|St. Oran's Chapel, Iona abbey graveyard|
Yes, the road curves rainbow-wards to Oz—sometimes even in a delicious yellow streak—but always along the way it dips suddenly down and round and whoop, there it is, Ms. Wicked Witch of the West’s dreadful rook of a castle, its black gate opened wide like a wound. And you were so sure that if you took the left fork in the road, you could not have ended up here…
Sometimes the only way ahead is by dying, and the only way out of Hell is by travelling all the way through it.
Most of human consciousness, I think, is an angst against that certain passage we all make, and it conflates many smaller miseries into death-like events: the grief of losing loved ones. The fear sacrificing something necessary for growth. Even the orgasmic release into a Beloved is a death (“I dye,” the lover sighed). En route through all of these way-stations we learn lessons and morals for passage. (It’s called growing up.)
As a rule from time immemorial (the dawn of human consciousness, I suppose), the doors to actual death are closed to the living. But some have traveled there and returned to tell of it.
It is said that when St. Oran —my tuletary saint, as many of you know—was buried in the footers of the Iona Abbey in 563 AD in sacrifice to an angry sea god, Oran travelled for three days in nights into the Land of the North, seeking the god. On each next island’s shore, he found a note: Not Here. Even on the rockiest, most difficult island he received the same news (in that case, a note was reeled down attached to a string.) Of course, the joke is that divinity was with him all the way; if he would only stop questing for the god he thought he was looking for, he might have found him everywhere.
That was basically the news he told St. Columba when his head was unearthed on All Hallows so Columba could look a last time into the face of his friend. Oran’s eyes popped open and the mouth spoke the dreaded words: “All you say and think of God and man and heaven and earth is wrong! In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!” Horrified, Columba had his monks re-bury the infernal mouth (“Mud! Mud back over Oran’s mouth lest he blab no more” is a saying that mothers in the Herbrides still say to children who have become too talkative) and resumed the grand apostolic mission of History.
Yet here’s the really interesting part of that tale: Columba made Oran the tuletary saint of the abbey’s graveyard, prophesying that “no man may access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” There’s even a St. Oran’s chapel in Releig Odhrain. In that way, the harrowing journey became the hallowed door to Paradise.
Yes, there are ways through our hells … and there is a wisdom gained from the passage that we couldn’t have learned any other way. But no one goes whistling into those places.
Travels to the underworld are harrowing. The sense I use of harrow— from Greek kroipion or sickle, meaning the tutor of death—isn’t even found in Wikipedia, though I did find out there that as a noun, harrow is an agricultural tool consisting of many discs, tines or spikes dragged across the soil. That is suggestive of the verb harrow, which means to disturb keenly or painfully; distress the mind, feelings, etc.
We have the harrowing of Hell by Christ, who descended after crucifixion to the realm of the dead to preach the word to the Jews and pagans and rescue all of us from death. (I’m not sure that was what the dead were hoping for, and as they still remain unquiet, restless, their mouths refusing to close.)
When harrowing a hell, it’s helpful to not go too naked. One can easily burn or freeze there, or guiled off the path. John Hollander once said that Dante found his way through Inferno sticking close to his spiritual mentor Virgil—or, more literally, proceeding “wrapped in the verses.”
(Another bit of wisdom for nekyias I’ve heard around AA is that when you’re going through Hell, don’t stop—for us, that means, keep writing through those early bad drafts.)
The wake of which marks the passage to the bourne from which no traveler returns is sacred; “hallow” comes from the Old English adjective halig, and se halga means “holy man.” What makes a saint holy is the hallowed glow of his or her harrow. The Voyage of Saint Brendan follows the saint as he travels island to island in search of Paradise; it meanders as precisely as the labyrinth inlaid of the floor of Chartres Cathedral (and is worth writing down.)
Holy wells arose where saints were decapitated—St. Kenelm’s in Kent and St. Osyth in Exeter. (My Oran’s Well has a singing head floating around in it.) The burn of the bourne teaches us that pain is ALWAYS present in spiritual growth: only after hard labors is there birth. (The depth of wells, too, is hallowed, perhaps because of the harrowing inner depths they descend to.)
The memory of a saint’s passage reverbs with holiness; that’s why we have so many Lives of the Saints. They are myths made mortal, dreams writ literally into a life, the bow or bios of a sanctified direction told as a long voyage to Paradise.
Our way here as writers was harrowed—and hallowed— long ago. A book copied by Saint Columba is in the book-bag of a youth who falls off his horse into the waters of the River Boyne and drowned. Twenty days later when the body is recovered, the book-bag is opened and lo, though all the other books have rotted away, the one “written by the sacred fingers of St. Columba … was as dry and wholly uninjured as if it had been enclosed in a desk.” (From Adomnan’s Life of St. Columba, itself one of the earliest surviving works of its kind.) Saint Comgall visits a couple and when the woman says she is barren, he asks for ink and when she produces it, he bids her drink it. She does and is cured. When St. Molaissi of Devenish Island encounters fellow monks on the highway, one asks to see the book in his satchel; the man is so impressed by what he reads that he wishes to copy the book but has no pen. The saint lifts his arms to heaven and a passing bird obligingly sheds a feather. Experience harrows what inspiration hallows.
For this challenge, write about something that is both harrowing and hallowed. Rough up an experience with that dreadful harrow then look at it in the opposite way, the lair of death become golden stair. Given the impending holiday, many of you might think of mothering / motherhood as an example of this to explore in your contribution. Or maybe there’s a place in your day or local geography which is both harrowing and hallowed. Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one passing slowly into myth. Or some other dark time in your life which has taught you some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned.
Who knows what music and mystery we’ll find in our Infernos!
Dante and Virgil, Baron Henri de Triqueti, 1862, Museum of Fina Arts, Boston