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A Glimpse of Heaven

Inspired by the turbulent history of the Book of Kells.

Perched on a craggy outcrop, staring out to sea, the priest opened his mind and his heart to God. In such wild and lonely places, he felt closest to his Maker and His divine word.

He was not a young man, and knew his role as a travelling preacher, bringing God’s message to those isolated enough to be those starved of it, would not last forever. Previously, he could put in a day’s march in cold and damp weather over the narrow seas between islands and up and down hills.

Even in the depths of winter, this would not have affected him greatly. But now his bones ached after a long walk and a chilled soaking without the benefit of a warm fire. He had to admit that, even if his voice and heart were still strong in God’s service, it would not always be that way.

Sooner or later, his body would fail him and he would have to give up the lonely road God had chosen for him and seek solace in a comfortable settlement of a monastery to live out his last years.

The thought made him feel trapped as he did not wish to be trammelled up with a host of chattering, back-biting, complaining brothers. He felt fulfilled being out in the world and amongst the common people who were comforted by his presence as they scraped a living from shore and field.

Although, he reasoned, such monastic communities were not always a refuge these days, with the Norsemen eyeing up such rich pickings and plundering these prosperous houses of God as mercilessly as the waves struck the rocks below where he sat.

The feel of the wind on his face and the pulsing sound of the waves soothed his jagged thoughts. As he prayed, his mind pondered on the many crags and shorelines shores he had meditated on his life-long journey treading through the Western isles, both large and small.

Although it was a lonely road, in these long-Christianised islands, it was not necessarily a dangerous one. The people not only respected a man of God, but pilgrims such as he were a relatively common sight tramping the pathways of the length and breadth of the islands of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Even the sight of such a missionary could give people solace, and he always had a kind word or a listening ear for those in need, as his vocation decreed.

Also, he thought wryly, not only were such holy men ragged in appearance but it was widespread knowledge that such priests depended on village-folk for their next meal and so had nothing worth stealing. All he had was his weathered satchel with his dog-eared copy of the gospels, equally battered, which would fetch next to nothing even if one of the common folk could read it.

The thought of petty pilfering made his thoughts turn to the savage raiders who had been a plague on coastal areas for many years now.

Although some of the Viking folk had settled along the coastal areas, and there was a mutual toleration, at least to some degree, between them and their Christian neighbours, their kinfolk continued to besiege the rich farmlands and coastal settlements.

These opportunistic plunderers were particularly attracted to the wealth of monasteries and nunneries with their valuable possessions made of gold and silver inlaid with precious stones. These holy vessels were only prized for their earthly value and were melted down or sold on by the raiders, without a thought for their spiritual content.

Although he might privately think that there was no need in the spiritual life for such riches, since did not Christ drink from simple wood or pottery bowls? If that was good enough for the son of God, it should be more than sufficient for His church. But despite these rebellious thoughts, he was still appalled by the mindless destruction and carnage brought by the pillagers.

And as for his poor brothers and sisters in Christ, their fate was a tragedy. They would meet a violent end or be sold into a wretched life of slavery. He shivered at the cruelty brought by man to man and closing his eyes, he lost himself in the prayers for all the lost and the dead.

Comforted by this ritual and by the ceaseless beating of the waves against stones, he searched back in his memories to when he had been a servant to the glory of God in a way he would never have dreamed of.


One of his long sojourns had taken him along the Western Isles of Scotland. He had stopped at each small community, taken as little of the sparse food as was possible for his bodily needs without offending the villagers’ hospitality. Also, he listened again and again to the terrible stories of recent raids, some frighteningly nearby.

He took this knowledge with him on the next stage of his journey to the prosperous religious community at Iona.

Despite its air of affluence, there was a tension in the atmosphere, as all visitors had arrived with similar tidings. If humble folk were being raided, this jewel in the crown would be seen as rich pickings indeed.

For the first while, he was glad to rest his aching limbs in one of the more humble chambers of the grand guesthouse. It was a relief not to be sleeping out in the cold with the growing heather for his bed and the cold ground beneath. It was also a respite to eat sufficient food as his body craved, knowing no others would go short as he sated his appetite.

But as always, after a few days, he grew restless and wanted to be out in the wilds again amongst real people. The constant air of gossip, nit-picking and jostling for preferment amongst the monks was an irritant.

