Why Sylvia Left Ransom’s, and About the Stone
In her car on the way to work at Our Lady of Ransom’s school, Sylvia Smetana found her mind returning to a conversation with the Bishop and others at the seminar the evening before, at their weekly session for a part-time M.A. in Death Studies. She would never have believed that death could be such a relief from teaching. People laughed when she told them how much she enjoyed her seminars on death. As she stopped at the traffic lights, her mind wandered back over the discussions of the previous evening, on the denial of death in post-modern society, or the obscurity of Heidegger: “I am the other.”
Having survived the predictable traffic jam, Sylvia sped as fast as she could without tripping up across the cobblestone courtyard at Our Lady of Ransom’s independent school. She tried to keep her feet from sliding on the uneven stones, which were still slippery after a heavy shower earlier that morning. By now it was only spitting with rain and she clutched her paperwork close to her, partly to protect it from the wet and partly to warm herself. She thought of the flat, comfortable cobblestones of Prague, where she would so much rather be now. Always on the edge of her consciousness, close enough to feel but not to see, she carried with her a sense of exile from Prague. And yet this seemed absurd to her in her sensible teacher mode of consciousness, for Prague was a city she had only recently come to know. It did not make sense. What made even less sense was the unreality of her life at Ransom’s.
The ink cartridge in her printer had run out the night before at home. She needed to print out her latest assignment on Death. Arriving, panting, in the computer room to print out her worksheets quickly before her lesson, it took her three attempts to log on. The system was overloaded first thing in the morning. Retrieving her memory stick from her pocket, she brought the worksheet document up on screen and pressed the “print” command. Nothing happened. Of course it didn’t‚ because there was no paper in the printer. Fishing her keys out, she opened the paper storage cupboard. It was bare. This meant dashing across the courtyard to another building in order to fetch paper. Or did it? On her way out of the room, she noticed some printed sheets scattered on the floor under the table. “Ah well,” she sighed, “time for a little recycling!” There were just enough dog-eared sheets lying around to print out one copy of her worksheets on the reverse side. Two minutes before her lesson was due to start, this left merely the task of running off twelve copies.
Dashing back across the courtyard and down the damp, chilly cloister she cursed as she saw a line of colleagues three deep in front of the photocopying machine. They were clearly going to take at least five minutes, so she decided to use the time she didn’t have for a quick dash to the school office to check her mail. There she encountered another cluster of milling bodies trying to purchase office materials, deliver parcels or make urgent phone calls. Lowering her body into a makeshift scrum of one, Sylvia plied her way silently at waistline level to reach her mailbox. It was empty. On her way back out of the office, she was accosted by Miranda, one of her students, who urgently needed her to sign a chit giving her permission to leave lessons early on Friday. There was another delay and a brief remonstration with Miranda over the merits of carrying around a functioning pen with one when wanting a member of staff to sign something important.
Five minutes into her double lesson, Sylvia sprinted back over the uneven cloister flagstones to the photocopying machine, to find one copying marathon ended and Steven Mallory, the school’s curiously gauche and uncommunicative PR officer, manually copying his way one by one through a laborious selection of intricately shaped press cuttings. Another four infuriating minutes elapsed before Sylvia was able to accomplish twelve copies of her worksheets on the Letter to the Hebrews, complete with questions, for her Religious Studies class, who were probably all at each other’s throats in the classroom by now.
Ten minutes into her double lesson, by now in a lather of sweat, with a fresh ladder in her tights and a faint smell of damp sheep rising from her rain-sodden Merino wool twin set, Sylvia emerged from the cloister to find another downpour unleashing itself on to the cobblestones. Ruined hairdo braced downwards to ward off the elements, the Hebrews clutched to her bosom, Sylvia started her third dash across the courtyard, almost running blind into the arms of a camel-coated stranger, who looked distinguished, grizzled and confused.
“Question!” he hailed, complete with raised right arm, across an invisible sea of wealth and privilege that apparently rendered complete sentences superfluous when talking to damp teachers and other social inferiors. This was enough to startle Sylvia’s forging body into an ungainly halt, at the very moment her mind was deciding that she did not even remotely have time to stop. She did not like this Morse-code-like form of address. She turned her face upwards and sideways, both towards the elements and in the direction of the immaculate camel coat, blurred on the other side of her rain-spattered glasses. A sense of detached, clinical wonder overcame her for an instant at the way an otherwise rational, sensible adult can be trained to obedience like a dog, with a single authoritative tone from a well-heeled stranger. She also found herself wondering how it was neurologically possible for the body to obey ahead of the mind’s decision not to.
“Can I help you?” she heard herself asking, her mind now decorously falling over the precipice that divides normal workaday tension from the silent hysteria of impending burnout, as she pictured the group that should by now have long been intent on the Letter to the Hebrews descending into delinquent acts of classroom decadence.
