For some time now, I have been wondering about the idea of Providence. It all started with a quotation from Goethe, about the importance of fully committing oneself when setting out on a new project:
‘The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue forth from the original decision which you never dreamed of before.’
While this might sound like a kind of magical thinking to some readers, I do not think it is. I find it quite feasible to believe that once you have decided on a course of action things fall into place around you, so long as the commitment is there. Nonetheless, the notion that something called ‘Providence’ moves with me is the bit I have always wondered about. I have checked it out, of course (I do my prep) and uncovered the definition of Providence, courtesy of Lexico.com as ‘the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power’. Meanwhile the OED provides ‘the foreknowing and protective care of a spiritual power, specifically (a) that of God (more fully Providence of God, Divine Providence etc), and (b) that of nature. ‘Nature’ will do, after a fashion, though I honestly can’t think of ‘nature’ as something discrete, extraneous, ‘out there’. It’s the process or dynamic through which we exist. Neither am I crazy about the word ‘spiritual’. It is vague and has too many associations with practices that I find either suspect or presumptuous. But I’m inclined to keep things simple, and will equate ‘God’ with ‘Nature’ here. Providence as the protective care of nature.
I do not pretend to be a philosopher, nor do I have any training in that discipline or dark art, nor am I what might be strictly termed ‘religious’, but I am curious, and as it happens I drop in from time to time on a podcast called The Secret History of Western Esotericism (SHWEP) presented by a man who goes by the name of Earl Fontainelle.
While I am driving up to the Black Mountains from Cardiff early this August Monday morning I listen to an episode, fortuitously titled Providence, Fate, and Dualism in Antiquity. I had not planned this: it was the episode that was next in line.
Given the episode’s title, I am listening out for a definition of Providence, and sure enough, up one pops, or rather up pop several, courtesy of Earl’s interviewee, Dylan Burns, author of Did God Care?: Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy.
It would seem, according to Dr Burns, that Providence began its linguistic journey as the prónoia of the Greeks, meaning forethought, and became known in Rome, by Cicero’s day, as providencia. The concept comes up in ancient esoteric texts constantly, I learn, and well into the Middle Ages, where it came to mean the way that God determines Fate, something we would regard as deterministic. This suggests that free will was not a given; we are all subject to some ulterior force that is in a strong sense antithetical to free will, and that is Providence. However, as Dr Burns explains, just because certain things, such as universal laws, are determined by the gods (or God), it doesn’t mean that we are relieved of the responsibility to make the right choices. So, as I understand it, some things are up to chance, others are predetermined by the gods, and yet others can be brought about by the choices made by men and women: that which is up to us. We have free will but should never forget that there are certain things over which we have no control: shit happens.
There’s more, but that’s about as much as I can take in for now. I need to think a little.
Leaving the car at the roadside in Capel y Ffin, I set off up the road towards Gospel Pass, but after 300 metres take a left over a stile, up across a field past a cottage called Pen-y-maes; then follow the path that hugs the hillside below Darren Llwyd, before descending to the covered road just below Blaen-bwch farmhouse.
A quarter of a century ago, when Blaen-bwch was a working farm, I was once nipped on the shin by an over-enthusiastic sheepdog while coming down this lane. I have never forgotten, because it is the only time I have been bitten by a dog. This time there are no dogs, but outside, on the little patch of grass before the house, sit three humans in the lotus posture; two men and a woman. They are wearing loose robes and one of them, the woman, has a wooden bowl in her lap. What is that? Surely not a begging bowl; there’s only a slim chance anyone else will pass this way. Especially on a Monday. Perhaps it’s a gong of some kind. Perhaps it wasn’t made of wood, but bronze. I walked past too quickly to take it in. The meditators are silent, with eyes closed. I feel a wave of slight weirdness as I pass, emanating from one of the meditators, a long, haggard white man, the eldest of the three, who has the look of a self-proclaimed guru. Not hostile weirdness exactly, but a definite vibe of something, and not entirely to do with loving kindness, something more like propriety. It says something like: this is our patch. I can’t help making these evaluations, and am probably wrong, but there you are. When I am thirty metres past the house I stop to tie my bootlace, but really I just want to have another look. The third one, an Asian guy, has his eyes wide open and is watching me; until, that is, he sees that I am watching him, and closes his eyes in the prescribed manner, presumably to continue meditating. I wonder what these people would make of the Providence and free will debate.
The sun is getting warmer. It is forecast to be in the high twenties today, but up here the heat will be easily endurable, thanks to the mountain breeze. I have a hat and suncream, lots of water and a big thermos of spiced tea. I follow the course of the stream, Nant Bwch, and pass the little pool where Bruno the Dog once carried out an infamous atrocity. The spot has gone down in family legend as the pool of the duckling massacre.
A little further up, on my right is the promontory known as Twmpa, or Lord Hereford’s Knob, but I am heading left, or west. I pass a group of five cyclists in their sixties, all men who hail me cheerfully in the accents of the Gwent Valleys. They pass me, one after the other, negotiating the uneven track calling out in my direction: alright butt?; wonderful out yer, innit; lovely day; have a good hike, butt, etc. When they have passed out of sight I sit for a while on the rocks at Rhiw y Fan, overlooking the Wye valley, with the hamlet of Felindre beneath me.
