Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Bearing Witness

bear witness that there is a Way of Life that does not depend on the abundance of the things possessed
Quaker Faith & practice, 23.61

On the train north as the sky flushed pale and translucent, as it does in the space before the darkening of the evening. On a copse of ash trees, harsh against the sky, a plume of rooks billowed into unsteady flight, their final turning before snickering down to roost; the noisy, familiar prelude to an autumn night. I watched until the train turned from view, trying to remember the printed shape their bodies made against the sky, feeling blessed to have witnessed this moment. On the seat opposite mine, a young woman jabbed irritably at the keyboard of her laptop; a man whose tie had loosened during the journey still chattered into his mobile phone, wearing that vacant look that people have when their minds are elsewhere, locked in some office difficulty, some problem which will disturb their evening. I noticed no-one else staring from the window.
I was reminded of a passage I read recently by Kathleen Jamie, in which she describes a friend telling her of a time he saw hundreds of geese flying above the city streets of Edinburgh. 'And not one person looked up!' he said, 'Not one!'. It is as much as many of us can do now, to look up.
I was thinking about that moment with the rooks as I took the bus home from the railway station. The darkness had come upon the sky, like an ink stain bleeding through a sheet. Above the ridge of Helvellyn, a single star hung like the last fishing boat left beyond the harbour wall, a lonely light in a darkening ocean. The snow covering on the hills glowed in a memory of sunshine, reluctantly letting go of its light whilst all else around had succumbed to night. I sometimes have the feeling, of an evening, that the world has exhaled a weary breath, and has now paused in its preparations for night. It is the loveliest time of the day.
Seeing these moments in the slow turning of the world fills me with a sense of sadness and responsibility. There are moments we witness which seem so suffused with meaning, so fragile and transient, that I believe our only response can be to watch, to listen, to hold the moment in our minds for as long as we can. I think of the phrase to bear witness; as though to see something of such painful beauty can be a burden, a responsibility, that we must carry on behalf of others. It is a phrase which has two distinct meanings; both to prove (to demonstrate, to show clearly that something is the case) and to attest (to give one's solemn word of the truth). Both of these are implicit when we are confronted with the beautiful, the numinous, the unexplainable. It is as if we have been given some fragile, precious object to hold, and which we are required to carry through strange, perilous lands.
So this, now, is what I will do. I will bear witness to the monochrome beauty of a winter evening on the hills, to the poetry of a single star in a cobalt sky, to the mystery of birds flushing from leafless trees. There are events and knowledge too vast for communication, too complex to be reduced to words on a page. I will bear witness to a world slipping from our view like the disappearing margins of an arctic ice flow.
There is something of import in this responsibility, something Quakerly and dutiful in this need to see, to tell and to preserve. We have become like a tribe of people whose surroundings have changed, or perhaps we have wondered too far from our familiar hunting grounds and have strayed into a dangerous place. We have with us the artefacts of our elders which we must hold and protect, and which we are required to carry, vulnerable and delicate, through a hostile place peopled with strange creatures of the night, under a sky darkening with the uncertainty of perpetual evening.