“Appointment with Head. Can’t find office!” came the barked reply, at a volume she would normally have expected from a person attempting to communicate across several acres of land, rather than the three feet that actually divided them.
“Oh,” smiled Sylvia feebly but automatically, feeling wrong-footed, cross and wet, “please follow me, it is a little difficult to find”. Much to her self-disgust, she even managed a polite smile.
Navigational vagueness fosters the impression that the school you are visiting can take you or leave you. So not for the first time, Sylvia cursed the fact that there was no reception area for visitors at Ransom’s. Since signs showing where the Head and other important persons were to be found could scarcely be omitted altogether, they were generally placed just outside where the office in question was located, so that the only people who read them were those who already knew where they were going. In practice this meant that it was virtually impossible to go about one’s business at Ransom’s without having to give frequent and laborious directions to hopelessly lost people. It was partly in this way that Ransom’s had acquired its reputation for being such a “courteous and Christian” school.
Not feeling at all courteous or Christian at the moment, but more like ninety years old than the forty-three she was, Sylvia heaved herself up the impressive sixteenth century wooden staircase to the Head’s Study, with a light-footed blob of expensive camel coat bounding up behind her. Conveniently, the Head’s door opened as they emerged round the banister. Barbara Styles, the Head, smiled her smile and the camel coat was absorbed seamlessly into the Holy of Holies, the door closing elegantly behind the two of them, neither of whom found it necessary to acknowledge Sylvia’s presence any further.
A viper’s nest of inner tension, and by now thirteen minutes late for her lesson, Sylvia hurtled back down the creaking oak staircase, back out into the rain, and half staggered, half sprinted across to the schoolhouse, where she then had to negotiate another two flights of wooden stairs up to the second floor before stopping on the corner to catch her breath. As she hove into view round the door of the classroom, a dozen mercifully quiet uniforms made languid attempts to peel themselves off windowsills and desktops, as Cola cans, snack packets and chocolate wrappers were deposited in corners, in the hope that they would be overlooked.
Sylvia invoked her legendary right eyebrow, usually deemed sufficient to quell any rioting rabble. A cautious, if petulant hush descended on the room. “And now, as promised”, Sylvia wheezed, “the Letter to the Hebrews. Amanda, take your feet off the desk please. Charlotte, would you mind (pant, puff) handing these round?”
A large amount of underarm sweat was discreetly pressed and absorbed into two layers of cornflower blue Merino wool as Sylvia got out her pen and, wiping the rain from it, ticked names off in her class list. As always, the regular routine of classroom trench warfare turned out to be the most soothing part of Sylvia’s working day. She could have killed for a large mug of black coffee right now. Instead, she donned her professional face and warmed herself on the thought of her next Beta-blocker.
“Please miss?” grated a teenage voice from somewhere near the window.
“Yes?” responded Sylvia half-heartedly, still preoccupied with her register.
“I like your ring miss!”
“Thank you Emily,” Sylvia responded.
“It’s very unusual miss,” persisted the voice. “Is it an emerald miss?”
Sylvia looked up. “Well no, actually,” she smiled, holding out the hand in front of her and glancing down at the pale green stone in its simple setting. “In fact it’s Moldavite.”
“What’s that miss?”
This time, Sylvia instead of cursing this further delay to the proceedings, decided to relax graciously into this latest movement in the sonata of interruptions to her plans for the school day. She smiled again.
“Moldavite is actually a unique gemstone,” she said, aware that whatever she did she always seemed to sound like a teacher or an encyclopaedia.
“For two reasons. Firstly it occurs almost exclusively in the Bohemian Basin in the Czech Republic. It’s called Moldavite because it occurs in the basin of the river Moldau in the Czech Republic. The Czechs call it the river Vltava, and the stone is known to them as Vltavin. But secondly it is unique because it is the only known gemstone on earth that is actually extra-terrestrial in origin.”
This last word had a magical effect on the class. Eyes opened wide and the girls exchanged fascinated looks. “What do you mean miss?” whispered a girl at one of the front desks. They would scarcely have mustered this much enthusiasm for the Letter to the Hebrews, Sylvia couldn’t help thinking to herself wryly. And yet there was a kind of connection between her ring and her subject matter.
“Well, yes,” she went on. “You see most gemstones in the world, such as diamonds, sapphires and emeralds, are formed through a combination of processes going on above and below the earth’s crust and in the magma.
“But Moldavite is different.” She couldn’t resist allowing a short dramatic pause to do its work on the class before going on.
“Moldavite is believed to have formed as a result of the crashing of a meteor to the earth about fourteen million years ago.”
Looks were again exchanged among the class, and eyes opened wide.
“The meteor is thought to have crashed to the earth in the area in southern Germany near the present-day city of Stuttgart, but as it crashed and displaced huge amounts of debris it formed the region we now call the Bohemian Basin in the Czech Republic. The material of the meteorite combined with other material from the earth’s crust to form the gemstone Moldavite, which is green or greenish-brown in colour. It has unique properties.”
