Many (many) years ago, after being a gobshite, I visited Glastonbury Tor and had an epiphany. Such things are not unusual there, from what I understand, and many people go especially to seek out transitional moments. Although I’d read about the Tor for years and it was high on my list of places to visit in the West Country, I didn’t go specifically seeking a pivotal moment. I don’t think one can obtain them to order. It just worked out that way for me.
Perhaps it was because I drove around the West Country for eight days on my own, but I had a number of profound experiences on that trip. If I’d had companions, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as hungry, or as internal. Perhaps discussion and camaraderie would have diluted the experiences. I don’t know. I’m just glad I received these gifts—for certainly, transitional moments are gifts.
Back in those days I didn’t have to take a bus to the Tor. I parked my rental car on the road that runs behind it and walked up to it through the countryside. I’d read that some people believe the terraces ringing the Tor are the remains of an ancient three-dimensional labyrinth that pilgrims used to traverse to gain…Well, theories vary, and many discount the idea entirely. The terraces go round the Tor seven times, ending at the pinnacle where the remains of St. Michael’s church now stands. It resembles the Cretan labyrinth, so they say, and if the theories are correct, it’s part of a long continuum of ancient ritual. A search for enlightenment? The prelude to a sacrifice? A journey through the maze of the soul? Who knows? You can read a fascinating analysis of this by Geoffrey Ashe here.
I myself approached the top of the Tor mostly as a feckless tourist, partially as excited quester, blundering along the path that cuts through the “labyrinth” and heads straight to the top. I got disoriented at a certain point about halfway up, where a clump of bushes surrounded a bench with a sheep resting its head on the backrest. I no longer remember why I grew insecure about the path—it’s a fairly straight ascent, after all—but I did. I looked down the Tor to see if I could ask someone if I was “doing it right” and spotted a young man several terraces down walking crossways along the Tor. “Is this the right way up to the Tor?” I yelled. He stopped and gave me a “what kind of a gobshite are you?” look before nodding a continuing on his journey. It was only much later when I was off the Tor and back at the B&B that I realized I’d interrupted his journey through the maze. I’m not stupid, but sometimes I’m not smart. Perhaps my idiotic interruption was part of the tribulations the mazewalker had to go through to reach enlightenment? One can only hope.
I continued on in my gobshite way, reaching the tower on top of the Tor and for some reason was granted a moment of grace. Grace is always mysterious, and often goes to the underserving. It’s not just for Christians, either. I’ve noticed that even pagans are sometimes granted grace.
Or maybe it was just endorphins from the long climb. I say that as a nod to science, which I love and respect, but mostly I’m not inclined to look this gift horse too closely in the mouth. It was a moment of personal fulfillment and I am grateful for it.
Here’s part of what I wrote about the experience many long yarns ago:
Alchemy: the Invisible Magical Mountain And the Treasure therein Contained
It was another cold, gray day when I got to the tower, and not too many folks around. For the moment, I was alone at the top with the tower. There’s a doorway on both sides and in the middle a pit with evidence of a recent campfire. The inside of the tower is like a vast chimney because there’s no roof, and I had a strong sense of stepping away from the world.
And I was overcome by an odd, strong realization that I was at a crossroads. I remembered an image from a book I’d recently read about a doorway on a mountaintop, and I had the unshakeable conviction that if I stepped through one doorway of that tower and emerged on the other side, my life would never be the same. But I had to choose to step through, at that precise moment in time, in the full knowledge that I accepted and welcomed the change, agreeing to something new and different in my life. I hesitated, known devils being preferable to unknown ones, but for once my timidity didn’t win. I stepped through.
On the other side of the doorway, the Tor descended gradually towards a plain of green fields and hedgerows, and to the northeast lay the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and the town itself. A group of four sheep grazed just below the crest, heads down and disappeared in shadow, backs like tight balls of cotton floating above the hill. In the distance, the sun broke through the clouds, a shaft of silver illuminating the sky and downslope lands, while the area around the Tor remained in shadow. All except the backs of those sheep, whose whiteness caught the sun and glowed white-gold against the dark, shadowy green. The moment pierced my heart with its beauty, and I felt . . . as if the bargain I’d struck with life had been accepted. I don’t know if it was magic, or plain old motivation, but my life really wasn’t the same after that. That year—that trip and the sense of empowerment it gave me—started a cycle of changes that set me on a new path.
I have a photograph of the moment when the sun illuminated the sheep. A pale echo of the experience, but thanks to Canon, Kodak, a good color lab—and maybe a bit of grace—the dramatic lighting on the backs of those sheep came through. Whenever I really look at that photo, I am right back there, in that place, having just concluded my bargain, and realizing (maybe for the first time) that my life really was what I made of it and that the only one I really had to answer to was myself.