How do we navigate the Spiral?

Swimming on Raasay

Whoever wishes to explore the Way,

Let him set out, what more is there to say?”
In Sue Brind’s presentation today, she referenced our question of Peregrinatio, through Farid ud’din Attar’s C13th poem, ‘The Conference of the Birds’, where, as she outlined, “The Hoopoe tries to lead all the birds of the world on a journey to find the Simorgh- the Persian name for a benevolent flying creature-who appears in Attar’s poem as the illusive King of the whole World. It will be an arduous journey, over deserts, mountains and through valleys, gaining knowledge along the way. Only 30 birds have the courage to complete. They finally arrive at the land of Simorgh and what they discover is a mountain lake in whose surface is revealed a reflection of their true selves”. 1
In our journey of ideas and expedition for new knowledge, as we explore the histories behind ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ then hear about the group’s own work as individuals, what is our objective? Do we wish the group to find St Columba, and what he means for our times, by peering at history through the mountain lake’s calm surface, or instead to have the ‘sea churning and lashing itself, in maniacal states’? 2
‘The Spiral’ is a common form in manuscripts and monuments, which amongst various meanings represents the dialectic; a method of debate for resolving disagreement. The discursive nature of this project is intended to mirror this dialectic. Where do you enter and exit the Spiral, if it has no beginning or end? The ongoing discussions at different times of the day, both formally in the allotted time at different points of the island, and informally over meals, travel and sharing each others’ space, have allowed us to enter into the debate at diverse points. Through strange alignments of place, repetition, language, mirroring, dislocation, thought and reflection, we are beginning to circle Colm Cille’s Spiral. At times we move away, only to return to the anchor of the book ‘The Life of St Columba’. Where one person finishes speaking, another loops in with the next point or observation.
If you unravel a spiral you will always find a circle. I can recognise Convocation’s structure as made up of three interlocking circles. At the beginning of the project, the working group debated and discussed ideas for the structure. This has been developed until it could be a feasible form to be opened up and made public to the group of artists and scholars participating in the residency on Raasay. The final circle occurs in October, when in the exhibition and event opens up and presents the first two circles for public engagement with a new audience.

History has proved to be a spiral for the group, at times running parallel only to slip out of reach. Yesterday we saw, at a distance, disturbances on the water of the Sound, and birds hovering, then two whales coming out of the water. Professor Clare Lees from King’s College London had, before to this event, spoken of, “The past surfacing like a whale in the present”.

The Spiral is turning each day of the residency. Yesterday, the medievalists successfully illuminated the historical background to the questions. The day was intense with information, with so much of a rich oral resource created it would be impossible to capture it as a whole. Today, the next turn on the Spiral occurred, with the morning’s focus on presentations by each of the group on their practice. Like links in the knot, hearing about each other’s processes and ideas allowed connections to be made between each other and also to begin to see connections to this project.

In the morning Francis McKee observed that the default of yesterday’s discussions had been on the rational, looking at the geo-political aspects of the text, whereas in essence this book is equally about the spiritual, with much emphasis on miracles and prayer. This afternoon’s discussion, on the beach of stones near Raasay House, allowed us to begin with reference to mystery and spirit. As the group unconsciously sat in a spiral formation, in this open landscape and often in a light rain, we saw the other side of the Spiral, and the that the rational and the spiritual exist at the same time. Francis talked of the tradition of immersive prayer, taking place in water. We had originally gone to the beach, as members of the group had wanted to swim there. At the end of the discussion, it seemed fitting that the work of the mind gave way to the embodied experience of the water.

1 Susan Brind and Jim Harold, presented at CCA, Glasgow, for ‘What we make with words’, Artists’ Readings, 10.12.11

2 This quote comes from Johnny Rodger’s presentation, where he quoted from ‘The Long Ship of Clan Ranald’, by Gaelic poet Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair.

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