“Wow, miss!” came a fascinated voice, as if speaking for everyone.
Sylvia was in full flow now. “Yes, so it is a unique gem in every sense of the word. And indeed the stuff of myth and legend.”
The whole class was with her now and eager to hear more. “Who has heard of alchemy?” she asked, still amazed after all these years at how much like a teacher she sounded. One or two hands went up.
“Well there are varying opinions about what alchemy was. Some people say that it was the prototype of the modern experimental sciences, but a kind of misguided forerunner of them, misled by a lot of mumbo-jumbo about trying to turn lead into gold and that sort of thing.” Sylvia paused to draw breath.
“But another view of alchemy is that it was a symbolic system concerned with the search for spiritual awakening and enlightenment. So thank you for the question about my ring, because it does have a connection with Religious Studies after all, as I am sure you are all very relieved to hear!” A ripple of chuckles passed round the class.
“Who has heard of the Holy Grail?” Sylvia asked. A lot of hands went up this time.
“Well there has always been a great deal of speculation about what the Holy Grail was, including most recently the idea that it was a person, Mary of Magdala, rather than an artefact, an inanimate object.
“However, one school of thought believes that the Grail may have been made of Moldavite, or at least partly of Moldavite. I have never heard the sound Moldavite makes, but apparently vessels and cups made of Moldavite make a remarkable resonating sound when lightly struck, and again this unique sound is believed to be related to its unique extra-terrestrial origins.
“These origins are explained in some esoteric - including alchemical - circles with the myth of Lucifer’s crown.” Sylvia paused again, gathering her thoughts.
“As you will remember from our reading of the Book of Revelations, the Bible tells of a group of angels, led by Lucifer, which means Light-bearer, being expelled from Heaven for their disobedience.
“There was a war in Heaven, in fact, and a great battle between Lucifer and Michael, which Michael won. This is said to have happened because a group of angels known as the Watchers (it seems their task was to keep an eye on us, on the human race) had been misbehaving.
“First they had been having sex with human women and producing children....“. The mention of sex had its usual instantly galvanizing effect on the class.
“The Bible speaks of a race or group of people on earth at the time described in the Book of Genesis who were known as the Nephilim. The Nephilim are thought to have been a race of giants descended from unions between Watchers and human women. Stories about giants occur in the myths and legends of many cultures, including those of Australian aborigines.” Sylvia drew another breath and did one of the classroom body swivels in front of the board that she did when she was in full flow.
“But there was more to it than that,” she went on. “There also seems to have been a major conflict among the angels about whether it was right to allow humans access to certain kinds of knowledge. You may remember from the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, that there are all sorts of admonitions and threats of dire punishment for people who practice astrology and sorcery?”
A couple of knowing nods reassured Sylvia that not all their Bible study had been in vain. “Well, it would seem that the group of angels around Lucifer held the view that human beings should have access to this kind of esoteric knowledge - and to the power that went with it. After all this goes right back to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, when Eve is tempted with the knowledge of good and evil by the serpent, who tells her that if she eats of the fruit from this tree she and Adam will be like gods. God of course, has clearly said that if Adam and Eve eat of the fruit, then they will die. This implies that human mortality is a consequence of access to knowledge, which is an interesting idea, I think you will agree...“This story brings us to one of the central, eternal conflicts in the human soul: we seek, even crave knowledge, and the power that goes with it, but time and time again we demonstrate that we are not to be trusted with it, and, equally importantly perhaps, the more we know, the unhappier we seem to become. Ignorance, in many ways, is bliss, as the saying goes.
“But I digress,” Sylvia said, looking round at the class. “What, you may be asking, does any of this have to do with my Moldavite ring? Well, the legend tells that when Michael defeated Lucifer and threw him and his angels out of Heaven, as Lucifer fell to earth one of the stones from his crown fell and crashed to earth, creating what we now know today as the Bohemian Basin and bringing to earth the gemstone Moldavite. And because it is the only known gemstone on earth that originated at least in part in the Heavens it possesses unique and special properties. Since earliest times, Moldavite has been regarded as an especially precious gemstone, being presented as gifts among royalty, for example.
“Nowadays we tend to think of kings in terms exclusively of government and political rule, but this was not always so. Until at least the Middle Ages kings were also spiritual initiates in esoteric schools and were more like priest-kings, so their role as spiritual leaders was as important as their political leadership. Many of you will be familiar with the legend of King Arthur and the various legends of the Holy Grail, for example. These mythological stories are concerned with ancient times, but are a medieval reworking of these ancient legends, and they clearly depict King Arthur as having a spiritual role for his people.
“So Moldavite, because of it partly heavenly origin, is said to enhance Gnosis and spiritual insight in those who wear it. And now,” Sylvia smiled, “at long last, we come to the Letter to the Hebrews, where we read, rather aptly in the light of what we have just been talking about, in Chapter 2, verse 5: ‘For it is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, which is our theme.’”