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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Three Ghosts of Christmas Present

Unfolding nightmares can begin very innocently…

My mother, who is nearly ninety years old, has vascular dementia. She’s had a wonderful life and is enjoying a blessedly slow decline of her faculties – to the extent that she’s still in her own home and able to look after herself as long as the family watch for the ‘monsters’ at the edge of life.

Anything technical and new, or related to problem-solving, is now beyond her, but her zest for life; and the love of walking her little dog, Sammy, is undaunted. I have been surprised how much of a companion this ‘challenging’ little Pomeranian has been in her past decade.

We have a dog – a Collie – so Sammy has always been welcome at our house on the edge of the English Lake District. We are conscious of living in a beautiful part of country – and happy to share it with family and friends whenever we can. My wife’s sister, Joanne, is a frequent guest; and mum and Joanne look forward to spending each Christmas with us – often arriving a couple of days before so that we can all settle into the mood and have few runs out in the Lakes.

A few days ago, I could tell that I was coming down with a nasty cold. Despite my array of juicy oranges, concentrated garlic, salted water snorted up the nostrils (sorry…), the little sod seemed to have got through. On Christmas Eve I dosed off; doped, warm and comfortable in my chair not far from a blazing log stove…

In the dream, people were panicking, and there was the sound of a door to the garden being opened, repeatedly. When you spend a lot of your life in ‘carer’ mode, you get used to springing awake and alert on such occasions.

Mum was racing around the lounge looking for the coat she had dropped when she entered. Joanne, my wife’s sister, was yelling her apologies.

“Well, how long has he been out there?” mum was asking.

“I just forgot he’d gone out…” said Joanne, desperately worried that, in her inattention, she’d lost mother’s dog. “…perhaps twenty minutes or so…”

Both were distressed. Sammy the wandering Pomeranian had done this before, but not for many years. He’s old, largely blind and his back legs are going… poor love. You would think he would just stay in our ample garden with Tess and our cat Misti.

But no…. Pomeranians have a wandering gene… and it doesn’t matter how blind they are or how cold the winter day is.

By now, mum was chasing around the garden, calling out Sammy’s name. I knew in my bones that it was futile… I’d just about woken up and was trying get my befuddled and cold-strewn mind to come up with a plan. To add to this, the light was fading and a very black darkness was taking over the end of the afternoon.

Fellow dog-owners will know the value of the head-torch. These brightly coloured bands of elasticated fabric sport a tough square-ish light that can be focussed in different ways from the forehead. They allow the hands to remain free while you conjugate the million other things your dog needs, such as poo bag use… I’ll not dwell on it. but it’s doubly challenging in the darkness.

I suppose it was my slightly Lemsip-induced state, but I seemed to have left the house without a coat; though I did have thermal jumper on. I was trying to catch up with my mind… actually not true; I was striding through the darkness up the unmade lane that is the only road to our house following what I knew was the last chance of recovering our ageing Pomeranian. In the background, I could hear my mother’s near-crying voice and knew that her dog had long gone. The only chance was to choose the right direction and hope that his slow progress would allow me to catch up.

When you get to the T-junction at the top of the lane, you can go left, right or straight ahead. Straight ahead is up a hill, but the first house on the left is the home of two local dentists, and brightly lit due to them being a fan of decorating most of the house in lights. It’s lovely… sort of. It’s certainly bright.

I checked the dentist’s courtyard driveway, shouting out Sammy’s name and hoping the light might have attracted him – nothing. Breathing in the sharp, cold air, I strode off up the hill to find a genial figure walking down with his own dog.

We’ve met before but I don’t know him well. Graham is on the parish council and always stops to chat. He had heard me shouting out Sammy’s name as I came through the darkness towards him. He stopped and offered to help with the search, explaining that there had been no sign of our dog during his own descent of the hill I was climbing. At least we could tick off that route…

When we got back to the junction and the dentist’s house, the lady dentist was at the gate.

“Have you lost a golden dog,” she asked?

I coughed out my delight. She explained that, a few minutes prior, she had seen a Pomerian entering another, smaller lane, nearer the centre of the village. She had approached it, but every time she got close it ran off – further into the darkness and up the hill. She had been worried about making things worse and had left him to return at his own pace.

