Catching The Light

Catherine Coldstream reflects on the shaping of her life by mysticism, music and an extraordinary painter father

AT THE AGE of eight there were many things I did not know, but I did know that Great Aunt Carmelita was a Roman Catholic. I also knew she had a vast array of tall and excessively handsome policemen sons and lived in a fortress in west London. She had not one but two grand pianos, interlocked like warring stags in her front room.

Great Aunt Carmelita used to play two-piano arrangements of Beethoven symphonies with her husband, and the sounds they made were grand, and sometimes terrifying. They were professional musicians whose virtuosity seemed awe-inspiring to me at that age. The only musical instrument my family owned was a square piano with yellowing ivory keys like old men’s teeth, that made subterranean sounds of exquisite, tinkling discord. It was practically unplayable. 

Unlike our musical cousins we were tactile, painterly folk from Islington, unfamiliar with the discipline of practice and with the ways of Catholics, whose very existence seemed to us veiled in continental mystery. It was a mystery monumental in its ordinary implications. Their rituals flickered distant fire, connoting solid churches and even solider authority and moral fibre. Their red-brick Ealing fortress was a far cry from our not-quite-dilapidated Georgian terrace with its hefty art and rickety antiques, its peeling paintwork and faded lavender bushes. Today we might be called Bohemian, but back then we were merely neurotic and dysfunctional.

Our childhood was paint-spattered. Turpentine and brushes were everywhere, reeking of potentiality. The twisted rags that trailed linseed oil onto shelves and mantelpieces, smearing them coloured, reminded us that we ourselves were a work-in-progress. Like a once-gilded frame, our world encased us, and we pranced and danced it with high theatricality. We drew and painted it each in our own way. Skin-tone, we knew did not just come in pink and white; you needed green and grey and yellow ochre, and bits of brown and black and even blue. My father said it all depended on the Light, that ethereal morning visitor to our house. It painted the bare floorboards luminous in places, where half-open wooden shutters allowed it entry. 

He used to get up early, to ‘catch it’ as he used to say, as though he were a fisherman, eyes unblinking, back hunched, arm extended and immobile. Catching the Light was as real a ritual as any, but more stealthy than church, and much more silent, although it roused him better than a bell and got him out of bed each day to measure distances and record them onto taut-stretched canvas in carefully constructed dabs of pigment. The early mornings he immortalized were, like people, green and grey, and yellow ochre, they were black and brown, and burnedsienna, raw umber, viridian, and China white. If such words were musical, their effects were visual and indelible. 

For all its paint-marks and tactile physicality, Islington was really about feeling and intuition, it was about yearning and anxiety. Everything in our world was incomplete, ramshackle, and nervously expressive, a peeling, stucco-fronted, four-storey work-in-progress. Ealing, on the other hand, was about knowing, it was about full possession and accomplishment. Aunt Carmelita’s home was as solid as a mountain – even her stature spoke of it. She was a statuesque woman, unlike anyone on my wiry and agnostic father’s side. Her Roman faith, too, was seen as something alien yet towering, like the Moon Landing or Mount Everest. 

In those days I didn’t know that Carmelita was named after a famous mountain. My Illustrated Children’s Bible, the gift of another (more gentle) aunt, showed Moses awe-struck on Sinai, Jesus glowing on Tabor, and bowed and sorrowful on Calvary, or sermonizing on the unnamed slope amongst the lilies, but it had no pictures of Elijah. His ascent to heaven in a fiery chariot would have made a wonderful painting, I later thought, as would his tentative moment of stillness on Horeb after the whirlwind. But Margaret Tarrant did not stretch to all the mountaintops of Israel. 

Mount Carmel, I would later learn, was the scene of Elijah’s ostentatious sacrifice, and of his fiery conquest of the frenetic prophets of a rival deity called Ba’al. It was the locus of the triumph of the One True God, the geos of absolute victory and religious territory, the true Eretz Yisrael. Both a real and a symbolic location in the annals of biblical tradition, Carmel came loaded with cult and history, and was so much more then somewhere high and far away. Carmel, like Carmelita (whose Italianate diminutive never really suited her) was rock solid, ideologically unimpeachable, a lush and fertile foreign landscape. 

