Looking for answers…

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It wasn’t a dark and stormy night… this book that lies open on my desk begins with a rather less evocative phrase. More mundane  and far less atmospheric…though the writer who had penned them both was the same. I’ve never really seen what was wrong with that opening, though it has passed into the realms of ridicule as ‘purple prose’ and the Right Honorable Lord Lytton now has an anti-literary prize named after him, awarded for the worst opening phrase of a story. A tad unfair, I feel. His style was the product of a bygone era and a society that held different tastes close to its tightly corseted bosom.

This particular book, I haven’t read in a good many years, but as it is fairly obscure yet has been mentioned by three people in as many weeks, I thought I should rummage through the shelves and find my battered and dog-eared copy. I’ve always liked the work of Bulwer Lytton, a prolific novelist and playwright.  His style, I grant you, is heavy and sometimes ponderous… like many writers of his epoch, he will seldom use one word when five will do. His storytelling, however, is a different thing and he manages to evoke times long past and populate them with unexpected characters. Little known today, his ‘dark and stormy night’ is not the only phrase he has added to the language. His novels were hugely influential when they were first published. ‘Pelham‘ changed fashionable dress. Verdi, Wagner and others wrote operas based on his historical works. His friend, Charles Dickens, changed the ending of ‘Great Expectations‘ on his suggestion and Bram Stoker was inspired to write ‘Dracula‘ after reading Lytton’s ‘A Strange Story’, which was the first of his works that I read. The Hollow Earth theory was also popularised by Lytton in ‘The Coming Race’, published in 1861 and was credited with helping to launch the science fiction genre. 

I was barely fifteen when my grandfather gave me two of Lytton’s works. ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ and ‘A Strange Story’. The books could not have been more different. One, a vividly portrayed piece of quasi-historical drama, the other a dark and unsettling tale, set in what seemed to be my own backyard. The locations were referred to only by their initials, but the town sounded remarkably like my own and the Abbey and the old house sounded like those at Kirkstall, Simply because of that, I ploughed through the heavy prose when most of my contemporaries were turning to Barbara Cartland for ‘historical’ fiction.

The tale tells of youth and ego that seeks to perpetuate itself through the fear of not-being, drawing on the life of others in true vampiric style, though without the blood. It is one of those stories where nothing happens… yet lives are changed as the characters act out their fate. The reader may be changed too, as questions begin to form in the nether regions of the mind and parallels are drawn with less lurid occurrences in daily life. I went on to read his ‘Zanoni’,  where a choice between immortality and humanity lifts the veil on many arcane themes; that book also brought questions and my grandfather’s library was a gold-mine.

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Dion Fortune, Robert Graves, Aleister Crowley and MacGregor Mathers were probably not average teen reading. Many of the books my grandfather gave me raised questions. Some gave me answers too, or better still, were signposts that showed me where to look to find my own. In that I was lucky; far luckier than I would realise for many years. At the time, I just assumed that when such questions arose, everyone would have someone with whom to discuss them. It was not until much later that I found that my situation was the exception rather than the norm. In those days, books on alternative approaches to spirituality were still rare and hard to find and, even today, many will have no-one with whom they can explore the deepest thoughts that arise within the hidden regions of the soul.

We all have questions. Many people still turn to books to explore their ideas and seek inspiration, but with the advent of the internet it has become even simpler to tap in a query and see what comes up. The problem is that there is just so much information out there…and most of it conflicting. From the strangest concepts to the harshest diatribes against them, the genuine seeker will find every possible shade of opinion, every argument for and against and every wild and wacky theory there is… and where do you start to sift through them?

Common sense is usually a good place to begin and filters out the worst offenders. Anything that promises the earth will probably not deliver. Especially if it says all you have to do is sit back and pay your hard earned cash for them to wave a magic wand that makes the world right. The wonderful and inspirational sites that tell you that all is right and beautiful have a point; I would agree with them in principle… but when you are stuck in confusion or a dark place in your life, that isn’t really all that helpful. Abstract ideas are all very well, but sometimes what you need is a stout rope… an idea of what you can do to climb out of the hole and there are many excellent schools, groups and systems out there who will throw that rope to you. But how do you know which one?

