The Way to Dusty Death?

We were in Ulverston, Dean and I. We’d just climbed the famous ‘Hoad’ – a tall monument on the top of a tall hill that looks like a lighthouse… but isn’t. There’s some important symbology in that, but we’ll return to it later.

Light and dark….a walk in Glenlivet…including a view from the stone circle at the Doune of Dalmore toward Drumin castle…both scenes of coming derring-do on Sunday. Photo: Dean Powell.

He was on his way back from Somerset to northern Scotland – the Glenlivet area of the North Cairngorms, where he and his loved ones have their home. Our house in Cumbria is en-route, so the door is always open to break his journey. After a night involving Bernie’s excellent cooking and a glass of red wine or two, we decided that a local (ish) walk would put some air into the bloodstream for his second leg and return to the far north.

Ulverston is one of our local favourites. It’s about a half-hour journey up the fast Barrow road. A coffee in Ford Park and then the short but taxing climb up ‘The Hoad’ to get to the famous lighthouse that isn’t. It can be seen all over the expanse of Morecambe Bay. It’s actually a monument to the famous engineer Sir John Barrow.

We’d got our breath back by the time we got to the monument. The Silent Eye had recently carried out the ‘Jewel in the Claw’ spring workshop at Great Hucklow – our annual biggie. We had used a Shakespearean theme, casting one of our Californian visitors as Queen Elizabeth – ruling over a giant chessboard which was the royal court; and upon which the players moved with great caution… under her watchful eye.

Dean and Alionora had played two of the central characters: Lord Mortido and Lady Libido – death and life in the fullest sense. They were superb. Leaving the tiny village Dean had reflected that there might be scope for doing something else ‘Shakespearean’, in the form of a journey around Macbeth Country, centred in Grantown-on-Spey, not far from where he and Gordon live.

Now, on top of the world and next to the faux lighthouse, we began to discuss it in earnest.

It would involve several kinds of journey. First, it was a long way to travel; but we had all driven down to Dorset the year before for the similar summer weekend, so we knew we’d get the support from our hardy regulars…

Second, there had to be a dual journey in terms of both spiritual discovery and visiting the landscape. The event was to take place in a triangle of land between Grantown, the Findhorn Coast and the Macbeth castles just south of Inverness. There would be no lack of scenery! Dean had already assembled a set of places with that ‘special feel’, including a mysterious old church and a stone circle. Within this combined landscape he proposed leading a journey of self-discovery using an ancient magical symbol. Macbeth’s ‘witches’ had to be honoured – they were a very real force in the time of James VI of Scotland – and subsequently the English king on the death of Elizabeth I. Dean has an intensely esoteric background and is a qualified NLP therapist and teacher as well as the local leader of Lodge Unicorn n’ha Alba. He has recently developed the idea of the ‘magical matrix’ and proposed to use this to accompany our journey in the highland landscape.

I hadn’t realised until he told me that the Unicorn is the national animal of Scotland. The event would mix his Scottish team and the Silent Eye, and we proposed it be called the Silent Unicorn.

Somewhat pleased with the plan, we took the long and winding path down from the Hoad to have a fruitful cafe lunch in Ulverston.

And now it is upon us. Like Macbeth we must earn our keep (sorry) and ‘strut and fret’ upon the magnificent stage of the highlands. Our weekend’s tower must be a true one and not false. Only with that intent – that something deeper is afoot, will we attract the intellectual and emotional harmony that so typifies these Silent Eye ‘landscape journeys’. By the time this is published, we will be leaving Cumbria, to join up with friends old and new from across the UK. We all face a long journey; but a very rewarding one.

For more information on joining us for one of the Silent Eye ‘discovery in the landscape’ weekends, click to see our forthcoming events, here.

The road to Inverness awaits….

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Beheading the Rose – The Mystery of St Valentine

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In a plastic bucket beside the counter sat a dozen roses, each one individually wrapped, slightly faded, but with their heads held firmly erect in the stiff plastic. Each one would doubtless be bought and, given their garage location probably as an afterthought, along with the milk and petrol, and taken home to a loved one as a token. For many, that would be the extent of their expression of devotion for another year. For many recipients, it would mean the world. It was a sad sight.

On the 14th of February, across the western world, florists, jewellers and chocolatiers make a commercial killing as lovers and hopeful romantics celebrate St Valentine’s Day. Few of us are immune from interest in this date. Some pay court and show their hearts to a loved one, some stand firmly in the camp that sees the celebration simply as a money-making scam, while many believe that one day a year should not be the only time love is shown to another. Whatever stance you take, the chances are that you have a strong opinion about the day.

