This is the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, just on the edge of Glastonbury. In the background you can see Glastonbury Tor.
Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury with the vials of Jesus’ blood and sweat (and possibly the chalice from the last Supper) and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill. The planted staff grew into a thorn tree that “miraculously” flowers twice a year – at Easter and at Christmas.
As you can see it is in a sorry state. This is what it used to look like before it was vandalised in on 9th December 2010 – all of its branches being brutally hacked off during the night… It still seems to me to have been an unspeakably violent and anger-fuelled thing to do. It feels (to me) like more of a desecration than all of the smashing of stained glass and toppling of statues that Henry VIII unleashed.
It’s not the first time the tree has been attacked – it was uprooted and burned by Cromwell’s religious purifiers during the English Civil war, the one there now was grown from a cutting – as were several more dotted around the town.
I climbed up Wearyall Hill and sat by the tree, what is left of it, looking across to the Tor and over the town. As you can seem, countless people have made the same journey and have started leaving ribbons around the tree. Reading some of the messages with the ribbons, it soon becomes clear that this place has been a focus for the hopes and dreams and prayers and wishes of people of a whole multitude of faiths and what are now referred to as “spiritualities”.
It felt to me like an incredibly moving place – perhaps the “violence” done here now adds to that sense of hope and healing peace – that even now, even after the darkness has done its worst – ribbons turn and move in the breeze – broadcasting pilgrims’ hopes to the world.
There are descendants of the original thorn in the grounds of the abbey – as if the Church wanted to wall in the experience, bottle it, guard it, keep it close, control it. But nobody leaves ribbons there – only here.
There are no instructions. Nobody has codified what happens here. People simply invest this place with their various and diverse hopes and dreams. Some might be called christian prayer, others might not, it doesn’t seem to matter – they all coexist quite happily and naturally in this place. The tying of a ribbon around a Holy Tree – a simple, yet powerful ritual that speaks to people of wide-ranging and differing faith traditions – speaking more powerfully, maybe, than all our sunday words put together.
Why is it that a place, a symbol of simple human hope, attracts such extreme destructive vandalism?
Nobody knows who vandalised the tree in 2010. Another thorn was planted in the town next to a peace pole by the town hall in April 2012 – a sapling. But that was snapped in half and destroyed by vandals only 16 days later.
Supposition at the time was that it was some kind of anti-Christian act. But I can’t shake my original surprise when I read that – for I had assumed that this was done by Christians – it “feels” like the kind of thing Christians might do in the name of purifying religion and fighting their petty war against errant expressions of spirituality. Maybe I’m wrong, but my sadness remains. Alongside it, a very real experience of the importance and power of ritual in peoples’ lives.
I don’t want the church to “capture” that – but I do think the church should respond to that and take it seriously, not least the URC, which for all its strengths can feel like a very sterile place spiritually, to me, anyway – and I’m about as far from being a touchy-feely bloke as you could imagine being!