But he never has, in this situation…

Graham, my first helper from the parish council, then said we could split up and search the two branches of the dark lane – the place where Sammy had last been seen. One leads to a small housing estate, the other climbs, steeply, into the darkness of the open country and towards the main London-Glasgow railway line…

I told Graham I would take the steeper route and set off – gasping as the cold air hit my sore lungs harder, and with only a head-torch for company. It grew darker and darker – there are no street lights in the village. My spirits began to fall as my analytical mind raced through the diminishing odds of us ever seeing Sammy again – and the stupidity of having practically on the fella without a coat… But I had known, that, unless I left the house that second, we would never see Sammy alive again.

Near the summit of the lane the winds picked up. There can be a ten degree difference in wind-chill up there, as the are fully-fledged Lakeland hills in their own right. Thinking survival, I made sure my thermal jumper was stuffed into my trouser waistband and prayed.

The head-torch, my only piece of ‘armour’ shone valiantly into the darkness….and the unknown.

At first, I thought the reflected beam of light was the torch picking out a limestone wall. But then it got brighter… and I realised there was a car coming towards me from one of the farms on the local uplands. The lane will not permit two cars along its length; not even a car and a person along most of it. Passing places are provided lower down the hill, but not this high. To let a car pass, you have to clutch a branch of one of the bordering trees and pull yourself off the tarmac and partly into the hedge.

I did… hanging in space while the Citroen estate slowed down for an ill-dressed madman with a head-torch.

Half way along the car’s length, it stopped. I clung desperately to my branch as the window opened and warm air spilled out.

“Looking for a dog?”

I could barely speak.

“Name of Sammy?”

I had slipped into a parallel reality. A good story to ease me gently to a freezing death…

“Yes,” my steaming breath formed, hesitantly.

“In the boot!” said the no-nonsense voice of the lady farmer whose face, if not name, I knew. “Was taking him to the animal rescue…, but got to rush – family do!”

In a surreal world, I slithered along the line of the silver car and she opened the boot, electronically. There, looking up out of the warm darkness was Sammy…

Of course, I’d not brought a lead. But my cord trousers sported a belt. Stealthily, I slipped it off and looped it under the errant’s collar.

She, laughed. “Merry Christmas.” I repeatedly chanted my thank yous from the back of the car… frankly in a state of disbelief.

The rescuer waved in her mirror as she drove off, leaving us to descend through the darkness back into the warmth of the village, our house and the tears of my mother when she saw her freezing son shuffling up the lane with her beloved furry companion…

Truly three ghosts of Christmas present… and a lesson in trust in the possible, even in the face of great adversity. But I’d rather not have another one of those anytime soon…

©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.

Divide and be Conquered

It’s a funny thing, division – its principles apply to many aspects of our lives. We can cut something up, but its original ‘wholeness’ persists in ways we may never have considered.

Wholeness as a concept is worth some thought. Can we step back and consider why we think something is whole? Is it simply that ‘it works’ – in the way that a car works because all the pieces are in the correct working order and create a functioning machine?

Humanity has an innate skill in its ability to decide something is whole. Maturity teaches us that our individual life’s learning leads to a degree of wisdom. This is reflected in what we admire. Music is a good example of this. If we are considered person, whose state of mind is calm and searches for insights into the world and how it impacts us, then we will seek out music that – in its wholeness – reflects this. If we are a younger or less mature person, our state of agitation or angst might be reflected in a love for a more discordant style, whose essence is rebellious… or even violent.

The songs or instrumental tracks we seek out will have a certain resonance with how we feel about life, and , importantly, how we choose to extend our experience. In this way our ‘comfort level of wholeness’ will guide how we allow experience to make our life ‘bigger’.

Experience is, potentially, so vivid that, if we have the means, we may end up rejecting it and turning away from the new. Most adults do this to some degree; indeed, we may consider society’s measure of maturity to be the ability to throw a kind of ‘shield’ in front of the stream of life experience that would otherwise come at us – like a gale-force wind.

In so doing, we are saying to the universe ‘I have enough. I’ve learnt what I need to, I don’t want to go back into that fearful place where what I have stored up as ‘me’ can be threatened by change…’

And then we stop and look at that last sentiment: ‘threatened by change’.

It’s a frightening moment in itself. Are we to cast off the defences we have constructed over a mature lifetime? We will, at the end of our lives, go through an enormous change, as our physical mechanisms lose their ability to stabilise the flow of apparently chaotic universe coming at us.

