Jacques is telling it…

We are left alone with the abbot who stands proud, candlelight glinting in his sallow sockets:

‘Brethren, the prior is in error. And so is the precentor. Virgo nos Paradiso expulit, per Virginem vitam æternam invenimus. [A Virgin drove us out of Paradise, and by a Virgin we have found eternal life]. But if they think our Holy Mother is a frog, then who am I to argue? Now, shall I finish mass or would you like to see my rood?’

‘The rood!’ cries Lucas. ‘Show us the rood!’

We gather round as the abbot walks toward the ominous screen; the scaffold has been dismantled but the carving is still veiled by a flimsy sheet:

‘Brethren, this is my greatest work. Yet I know it has been the cause of much grief, for my whittling has disturbed your sleep and turned you all against me. But this rood will be standing here long after we are dead and gone. I consider it as much yours as it is mine; for whilst I sacrificed my time, you sacrificed your peace of mind – which is a far greater and more precious thing; so to reward your faithful patience, there shall be a feast of roast boar this Christmas Day…’

‘Three cheers for father Janus!’ cries Lucas.

The brethren raise cheers of appreciation, clapping hands and exchanging hugs. In that moment the terrors of night are forgotten: the darkness lifts and every face beams with hope. The abbot whispers in my ear:

‘A fickle crew: a little meat, a little wine – and they are mine again…’ Then he says: ‘Henri, bring some candles: one for each monk.’

Henri darts round the choir, gathering candles and passes them amongst us. The jollity turns to silence. We wait in expectation, guarding our flames as the abbot grabs the sheet:

‘Are you ready?’ he asks.

Then with a flick of his hand, he pulls back the veil. Oh nymphs of Nemi! Oh satyrs of the sacred grove! What sweet and solemn faces stare from wreathes of sacred boughs! My eyes fill with tears at the naked sylphs with slender limbs, frolicking amid the flowers; the acorn-headed faeries, leaping through sprigs of mistletoe…

We fall dumbstruck at the abbot’s skill, for the living breathing world of our dreams has been rendered in solid oak, our secret desires made manifest in Arcadian freezes of love and plenty.

‘What’s that satyr doing?’ asks Fabien, blushing.

‘He’s playing hide the sausage,’ grins Lucas.

We gaze at the beauteous sylph who reclines in ecstasy, her legs astride the thrusting fetlocks, her hands gripped on curling horns. Then we wander dumbstruck round the pulsing rood, our candles gleaming on forbidden delights…

Poufille points to a procession of nymphs holding spears and shields then asks:

‘Father, what creatures are these?’

‘Why they are the Meliae, Oread nymphs of the mountain ash, born to Gaia, when she was impregnated by the blood of castrated Ouranos. They were the mothers of the third Bronze Race of man. Their sons nursed on the sweet manna of the ash, and crafted spears from its branches. But they were a warlike race who incurred the wrath of Zeus, and were destroyed in the floods of the Great Deluge…’

He points up and adds:

‘There were giants on the earth in those days…’

We fall rapt at his words and peer in awe. High in the rood-loft is a radiant sun, gilt with Hebrew letters:

[The princes of olden days]. Fallen spirits tumble from urns on each side: forest faeries and demons from mountain halls; creatures who dwell in darkness and underground caves; sibyls who ride on rays of Light; and sirens who materialize only in moonbeams, taking any shape they please. Three dwarfs horde treasures of gold and wonderful works of metal. Lucas, Henri and Nicaise. And towering above them all is a giant with two heads who hurls great rocks like pebbles…

The candles leap.

There is palpable intermingling of spirit and sense, as if the rood is the point of contact between natural and supernatural orders. For within the throbbing wood abides a greater reality that lies beyond the shadows of the world, yet permeates all things. If God is not at the altar, then He is certainly here…

Is this Great Pan, who died at the Crucifixion, when the veil of the temple was rent in two? We hear his reedy notes – the cries of Syrinx – who fled his amorous intentions and was transformed into his pipes. Great Pan is dead? Nay, he lives on still, defiant in his lust; see how he scorns the altar, grinning at the golden cross!

What multiform monsters now gaze at voluptuous Venus and her train of flowers! What pantheon of beasts yearn to kiss the budding breasts of Proserpina in Hades! Here are the pagan pageants of the past, the rebellious drunken rites of Bacchus, and Orpheus. We know not their names, nor from whence they came, but we hear their ancient Alleluia, and feel their hot blood seep through the cold pith of our Christian hearts.

Are these the sacred orgies of Eleusinia? See the sacred baskets, borne by naked nymphs, bearing cistæ [chests] of pomegranates and poppies, entwined with serpents, sprawling ivy, loaves and cakes. And there is Iacchus, son of Demeter and Zeus, all crowned with myrtle, standing by the sacred fig tree. Is that hierophant Saint Peter, with Hermes as his mystic herald? And who is that horned magician standing on the mount, bearing tablets of the law?

What gifted hands drove that nibbling chisel, and teased the latent spirit of the wood into such heretical throngs of laurel leaves and limbs! The sap pulses through our veins, and we sense a hidden realm beyond the Pyx – a realm of miracles where Diana and Silvanus weave enchanted spells; that in beholding this living rood, we fallen vessels of clay, might become our own Creators, with Sun and moon as our attendants in Apollo’s grove…

What wonder is the golden bough, shimmering in the gloom, its leafy branches spangled with white pearls! What mysterious surge of life, of rampant green and copious budding fruit! The ladies of the oaks and pines; the poplar, ash and apple! Beatic fauns repose in green arbours, whistling with blackbird and thrush. The pipes of Pan stir the vestry motes. We glimpse the Cloven Foot and crack upon the Truth: the solution to life lies not in the bright altar of the East, but beyond the abbey gates, in the dark wood of the West.

The Janus says softly:

‘Brethren; ’tis time to dream… You may take your candles to bed; I trust their light will comfort you in the darkness…’

In reverent silence, we file past the abbot and kiss the ring on his outstretched arm. Then we soar away up the night stair, transformed in soul if not in body…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2009-2016