairies. There were a couple of elders present, so I avoided the topic of witches, just in case.

It wasn’t, of course, a practical lesson in how to spot fairies (they only have one nostril), nor how to keep them at bay (iron, oatmeal). Nor was I suggesting that they were ever real. Instead, I was trying to show how mankind was once in thrall to fear and superstition, until the light shed by Christianity in general, and the Reformation in particular, finally drove out the darkness.

More particularly, I was trying to draw parallels between that, and what happens in the life of the individual Christian as well, when they eventually see the light.

It’s a mystery that every believer must surely ponder on – how was it that I saw Christ, had Him brought before me repeatedly . . . and yet, didn’t see Him at all? Last Sunday, before bullying his diminutive canine, the minister fenced the communion table with a reflection on Isaiah 53. There is in that chapter a contrast. First, we have the Christ that our unbelieving eyes beheld – nothing in Him to attract us, punished because He had displeased God. But then, there is the realisation that this bruised and battered Christ is that way because of us; because He has taken our sin on Himself and died for it so that we don’t have to.

Surely, a battered man was never more beautiful than this.

I have seen physical suffering close to. My husband’s last weeks were not always easy. But, there came an end to his pain, and he did not have to endure the agony of God’s wrath.

He did not, and we do not, because Christ took that on Himself in order to spare us.

When you fully take that in, how then can his wounds and his bruises be other than lovely?

I’m realising that you can’t appreciate all of who and what He is right at the beginning of your Christian life. It is in the nature of enduring love to grow with knowledge; and there is no more enduring love than the one between our Saviour and His people.

It was not until I loved Him back that one phrase repeated throughout the Old Testament began to really terrify me. In Deuteronomy 32:20, ‘I will hide my face from them’; in Ezekiel 39, ‘I hid my face from them’; and the desperate pleas of psalms 55, 102, and 143: ‘do not hide Your face from me’.

Like a helpless child – which is what I am, spiritually speaking – I need to see Him, to reassure myself constantly that He is nearby. And it’s only when I accepted this dependence upon God that I began to fear that He might turn from me.

And I probably thought I was the only one until we were preparing for the communion last weekend, and the preacher said: ‘imagine the rest of your life if the Lord was silent’.

Imagine it? I prefer not to.

This doesn’t stem from any question over God’s faithfulness, but my own. When I first received assurance, but remained a secret disciple, I feared my own constancy. More than anything, I worried that this would be like all those times before – that the Word would become cold in my hands, and the prayers dry up. Every morning, I met God in prayer and reading; but I tormented myself with fear that, one day, I just wouldn’t go to the well. And that would be followed by another, and another, until these days of refreshing became a dim and distant memory.

I thought it was just me, until last weekend’s preparatory service, and the revelation that fear and faith often co-exist. Psalm 28 calls on ‘the Rock’, and pleads ‘be not deaf to me’, but the psalmist is not doubting God in the least.

When you have truly got to know God, you cannot doubt Him. But you can prize communion with Him so highly that you are terrified of being without it. Especially when you remember what you were before, and what you would be without Him.

When I gave my ill-advised talk about the Otherworld to the good folk of Stornoway Free Church, I was introduced as the author of ‘after darkness, light’. This blog, and my monthly column, of course, bear that title.

But, I am like the moon in that I would have remained in darkness, except that the true source of light shines upon me. What I am is not the author of light after darkness, but merely a reflection of the true Author’s work.

Men in Black and Other Legends

There was a loch in the moor near where I grew up, and it held a strange fascination for us.  Quiet Sunday walks with my siblings often drew us in that direction. But we always went with warnings from our parents ringing in our ears, regarding mysterious lights and a certain eeriness about the place. My grandfather had warned my mother of its uncanny nature, and she, in turn, was warning us of the same.

Stories abounded throughout the islands, of the each-uisge, the water horse. This mythical creature could assume the form of a handsome man, to entice an unwary maiden, and once she was totally taken in by this charming stranger, he would assume the form of a horse and carry her back into the depths of his watery home.

It is not difficult to understand what the true social function of the each-uisge story was – it performed the dual role of warning children against lurking strangers, and of hanging about near water.

The each-uisge belongs to a world of Gaelic folklore which has largely been consigned to books and the archives of local historical societies. It is part of that great corpus of ‘dualchas’ which the Calvinists destroyed in a rush of evangelistic fervour. St Patrick may have banished the snakes from Ireland, but John Knox went one better and drove the eich-uisge out of the Highlands.

All my life I have been hearing that the Free Church did away with our colourful traditions – our ghosts, and our fairies, our witches, our evil eye and our eich-uisge.  Then again, I have also been hearing how it oppresses women and no one has put a gag on me . . . yet.

It amuses me to think that, if it were not for the Disruption of 1843, and all the hard-line fellows in black hats and collars, we would all still be putting out a dish of milk for the fairies before going to bed. Perhaps the local secularists would be mocking us for pouring our beer into the Minch to appease the sea-god, Seonaidh, instead of deriding us for our Christian beliefs. They might even be calling for the closure of pubs on Sundays to prevent us from indulging the superstition.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Free Church was born out of a great act of faith. Ministers and congregations turned their backs on the security of manses and stipends for the uncertainty of a new denomination, loosed from the bonds of patronage which had so stifled their spiritual freedom.

Of course, it was not uncertainty as the world knows uncertainty: they had put their trust in God and knew that He would prosper their endeavours for the furtherance of His kingdom.

This church taught a people hungry for the good news of the Gospel how they might be set at liberty. In the context of forced eviction, of emigration, of famine, of grinding poverty and of disease, the Gaels were hearing something that really does change lives. It was this: none of those things, no earthly suffering, can actually steal the peace from your soul that comes from placing your faith in the risen Christ.