The best advice I ever read on how to find the school, organisation or system that would work for you came from Dion Fortune when she wrote that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. She advised that the seeker look at those who are part of those systems … not those who have gone a little way and left for one reason or another, but those who have walked the path and stuck with it. Look and see whether those people have something that speaks to you, something you can trust.

The best advice I have ever heard, was simply to ‘ask the question’. Turn your attention to the quiet place within and listen to the prompting of the heart. The spiritual seeker has already knocked on the door and the wordless inner voice, that expression of the higher self, is waiting to answer.

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Sowing warmth

There was a road closure on the way to work, so, to avoid the build-up of traffic, I took to the back streets, wending my way through a residential area and passing the house in which we had first lived when we moved south. To let oncoming cars pass, I pulled to one side, almost outside our old home, and was able to see what had become of my garden.

It had been a blank canvas when we had moved in, with nothing but grass and a bedraggled jasmine, struggling to survive in the concrete near the door. With little money, but lots of ideas, we had set about making a family garden. At the back of the house, surrounded by high walls and fences, we made a little wonderland for the boys.

A small pond, just big enough to attract a bit of wildlife, was lined with sheeting supplied by an undertaker friend. He also brought us a couple of sheets of wood, with an innocent suggestion that we ask no questions. These we turned into a wishing well filled with flowers, making shingles for its roof from a scrap of old roofing felt we found in the shed. Disposable plastic tubs were painted to make wall planters. Tin snips made a flock of painted butterflies up the side of the house and we added a waterwheel to the pond. Strange beings looked out from flowerbeds filled with the seeds, cuttings and wild herbs I collected. It didn’t take long before it was ablaze with life.

The front garden, though not the kind of place where you would spend much time, could be seen through the sitting room window and sloped upwards, giving a good view of the bare grass. I dug borders, planted as many cuttings as I could acquire. While they rooted and grew, I threw in seeds to add colour, and within a few months, the garden looked respectable.

While planting the back garden had been a case of filling space with whatever I could acquire, the front was planned with due regard for eventual height, spread, colour and flowering season, mixing in as many evergreens as I could with summer flowering shrubs and plants, so that it would be attractive all year round.

I have often wondered what became of our little wonderland. I can’t imagine anyone else would have enjoyed it the same as we did, when we had all been involved in its creation. The front garden, though, I have seen a few times over the years. At one point, it was an overgrown jungle. Then someone moved in who took care of it and it began to bloom again.

Today I had just enough time to see that what was left of my winter planting had worked and was still offering scented blooms, colour and texture, even on a cold January day. Many of the plants I had acquired were unlabelled mysteries. Unless I could recognise shoot, bark or leaf, I just planted things and tended them. The handfuls of seed fell where they would and grew how they chose. But the known shrubs had done as I had hoped… even though it is more than twenty years since I planted those first little cuttings.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I drove away after that brief glimpse, how good an analogy a garden can be for aspects of our own lives. I am far from the first to come to that conclusion: the parable of the Sower is well known. We never know if, or how, what we ‘plant’ will grow.

What really struck me, though, was that most of the time, we don’t even realise we are planting ‘seeds’. With every anecdote, every bit of life experience shared, every insight or opinion we offer, every bit of hard-won wisdom we can pass on… even in the lightest of conversations. What seems rather mundane to us, might be exactly what someone needs to hear, even though they may not need or recall it for years to come. When the need does arise, that ‘seed’, unwittingly planted, may just flower and bear fruit.

We may not be around to see it and may never know how our words, deeds and actions affect another’s life. It can be the smallest of things… something we ourselves have not even noticed, from a kind word or a shared smile, that changes a day for someone we don’t even know and may never see again. But it matters. Every time.

