The coincidences are often manifold. I have had some spiritual counselling about them, but sometimes I think I need more. Often it isn’t just one phenomenon but a series of things which all resonate with one another like sentences in a book. Sometimes the crossover of things is so complex and far reaching into my past that it feels like a series of machine gun bullets, bullets of realisation through my very soul. This is one set of these things which although may count against my sanity, and any future employment, I recount here hopefully to give hope.
It is hard to draw a line as to when these started but for storytelling’s sake (and I must stress that all of this is true) I will begin at the moment I sat down at the kitchen table on the first day of the school holidays in 2015 with no work in hand, no money for a summer holiday and feeling utterly alone. I have two children but I lacked adult company, my children quite naturally and properly have their own friends. So I had sat down to a very lonely lunch – my daughter in town with friends, my son upstairs working on his latest creative scheme. I missed my friends from university – we have drifted apart and live all over the world – I’ve never really bonded in the same way with any other set of people. Possibly my own fault, but I’d been a single parent for 13 years and had little social life. In any case I was in one of those deeply morbid self pitying states and tears of long time loneliness were beginning to well in my eyes. In a moment of desperation, (was it?) I fished a prayer card out of my purse. I’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about “The Light of the World” by Holman Hunt but what followed and continued to follow in the subsequent months has rather changed my mind about it. It’s a very pretty, even elegant, painting but I always found it ever so slightly cloying and precious – no more. It is deeply holy or perhaps it is because of what it illustrates. What happened was I turned the card over, on the other side is an extract from The Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine.
Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
If it is possible to imagine it felt as though my soul urgently reached out to meet Christ, literally lurched out from inside me. I was so alone – I wanted someone to sup with! At that split second the telephone rang. I was rather shocked: it was my father. We had been on bad terms over the past few weeks, but he was ringing to tell me that my Uncle and Aunt were at a family reunion of my Aunt’s American family in Northumberland, that we were all invited. My Aunt’s cousin is an Anglican priest in Newcastle and he had arranged for the family to stay in a large rambling Arts and Crafts Anglican retreat house. Many members of my aunts family had trekked across the globe to be there. They had been there two or three days already and we might catch the last couple of days. We were still welcome to join them if we wished. I have no idea why my father neglected to tell me about this sooner but I had to accept his apology. Thus immediately (we had to pack right away) we had an instant mini break, in the most beautiful Edwardian Arts & Crafts house, a house right out of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with panelling and huge fireplaces and William Morris wallpaper – the family welcomed us and we were all suddenly immersed in love. The house was set in beautiful grounds conducive to reflection. There was a bright little library where I found a book by my Granny’s cousin – the same side of the family about which I later relate! There was a croquet lawn and we had several games before we had to pack up and go home.
On our return, perhaps out of pity, my father offered us £200 to help us to go away for a little holiday – with two teenage children this does not go far, so we searched for inexpensive stays. We had longed to stay in Oxford for years and looked at the college accommodation. At the lower end of the price list was St. Edmund Hall which had a triple room we could afford for a couple of nights but as I waited for the money to clear I watched those rooms slip out of reach. By the time I had the ready funds we had to move our dates and choose a different college – the only one with suitable / affordable rooms was Keble. I had to ring my father to check the new dates were ok since he was looking after our elderly dog, he didn’t mind so we went ahead and booked to stay at Keble on 25th August. We were so excited!
Whenever my children and I travel I always try to make the holiday last longer by having mini adventures on the journey. In a previous year we had stopped off in Oxford on our way to stay with a relative. This time we decided to break our journey in Leicester. This was due to two strands of interest: firstly in Richard III who had recently been found in a car park there, and secondly because of some family research I had come across obliquely whilst researching background to our family for my book on Frances Darlington. Brought up with the belief about the Richard III conspiracy fostered by the Tudors, my parents and I had attended a talk in Ripon by Philippa Langley on her book on Richard III and her amazing journey of discovery, (more extraordinary coincidences). My ancestor, my granny’s uncle Sir Hayes Marriott had done a lot of family research and found the family tree going way back to the Plantagenets on one side and members of their court, the Tuchets, on the other. Intrigued and with all the new accessibility the internet affords I had found that they had joined the Yorkist cause when they met Edward and Richard in Flanders and had attended the coronations of both brothers. Under Edward, John Tuchet had been Master of the King’s Dogs which appealed greatly to my sensibilities. So a visit to Leicester seemed quite the most important thing to do, we planned our afternoon visit there so as to arrive in Oxford in time for dinner. It was as we went around the fascinating museum in Leicester that I began to realise how amazing our date change had been, for it was thought to be the anniversary of Richard’s original burial in the original grave by his Franciscan hosts.
