The last pool of darkness

We need rain, and we need it badly.  Over the past four or five days the extent of the parched ground has become more obvious, with the grass turning brown and cracks opening ever wider in paths throughout the countryside.  It is hard to imagine that there were places impassable because of mud earlier in the year.


In the garden the state of things is such that the most vulnerable and drought-affected young plants are getting watered, and much of the garden has somehow got to survive.  There is an indication that some rain is on its way, probably tomorrow.  Let us hope so.


The writer, Tim Robinson,  who died of coronavirus on 3rd April, just two weeks after his wife Máiréad had also died, was a writer from Hampstead who moved to the far west of Ireland in 1972, nearly fifty years ago, and would have soon learnt all about rain, the vagaries of the Atlantic Ocean that pounds that side of Ireland, and life on an off-shore island.  He and Máiréad lived on the largest of the Aran islands; an incredibly different lifestyle to that they had left in London (though they did retain a flat there).  Nicholas Allen, writing Tim’s obituary, which appeared last Wednesday in the Guardian, sets the scene of life at their house on the Aran islands:


‘No matter what the talk, this was a hard place to keep the mind still, the clouds scudding across the far mountains, squalls racing the water.  At the back was a cluttered hall and a bedroom whose doors opened to a garden hedged against the salt winds of the Atlantic.  On spring days Tim and Máiréad lay in bed and waited for the robin to feed from the dish of crumbs they kept beside the bed.’


They eventually left Aran, and went to live on the mainland of Connemara, and Tim became increasingly well-known as one of the finest Irish writers of his generation, recording many historical and cultural features of the area that they had made their home.  Five years ago, due to health reasons they returned to their flat in Hampstead and lived there until dying, as I say, just days apart.


I have been dipping into one of Tim’s books over the past few days.  It has a pool with waterlily leaves on the front cover, reminding me of the vital need of water for life, and why Ireland is so green, for it only very rarely has a year when it is baked brown, like the south of England, and even then, not as universally - there always seems to be a lake around the next corner.  The book is called, “The Last Pool of Darkness”, but, in fact, refers not to water, but to light.  It is a quotation from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in 1948, left the University City of Cambridge, to spend time at a friend’s holiday cottage in the hamlet of Rosroe, in the area of Ireland’s western seaboard, that Tim and Máiréad were to make their home over twenty years later.  Wittgenstein remarked thus, “I can only think clearly in the dark, and in Connemara I have found one of the last pools of darkness in Europe.”


Darkness and light appear in the readings this morning.  From the second chapter of Joshua we read of the spies in Jericho escaping with Rahab’s help under the cover of darkness; this contrasting with the Transfiguration recorded in Luke 9: 28-36, in which our Lord is revealed in the splendour of a light so bright that no human could approach its dazzling whiteness.


The deep darkness which Wittgenstein sought at the end of Europe - at the end of an Irish peninsular sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean - is an unfound, lonely darkness that speaks of undisturbed opportunity for thought, but normally we would consider somewhere light as revealing what we want to see and understand.  But for the philosopher this was not a state of darkness, it was a ‘pool of darkness’, in other words a place of still contemplation, unaffected by human presence.


Tim Robinson’s thought of using not only Wittgenstein’s words as a title for his book, but with a picture of serenity to accompany them, suggest to me how the ‘pool of darkness’ reveals things by making the tiniest glimpses, of the faintest of light, like the most insignificant ripple on the face of an otherwise still lake.  Wittgenstein looked into what cannot reveal, to make more obvious the things hardest to see.


There are moments in the spiritual life when it is worth remembering this thought, without needing to go to the ends of the world to find it.  We may experience goodness, even as we stare into evil; and strengthen hope, even as we look at what is darkest and most forbidding; for as a situation in life metaphorically switches off its safety-lit exit signs, with its little green running person, what remains is what aids us to survive: the voice of a friend whom the gloom has prevented us from seeing; the helping hand of a stranger, who holds us tight and dispels the pool of darkness; the realisation that Christ is closer to us than we recognised before.   The minutest shafts of light are seen when we least expect them, when our eyes are focused and our minds alert.  Through this and every crisis may our eyes be clear to see; as we most dearly need them to be.


John Mann