The flagrant display of wealth was distasteful to him. He wondered at men who made their vows to Christ only to better their careers and feather their own nests. As he felt his aggravation rise, he knew he would leave soon before his distaste showed too plainly.

So he was astonished when met by one of the senior clerics after the midday meal to have a word in the cloister.

As they walked the cleric asked with genuine interest, “Where do your travels take you next?”

The priest was surprised at the question, but replied politely, “I was to journey over the islands and then take the ferry to Ireland, making my way to the lands of Bangor Abbey and then further south and inland from there.”

He said this deliberately, thinking the purpose of this unexpected private interview would be a simple request to pass a message to the sister Abbey.

The cleric looked thoughtful. The priest inspected him; his tonsure was cleanly shaven, woollen robes immaculately laundered, as he nodded in acknowledgement to lesser friars as they scurried past him.

After a long pause, he was making some kind of internal decision, seasoned politician as he was. He spoke, “There has been much concern about the raids along the coast,” he said.

The priest agreed, saying, “The farmers and fishermen are in a state of fear.”

“Understandably enough,” The cleric concurred smoothly. ”We feel the threat too, as this is a famous community of the Church and easily reached by sea. A place of great wealth and unarmed.”

The priest made a non-committal grunt, wondering where this was going.

The cleric continued, “We have a number of riches here that will be targeted.”

The priest had witnessed glimpses of the precious gold chalices when taking part in the daily services at the chapel and had not approved.

“They are irreplaceable and priceless.” The cleric continued.

“Indeed,” said the priest, thinking that at least he agreed with that. However, he was still bewildered how this could have anything to do with a wandering missionary who lived among the poor.

“Our treasures are not just made of metal,” the cleric said, looking at the priest, his face in a wry smile, revealing that he had read at least some of the priest’s thoughts.

The priest realised that their walk had led them to a door at one end of the colonnade. It was now obvious that their progress had not been aimless but he had been drawn in a deliberate direction.

The cleric opened the door and led the way into a goodly sized, bright room. As the priest followed him, a foul, chemical smell hit his nostrils, a shock after his long years spent in the fresh air with the scent of the sea.

The room was quietly busy, with a few monks milling about noiselessly and others seated. The place was humming with the silence of concentration.

There was a bench near the window from which the toxic fumes seemed to emanate and also several occupied desks. A monk sat at each working on precious parchments.

The priest realised he was in a Scriptorium, where monks spent their lives copying and illustrating the Gospels. He had never had the opportunity to be invited to such a place before now and he looked about him with increasing respect.

The cleric led him to desk where one monk, tonsure gleaming in the lamplight, was working on exquisite decoration with a sure hand. His pallid skin and sunken cheeks showed long exposure to the toxic fumes of the dyes, but his sure hand never wavered as he added detail to a finely decorated capital C.

The priest marvelled over the beautiful calligraphy on that page that sprang into vision and mind’s eye with an exquisite mix of heavenly and earthly images.

His head spun as he gazed at the breathtaking representations of both humble and wondrous beasts and the complex patterns of intricate tracery that adorned the script. Later, once the dazzlement had worn off, he realised that he did not grudge the precious metals in the gold leaf used for such exquisite artistry.

He gazed at the glorious creation emanating from a perfectly ordinary monk. It transported the viewer to something divine and heavenly. He did not know how long he gazed as the monk continued his work without hesitation, unaware of his viewer.

He was brought back to the present by a touch on the shoulder. The cleric swept out, and with a lingering look at the splendid page, the priest followed him.

Once they were back outside the cleric said, as if continuing a conversation, “we have precious papers, even more glorious than those, which we must preserve.”

He looked at the priest so shrewdly, it was as if he guessed that the man in front of him would not risk his life for metal objects, but could not resist the urge to save such glorious pages of exquisite detail.

“One of the methods we have devised is to give them to wandering priests, such as you. No one would guess you have great treasures in your possession.” His eyes flickered over the priest’s threadbare cassock before he continued, “It is only a matter of time before our community is put to the pagan sword. Our lives are in God’s hands,” he said calmly. “But we must save what we can, however we can.”

The cleric looked at the priest steadily; concern, but no fear in his gaze.

The fact that he was striving to save the precious goods of the Abbey rather than his own skin made the priest feel a measure of respect for the smooth cleric. In his own way, the priest judged, he was a brave man.

This, as well as the glorious page he had seen decided him.

“Of course,” he said, his mind whirring.



