Sunday, 17 July 2016

Feeling the Fear - Wookey Hole

People often tell me that I am 'so brave', 'inspiring', such a 'strong woman' and yet that's not me at all.
Truth to tell, I have spent most of my life feeling the fear and for the last eight years I've been engaged in a cycle of almost-paralysing anxiety.

But there comes a time when a person is done with fear and with running and decides, instead, to turn round and face their demons.

Small steps...
Checking the bank account towards the end of the month
Making an appointment for another health check
Saying 'No, I do not accept that' to someone in authority
Asking Those Questions of the oncologist
Petit à petit ...

We all have our demons and sometimes, in our imaginations, they become monstrous.
Unless we turn and face them and shout them down to a more manageable size
And then we often find they're not so bad after all.
N'est-ce pas?

Anyway, I have always suffered from claustrophobia, not just a fear of enclosed spaces and caves and the like, mine was so extreme that I was unable to have someone cover my head for more than a few seconds without panicking. Imagine the fun I've had with the MRI scans recently.

The year following my diagnosis, and nearing the end of treatment, it was time to tackle a few demons and this seemed like a good one.
Led by a guide and in the company of a dozen or so strangers, I went into Wookey Hole in Somerset.
I went underground.

You know what?
After an initial, "Oh my goodness, what was I thinking? I cannot do this! Let me out!"
And a few scared glances backwards towards the entrance
And a little deep breathing and heart-racing and clammy hands
It occurred to me that the voice screaming, "It's going to cave-in and you are going TO DIE!" was coming from inside of me and that I could say to that voice, "Oh shut up! I am going to die one day anyway, what the heck!"
For a few minutes I walked slowly behind the group muttering "Shut up" under my breath and then the screaming quietened to a whisper and though it never went away it didn't stop me.  

And then I started to enjoy myself.
And to revel in the adventure, me, scaredy-pants me, in a cave, underground

And then I got to imagining exploring and discovering cave paintings and I thought how wonderful the world below our feet really is ...

And how I'd spent almost sixty years being too scared to venture down there to see it

And that could have been sad, except that it made going underground on that day all the more special because I had faced the fear and conquered it. And learned a hugely important lesson.

We're born, we live, we die.
It's not the length of the life that matters, it's the depth.
And the demons , they're just there to give us something to overcome so that we can really feel alive!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

La Vallée des Saints

There is a hill not far from my local town in Brittany that is somewhat special.

It has been almost ten years since I bought my house and yet I was unaware of this place until a couple of friends took me there on our way back from a ladies lunch in Huelgoat.

As an after-thought.
As a 'let's pop to ...' on our way back.
As a 'Have you never been? How have you never been?'

And so we went. A brief visit because it had been a long day and we were all tired.
And the next day I went back alone to explore a little more.

La Vallée des Saints.

There are, I am reliably informed, around 64 saints currently in position on a hilltop near the village of Carnoêt. I would be more precise, but the guide book states that there were 64 in May and I am pretty sure that another one or two may have joined them in recent months, so 'around 64 will have to do'.

It is a work in progress, this peopling of the hillside with fifteen foot high granite statues. Every year sculptors arrive to work on new saints, the plan being to have 100 by 2018, all paid for by voluntary donations.

Visitors to the valley can see the sculptors at work, from a distance. They wear masks to avoid inhaling the granite dust and ear protectors because it's a noisy business, this cutting into rocks with electric saws and drills and whatever else they use, so sensible precautions and it's wise not to permit the public to wander too close.

At the top of the hill is a barrow. I am rather fond of barrows but on this occasion I didn't explore it. The weather was typically Breton, bright blue skies one minute, heavy storm clouds the next, and I wanted to see as many of the saints as I could before the heavens opened and washed me down into the valley.

So, without further ado, here are a few of the saints that I met on that day. Chosen for no particular reason other than that they 'spoke to me' and so this is a purely personal selection.

Saint Méen: Born in the 7th century to a wealthy family, raised in Wales, as were so many Breton saints, he travelled to Brittany and was so impressive a preacher that he was showered with money which he used to found monasteries, one near Rennes, another near Angers.  Méen and Samson (below) may have been related, many of the saints were, or else they knew each other and travelled together. Hardly surprising, there has always been safety in numbers and setting out to cross stormy seas with the intention of converting pagans is a risky enterprise.

Saint Paul (Pol) Aurélien: one of the seven 'founder saints of Brittany'. Another Welshman who apparently died in 575 at the age of 140, which leads one to suspect that folk confused several people with this chap. Some folk say he was a vegetarian, though I'm not sure why that matters. He was consecrated bishop by the authority of Childebert, King of the Franks. The sculptor has depicted him with a dragon at his feet since he was asked to rid the Isle de Batz of its nuisance dragon, for which service he was given land on the island upon which he founded a monastery. He died there on March 12th, 594. When the Norsemen invaded in the 10th century his relics were transferred to Fleury-sur-Loire for safe-keeping only to be destroyed by the Huguenots six hundred years later, Except, that is, for his arm bones, apparently.  

Quite a cute little guy. Symbolic, I daresay the original monster was somewhat larger.

