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  • Writer's pictureHelen

Guiding Light from a Gravelly Voice?


One afternoon this week, I went to visit an old friend who lives down a country lane with no street lights. When I came out of her house, I couldn’t see a thing. For a few moments there was something exciting and dramatic about the absolute darkness. But there was also danger. I knew there was a step somewhere outside the house but I couldn’t quite remember where. I was glad to have a torch on my phone!


There is something about the lack of light at this time of year that delights my imagination. As the hours of darkness get longer and longer, I ponder what it must have been like for the ancient British tribes gathered around their bonfires. Away from those fires and without candles or tapers, the world must have been a very dark place, especially when the moon was new. As they staggered along in the dark trying to remember where the landmarks were, wondering which of their senses to trust, nervous about where to put the next foot, they must have experienced a level of anxiety rare in our 21st century western experience. On such occasions both then and now, none of us has any option but to turn to the guiding light within: memories, instincts, senses other than sight.


This time yesterday, the name Foy Vance, meant nothing to me. Then someone sent me a YouTube link to a song he found meaningful at this time of year. As I clicked on the link, the lyrics on the screen with changing light shapes behind them were sung by a gravelly Leonard Cohen kind of voice. I like Leonard Cohen in small doses but I wasn’t at all sure this was for me. But, I do like ‘gravelly’ and thought maybe I should give it a chance. So I listened to the end. And I liked it more. Then, off I went down a YouTube rabbit hole of clips about the (20-year old!) song, ‘Guiding Light’ and the singer Foy Vance, with Elton John and Ed Sheeran and Keith Urban.


One of the clips I found showed Foy singing to a large group of young people in a music hall - the Belfast Empire. The young people were singing along with a level of intensity and joy I associate with church. 'When I need to get home, You're my guiding light, You're my guiding light’. Others talked about all the people who had been guiding lights at dark times in their lives. At my age, I wondered, who are my guiding lights now? Most of those who used to be have passed on.


Although the voices of my own former guiding lights are still very real in my head, I often

wonder what they might say these days. Many of the familiar landmarks sometimes seem to have disappeared and many of us feel as if we are walking in the dark. As Yeats said in ‘The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ What would 'my guiding lights' say about the darkness in which our world finds itself right now, on the verge at the very least, of catastrophe and at the worst of extinction. Which of the traditional ‘guiding’ lights are still flickering but likely to go out and which ones will prove reliable?


As the season of Advent begins, some of you will expect me to talk about the reliability of the Guiding Light whose coming into the World we are about to celebrate. And of course I couldn’t conclude without a mention of that Light.


But I can’t leave it there. In which direction is that light shining in 2023? Who is reflecting that Light? As the physical darkness continues to deepen for the next three weeks, the question ‘who are my guiding lights’ seems to be an important one.


Photo: Rolling Stone


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