Mountains, like music, inspire awe, and can dwarf and relativize the quotidian and the mundane. They are simultaneously objects and spaces, both immanent and apart, regions that tower over us, bringing new perspective, expanding consciousness simply by virtue of their scale. Size really does matter where mountains are concerned. On the most literal level, they can cause us to lift up our eyes, and in so doing reach beyond ourselves to a higher plane, to the unknown and unknowable regions from where, as the psalmist says, comes energy and – mysteriously – help. Pointing towards the clouds, and to the endless blue beyond, mountains describe a path away from self, their thrust plunging, like the bird, far from earth. 

Traditionally mountains are seen as meeting places with the divine. The higher you go, the closer you get to God. It is all pretty primal and intuitive. Even an eight-year-old knows it has to look upwards to reach for the guiding hand of its aunt or parent, that is, to seek protection in a higher power. Mountains can be jubilant or glowering, craggy or benign, reassuring or terrifying, and immovable (unless, metaphorically, by faith the size of a mustard seed). They can be green or grey, as mutable as people, and consequently black or brown or white with snow, dazzling the retina.  

Carmelita’s ancestry was pale and northern, and housed something of the Irish, a convoy of Lawlesses having hit Liverpool some generations back, when Dublin life got too hard for them. The Catholic constant among the changing generations ensured that my mother was brought up ‘in the faith’ although in her case the privilege probably did more harm than good. Her mother, Carmelita’s sister, was as musical as any in her singing, dancing, stage-struck family, but was monumentally unstable. Mary was more quicksand than mountain range, and abandoned her child, aged two, to the care of nuns in a cold comfort orphanage in the West Country in the 1930s.  

Yes, my mother was inexplicably given away, and raised, against the backdrop of war, in conditions of extreme austerity. Deprived of a parent’s unconditional love, and starved of intimacy and human kindness, she never learned to trust the precepts of religion. To her, the Father of her daily prayer was no more protective than the nuns who beat her, forcing confessions of undreamed-of crimes, berating her for being

human, beautiful, and talented. Mum never recovered from the emotional abuses of her childhood, although she learned to love her own invented version of herself, the model, the poet, the prodigious performer. And my father saw and loved this in her too, making her the mother of us his second family, their three pale-skinned, russet-haired artistic waifs, the mongrel blessing of an Anglo-Scots agnostic painter and a Norwegian-Irish singer with no rituals other than the ways of creativity.

Mum’s singing was genetically predetermined, but culturally against-the-odds, and represented a cardinal victory over philistinism. More David than Elijah, Mum’s sling-stones were her words and songs. Nazareth House might have knocked the bottom from her psyche, dislodged the Ground of Being that would otherwise have grown naturally from the experience of being Loved (a human birthright), but it could not silence the music welling up within her. 

Her mezzo-contralto rose from our half-basement kitchen, alternately Carmen and Julie Andrews, and sometimes Reverend Mother (Climb Every Mountain) embarrassing us and sending us running to our rooms for refuge, until we realized it was part of the fabric of our being, and we gave up, resigning ourselves to the power of harmony and melody.

Not long after my ninth birthday I began to learn the violin. I was the first in my immediate family to learn an instrument, although not the first to discover the Meaning and Magic of Music, as the title of a birthday present book I once received so memorably put it. The alliterative triad tripped from the tongue like a riddle but promised so much more, and very soon delivered it. I was hooked early, and, when lonely and half-abandoned myself at boarding school, I discovered the power of music to transport and to transform, to ransack and redeem the human raw experience. The book, given by Carmelita, both pointed to and worked like magic, one of the many tricks my childhood played on me – a good one. 

