15 July 2021, The Tablet

From the beautiful to the sublime

Heaven on earth

From the beautiful to the sublime

Lake Ohrid from the parapet of the Monastery of St Naum
Photo: Alamy, Robert Harding


In the second of a series in which writers reflect on a place that is special to them, a poet and biographer recalls her visits to an ancient Balkan lake ringed by cave churches, monasteries and mosques

Sometimes heat itself feels like a ­benison. On a dazzling September afternoon, the light comes as sheer off Lake Ohrid as a bray of shawms and trumpets. I grew up on the rainy west Welsh coast, and it doesn’t matter how many times I return to south-east Europe, every time I find myself blinking in the flood of light, ready for some kind of transformation – or at least to freckle up a little.

In Wales, water’s often at the heart of places the culture understands as ­letting in the spirit. But such “living water” – poets I translate tell me the Hebrew means, literally, “running water” – can be chilly and bracing, hidden between rocks or under rain-soaked foliage.

The chrism is something shivering and bright. St Issui’s Spring, St Non’s Well, Nanteos (Nightingale Stream), where a relic believed to be the Grail cup was kept for many years. In Ceredigion, yew trees bleed eucharistic resin, remote churchyards are still circular as they were at first Celtic foundation and a cuckoo calls on the high slopes of the “green desert” of the Elenydd. There’s something private and ­modest, eked out even, about this kind of spirituality.

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