Saturday 12 November 2016

The Old Country

In February 1985 I returned to England after five years away living in India. In those days of my relative youth five years felt a lot longer than they do today. Now they don't seem much at all. But back then it seemed an age since I had last been in England and, as I drove west from London to my parents' house, the countryside appeared quite new. It was early morning. The sun had just risen and there was a thickish frost lying on the ground. You can imagine the contrast to the heat and strong colours of the subcontinent. Part of me did feel as though I had come home but, on another level, it was as if I had entered a magical kingdom, one that was familiar yet otherworldly. The dawn sunlight on the frosty fields added to that feeling and so did the fact that since I had left England my parents had moved from the suburbs of London to an 18th century house in Wiltshire so what I was seeing now as we drove through the country really was different to what I had left. It was England but not the one I had known. A rural rather than urban place with very little of the artificiality and dead soul quality of the modern environment. There is a timeless quality to the Wiltshire countryside, and one can quite easily imagine it as it was in prehistoric or Neolithic times.

This was a feeling I was often to have in the next month or so. I had no immediate plans so, while I was sorting out what to do, I stayed with my parents in their house which was just outside the small town of Calne. This is very close to a number of ancient English sites of which the best known is Avebury around 8 miles away. Avebury is part of a complex that includes Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow, and I visited all these places many times then. They are tourist sites now but they still have a strangeness that speaks of a different sort of consciousness to the one possessed by 20th and 21st century man. We struggle to define it but it was probably based on a sense of the immanence of nature. Nature to early human beings was alive. There were spirits in everything and the whole world was perceived as a manifestation of creative energy. Whether they had an idea of a transcendent Creator is another matter. Probably they did, and he was perhaps associated with the sun, but I imagine their principal spiritual focus was on the spirits they could perceive in some way in the natural world.  I have the idea that at major festivals these spirits would appear more fully to them, drawn by the concentrated group aspiration of the tribe. Avebury was obviously a major centre for this kind of spirit worship, though communion might be a better way of describing what went on, and it is not mere fancy to claim that one can still detect distant echoes of this at the site. The rough and weathered stones perhaps carry within them a memory of the remote past that a sympathetic imagination can respond to.

This all took place a long time ago. Human consciousness has moved on since then as our sense of a personal self has crystallised and we have a more intellectual approach to reality. This is both a loss and a gain. The loss can be keenly felt by the sensitive soul and we are reminded of it when we visit sites like Avebury. We have lost the sense of participation in nature, the felt sense of oneness. But this loss is also a gain as we become more active agents in life. This has been the path followed over the last few thousand years and it has reached something like a peak today which explains, in part, the widespread feelings of alienation. Now we have the task of moving into a new consciousness that combines the best of both worlds, an active rather than a passive union with life in which both individuality and oneness are preserved and, in fact, made stronger. We cannot retreat to the past though many try to. We cannot rest in the present though most of us appear to want to do so. We must forge ahead into the future which requires fully embracing a spiritual world view, preferably focused on Christ who is the best exemplar of the higher state, while retaining the fruits of our developed individuality and mind. This will eventually make us full participants in life and even co creators with God.

In Wiltshire, and no doubt elsewhere but it is powerfully felt here, there remains a strong sense of the old country and the old ways. We can be inspired by this, refreshed by it in the godless world of today, but we should not try to recapture it as it was then. Life moves on and the law of life is growth. It would be just as mistaken to try to go back to the early days of human consciousness as it would be for a grown up to try to return to childhood. And yet we should also remember that "unless you change, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven". The future consciousness of man should build on the past but not imitate it. It must include but go beyond oneness with nature to reach a conscious sense of true spiritual understanding which is as different from the passive awareness of the past as the mind of Christ is to that of Adam. For Adam represents primeval man when he was one with creation, or part of it, but Christ demonstrates a true and fully self-conscious oneness with the Creator, an individual union with the Father in which the keynote is love.


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