(based on the legend of St. Helier in Jersey)
He was a hermit who lived on a rock off the coast of the island. There is a castle there now, since the eleventh century, Elizabeth Castle, but I always think of it as the holy man’s rock. He was there before the castle, and the town is named after him. The sound of seagulls that I can hear today when I visit that town, that island, was the persistent sound that he could hear all day on that rock – all that time ago in the sixth century a.d. Not only was there not a castle, but there was not a town there then. Just a few fisher-folk and farmers lived on the island.
The gulls woke the hermit first thing in the morning. Their voices, shrieking, followed him around all day. They kept him awake until it grew dark at night. Their voices mostly shrieked, but were sometimes softer. He knew all their different notes and calls. He saw all kinds of different gulls; he knew the crevices where they hid their eggs; he knew their speckled young. He was friendly with all these birds. Like them, he lived on the fish; but also on the bread and wine and other simple foods that the people rowed out to him.
He had been drawn to this life perhaps through some deep sorrow, but it was also through true religious feeling.
The man was eccentric by nature, outlandish in appearance, and those characteristics became more pronounced with his sojourn on the rock. He became more and more lean and weather-beaten. Dressed in a few ragged garments, he often discarded these during the warm summer months – his skin growing accustomed to the sun – but if he saw visitors approaching, he would pull on a robe or loin-cloth. When he went to sleep at night on his shelf in one of the two little caves, he covered himself with a woven cloth, a gift from the fisher-folk.
Some of the people thought he was half mad, but others regarded him with a mixture of reverence and affectionate humour. These appreciated the words of wisdom that he spoke to those who rowed out to him to ask his counsel in their earthly affairs, or for spiritual guidance, or both. These two things were more closely linked together than they are nowadays. In return, the people brought him food and clothing.
There were broken love affairs, bereavements, often through drowning. Sometimes there were, even as nowadays, those who were seeking more meaning to life than they could find in their everyday existence.
The legend is that he was killed by marauding pirates, but that being such a holy man he did not die straightaway. He picked up his head when it was sliced off, and walked a few paces with it. I think he was no dead chicken to run around after he had been so cruelly beheaded by one of their swords! But I have been to this place; have climbed the stone steps and seen the crevice, high in the rock face that was part of his hermitage; have walked along the narrow path up there to the second little cell. The atmosphere is filled with prayer. There truly was a holy man living on that rock.