Keys of Heaven (8): crosses at heaven’s gate ~ Steve Tanham

Reblogged from Sun in Gemini:

The traveller’s ancient friend: Young Ralph’s Cross

It’s seventeen miles long and crosses the ‘roof of the world’ in the heart of the North York Moors. You’d think twice about going there once the autumn has given way to winter. Local photos show the many times that groups of people have been stranded on the long line of its peak. In one case, in December 2010, a group of seven (two customers and five staff) were snowed in for eight days at the nearby Lion Inn that straddles the highest point on the road – a route known simply and famously as Blakey Ridge.

Continue reading at Sun in Gemini

Star-gazing

Andromeda Galaxy: Pixabay

I was awake far too early again this morning. Moonlight wandered in and dream-filled eyes looked out. The sky was still dark and the stars were hidden behind cloud and mist. I had been half awake for some time, thinking about stars… and that state on the edge of dream holds some strange concepts. The thoughts were not new… are any thoughts truly original? I wondered how many human beings have paused on the edge of slumber to consider the stars that wheel overhead every night, unregarded by most of us, most of the time.

I wondered about stars. We know there are planets… suns… galaxies… billions of the things twinkling away up there. To us they are just ‘stars’ most of the time. We assume we understand them to a certain degree, knowing what they are made of. Yet does that mean we really know what they are?

I thought about water. H2O… everybody knows that. We all know what water is and how it is made by two hydrogen atoms waltzing with an oxygen atom. We know what it looks like, feels like, where it comes from, what we use it for, what we need it for… but do we know what it actually ‘is’?

Every culture, every people, even any writer who has touched on these things, has created their own mythology of the stars to explain their nature. Long before telescopes and spacecraft we already ‘knew’ what the stars were. They were gods and heroes, mythical creatures… the souls of the dead. They were angelic beings or divine lights in the sky. They were, in my somnolent state, the souls of the departed, rainbow fragments of being awaiting rebirth…pinpricks in the map of heaven that let the Light shine through, showing us that there was something beyond the world we live in.

I suppose I wasn’t questioning the nature of the stars as much as the nature of reality and how the time and place of our birth on history’s pages colours our perception and understanding of that reality.

In this era of science and fact, of wondrous discoveries about the natural world around us, I wonder if we have lost something of the magical landscape our forefathers knew? Were they closer to the true nature of water, perhaps, when they saw it as sacred? By knowing the chemical composition of water and its cycle we are able to understand its physical nature, it is true, and it enables us to see clearly the impact our own species is having on the world for good or ill.

But perhaps we are no closer to understanding what anything actually ‘is’? I think we just like to comfort ourselves with the labels of knowledge and call it understanding.

Just think about it a moment… what are you? What am I? Are we simply the bodies we inhabit and in which we move through the inculated reality of the world? Are we more… or less… than our thoughts and emotions, aspirations and dreams? Behind all those there is that indefinable something that is ‘you’ and ‘me’… that unique and unfathomable ingredient that makes us all different. Even identical twins raised together have their own unique note in the symphony of life.

Perhaps reality is simply whatever we believe it to be? Most of the time, we would never question why o if an apple is an apple, a wall just a wall. Indeed, as children that incessant ‘why’ is often silenced with an exasperated ‘It just is, okay?’ and we cease to ponder reality, simply learning the rules by which we can move through its observed parameters the same as everyone else, agreeing a reality by consensus.

The odd thing is that as soon as you begin to question the true nature of the smallest grain of sand it throws everything else into question and possibilities emerge that bring the magic back to life. You have to wonder if our very acceptance brainwashes us into blindness, so that we fail to see the marvels and mysteries hidden in plain sight in a world we think we know.

The mind wanders odd pathways in that somnolent stare when the body sleeps while the mind is wakeful. Through mine, a phrase from an old ritual meandered, seeming to make an abstract kind of sense… that we are ‘the marvellous seed of the stars’. The image that rose in my mind was one of a wondering beauty and if we create our reality ourselves, I think I’m going with that one.

Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.
~ Chief Seattle, 1854 ~

The perfect teacher?

When the student is ready, the master will appear.

This saying is often quoted both by and to those who walk a spiritual path. All too frequently, it is said with the kind of supercilious air that implies that the listener is not yet ready… and further, that they are in the presence of one who already knows more than they ever will. The early stages of any path are littered with those who like to think they have walked much farther than anyone else.

The trouble with that is how it devalues a principle that is, in fact, true… though not necessarily in the way the seeker might think.

A few envisage a numinous being descending in glory to reveal the inner secrets of the universe to them alone. Many expect to simply meet a person or group who can guide them, or point them in the right direction. For most of us, though, it is not even that… it is a thought, a book, a glimpse into a moment that changes our view of the path we have chosen and sets us on our way. It can be the smallest thing and its magnitude is seldom immediately obvious because it is so different from anything we thought we expected.

The clue, though, is in the proverb; the master will appear. Not from out of nowhere, in a puff of smoke… when the student is ready, the guidance they need becomes visible to his eyes. It may always have been there, indeed, there is a teacher within, just waiting for the question, but without everything he has learned on his personal journey, the student is simply unable to see it for what it is.

There is one teacher we each experience every single day. It illustrates many of the most basic beliefs upon which we have founded our complex religions and our personal faiths. It may be from observing its ever-changing face that those beliefs arose in the heart of Man in the first place.

We have only to look at the planet we call home, in all its beauty and order, to see the origins of wonder. From the rising of the sun that chases away the shadows, to the seasons of the year that lead from youthful spring to sere winter… and on again to the rebirth of spring. From the harvesting of what was sown, to the precise perfection in the design of any living organism and its place in an endless, cycling chain. There is a perfect teacher there for all of us.

If you look at the incredible design of body, leaf or crystal, even at the most minute level…and then consider how everything we know works in harmony, feeding from, nourishing and reliant upon other links in the endless chain… apart, perhaps, from humankind’s behaviour… you cannot help but marvel at the scale and perfection of the design.

Accidents, mutations and evolution, say the scientists.

Really?

Am I suggesting that there is a bearded old guy on a throne somewhere, compass in hand, drawing up plans for creation? No. I don’t discount the scientific explanation at all. But I do see it as just that… an explanation of what is and most scientific explanations are little more than descriptions of the mechanics of the physical world.  It doesn’t mean it is entirely correct… how can we, a species that is a mere blip on the face of evolutionary time, expect to fully understand the whole process of creation? Nor does it mean it is incorrect… as far as it goes. Accidents and mutations are certainly part of the evolving design… but that design is too vast for us to see in its entirety.

With the intricacy of the interwoven strands of the physical world before our eyes every day and the dance of the  heavens above us at night, little wonder that humankind percieved Intelligence behind the design. From there, it is but a short step to see the basis of beliefs such as reincarnation, karma and the survival of the soul played out upon the body of the earth. Nor is it difficult to see perfection in action.

It is worth considering. When the student is ready, the master will appear. Maybe all we have to do is open our eyes.

 

Keys of Heaven (6): the greater force ~ Steve Tanham

The greater force... What did they know of it!

Anyone could see it in the fall of boulders in the mountains; in the crashing of the seas on the rocks, in the burning of the forests when the wildfires took hold; in the legends of the earth boiling and glowing when the ground ruptured…

But only a few could see it at work in the eyes of men… and some women, thought King Oswiu, looking across the chamber at Abbess Hild, seated across the square of the small, altar-like table in the chamber at the Abbey of Streanshalch, facing her fellow warrior of the mind – Bishop Cedd. King Oswiu had ordered that neither were allowed to take a side in the arguments that had raged all day in the chamber. That was Wilfrid and Colman’s role; but both had steered the course of that passion to bring it to this point of pregnant silence; silent but not finished…

Continue reading at Sun in Gemini

Light and shade

The road home was flooded by brilliant winter sunlight, criss-crossed with the deep, dark shadows of the trees. The light and shade fell upon me through the glass roof of the car as I drove, setting reality a-flicker like an old movie reel. It seemed appropriate as I looked back on the days and months behind me, taking stock. They too are unreal… they exist only in memory and consequence, yet their weight can crush us if we permit it.

