Saint Helier - Saint Hélyi - Saint Hélier

St Hélyi

From there to eternity


It was a still night; St Aubin's Bay was calm, and the light of the moon shone on the serene surface of the water, creating a silver pathway down from heaven. As I was standing facing away from the reclamation area, it was a sight of peace and breath-catching beauty.

He whom I was due to meet turned the corner from his own dimension and stood at my side.

'It is a beautiful view,' agreed Saint Helier, 'But it is only a copy of the original. If one day you destroy this in the same way that you have destroyed so much else in Jersey, do not despair. This is just a print - not the template of the real Jersey; in the original nothing beautiful is ever lost or destroyed.'

Seeing that I was looking alarmed at what, for me, was his sudden appearance, he continued: 'Don't think that it is I who am insubstantial and unreal. You seem to think that reality is going to work, doing the shopping and paying the bills, but that is about as unreal as you can get - only the shadow of reality.

'Like prisoners who have spent all their lives chained up in a cave, you are only comfortable within the shadows cast by what lies outside. Those who catch a glimpse of the reality are considered by their fellows only to be mad visionaries,'

I began a question: 'So much time has now passed since your corporeal existence in Jersey that.,.' He interrupted quickly. 'Certainly not. Don't ever think that I share your own perspective of the passing of time.

'Imagine you are in a library with books into which you can dip as and when you want to do so, In one book, the Saxon pirates are creeping up to my hermitage to cut off my head. In another, the German Occupation forces are adding a gun turret to the top of Elizabeth Castle, In a third book, the monks of the mediaeval St Helier's Priory are at Mass, and in a fourth, there is a firework display taking place over the bay to mark the Millennium.

'If need be, all the books can be opened at once, and it is possible to flick from one to the other, Or a book which encompasses a whole lifetime can be finished in a morning, or a plot which is supposed to unfold in one day can be read over weeks.

'For me, my own death, or the arrival in Elizabeth Castle of Charles II, or the German Occupation, or this year's pilgrimage to the Hermitage, are not events in linear time, but co-existing events in one eternal present. Unfortunately, your own three-dimensional existence makes it difficult to comprehend that it is time, not timelessness, that is the illusion.'

Perhaps, he was asked hurriedly, he could say something about his earthly career. He was born in Belgium, was he not, round about AD 500, the son of a pagan nobleman?

He replied: 'Indeed. But unlike the fun-eco-pagans of your own time, my father's paganism was unutterably pessimistic. Imagine if the best you could hope for ultimately was to emerge, with a bad hangover, from Valhalla to take your place in the last battle array on the Day of Ragnarok of the old, limping gods, with their bad backs and arthritic limbs, and then wait to be cut down by the forces of evil.

'My father had a low opinion of Christians - he said contemptuously that they were weak and that they desired power, and they called that power the kingdom of God. He believed that he was beyond good and evil, and that Christian rules of moral conduct were neither new nor original.'

Nevertheless, Saint Helier was sent to be educated by a Christian hermit, as it was then the best education to be had. It was there that he felt drawn to a religious life, and he found he had a talent for healing people, as well as for gardening and getting on well with animals.

He grew some cabbages, and when hares came to eat them he agreed a fair division of the crop with them. On one occasion he saved the life of a very sick woman by giving her some of his cabbages to eat; she promptly recovered. When an adder slipped down the throat of a boy who had gone to sleep with his mouth open, Saint Helier made the sign of the cross, and the adder crept out again, looking rather ashamed of itself.

This idyllic period came to abrupt conclusion: 'My father was not impressed with the fact that not only had the hermit taken his money , but he had also taken his son. I think he was as much hurt as angry about it - although that didn't help the hermit, whose head he cut off.

'I was shocked and ran away. To begin with, I went to the Calais area and found a place where I could mortify myself by standing in bare feet on jagged stones in icy water which made the locals think I had to be a saint.

'Then I raised a dead child back to life: so, to escape their embarrassing plaudits of 'didn't he do well?', I moved onwards, until finally I came to the coast near the Channel Islands. There I received further training from St Marculf, and decided to become a hermit myself.

'I found a cave off Jersey's shoreline which was to become my hermitage: a shallow indentation in a rock cut off from the Island at high tide. fully exposed to the wind and the waves, I knew it would be really cold and uncomfortable a perfect place to feel at home.'

Asked about his impressions of being killed by Saxon pirates, he recalled: 'I suppose one must allow that they did not like me lighting a ire which they thought was a beacon, and which tricked them instead into sailing their boat on to the rocks. By beheading me, they felt they were making a point. These days you would say my killing was road-rage: at the time, it was called the action of barbarians.

'It was only after my head was cut from my shoulders that I perceived that eternity had always been around me. And I had to laugh at the expression on the pirates' faces when, after they had cut off my head, I picked it up and walked to wards them holding my head in my hands.

"'Quick, let's scarper," they shouted. "This must be the legendary Jersey way of doing things perhaps we can get away on a boat in the morning."'

There must be, he was asked, a very noticeable difference between the Island of the time of his corporeal existence and the Island now. 'Except for the fact that there are now more people and more houses, very little,' he replied. 'In my time. as you can read in the leg ends. Jersey was ruled by 12 kings; now, you have the Constables' Committee.

'Human personality doesn't change, either, nor does human greed, only the specific details of the ways of increasing wealth be it piracy or the finance industry. You live longer and you have more gadgets to play with. If that is really what you think makes life worth living, then good luck to you.

'But is your life any better? In my society, everybody was in their place, and there was a place for everybody. In your society, you talk endlessly about equality, but at the same time you exclude your most vulnerable members from sharing properly in your own busy lives.' And what of the Island's future?

Saint Helier sniffed, and remarked with some asperity. 'I am a patronal saint, not a newspaper astrologer. Perhaps if you all spent less time worrying about the future, you might be a little more happy in the present.'

JEP 15/7/2000

St Hélyi

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