Saint Malo; patron saint of Brittany Ferries, portrayed here carrying Le Bretagne that sails between Portsmouth and the city of St Malo. Seriously, no, the Welsh Saint Malo was another of the founding saints, and the first bishop of Aleth which became St Servan and then St Malo. He is said to have sailed the seas with Saint Brendan This guy is the patron saint of pig keepers and of lost items. There are legends around a lost island that sank into the sea, and talk of the Arabian Nights and Jonah.

Saint Samson: he arrived from Wales in the 6th century looking for peace and quiet near Dol de Bretagne. Saint Samson was a good politician who persauded Juval, son of a local tyrant, to overthrow his father and Samson duly became the bishop of Dol. Legend says that Samson's mother saved the life of a mermaid who had been captured on the seashore by a group of jealous women, mermaids being famous for luring men to their watery graves, and as a reward Samson's mum, who was past child-bearing age, fell pregnant. Which was a Good Thing for her.  Alas, the child was sickly so the mermaid returned and chucked him in the sea whereupon he emerged strong and healthy.  Et voilà, Saint Samson and the mermaid.

Saint Padern: A local lad who went to Ireland to train in the church before returning to be ordained as a bishop in Vannes. At the time, around 465, the new-fangled religion was not popular because it reminded the locals of the Roman invasion a few hundred years before and Saint Padern, who really only wanted a quiet life, left them pretty much alone. The serpent twisting round his cross represents the Christian symbol for evil and was used to remind people that sin is sweet and easily succumbed-to, as Adam and Eve discovered.

Saint Jaoua: Remember Pol Aurélien? This is his nephew. He was a monk, then a priest and then he was told to go and convert the pagans who were, as we know, not keen to be converted and who put up quite a fight. Jaoua persisted, sometimes by gentle means, sometimes using force, a pagan warlord and a dragon were involved, there was much mayhem, crops were destroyed, people were killed, before Uncle Pol patted the dragon on the head and told it to behave, whereupon the locals decided to become Christians after all.

His statue depicts another legend associated with Jaoua, namely that upon his death in 554 his body was placed on a cart harnessed to two bullocks who were let loose so that wherever they carried him he would be buried.

Saint Melar (Melor): The history of this saint is a little confusing, he seems to have been mixed-up with several others so we'll go with the Breton angle. It seems that Melor was a prince whose evil uncle, Riwal, having done-away with his father, then turned his attention to the child but was persuaded to leave him alone by the bishops. Not wishing to let him off Scot-free, Riwal cut off  the boy's right hand and left foot. The missing parts were replaced with a silver and a bronze prosthesis respectively which, while Melor was later off studying at Quimper Abbey, began to function as if they were flesh and bone, and to grow as the boy grew. If you look closely at the statue you can see the prostheses. Alas, when Melor was fourteen Riwal had him decapitated and that was that. \Rest assured, Riwal didn't get away with the murder, he touched Melor's severed head, presumably to assure himself that this time the boy wouldn't miraculously grow a new one, and as a result he died shortly afterwards.

Saint Tudi: We don't know much about Tudi, except that he was a disciple of Maudez and that he founded a hermitage on the island of Tudy which later transferred to Loctudy where it became a monastery. Some learned folk say that Tudi may be one of the founding saints under the guise of Pabu. I include Tudi because he can be invoked to cure rheumatism and in that I have a personal interest. And he looks like he's been half-buried in the grass.

Saint Konogan: Originating in Ireland, or Wales, or perhaps he was a local, his history is hazy, he's associated with the stone ship (Konogan's boat) in which he is said to have sailed to Brittany and which can still be seen at Beuzec-Cap-Sizun although it is, in reality, a fallen menhir. He established a monastery and lived as a hermit on the banks of a river, and was reputed to be a healer, especially of fevers. His sculpture depicts him standing in his boat, holding a cup of holy water to heal the sick who are shown on the side of the boat surrounded by protective symbols. Saint Konogan, like many other Breton saints, has not been recognised by the Catholic church.

Saint Goustan: This chap, another from Cornwall, was captured by pirates who mutilated his feet and abandoned him on the island of Hoëdic. Happily for him he had a fish from which he cut a slice every morning and which then reappeared whole the next day, so he's shown here with his fish. This theme of miracle fish is quite common in Christianity (think of the parable of the loaves and fishes).

Saint Tudwal: another of the founder saints whose name in Breton means person of valour or all-round good chap. He was another Welshman who learned the scriptures in Ireland before becoming a monk and somewhat of a hermit. Together with over seventy followers he moved to Brittany, established a monastery, of course and became the bishop of Tréguier. He's depicted with a dove because he was allegedly in Rome at the time of the death of the then-current Pope and the said-bird landed on his head which was a sure sign to all present that he had been chosen to be the next Pontiff. The story fails to explain why he didn't take up the appointment. Perhaps someone else also got the bird on that day.

So, those are a few of the saints. You'll have noticed a few themes - fish, dragons, Wales, monasteries and reluctant pagans. There's a whole lot more information about Breton saints which I am reading and researching and I'm hoping to return to the 'valley' (which is really on a hill) often, because it's an amazing place and it feels quite good for the spirit.

Here's the touristy info stuff:

La Vallée des Saints

Near Callac, Côte d'Armor

Entrance is free

There is a shop on site which sells excellent guide books, as well as other books about legends and myths and saints etc in Brittany. It also sells gifts for you to give to your loved-ones back home.

There are also toilets but no café/restaurant so take a baguette, cheese and a bottle of wine and have a picnic between the rain showers