But mountains were another of Great Aunt Carmelita’s heritages, at least in the metaphorical sense, and life has presented me with enough steep ascents to prove the discipline worthwhile. Learning two classical instruments while at school I discovered daily practice, and enough self-mastery to direct my imagination and to tame my fingertips. The result of that early effort has stayed with me all my life, alchemically altering the substance of my being. I see it as sacramental, possibly an ontological change, and am glad my parents never sent me upstairs to practice. In a liberal household such as ours, people didn’t issue such commands. Creative choices were left to the spirit of the individual and the promptings of their private muse.

Practicing was my thing, something that grounded and harnessed me, like meditation, and that offered rewards demonstrably in excess of the investment. The experience of conquering first simple tunes, on violin and later piano, then the ability to advance beyond the Baroque soon intoxicated me, pushing me further and further towards an unseen goal. My sense of life’s potentiality opened out, like Alpine vistas, as did my appreciation of my own inner and technical potential. The only mountain I wanted to climb, as a teenager, was musical. The obsessive in me resorted happily to the practice room, and I lost myself in what I didn’t even know was heritage. 

Like God, music vivifies us, breathing into us new prospects, journeys made with fingers on worn keys, or by the way of frets and fingerboards. Those odysseys are amongst the deepest known to humans, the extended fugues, sonatas, and variations that take us beyond ourselves, to an ineffable, transcendent destination. Like God, too, mountains are inescapably present yet wholly Other, silent, powerful, and inscrutable. Both provide us with the stuff of journeys. Similarly, mountains and God both feed the human imagination and provide us with the stuff of myth. 

If the necessary telos of a mountain is its summit, the mountaintop experience can take the form of an Epiphany. Such moments of enlightenment take one unawares, like chord progressions coming out of nowhere, or sideways key-changes that flood the world in unexpected colour. Usually the fruits of solitude, and at the end of a long and arduous process – since climbing is itself an ascetical undertaking – mountaintop experiences can shift the perceived axis of reality in unexpected ways. Such shape-shifting mystical experiences are irreversible. That is to say their effects remain, and the memory of them is at least as indelible as my father’s paint. 

Narratives around mountains, whether sacred or secular, often belong to the esoteric literature of the numinous. It is not surprising that their occurrence in sacred traditions is almost too numerous to count. Someone must have done it, marking points on a map to show the relative size, importance, and mystical intensity of Ararat, Sinai, Nebo, Gerizim, Moriah, Hermon, Tabor, Zion, Olivet, Calvary, and Carmel. There may even be an algorithm. Mohammed is said to have received the Koran on Mount Jabal, the ‘mountain of light’, while Mount Kilash is sacred to the Hindu deity Shiva. Greek mythology sanctifies Parnassus and Olympus, while Norse legends give us the Icelandic poetry celebrating Helgafell.  

Closer to home, the Romantic poets’ love affair with the Sublime brings quasi-erotic force to the deep human desire for connection with a higher power. In Shelley’s Mont Blanc, internal mind and external nature become one in ecstasy, all incidental boundaries dissolved, while Byron and Wordsworth celebrate the nomadic human spirit mingled with the sky, the ocean, the crag, the peak, and the stars. The melding of flesh with spirit, of desire with power, of helplessness with grandiose solidity, is a consummation devoutly to be wished, like death indeed for those Wagnerian protagonists whose erosdrives them inexorably to self-annihilation. 

The mountain that summoned me was transcendently attractive, stern, forbidding, and compelling. Under the patronage of the fiery Elijah, who not only confronted his ‘false gods’ on Carmel, but heard the still, small voice of Yahweh in a gentle breeze, the Carmelite Order has expectant, or mystical, listening at its heart. It is a silent and attentive way, but it is also a steep and stony one. Belonging to the eremitic, or ‘hermit’ tradition, the Carmelite way is about waiting on God, as Elijah waited on him in the desert (eremos), but it is also about renunciation as a means to that ambitious end. Such an end is every bit as all-consuming as Wagner’s in its human scope.

