Retreats: Merciful and Calm, a Place of Worship for Pilgrims Both Christian and Mason

By McWilliam, Candia | New Statesman (1996), August 16, 1996 | Go to article overview

Retreats: Merciful and Calm, a Place of Worship for Pilgrims Both Christian and Mason


McWilliam, Candia, New Statesman (1996)


The notion of the ideal retreat is as far as can be from that of the ideal holiday, as described in those often-found articles in which faintly sick-making sequences and combinations of place and treat -- snorkelling in the Seychelles capped with a trip to a little-known place outside Ledbury -- are adduced by authors who can't avoid sounding either lineshooting or self-indulgent.

What is a retreat if it's not an opportunity to be alone without, as far as possible, the appetites and preoccupations of one's mortal self? Two places come to me where I would be not happy perhaps but ready to live after death; where, at last, one is free.

The first is always a site of rain. You may visit it in thick summer, but Rosslyn Chapel at Roslin, outside Edinburgh, will haul down some damp while you visit. I was christened there in 1955 and visited it frequently in childhood. But I had not been there for some time until one spring when I was at an actual writer's retreat at Hawthornden Castle, the romantic pink stone redoubt down the road, home once to the poet and friend of Ben Jonson, Drummond of Hawthornden, now home to the patron Drue Heinz, when she is in Scotland. Its kitchen wall falls down to the Esk and someone as tall as I am can't more than stoop in its corridors.

In the catacombs of Roslin are buried the Earls of Orkney, the old Kings of Scotland. It is the setting of Walter Scott's Lay of the Last MinstreL The tiny building is as solid with stone detail as a tapestry with stitches. The ceiling is bossed with roses, lilies, stars in stone -- plain potent Emblems of the Old Religion. The columns are girt with stone vegetables, fruit and beasts.

A legend lives about one pillar, called the Apprentice Pillar, said in its virtuosic carving to have caused the jealous murder of its maker by his master mason. The skewed face of the murdered man and the lamenting head of his mother lie tucked among the many details of the chapel's stone. Pilgrims believe that the Holy Grail is actually held within this squat and sublime stone trunk.

Yet it is an oddity of Rosslyn that it is marked all over, between the dancing skeletons, the pomegranates, the corncobs, with masons' marks, so it is a place of devotion for masons as well as for Catholics. …

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