And sometimes, I think we see Him most clearly against a backdrop of fire and pain.

Fire and pain, of course, are not things we desire for ourselves or our loved ones. And atheists will tell you that the idea of suffering outside of Christ is just a story invented by theologians to keep us all under control.

Hell is the Calvinist each-uisge, a story told by ministers so that they can keep the population subdued.

To what end, though? Ministers trudge up the pulpit steps in order to rain down fire and brimstone on the heads of their congregations, threatening them with hell and damnation so that . . . what? So that they can keep their unearned reputations as control-freaks? So that they can be caricatured and vilified by turns? Or, is it really as the more hysterical elements in our midst suggest, all about the fact that they are in a secret pact with the Comhairle to ensure that no one enjoys themselves more than is strictly necessary?

Of course, it isn’t any of those things, as even the people saying them surely know deep down.

The Gaelic folktales warned of theft by the fairies, or drowning by water-horses because people could not see past the threat of sudden death. This is why Christianity displaced superstition, because once people had their eyes lifted to the true horizon, they would never again be in thrall to a fable.

And the only fable we have left is the one which tells people that the Wee Frees are angry and narrow-minded men in black, oppressing the daft women who follow along in their wake.

Saying it over and over does not make it true; telling it to the gawping national media does not make it true. Unlike the traditional tales, this one loses something with every retelling.

Meanwhile, those who think themselves simultaneously wiser than, as well as put-upon by, the power-hungry Calvinists, are at risk of being borne away by a legend of their own making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallowe’en is coming, and the Clocks Are Going Back . . .

Someone – and I’m not prepared to say who – created a bit of bother in Stornoway Free Church last weekend. They posted a flippantly captioned meme onto the church Facebook page, featuring a photograph of our two ministers. This flagrant misuse of the image was bad enough, but to compound the felony, it was heavily implied that one of the reverends could not be trusted to put the clocks back.

Which is ironic, really, because we all know that the Free Church has been setting this island back centuries since its foundation in 1843. What would one hour more have mattered?

I am a little bit obsessed with time myself. In the normal course of things, I like to be early. Sometimes ridiculously early. This is why I don’t like going to things with my less punctual friends and relatives. Walking into an early morning prayer-meeting once, after the door had been shut almost caused me a nose-bleed. It is my uptight side coming out. And there’s not a lot I can do about it.

On Hallowe’en night, I was due to give a talk on the Otherworld. So, I duly press-ganged my sister into accompanying me, and she wrong-footed me by being at our appointed meeting place early. We both arrived at the Leurbost Community Centre a good forty minutes before I was expected to utter a single word about witches. As we sat in the car park until a more respectable hour, hordes of children dressed as ghosts and witches (well, I assume they were children) rushed past. It brought back many happy memories of similarly dark and cold evenings, when a crowd of us would go from door to door, singing for a donation to the party fund.

And nostalgia was the tone for the whole evening. There was something about it . . . talking, as people did long ago, about superstitions, about mysterious lights and unexplained noises, and women who were suspected of being a bit uncanny. Woven into it was Gaelic, and genealogy, and laughter, and scones. My more eccentric granny was from Achmore, and the previous generation from (inevitably) Ranish. All North Lochie genes seem to emanate from Ranish. And there were lovely ladies there who had worked with my parents in the Old County Hospital, or knew my mother, or were related to a neighbour.

It was an old-fashioned evening. People wanted to ‘place’ me, and I in my turn had to figure them out. There was darkness, cold and an atmospherically howling wind outside. Inside, though, I felt like some magic had indeed taken place, and that, in talking about the tales of da-shealladh and taibhsean, I had unwittingly conjured up the past.

The tea and baking that followed my rambling was preceded by a grace. It makes me glad to know that some communities still continue with this, and some still open all their meetings with prayer.

But it makes me sad to think of the people who would see this humble gratefulness to God for His unwarranted goodness to us as just so much more superstition. There are those who would place the dignified words of blessing and thanks in the same category as charms to ward off the evil eye, or rituals to protect a child from felonious elves.

People are interested enough to come and hear about Hallowe’en, and the things that our ancestors believed. They were, I think, afraid of what might come out of the darkness to harm them. It wasn’t really spirits of the dead, or witches bent on evil that threatened them at all, but the nameless fear of things they could not comprehend. Illness, infant death, loss of all kinds . . . if these come at you unexpectedly and without explanation, perhaps you just have to create your own framework in which to understand them.

And people who dismiss God as superstition are just the same. They have built up their own version of the Otherworld, just a lot less plausible than the one populated with fairies and witches.

Their imaginary realm is the one they inhabit now. And they think it is all there is. The atheist thinks that when he closes his eyes on this world, he simply ceases to be. They do not waste time speaking to an imaginary deity now, because they do not expect to meet him later.

But they will. We all will.

I don’t like to dismiss the beliefs of our forefathers as mere superstition. They believed the things that they did in good faith, but also at times out of ignorance. Some of our good old Highland ministers (not at all the sort to forget to wind the clocks) believed that second sight may have been an example of hierophany – God communicating directly with a rural population which was largely illiterate and unable to read Scripture for itself.

The truth is, however, we don’t know. There are indeed, as the Bard (nope, not Murdo MacFarlane, the other cove) once said, ‘more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

‘Philosophy’ here might well refer to all of learning – whether that is astronomy, biology, or some daft creutair from the local college who has learned a few things about witches and wise women.

But the really wise women are not waiting for revelation in dreams or visions. They are setting their clocks to spend time with the Lord. His book is better than magic, and in His presence you will find more things than are dreamt of in any philosophy, I’m sure – even in the fondest prayers of the Christian.