Tomorrow sees the beginning of a new year and a new decade. I am old enough that the thought of seeing in the year twenty-twenty still seems like some impossibly futuristic dream… and young enough to know that seeing in twenty-fifty is not a complete impossibility.

Many of the strange and wonderful technological advances that graced the pages of science fiction books when I was young are now part of our everyday lives. We may not all have a Jetson-esque ‘Rosie’ to do our chores, but our homes are filled with incredible gadgetry. We have adapted to its presence and learned to take it so much for granted that our behaviours as a species are changing… not always for the better. We are amazingly adaptable creatures, though and the void left by what we unlearn or leave behind will be filled with new skills, I have no doubt.

But of all the decades I have lived, this one has been both the worst and the best. And the two are so intimately entwined that it is difficult to separate them, as the one depends on the other.

In 2010, my son was stabbed through the brain and left for dead in a coma… every parent’s worst nightmare. For the past ten years, I have run the gamut of human and maternal emotion as I have watched his journey, through the extremes of fear, hope and grief… and watched him answer them with courage, determination and a sheer, bloody-minded refusal to be beaten. Even by himself.

Ten years on and there are still days of both utter despair and of unbounded optimism. It has not been an easy journey, for any of us… but, in many ways, it has been a beautiful one; in which we have seen the very best of human kindness and character as a direct response to the effects of the worst.

On a personal level, I have played a part in the establishment of the Silent Eye… and that too has been an amazing journey and one that has changed my life in so many ways, allowing me to explore aspects of self that I would not have believed existed. The price has been learning to look myself squarely in the eye and acknowledge a good many uncomfortable things that ego would rather not see, but in doing so, I also found a few positive things too that I would never have expected to find.

Exploring the land with Stuart and with purpose has been a delight. Even though our travels are rarer than it may seem, the adventure is constant as flashes of understanding and glimpses of unknown wonders continually reveal themselves as we work with what we learn. It is a journey that demands dedication, time and energy…but the rewards are boundless.

It is always the way… the scales, in constant motion, seek balance. We seldom live anything that is wholly dark or wholly bright. Shadows are not the absence of light, merely light interrupted… and we do need their darkness in order to notice and appreciate how bright the light can be.

As I drive, winter pretends it is spring. There are buds on the trees, daffodils sending green spears up through sodden earth. The seasons run as they will. Nature does not count the passing years; there is only the continuing cycle of growth, decay and new life nourished by old. And I wonder at our dependence on time to measure the quality of a life. Surely our experience of living should count for more than years?

What will the next year…the next decade…  bring? Who knows? I am just glad there are still adventures ahead and hope, to paraphrase a well-known quote, that I can stand at the end of my days and say I embraced every bit of the life I was given.

Whitby Weekend: Lastingham’s Holy Wells

The weekend was almost over, but before we reached a parting of the ways, there was lunch in the seventeenth century Blacksmith’s Arms opposite the church and a wander around the village of Lastingham to visit the holy wells.

The first well, St Ovin’s Well, we did not see. It is tucked away on the road that leads towards Pickering and all that remains is the eighteenth century well housing… neither spout not basin have survived. The well’s origins, however, are much older… as are those of the other wells in the village. St Ovin was a Fenland Bailiff of Queen Eltherdreda who turned his back on the life of the nobility to serve his God with his hands. Perhaps that is a true nobility after all.

St Ovin’s Well, Lastingham, ©hiddenteesdale.co.uk

The next well is dedicated to St Chad, brother of St Cedd and Bishop of Lichfield. The well housing sits beside the road and, Steve told us, used to flow until very recently when the owners of the property found out they were being charged for the water. There is a legend that says the remorseful Mercian king, Wulfhere, converted to Christianity, acceding to the wishes of his wife, Queen Ermenilda, after punishing his sons for worshipping at the well… though there is no guarantee it was this St Chad’s Well and the story may be linked to the well of the same name at Lichfield.