I’d like to fall asleep because I only managed two hours last night, the usual struggle with insomnia until I got up and did some writing around 4.00 and never made it back to bed. But I need to get a shift on, and so head towards the trig point at Rhos Dirion, and there I sit down again, my back propped up against my rucksack and am about to drop off, when I see a very young woman in shorts, tanned legs, athletic build, plaits swinging, who approaches the trig point and proceeds to walk around it in rapid circles, as if she were a wind-up toy, or simply cannot stop moving. I wonder what she is doing out here alone, when I hear voices, crane my head around, and see a small mob of youths approach. From their accents I deduce they are the Essex kids from Maes y Lade residential centre. Two boys in the vanguard of the group address the solitary girl: ‘What are you on, Victoria?’ says one, evidently amazed that she has arrived at the meeting place a good few minutes before any of them. ‘Yeah, what’s Victoria’s secret?’ chimes another lad, the class wit. Victoria, pretty, coy, unspeaking, continues to circle the trig point at speed.
More kids are arriving now, throwing themselves on the ground and bringing out picnic packs and my peaceful interlude has been disturbed, so I move on, westward again, until I come to the track that marks the path of the Grwyne Fawr valley, and I turn south and follow the nascent stream.
I know this path well, love the way it descends through the gradually steepening valley above the reservoir, with the hillsides collapsing in on either side. A little way down I pass a family of ponies. They stop stock still when I take a photograph, as if posing. Then, when I move on, they resume their grazing.
I am getting hungry and stop by the stream, which is beginning to run above ground now, take off my boots. The stream bed is covered with sphagnum, which provides a deliciously soft pillow for my aching feet. A few metres downstream a pony is chomping away at the grass on the bank. She looks over her shoulder at me when I sit down, but does not move away. I feel an intense wave of wellbeing, strip down to my underwear and unpack my meal. I don’t much like eating out in the sun, but there is no shade to be had here, or anywhere near.
After eating, I drink hot chai, and then take myself off to a flat patch of ground. The skeleton of a sheep lies nearby — but is it a sheep, I wonder? Everything has become a little unreal, as though I were watching through a lens in which the colours are both bleached out and stunningly vibrant at the same time, and I cannot decide whether the skeleton belongs to a sheep, or . . . . but I am simply too tired to be bothered by such matters. I greet the skeleton anyway, addressing it as Geoffrey — the first name that comes to mind — and tell it I’m sorry for its loss. I lay out my rain jacket on the grass and lie flat on my back, close my eyes.
I must have slept for only a few minutes, but I wake with the image imprinted on my consciousness. It is, I know, the Eye of Providence: one of those eyes contained within a triangle that appears universally in religious iconography, from Ancient Egypt onwards. The all-seeing eye of God. The eye is everywhere. It counts every hair on every head and every grain of sand. The eye appeared in late Renaissance art as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The eye is even printed on the one dollar bill, such is its reach. That eye is monitoring even the most minute financial transactions in the world’s biggest economy.
I am not usually given to conjuring such symbols. I must have invoked it by listening to that podcast. Providence is in the air. And there was its eye, projected onto the inside of my own eyelid when I awoke from the briefest slumber.
I set off down the valley towards the reservoir, passing more ponies on the way. The breeze is a godsend, as it is pretty warm by now. I keep a steady pace and when I reach the dam I veer left at forty-five degrees along a rough track towards the ridge of Tarren yr Esgob, and then take the track south, heading for the blacksmith’s anvil just below Chwarel-y-fan. I am not thinking of anything much at this point, am at that stage of the hike when the mind goes blank, and you simply walk, one foot following the other. And it is then that I notice the flying ants. Hundreds, if not thousands of them, flying in an opaque black cloud just behind my right shoulder. The air is black with them, but none of them are actually bothering me, and I think of them as some kind of diabolical escort — the phrase comes easily to mind after seeing the Eye and all that it entails — as though I were some warrior from an ancient myth come to avenge a terrible murder — perhaps Geoffrey’s? — with a delirious swarm of flying ants at my side. There are none of the insects to my left, the side of the Ewyas Valley; all of them are to the right of me, a dense miasma of evil, or so I suspect. I accelerate, and the cloud accelerates. I stop, and the insect horde hovers closer, a few of them landing on my shoulder and chest, which is no good, that’s not part of the deal, so I brush them away and set off again. I devise a plan to be rid of them. I shall be utterly calm, and rid myself of any trace of stress or inner disquiet. I will be like Don Juan in the Carlos Castaneda books, who was never troubled by flies, not even in Mexico. I don’t know for sure whether that is what does the job, but after another quarter of a mile of serene walking the flying ants drift away, and by the time I arrive at the blacksmith’s anvil, they are gone. I sit on the stone and drink another chai.
The descent leads me down the steep hill below the rocks of Tarren yr Esgob, past the ruins of the monastery of Llanthony Tertia, onto the tarmac lane and back to the car. As I change into trainers for the drive home, a blackbird starts up in the bushes at the roadside. Evening birdsong never was more lovely.
Later, when I am home and getting ready for bed, I pick up the topmost volume of a pile of books that I have to read for a translation competition I am judging. On the cover, to my utmost surprise, and satisfaction, is depicted the Eye of Providence.