Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Witches and Stem Cells.

In Orcadian folklore, one can or could, it is said, obtain witchcraft (or, as the grand daughter of a noted Orcadian witch said a hundred and fifty years ago, obtain everlasting damnation, but these were less tolerant times!), by going to a seashore not far from where your scribe is resting above, at midnight, turning three times against the course of the sun. It was then necessary to lie flat on your back, with your head to the south, in between high and low water marks. Having accomplished this, then one should hold a stone in each hand, one at each foot, one at the head, a flat stone on the chest and one over the heart, all this with limbs spread out. Following this one must close ones eyes and slowly say-

'O, Mester King o'a' that's ill,
Come fill me wi' the warlock skill,
An' I sall serve wi' all me will.
Trow tak' me gin I sinno,
Trow tak' me gin I winno!
Trow tak' me whin I cinno!

This goes on for some time, the language picking up some uniquely Orcadian references of interest to the Orcadian etymologist before one stands, throws the stones into the sea, each one followed by a malediction which is too shocking for your ears, dear reader. This , at least, is the ritual for men, the one for women is much simpler and requires some adventurous fornication, as you may expect. Men who successfully accomplished the male ritual (accompanied and assisted by two other male warlocks, so much like the consecration of a Bishop, really) had power over life and death and were tolerated in these isles at the end of time, well past the era when Victorian morality had quashed and then reignited interest in the occult in the southern mainland.

Why do I tell you this and not one of the other hundred or so bits of Orcadian folklore I could share with you? Why do I ramble on about Orcadian folklore at all? Well, apart from the correlation between native folklore and Christian practice which I have rambled on about before and the protection which the isles bring to local practice by their location and notwithstanding the fact that Orcadians are often baptised in the icy waters of the same seashore where their far away ancestors completed the above ritual; apart from all that I think that we can always learn from the example of others, even those with whom we would disagree.

We build on the destruction of previous times, the Vatican is a prime and fascinating example of this. As one ascends the hill to the wide embrace of the walls of Saint Peter's Square, one is literally walking on previous regimes into the Petrine Basilica, which perches on top of a holy mountain which itself is preserved underneath. Walking in the catacombs and then studying a geological and historical map of the Vatican hill through the centuries and then walking up the hill into Saint Peters and standing as close as you can to the altar is a staggering experience, it throws all your senses into overdrive at the same time. In a less grand way, seeing a man baptised in the beach on Orkney and rising out of the waters to new life, washed by the freezing glacial waters and the Holy Spirit, on land which his great great great grandfather may have stood upon throwing stones into the sea to ask the devil to empower him is also an experience which attacks your every sense. The movement of generations to the grace of God is a valediction of martyrdom, counter cultural proclamation and missionary activity. More than anything else it is a sign of grace.

We are too quick to judge sometimes and too quick in our expectation of change and answers. It can take generations for our message to get through, this is why continuity is so important and why the Church of England is getting herself into a terrible mess. The message of salvation is one to be preached as it came to us, the beach on Orkney reminds me that we need to be consistent in our practice and to value the practice and example of the saints of old, no matter how irritatingly pious they seem to be at times. I have made it a Lenten duty to pray to Saint Therese of Lisieux, not a favourite saint of mine, but the practice makes me realise that it is not my preferences that matter, but he maintenance of the eternal truth taught by the Church and passed on in every generation. I hope to have reached a more fervent devotion to Saint Therese by the time her relics reach Lancaster Cathedral (see whole itinerary HERE). This is not to say that I am becoming an expressionless zombie, such a man would not be a realistic vehicle to continue the Word in most towns and villages of this or any land.

With the example of the Saints in effectively preaching the Kingdom and the example of much of the contemporary Church in preaching the Secularist Kingdom I hope this Lent turns into a time of Grace for us all, aided by the intercession of the Saints who support us in our endeavours. I pray that they support us in rejecting the temptation to court popularity by pandering to everyone except God and in being patient and not expecting change in our time, unless it be the will of God. Change was voted for in America and change they will most certainly be getting, for stem cell research will, probably, be the scientific breakthrough of our or anyones time. By meddling with the stuff of life we begin a long march to slavery, slavery to perfection, genetic mutation and the freedom from illness for the wealthy. The Church is going to face her biggest struggle when She stands up and says that a treatment which can cure us of all our illness and make the world into a globe populated by cheerful, beautiful mutants is intrinsically wrong. Then I feel we may know how it felt to be suspected of witchcraft and persecuted.

Once we create the first human being entirely in a laboratory (oh, only as an experiment to benefit millions of cancer sufferers, they will say) then God will be dead for the majority of the world. Legalising stem cell research in the US is the first step on that pathway, it has been taken and we will need to keep a close eye out and to second guess where the research will go. Change you can believe in, sure, and most certainly a vote winner, for who does not want an end to pain and disease - but a change in public morality as well as a direction which we should be very, very concerned about taking. Barack Obama has campaigned on a freedom ticket, but the terrible thing is that he may well have ushered in the new age of slavery by his decision to allow stem cell research to continue.

In the meantime, we do what we have always done, sing psalms of praise to the rising sun and pray that we may be held in the prayers of the Saints who did the same before us.