The grandest of the wells sits beside Hole Beck and is dedicated to St Cedd himself. It is believed that some of the stones may have come from nearby Rosedale Abbey. Like the other wells, the origins of this holy well is far older than its current appearance would suggest.

The most interesting of the Holy Wells, however, lies just outside the village and issues from a grassy bank. The well is dedicated to Mary Magdalene… and there was once a chapel to that Lady in a nearby village. A spring of clear water issues from the well to be collected in a stone basin sunk into the earth and surrounded by water mint. When it was cleared and excavated in the ‘sixties, fragments of medieval and Saxon or Roman pottery were found, suggesting the well has been in use for at least fifteen hundred years and very possibly longer. There were ribbons left as offerings when we visited and this well in particular has the feel of a sacred place… though to what god may be open to debate. Local legend says it is haunted by a white Lady… The Holy Wells that now bear the names and legends of the saints have, very often, an allegiance to the spirits of earth and water that predate the Christian story.

Here we filled the empty vessels we had carried throughout the weekend with the pure water of the spring. It was the final act of the Silent Eye weekend… though, for some of us, there was still a little time to share. With hugs all round and thanks to Steve for organising the weekend, we went our separate ways… knowing that it may not be too long before we meet again.

Whitby Weekend: The Crypt at Lastingham

A few of us made our way down the stone steps of St Mary’s in Lastingham, into the crypt where the bones of St Cedd are reputedly buried. To do so is to step back in history and be outside of time; it is a place of quiet reflection, hallowed, one would like to think, by many centuries of prayer… except that, at one point, the crypt was supposed to have also been used as a cock-fighting arena…

Nevertheless, it is the hallowing of space that strikes you… a place to which those of faith have made pilgrimage, when countless have prayed, whether to the God of the saint or to their own vision of divinity. There have always been many who can see beyond the labels of religion to the kernel of truth held in all.

The crypt is part of the original stone church mentioned by the Venerable Bede, built between 664 and 732,  and remains almost untouched since that time. Some believe the stone altar to be even older than the crypt and one single, carved oak beam remains from the early church.

Each of the pillars supporting the vault is carved differently, with a disregard for symmetry typical of the period; artistically, symmetry seems to be a relatively modern concept. From the pillars of the cathedrals at Dunfermline and Durham, to the tiny Saxon crypt at Repton, we have seen this so often. Perhaps the designs had a meaning now lost… or perhaps it was simply the stonemason’s art at play.

There are carved stones and relics of a millennium and more of history ranged around the edges of the crypt, from an old, wooden burial bier to fragments of standing crosses, including the Ana Cross that once stood along the road we had just taken from the moors, to the arms of the great Lastingham Cross, now resting beside the bier.

There are a selection of gravemarkers, carved with crosses or, on one curious stone, what appears to be a chalice and sword as one, which, in esoteric terms, is suggestive of a  melding of the ‘masculine’ and dynamic energies with those that are ‘feminine’ and receptive… the agent of force and the vessel of form as one.

Perhaps the most curious thing, though, was the preponderance of serpents and dragons, from those intertwining up the face of an ancient stone, to the serpentine carvings in the church above and the dragons tucked away in a corner with fragments of masonry. What were they intended to symbolise? The many leys that have been dowsed and reported as meeting in the crypt? Or perhaps the streams that feed the four holy wells in the village?

In spite of there being so much to see in the little crypt, though, its true invitation was to share its silence, in prayer or meditation. Whatever gods the stones now kept here may have served in the far distant past, all may be but fragmentary perceptions of the One, kindled by recognition and reverence to hold a spark of that something that shines in the depths of being.  Joined by the others, we lit our candles together and sent their warmth out into the world.