On being a Marsh-wiggle

I have struggled for much of my life with what might be described as my calling, my primary vocation, or whatever term might better be used to describe what I am supposed to do with my “one wild and precious life”, to plunder Mary Oliver again.

I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench. I used to think it was my duty to enter that world on some kind of a quest, looking to see what I might find, what treasure I might bring back to the known world.

Eve Baker writes, in Paths in Solitude:

The solitary is the bearer of the future, of that which is not yet born, of the mystery which lies beyond the circle of lamplight or the edge of the known world. There are some who make raids into this unknown world of mystery and who come back bearing artefacts. These are the creative artists, the poets who offer us their vision of the mystery…

But a raider is not at home: his raids are fitful incursions into a land not his own, and what he sees there he sees as raw material, uncut stones he may haul back into the world of action and reward, there to be cut into poems, music. The real treasures of the hidden world are scarcely visible to a raider, nor, like Eurydice, will they survive the journey back to the known world.

Eve Baker goes on:

But there are also those who make solitude their home, who travel further into the inner desert, from which they bring back few artefacts. These are the contemplatives, those who are drawn into the heart of the mystery. Contemplatives have no function and no ministry. They are in [that] world as a fish is in the sea, to use Catherine of Siena’s phrase, as part of the mystery. That they are necessary is proved by the fact that they exist in all religious traditions. Contemplatives are not as a rule called to activity, they are useless people and therefore little understood in a world that measures everything by utility and cash value. Unlike the poet they do not return bearing artefacts, but remain in the desert, pointing to the mystery, drawing others in.

Marsh-wiggles live, in CS Lewis’ Narnia, out in the salt marshes beyond the hills and the forest, and farther still from the cities bright with trade and pageantry. Their simple homes are set well apart from one another, out on the “great flat plain” of the marshlands. Puddleglum, the marsh-wiggle we meet in The Silver Chair, comes up with, when his back is against the wall, one of the most remarkable statements of faith in Lewis’ fiction:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones… We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia… and that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull as you say.”

Perhaps contemplatives are only kidding themselves. Perhaps they are, to take Baker’s semi-irony literally, quite useless people. But our uselessness may yet be a good deal more useful in the dark and doubt of humanity’s pain than all the utilities of the marketable world.

It seems that life as a marsh-wiggle may be closer to my own calling than I would have guessed. To move deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea, may mean the giving up, not of love and companionship perhaps, but of many of the comfortable certainties, and the familiar tools of the raider’s life. A wiggle’s wigwam is good enough, maybe.

12 thoughts on “On being a Marsh-wiggle

  1. annedegruchy

    I really love this post, Mike. I am feeling a calling to contemplation and a simple place of peace at the moment, but as a busy, buzzy, sociable type with caring responsibilities for my dad the leadings are difficult to quantify. I’m currently on a research scholarship at Woodbrooke looking at simplicity and the leadings are shifting but not solidifying fully. I have been given heart to ‘sit with’ them by Verena Schiller’s wonderful book ‘A Simplified Life: a contemporary hermit’s experience of solitude and silence’. Not that I feel that I could ever take on an eremetic life, more that she waits with God until her leadings are fully clear and has patience. I love your blog and look forward to the posts popping into my email!!

    1. Peter Varney

      Dear Anne
      We met at Woodbrooke, I wish you well as you consider simplicity. I’m glad you have found Mike’s posts, and I hope other Friends will too.

  2. Peter Varney

    Dear Mike

    Thanks for this reminder, using C S Lewis as a starting point.

    I’m part of a BYM group considering ‘unattached Friends’. You have given a useful reminder that some need to retain their loose connection with the busy activity of Quaker life, to make a deeper contact with the spiritual. I’d like to quote from your piece- with attribution so that others may link to your email postings – in the paper I’m producing for the group on how churches link with those who are unattached.

    In Friendship
    Peter, Norwich

    1. Mike Farley Post author

      Thank you, Peter. I’d be delighted for you to use bits of this post in any way that seems useful. I shall be interested to hear in due course how this work comes along.

  3. Susan Bittleston

    Thank you for inspiration. I expect to be ‘hospitalised’ on 1st September and hope to have enough time, peace and power of concentration to read more. That may be wishful thinking! I intended to revisit your blogs – now I will make sure to have ‘Narnia’ on Kindle as well!

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