We know little of either St Valentine or the origins of the celebration. The legend of the saint seems to be drawn from three separate lives, all sharing a remarkably similar dénouement. In all three, the good Valentine is held in captivity and heals the sight of a blind girl, impressing his captor, whose daughter she is. Some versions go on to say that the man converted to Christianity after the miracle, smashing pagan idols and freeing slaves. Another story says that Valentine was arrested for marrying Christian couples and preaching his faith… both illegal activities in the early days of the Church. Even so, it is related that he earned the respect of the Roman Emperor Claudius… until Valentine tried to convert him too. In the typical fashion of such stories, the saint refused to deny his faith and suffered the threatened fate… he was stoned and when this failed to kill him, was finally beheaded.

The date of his martyrdom became his feast day… and the day when, for some reason, we choose to celebrate romance. Valentine eventually became the patron saint of beekeepers as well as engaged couples, happy marriages and love, and he is called upon to help fainting, plague and epilepsy. He was never officially canonised by the Church, but became a saint by popular acclamation and so was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969. His religious feast day continues to be kept locally, while the legend of his name is celebrated worldwide, with probably few knowing or caring about the reality or the origin behind the custom.

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For a long time the general consensus was that St Valentine’s Day was a convenient replacement for the pagan rites of Lupercalia. The name of the god, Lupercus, derived from the word for ‘wolf’ and he equated to Faunus, a Pan-like shepherd-god, whose image once stood in the Lupercal… the cave where the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twins who founded Rome. The rites were ancient, probably pre-dating Imperial Rome, and connected to the fertility of spring. It was not an uncommon practice to supplant such ancient festivals with something more palatable to the Church, allowing traditional celebrations and holidays to become approved holy days.

Another theory ascribes the romance of St Valentine’s Day and its association with courtly love to Geoffrey Chaucer, suggesting that the customs described in his 14thC Parliament of Foules are part of that work of fiction, rather than the more ancient customs they appear to be to the reader. Yet a third explanation looks no further than the old belief that it is in mid-February when the birds choose their mates. The concept of joining together might come in through the pagan rites but whatever the truth of the legends or the origins of the festival, there seems little to inspire our devotion to hearts, flowers and romance in either a beheading or the earthy rites of a fertile spring.

Looking a little deeper, though, there is something to see. We begin with a goat-footed god, representing the inner workings of the forces of Nature that sustain life. Then, tracing the modern concept back to the medieval idea of courtly love, we come upon the idea of ‘noble love’… a more spiritual concept of romance than we understand today and one that needed no consummation, but was, instead, a source of inspiration. In truth, however, such noble love still sought something for itself, if only approval. Then, in the story of Valentine, we have a man to whom the love for and of his god was dearer than life.

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Perhaps we do St Valentine’s day an injustice when we dismiss it out of hand; perhaps too, with our rosily romantic gifts and gestures, we are seeking to express something inexpressible, in the same way that a child might deck itself in mother’s lipstick and gauds, reaching towards an adulthood it does not yet understand, but can dimly observe.

From the immense forces of Nature that drive life to perpetuate its vehicles, to the incredible, beautiful complexity of how her systems interact and entwine with each other in an inextricable embrace, the world around us speaks in a physical language of love. We can understand that dance… we too are physical creatures and part of that design, subject to its forces and compulsions. Although we have, over the past few centuries, preferred to see our animal nature as something base and to be escaped from into some airy realm of sanctity, we cannot, while we are in the world, escape the truth of our every atom. And why should we try? Is not Nature a more beautiful and intricate system than anything man could hope to create? The interdependency of all life on our planet speaks to me of love.

The idea of the courtly love that inspires, seeking nothing for itself, but only to find expression in art, deed and devotion… that speaks to me of a higher aspect of the same forces. The compulsion is the same as that felt by the stag, rutting in the forest, yet Man has choice and free will, the ability to raise his response to those same forces and act beyond desire and self interest.

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St Valentine’s choice took that one step further, if looked at literally; laying down his life for his beliefs in an act of principled sacrifice. With such a hazy set of stories, though, and ones that are echoed in the hagiographies of the saints and in our myths and legends so many times, it is entirely possible that we were never meant to take the stories literally. Undoubtedly they stood as examples of faith to the faithful, but regarded symbolically, they may be conveying a different idea… especially when the head is seen as the seat of the human personality… that of offering the egoic self to a higher ideal.

It may be that the love we know as human is a beautiful but pale reflection of something greater that we are, as yet, too small to know, but which sows the seeds of understanding, giving us a chance to learn to love without grasping or seeking to hold what must be free… letting us perceive a shadow of something greater that runs through the universe. The Sufi poets write of the relationship between the Lover and the Beloved, speaking of a journey that encompasses the whole of manifested creation and yet which can be travelled only within the human heart, using the language of earthly love to shadow forth that Love which is a oneness with the One. The feast of St Valentine may have more to reveal than whether or not someone will send us roses.

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Images from the Codex Mannese, a medieval songbook produced in Zürich in the early 14thC.