If you know me, and my research on Frances Darlington, you will realise the tremendous significance of these being Franciscan monks. I have had a life long affection for St. Francis and his order. This was the first year in all those centuries that Richard had not been in that grave; the first anniversary of his original burial when he had been properly buried as a King in the Cathedral across the road. The museum had thoughtfully put fresh white roses around the empty tomb and there was a tape of monks chanting which felt very moving and holy. Prominent relatives such as Benedict Cumberbatch had attended the reburial and as we crossed the Cathedral precinct to pay our respects I mused upon the ordinariness of our visit which was really special to me but no one else.
We entered the cathedral via a small path at the side and this felt small and humble, quite in keeping with the idea of Richard that has formed in my head, a man who liked St. Anthony of Egypt and his medieval celebrants who toured the country with those beloved pigs he took for his crest, the Richard who gave tax relief to booksellers and hoped to build universities in the North of England. The cathedral felt filled with quiet energy, cool and calm but powerful in an enduring and gentle way. It made me question my notion of “Peace” as nothingness. It is not nothingness, it is something very positive, gentle and beneficent, a golden calm, a warmth in quiet, a chorus in coolness, majesty in humility. When we say Rest in Peace – it is not death or the end at all, no, something much more like “be at ease in a place devoid of worry or harm and filled with kindly light”. The vergers were very welcoming and the place had bright contemporary tapestries.
Looking around I thought of Bosworth field and of my valiant ancestors, of the loss and sorrow (and in one case a humiliating execution) they suffered under Henry VII. I wondered whether they had attended to the body of their dead King and whether they were present at the burial. The tomb is in an inner sanctuary of the church, right in the heart of the building. It was fairly busy with a light and quiet chatter among the visitors. I had quite a lump in my throat and faced with the white roses of York, there were more here on the tomb, pure white roses nestled into a crown of thorns. I thought of York where I went to school, and Richard, he of every rainbow I’d learned to spell out – as an artist this runs deep with me: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet – Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.
To the shock and consternation of everyone around me I knelt by the side of his tomb and prayed. This was of course hugely embarrassing to my two teens and I was possibly blushing myself, but I felt so much – I was so overwhelmed by it all. When I read this back it is quite comical, I don’t think I can write it properly, I was a clown dabbing my eyes as I got back into the car and drove the rest of our journey to Oxford.
I always tend to do a bit of research as to where I’m going and I had been intrigued by the coincidence that Keble was intrinsically connected to The Oxford Movement. I have been heavily absorbed by the Pre-Raphaelites on and off since I was a teenager when I wrote my A-level art dissertation on Pre-Raphaelite influences on the Aesthetic Movement. The Pre-Raphaelites of course have connections to this religious movement and John Keble may be a familiar name to some from hymn books. I’d also had spiritual experiences connected with John Henry Newman – also connected with my research into Frances Darlington – I’d come across an autographed letter in a scrap book in the West Yorkshire archive and could not resist stroking my hand across his original handwriting. It was opposite the most exquisitely ornamented work where the scrapbook owner had written out the lyrics to Lead Kindly Light in careful calligraphy and painted embellishments around the edge. I had felt tremendous beatification in the moment and had a waking dream about Newman the following morning which was also incidentally my birthday, in it Newman, apparently outside the walls of my school, (what used to be the Bar Convent) was waving vigorously, cheerfully with such nervous energy I felt exhilarated and enormously happy. It was with some shock I realised my children had bought me one of his texts for my birthday which they presented to me soon after this dream.
We were exhausted by the time we had found dinner in Oxford and decided to explore more the next day. The first thing, perhaps to be expected in a college so closely connected with The Oxford Movement, was a wonderful and fairly casual looking portrait of Cardinal Newman – not in Cardinal robes as I had seen him before, but in ordinary priest clothes – normal, much much more accessible, I ate my breakfast opposite this painting in some deep thought!
After breakfast we decided to explore the college and visited the chapel. perhaps it is common knowledge and anyone reading this will have been waiting for this point, but it was to my own personal amazement to see a side chapel extended to the right of the main chapel dedicated to the painting “The Light of the World”. That which had been on my prayer card, still in my purse. This had not been our first choice of college or our first choice of date, outside factors had chosen for us!
It seems only appropriate to include the lyrics to Lead Kindly Light. My last little coincidence is that I have always referred to my best and dearest as “Angel-face”. Perhaps that will stick now. Apologies for any embarrassment caused.
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,–
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene,–one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
Shouldst lead me on:
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish days, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on;
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
An article about the poem and hymn is here https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3668066/The-story-behind-the-hymn.html