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Meditation Archive - KEEPING HEART WITH THE SAVING STORY by Caitlín Matthews
Caer Wydyr, the Fortress of Glass is one of the seven locations in the underworld that are visited by Arthur and his three shiploads of men on their way to the steal the cauldron of Pen Annwyfn, Lord of the Underworld. The 9th century Preiddeu Annwyfn or Raid on the Underworld poem is narrated by Taliesin who says of this fortress:

‘I give no reward to the Lord’s book-men
Who beyond Caer Wydyr saw not Arthur’s valour.
Six thousand men there stood upon the wall:
Hard it was to parley with their sentinel.’

He is telling us, ‘unless you experienced this as I did, you can’t judge what it took to stand there; you don’t know what it was like trying to negotiate.’

I write this meditation on Plough Monday: the day on which people in the agricultural world used to return to work. It is as hard today as it was then, when ploughmen took the plough around the village, performing the old Plough Monday plays and knocking at doors for a contribution to see them over the dark days of January. To knock on the doors and not be answered or to find yourself in a dialogue with those who didn’t understand what it was like to stand there in need.

Speaking for myself, finding the value of creative work or indeed the valour to continue in the face of such hard parleys is a task facing all artists at this time. While Arthur’s men had trouble speaking to the troops of the Glass Fortress in the underworld because their opponents were beings without human speech, the trouble for us today is how to engage honourably with those intermediaries who often do not speak the language of the creative world, seeing art only as an asset to acquire or as something over which only they have creative control. Mostly, integrity has gone out of publishing and the media and it’s hard not to be disillusioned when such encounters leave us stripped of purpose and smarting from uncaring tinkering with what has been crafted. This is unfortunately a not-uncommon experience throughout the creative world or indeed in any workplace.

I know I am not alone in finding the world sadly diminished of meaning and purpose, because hard economics and cut-backs affect everyone, whether you work in an office or struggle to survive in self-employment. As a friend of mine has wisely said of these cuts and economies, that reduce service and engagement to a series of bureaucratic box-tickings, ‘So now I can only do my job but not my work.’ When we are facing things that cut clean across our integrity and creative engagement with our work, how do we survive? When compromise, silence or endurance are the only tools to counter a complete lack of transparency in people’s dealings, or when no-one can hear or see what you need, what keeps heart in you? It is so easy to fall into despair, depression, helplessness or cynicism as a means of coping with the slippery, unspoken expectations that mount upon us.

I believe it is in what the Anglo-Welsh poet, David Jones called ‘the saving story’ – that mythic narrative that sustains life, hope and aspiration - that we can help in such times. When our own story is not going so well, we need a bigger story to act as a scaffolding and to inject inspirational mortar into our crumbling walls.

So, what constitutes ‘a saving story?’ It is primarily a collective myth. That is not just a story that has been fragmented from the collective experience and remodelled for individual consciousness, which is what most ‘mythic retellings’ do, diminishing the collective power and eternity of a myth into a psychologised construct that has few handholds for deeper living. Such retellings just don’t come with a power pack that keep them on the road longer than a mere phase of society. It is only the eternal myths that are applicable in all times and places: their ability to sustain can be tested against the words of the philosopher, Sallistius who defined myth as ‘something that has never happened and which is happening all the time.’

In times of sterility when we are given stones and not bread, we crave the rich food of the saving story. This can come to us in many forms: in books, in inspirational music, poetry, art as well as (and more rarely) tv and film. It can include the saving stories that we tell ourselves, the myths that flow into consciousness unbidden. As master storyteller, Alan Garner, reminds us: ‘We have to tell stories to unriddle the world.’ Stories take us into that mythic place of wonder where wisdom arises and nourishes our souls. Myth is a story that is forever arising, not a tale that has been told and fixed forever. Myth is where our world is remade and refreshed, as at the exciting edge where the micro-organisms of life itself arise where volcanic fissures flow into the ocean. Stories free us all from the bondage of thoughts and ideas that other people have chained us with. They give us choices that we may not currently have in life; they arm us with magical tools that enable us to plunge into adventures that help us adapt and change as we grow.  They take our souls out of the slavery of the job and into the freedom of our work.

Out of need,
From heart's glead,
Kindle the gladness,
Banish this sadness.
Turn back the glebe-land,
Plough of my screed-hand.
Make glad the feathers,
In bright, warmer weathers;
From midwinter's burrow
Send light down the furrow;
Come forth, hidden sun,
For the year's work's begun!

The image above is from my trip to Northern Iceland back in 2012. It shows the Svarfadalur range of mountains with some empty play frames in the foreground: we may be absent from our playtime and back to work, but we still need a blessing to start us back up, so may this seasonal charm begin your year in gladness, and may the saving story that keeps heart in you sustain and bring you to blessedness!

© – John and Caitlín Matthews Site design by Ocelot Solutions

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