“No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.”
George Bernard Shaw
This Christmas a group of us went along to the Watch Night service atRosslyn Chapel, which, being as it’s on my way in and out of Edinburgh, is somewhere I quite often visit. I’m not affiliated to any organised religion, and neither am I captivated by all the Da Vinci Code-inspired hype (see for instance this recent article in the Scotsman). I like Rosslyn simply because it’s an extraordinary place: an unlikely island amidst a sea of Midlothian mining villages which have suffered similar depredations to mining communities everywhere across the UK and which are now being slowly subsumed into suburban housing developments and out-of-town shopping parks. And in the middle of all this, about midway between IKEA and the city garbage landfill site, is this ancient and tiny chapel, perched high above a deep and spectacular wooded glen that you’d never know was there until you all but fell into it. Somehow it seems emblematic of how the ancient, the natural and the metaphysical can erupt into even the most banal and materialistic of existences. The mineworkings in the area have undermined the chapel’s foundations, much in the way that industrialisation and its mechanistic perspective on life has undermined our spirit-conscious foundations, but it still stands: a crack in the veneer of post-industrial 21st century civilisation. And what a crack!
The chapel’s energy is unique and its carvings just sublime. Having worked a lot in limestone, my respect and admiration for the masons (that’sstonemasons) of 560 years ago knows no bounds. On this occasion – perhaps because of the glass or two of mulled wine we’d already enjoyed – I was reminded of the Latin inscription on the architrave which links theApprentice pillar, itself representing Yggdrasil the Norse World Ash Tree or Tree of Life, to its neighbour:
“Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas.” Translated, this text (summarising a story from the First Book of Esdras, chapters 3 and 4) reads “Wine is strong; a King is stronger; women are stronger still, but truth conquers all.” Amen!
Is there a big secret at Rosslyn? Treasure? Riches? I think there probably is, yes, but it’s all hiding in plain sight and doesn’t really require much digging to bring to light. Truth is usually like that. After all, what greater treasure could there possibly be than the wisdom to enable one to live a deeply fulfilling and authentic life in harmony with all aspects of existence? And what bigger secret could possibly elude the vast numbers of people struggling in misery to live up to the illusory and unrealistic images we’re given to understand are the ideals (ikeals, even?!) of modern existence? (Ideals which are, of course, largely contrived through the filters of a pervasive tyranny of the concept of “normality” pressed into the service of commercial exploitation.) As far as I can see, the secret that Rosslyn holds, both in its glorious carvings and in the wider context of its situation, is the wisdom it contains in its symbolism. It sketches out a pretty good basic recipe for an authentic life which, at the end of the day, is surely the Holy Grail of existence?
If that sounds all too disappointingly simple, consider this. Scottish composer Stuart Mitchell took 20 years to crack the design logic behind 213 cubes in the ceiling of the chapel, which he discovered encoded the notes of a piece of medieval music. Far from being something miraculous, the 6½ minute piece of music for 13 players sounds more like a nursery rhyme. Mitchell attributes its childish simplicity to the lack of musicianship of the chapel’s architect. But perhaps its simplicity, juxtaposed to the complexity of its code, is perfectly natural. We do have a tendency towards embellishment of simple powerful ideas, as if somehow driven by a desire to represent them in a manner suiting their power and splendour.
Interesting that Dan Brown‘s hero is a professor of symbology.