The eremitic vocation is one that recreates something of the starkness of the desert. Deserts are as important as mountains in the Carmelite tradition, since their very barrenness, their wilderness extremity, effectively pushes the individual towards God, a consequence of being in a place where all distractions, comforts, and securities have been stripped away. Anyone who knows how such stripping feels – how lonely, harsh and mentally demanding  – will perhaps know the passion and power of a love-affair with the divine.  Eros is transfigured into ecstasy when all material or even human objects of desire have been effectively removed. 

The solitary dweller in the eremosis the one who listens and is ready, unencumbered when the whirlwind approaches and sweeps them up into the arms of violent spiritual love. Rapture, ecstasy, transport – the words take many forms, but all connote in some sense the departure of the self from its usual boundaries, the breaking-open of the brittle shell of separate identity, the surrender to, and merging with a higher power. Rapture is rupture, ecstasy is eros, and transport is motion, literally a journeying away from the material plane, as Elijah was taken up to heaven in the fiery chariot. 

But stripping can take almost any shape, and all of us will have known it in one or other of its forms. Family breakdown, bereavement, loss in any of its guises. The experience of being alone, abandoned in the universe is a primal one, linked to fear and to desperation, to courage and recklessness, and to the readiness to risk all for the possibility of redemption, acceptance, and salvation. Loneliness can be a motivator. Sorrow, equally, drives us to search in unlikely places for crumbs of comfort. Anger, another face of desolation, can override all prudence and issue in radical action or overwhelming creativity. 

Before my own family crumbled before my eyes, and Islington was folded up and put away like a forbidden book, I thought music was enough for me. The paint-spattered home I’d taken for granted was the base from which I reached into and explored the world. Paint rags and linseed oil delineated our experience but did not define us or hold us back. My father’s early morning sittings, his ritual and dedicated catching of the light, seemed simply normal to us, not extraordinary, as I now know it to have been. Not much prepared us for the shake-up that would follow on his loss of health and the slow crumbling of his working practice, his happiness and his (already rocky) marriage. 

When our peeling stucco-fronted house was sold, and the square piano and the rest of the rickety antiques sent into Storage, my parents went their very separate ways, my mother to a nearby flat in semi-isolation (she was a city hermit), my father eventually to a nursing home. He was a generation older then her, and although his illness did not come prematurely, we children were barely out of school, and found the shift in circumstances disorientating and traumatic. Our experience of being, or even of having a family evaporated as rapidly as a candle flame snuffed out.

I’d half forgotten Ealing, and the solidity of my distant great aunt’s red-bricked fortress, but I found  myself approaching the ritual fire of her alien religion, and found in it a more forgiving face than my poor mother ever dreamed of. I was in Paris at the time, in my late teens, and alone but for memories and false friends when I trudged up the steps of the 18tharrondissement to the Sacré Coeur. I remember pretending to be French when offered a patronising English language pamphlet at the door, and laughing with my very red, Nordic head thrown back when I managed – against the odds – to pull it off. 

It was no laughing matter though, when my beloved father died five years later, and I made my way then to the chapel of the Rue du Bac, where I heard muttered rosaries and saw pallid, shock-faced statues gazing into the Unknown. I was fascinated by the foreignness of it all, reminded of something primal, open, expectant, and – I sensed it – fundamentally true. There was, in the very intensity of it, something of mother’s vital madness, the courageous faith of what it takes to fly against the current, to risk and wonder, and be propelled as though by irresistible force. Catholicism gripped me by the neck – or should I say, the ‘scruff of’ it (whatever the scruff is ) – and, in the midst of grief and alienation and newfound poverty, I sank onto my knees and wept. 

