“The individual … an insoluble puzzle.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four
At the south end of the Island of Iona is Columba’s Bay where, reputedly, Columba landed in 563AD with twelve other monks after his long and tortuous journey from Ireland. The bay is largely pebbles, thrown onto the shore through the ages by the battering of north Atlantic storms and tides, and it is split in half by a large outcrop of rock. The eastern half is called, Port á Churaich, “The Bay of the Coracle”, presumably in reference to the landing of Columba. And the eastern half is Port an Fhir Bhrèigh, which translates as “The Bay of the False Man”. I was interested in the origin of this name, so I asked why. Nobody knew. “It remains a puzzle,” I was told.
There may be ideas, suggestions, guesses which point to an answer. But there is – at least for now – no definitive explanation. Who the man was, what happened to give him the label of “false”, why it was significant enough for a bay to be named after him, is a mystery. And what if it refers to one of Columba’s monks, or even to Columba himself? I’m still wondering. Port an Fhir Bhrèigh remains a puzzle.
Conan Doyle’s quote above points to an important truth. If the individual is a puzzle, and, it appears, an insoluble one, how much more do we realise that the world is full of puzzles, which may not always have solutions? Of course, tackling puzzles has led to amazing discoveries, as scientists, explorers, inventors unravel intractable mysteries. Faith is like that too, as theologians and philosophers, interpreters and mystics have sought to elucidate important aspects of belief and doctrine. Thank God for them all. But despite their cleverness, there are still mysteries, puzzles which exercise our minds – and thank God for that too.
In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a super intelligent race of beings builds a computer, called “Deep Thought”, to get an answer to the ultimate question: “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?” Deep Thought gives a simple response: “42”! The definitive answer? I think not. Best attempt? Perhaps. But the answer to the mystery is a mystery in itself. So I guess it’s back to the puzzle of Port an Fhir Bhrèigh – and lots of life’s other puzzles – for me after all.
A prayer for today
God, you are a mystery.
Help me to enjoy being immersed in that puzzle. Amen
An original reflection by © Tom Gordon