AFTER writing his brilliant guidebook, Britain’s Holiest Places, which became a TV series, Nick Mayhew-Smith (Features, 17 May) embarked on a research project. He wanted to discover exactly what practices pagans and Christians had performed under holy trees, in dark caves, on hilltops, before animals, and in seas and rivers — particularly before the Synod of Whitby, in 664, which aligned Celtic Christianity with the Church of Rome.
The research took two forms: partly the study required to engage with the texts that survive from this period; partly a series of experiments with the practices themselves to see what they revealed. The result is spiritually illuminating, theologically timely, and potentially transformative. Mayhew-Smith presents a vivid account of what persuaded pagans to become Christians and of what that vision has for us today.
He has come to believe that the mission of figures from St Ninian to St Cuthbert was rooted in offering our ancestors a new experience of nature and the divine. Pagans feared the places that these saints inhabited, sensing the untamed forces that move the seas and the demons that lurk in caves. The saints demonstrated that there is a single, benign Creator who can be found in all these domains. They, thereby, reconciled people to place.
Simultaneously, they recovered an awareness of the earthly paradise which was lost with the Fall: it was, also, redemptive. For example, Mayhew-Smith argues that ascetic practices such as praying in icy waters, which came to be regarded as ways to mortify the flesh, were originally ways of being immersed in nature to find that she is a peer, praising God as well. In other words, the relationship between human beings and the natural world is not fundamentally antagonistic, as if reminding sinners of their innate wickedness. Nowadays, this mistake is crucial to recognise, because it may explain why “the church generally has had more difficulty than it ought in articulating a positive response to our many ecological crises.”
The book is never naïvely romantic. The early Christians were engaged in nothing less than a cosmic restoration, and it demanded everything of them. It might demand everything of us, too. As he climbs mountains and clambers over rocks, Mayhew-Smith sees plastic waste everywhere. “When I stood in front of a flock of seagulls for the first time I simply said what came immediately into my head: ‘I’m just so sorry’.”
But the deeper message is hopeful because it is founded upon the powerful truths that are revealed by participative practices. “We are formed from the earth and we can feel that still; we can feel that the closeness of our original paradise remains within touching distance,” he concludes.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer.
The Naked Hermit: A journey to the heart of Celtic Britain
Church Times Bookshop £18