I joined the Order of Discalced Carmelites of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel – familiarly known as Carmel – one gold October, when the harvest was in, and the sky was heavy. I took with me one suitcase of old clothes, a shoulder bag of books, and my viola. I also took a pile of choral music. There was no piano in the monastery, and I knew the life that lay ahead would be more mystical than musical. I’d play my viola on Feast days and on Sunday afternoons, and add my voice to the community effort insofar as I was required to do so. It was a world of deference and obedience, even further removed from paint-spattered Islington than lofty, law-abiding Ealing. It was also a world of healing solitude and silence. 

For a while I needed to shake off everything, to return to zero, and to undergo a sort of dying of my own. Losing the home, and the father that defined it by his paint and presence, was more than a stripping, it was a pulling out from under me of all my known securities. I felt I’d stared death in the face and looked beyond it to the ether. To my surprise I’d found something, or rather someone staring back at me. There was relationship out there, and there was love – whether with the spirit of my father, or with a larger, universal Spirit, it did not matter since the two were now merging into one. Something within me enabled me to trust myself to it, to find connection through deprivation, and to embrace monastic life with childlike, fierce enthusiasm. I remained there for the next 12 years. When I emerged it was like a resurrection. 

Whether through music or mysticism, on mountains or in desert landscapes, whether through solitude, creativity or quiet attention, Life beckons not as possession but as gift. It is a gift that bubbles up, even in desert places, a gift that can be eclipsed even for a dozen years, but which I believe can never be terminally withdrawn. For me, my father still lives on. I hear his voice, I see his face, continually at the blurred and wispy edges of perception. It is not unlike the gentle breeze of Horeb, something still and small and calm resting in the pendulum of the wind. 

Carmelita’s sons fizzled out into marriage and middle age, but her book has journeyed with me, surfacing at odd intervals, usually at times of change or crisis when packing up things into boxes, or removing them from storage units on the cold, grey edges of provincial towns. The dust wrapper has gone, and the spine is cracked and loose, but the contents still speak to me as vividly as when I was a child. Meaning, Magic, Music, an alliterative triad that tripped from the tongue but promised so much more. It was door that opened directly onto beauty and transcendence, and acted in tandem with my Illustrated Children’s Bible to wrest my attention away from the solid, apparently permanent and material, and towards pure experience. 

Perhaps it was this that enabled me to take such risks, to trust myself to unseen forces when the chips were down. If music, which could be neither seen nor held, could offer such powerful deliverance, then what problem could there be with an unseen God? Music and the Spirit have much in common, and have been the twin beacons, the cloud and the fire that have accompanied me through life’s changing territories. Pure experience – that resonance that is lived deep within the heart or soul or mind – is something that can never be taken away or violated. 

If Great Aunt Carmelita gifted me with music, the Carmelite Order gifted me with silent prayer. Two sides of one reality, two ways of travelling life’s path. Saint John of the Cross’s The Ascent of Mount Carmel, was my preferred roadmap and my guide for many years, an unlikely complement to the Meaning and Magic of Music you might think. But both of them are about the catching of the light, the glimpsing of something bright enough to see and sing by, though never to presume to capture. Even my agnostic painter father knew that pinning down reality was impossible. His morning vigils at the easel were not unlike the long hours we nuns spent in prayer, kneeling in the silent chapel as the day cracked open, parting like the wooden shutters that creaked and let the London light through, painting our bare floorboards luminous. 

I am still a work-in-progress, still mutable and many-coloured, like the canvasses my father worked on, his eyes unblinking, back hunched, arm extended and immobile. On easels and in the corners of bright rooms, they remained wet-to-the-touch for years. Like those taut-stretched works, which he was so reluctant to put aside or finish, there is an end-point, a teloslong ago assigned to me, and to which I am – presumably – still moving. But while I do, I keep listening for the gentle breeze, open to the pure experience which hovers at the blurred and wispy edges of perception, beyond the visible boundaries of religion and the arts. I listen as my painter father watched at dawn, his sleeves rolled, his tackle laid out like a fisherman’s, intent on being ready, intent only to Catch the Light.



NOVEMBER 2018
Catherine Coldstream MONK

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