I watch it every time it’s on. This is at least the third time round, I think! Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, starring one of my stage and screen heroes, Mark Rylance, as Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s hatchet man – who eventually fell by Henry’s own hatchet!
In this week’s episode, Cromwell was doing what he does best – making the political world a close reflection of the wishes of the king – a man with ‘as many fancies as a dancing bear!’ Henry’s latest fancy is the young Jane Seymour whom he hopes, might be able to do better than his second wife, Anne Boleyn, in the vital business of providing him with a male heir. In Mantel’s version, Cromwell’s job is to create a case for the execution of Anne by ‘proving’ she is an adulteress. It was in a thumb-screwing kind of speech to Harry Norris, one of Anne’s alleged lovers, that Cromwell said the words on which I have reflected this week. ‘I need guilty men, Harry. So I’ve found men who are guilty. Though not necessarily as charged.’
Cromwell - or rather Hilary Mantel - knew that in many of us, from the most to the least powerful, there are dark corners of guilt. They can hide vague but powerful forces which can be accessed to make us act - sometimes unpredictably.
Most of us have two ways of dealing with those dark corners. The first is to deny them – pretend they don’t exist. The second is to spread the darkness – to project it on to other people – to blame others and point out their guilt while failing to acknowledge any shares we might have in situations.
These days the pandemic offers a climate conducive to playing the ‘blame-game’ – with a lot of political and social mud-slinging going on. There’s plenty of opportunity to find others guilty of successive failures to live up to our expectations. Anxiety, boredom or ambition can make this sort of ‘darkness-spreading’ seem like harmless fun.
As the days get shorter and darker, it’s easy to fall into the darkness ourselves – blaming others or blaming ourselves for not in some way, coming up to scratch..
Our British traditions, provide at least two other helpful responses to seasonal darkness without and within. The Prime Minister referred to one earlier this week when he said, ‘Tis the season to be jolly’. The word ‘jolly’, it is thought, may come from the same root as the word ‘Yule’. ‘Jollity’ is a word for the activity which responds to this sort of darkness with festivities and celebrations. Driving out the darkness by decorating the house, lighting candles, celebrating, getting together to laugh and reminisce and catch up and strengthen the bonds of family and friendship. It’s going to be a challenge this year – but given the restrictions of lockdown, I’m going to make it my business to find some jollity however and wherever I can.
The other is the traditional response of early British, Celtic Christians. During this winter lockdown time, more than ever, it’s easy to see why the Christians in this part of the world observed this season. They saw Advent – the four weeks before Christmas, as a time of prayer (fasting too sometimes!) and reflection - maybe reflection on the fact that, if we are honest and whether we like it or not – we are all guilty – even if not necessarily as charged. But the darkness is far from unrelieved. The lighting of an Advent candle each week reminded them that this time of waiting offered the opportunity of preparation to receive the Light – the Light of love that scatters the darkness of guilt, the Light that lights every single person who comes into the world,.