After a glimpse at such dazzling creations and an interview with an illustrious cleric, the actual handover was almost disappointingly mundane. As he was gathering his sparse possessions together in readiness for his departure, he was handed a thick, sealed sheaf of papers by a very junior, red-nosed monk.

The outer page was addressed to the Abbott of Bangor Abbey. He took them with a grunt of thanks, and shoved them in his satchel with no more ado, as though this was merely a regular request. The young monk would have had no idea how the priest’s heart beat faster under his shabby tunic as he briefly touched the precious contents.

He took his leave of Iona with little ceremony. But as he was in the boat he looked back at the island, with its grand buildings and fat cattle peacefully grazing. He felt a lump in his throat at the coming devastation, whenever that might happen.

The journey across sea and island seemed to drag with a strange tension. He felt as though the papers burned a hole in his satchel. During the day, on a humble raft crossing a shallow inlet or tramping to the next small settlement, all seemed as normal.

But despite tiring his body with his travels, at night he could not sleep. His whole mind was filled with the intricate joyful images as though they were engraved on the night sky like a heavenly brand.

As he slowly made his way along the coastline, the whispers of the Viking raids turned to alarmed shouts. He could almost sense the smell of burning in the air. However, he did not want to bring attention to himself by rushing his journey. So he just tramped on.

The flurry of alarming news seemed to settle, and nearing the latter part of his travels, he began to be lulled into a tenuous feeling of safety. He hitched a ride in a humble craft down the Scottish coast before the last leg of his journey over to Ireland and relative security.

The ponderous craft made its way along the shore and islets, the sea and sky still and a hundred subtle shades of grey. Then the fisherman’s son, who was only a lad, shaded his eyes to see deep into the distance and gave a warning whistle.

Time stood still as the silhouette of a proud vessel became clearly etched against the horizon. Even at a casual glance, this was no domestic craft but a fighting machine, scything through the waters towards them with menace and purpose.

There was the distinctive dragon’s head mast, the sleek, almost mechanised turn of the oars. The priest could almost see the fierce crew on deck, fully armed with murderous intent.

There was a sense of inevitability as the ship came closer and closer. They were frozen, exposed. The priest was barely breathing and seemed to have forgotten how to pray.

Then, achingly slowly, the craft seemed to turn away from them and glide towards another unseen quarry. The priest let out a long breath and realised he had been clutching his satchel with both hands in a futile gesture of protection. The sharp wind chilled his sweat soaked body as he gave thanks to God for their deliverance.

The fisherman spat in the water with relief and contempt at the invaders now that the moment of danger had passed. Afterwards, the priest realised they had probably not even been noticed, so small and insignificant was their boat. But still, the terror of losing his precious burden was absolute.

The sense of fear and responsibility continued as a heavy load for the rest of the mundane journey until he could pass his treasure into safe hands. His own life was nothing, but what he carried was everything.

Even when he traversed down the northeast coast of Ireland in the company of fellow pilgrims he could not be easy in his mind.

However, when he reached an outer abbey of the vast estate that Bangor covered, he was directed further down the coast. It seemed as though the form of address was a well-prepared signal.

He travelled deeper and farther, led from one ecclesiastical place to another, until finally when he handed the precious papers to the bored gate-keeper, they were not dismissed with a shake of the head and a further direction but welcomed with a gasp and suddenly raised eyebrows. The monk raced away with a swirl of his long robe, suddenly all animation.

The priest was left in the gatehouse, the precious package still in his hand. Once the gatekeeper returned, he expected it to be snatched off him and summarily sent on his way.

But to his surprise, he was taken into the wooden buildings of the complex and led into the chapel where his arrival had obviously been waited for. An older monk took the package from him with great reverence and slowly, carefully unfurled the hidden gem.

In a gesture of devout ceremony, the monk placed the precious parchment with its fellows in a precious casket. For a moment the priest had a clear view of what he had been entrusted with, a cavalcade of saints and mythical creatures and artistry beyond his imagining.

He felt truly he had been witness to a glimpse of heaven on earth. The glory of it took his breath away and flooded his senses.


To his surprise, once he had been relieved of his treasure, he remembered a sense of loss almost as well as profound relief that it was safely delivered.

‘To be so close to such beauty enriches us all,’ he thought. And his weathered face creased into a beatific smile as he sat on his remote grey rock overlooking the slate-hued sea with the boldly glorious colours of all creation in his mind’s eye.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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