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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

23 November 2018

Malcolm Guite is drawn to St Fillan’s Cave

SOME time ago, I made a pilgrimage to the little fishing village of Pittenweem, in the East Neuk of Fife. While Anstruther, a short but vigorous walk along the coast, has the Scottish Fisheries Museum, with its wonderful old vessels, lovingly restored, a testimony to the skill, courage, and culture of Scots fisherfolk, it is Pittenweem that still has the working boats; and, here, the scenes you glimpsed in the museum up the coast are a lived reality. But, much as I took delight in the boats moored up by the harbour fish-market, it was something older still that had drawn me to this little village: St Fillan’s Cave.

It is a remarkable place. Over countless years, a river in the limestone rocks combined with the strong action of the sea to hollow out a long passage into the rock, whose walls and roofs are all water-sculpted into graceful whorls and curves.

Then, a change in sea level left the cave high enough above the shoreline to be habitable, or at least serviceable — first, to St Fillan, a seventh-century Celtic missionary to the Picts, and, later, to other hermits from the abbey on the Island of May, coming here for contemplation, but also serving pilgrims on route to or from the holy shrine at St Andrews. For some centuries, the cave was covered over and forgotten, until a ploughman, breaking the ground above it, found a hidden stone stairway leading down to this secret haven. It was rediscovered, cleaned, and reopened, and is now once more a place of prayer.

You enter through a little gate, set with a sign of the cross, and descend gently towards a ledge set with a painting of Fillan himself, with a companion saint. He bears a quill in his right hand and, round his neck, a little satchel for an ink bottle. His left arm, raised in blessing, haloed and bright, recalls the legend that, when he needed to write in the darkness of his cave, his left arm became radiant with divine light while he wrote with his right.

A little way in, past this image, the cave divides into two further chambers, breathing and echoing like lungs, or like the chambers of the heart. At the entrance to the right-hand chamber is set a stone altar with a cross; but the other is left free, just as the sea sculpted it, with a round, still pool on the stone floor, into which, every so often, a single drop falls from the roof above, making beautiful ripple patterns and a small musical note that is taken up by the echoes of the cave, until the pool is still and the cave is silent again.

You can sit there in the quiet, contemplating the right hand of your activity: your religious making and shaping; but also drawing deeply from the left: the natural pool, open, receptive, accepting in stillness from above a quiet, rhythmic raindrop of blessing.

When the plough broke through above this hidden cave, the village remembered the forgotten meaning of its own name; for Pittenweem means “the place of the cave”. So it is with us: we plough on with our business, day after day, forgetting who we are, until some small breakdown becomes a breakthrough, and we return at last to a place of prayer in the forgotten chambers of the heart.

In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner collection by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £12.99); 978-1-78622-097-4.

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