It was death that sent me back to St Margarets, the brutal death of a friend’s brother by suicide. The thought of this man’s suffering haunted me all day so I wound up the tiny narrow lane, past clumps of meadowsweet waving in the warm wind, to the old church, to say a prayer for him.
St Margaret’s was my place of pilgrimage at a transition time in my own life. I’d hike up through the fields to it, a couple of times a week, to sit and gaze at the blue-infused stained glass windows showing Saint Margaret at the gates of the Holy City. Here they are. Go and see them, it’s in Herefordshire, miles from anywhere really, but worth the effort. It is a special place, a thin place, it has a quality of stillness and timelessness which never changes.
It sits on a hilltop, surrounded by farmer’s fields and graves which have quatrains of verse on them, in the border tradition. The sheep who nuzzle the girl saint’s legs are the same sheep who graze in these fields, and the roses and lilies in her meadows are growing in the farmhouse gardens too, just next to the churchyard. The river flowing from the City could be the sparkling Dulas brook or the fast-flowing Wye, both not far from this place. Her name, Margaret, means ‘pearl’ and the gates of the Holy City are made of pearl. In the centre of the City is the Tree of Life, with Mary and her baby in it. It’s an image of innocence, renewal, a reminder of the radiance always pouring through the everyday scene, if only we can open the ‘doors of perception.’
iYou can see what the church looks like because Margaret holds it in her right hand. Like most saints she died a horrible martyr’s death. She would understand that poor man’s pain and desperation. She’d hold it and dissolve it away. As for me, when I learned to love this place, I had run away from London, my marriage and a right old mess in my life. I was living in a showman’s wagon, without electricity or running water. Badgers snuffled outside it in the dark, dark country nights. When the moon was full, I could hardly bear to go indoors to sleep.
Gradually my old self, the old mess dissolved and new love wakened in me, for this land, this debatable land, which had been Welsh and was now English. Now I live in Wales and no longer make my regular visits to this old friend – because this place, infused with the radiance of the idea of the Holy City, was a true friend to me, cooling me down when I was agitated, inspiring me when I was dull, comforting me when I was sad. I took a lot of friends, Christians, Pagans, atheists, Buddhists, there and they all loved it, they all noticed the special quietness.
My brother, Steve, who is a meditator too, talked the other day of ‘that emptiness you reach which seems nevertheless full of the most wonderful things,’ (sorry, Steve, I paraphrase!) If you need to restore your connection with that, visit St Margaret’s.