Yet, people report seeing great peace on the faces of those loved ones they have partly accompanied on that journey. I have watched a small number of people die, and seen nothing but peace in that passing.

But, such considerations are for the end of our lives. What about the catastrophes that seem to triumph against our values, against what we call our civilisation? There is a widespread feeling that our beloved planet is beset by these from both political and environmental sources. New super-powers are arising, often with very different value systems to those we respect in the so-called West. Even within our societies, there is a renewed arising of populism, which seeks to throw away that which is established, simply because it is so.

I suspect it had always been that way; that we have lived through an unparalleled period of post-war prosperity and stability. Sadly, the lessons of the major wars of the past one hundred years seem to count for nothing within whole sections of our world. A historian friend once said to me: ‘When you forget about the real horror of societal chaos, it is free to live again…’

It may be that our coming struggle with what we are doing to the natural systems – wholeness – of the Earth are a kind of final maturing of the being and consciousness of its dominant life form. But, it is hard to see how our present political systems would permit the needed changes.

Perhaps even this is wrong. Maybe when what seems like self-evident goodness is swept away it is because it has been passed on as learning and opinion and not as experience. But, how could we pass on experience? It is impossible – and therefore eternally transient and changing. Its value is to the individual who collects it, consciously – who seeks it out. When enough such people combine their selfless desires and experience, a new civilisation is born.

When the dams break we may face our greatest test; and it may not be further resistance, but ‘going with the flow’ and being a true ‘elder’ in a world that will desperately be seeking a living memory of the former wholeness – even though the age may need a new one… It’s own.

It is a vast wheel – as depicted in the sacred literature of the ancient ones. The only bit of it we are in control of is our refection of that whole, filtered by the lenses of perception we have established from what has happened to us.

In that there is a great key to our lives.

In our forthcoming weekend workshop: The Keys of Heaven – In the footsteps of St Cedd, 6-8 December, we will be considering these deepest of questions from the perspective of the spiritual psychology of mankind, and its ability to interact with our fate. A few places are still available.

©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.

A Prospect of Whitby (3) Touching the Sun

(Above) Touching the Sun…

There’s something ‘monumental’ about planning to be high on the vast moorlands of the North Yorkshire National Park at the end of the first week in December. Yet that is exactly what we’ll be doing on the Sunday morning of the ‘Keys of Heaven’ workshop on the start of the workshop’s final day – weather permitting.

If it doesn’t, there’s a plan B…

Bridges and pathways…. I wrote earlier about how bridges are significant; how they divide and unite at the same time. That theme of division and unity are the twin poles on which the Silent Eye’s Whitby weekend is based. Its very topical for Britain at the moment – possibly so for the USA, also…

Pathways are significant, too, as any walker will tell you. The work done by centuries of previous walkers is reflected in the path before you – a ‘way’ made possible by their persistence against an often hostile landscape.

There are some very special pathways that cross the moors. Some of them link ancient sacred sites, often marked by crosses that surprise with their age – over a thousand years old in some, cases… possibly a lot older in others.

(Above) A warm welcome awaits…

Where they cross – or meet, might be a better word – they create a special place of exchange and, often, hospitality. Years pass, then hundred of years, and there becomes established a place of meeting that defies the often hostile elements by become a permanent building of refuge.

(Above) The Lion Inn – a refuge in the sky

The Lion Inn on the top of Blakey Ridge is one such. As high as you can be in the North Yorkshire National Park (1,325 feet), it sits astride a crossing of ancient ways and alongside the more modern linking the coast to Hutton-le-Hole. It has been run by the Crossland family since 1980. Being on the highest point, it offers breathtaking views down into the Rosedale and Farndale Valleys.

The history of this highest point on Blakey Ridge has been known to travellers since man first set foot here. We are fortunate in that three of the most significant sites are within a short walk of this very special place.

(Above) The Neolithic Burial mounds just behind what is now the Lion Inn

Cockpit Howe is a Neolithic burial mound just behind the inn which we shall visit after our morning repast. The grave at Loose Howe can be see from the East window in the bar, where a  Bronze Age Chieftain was interred in a boat-like oak coffin, armed, clothed and equipped for his voyage.

(above) Cockpit Howe

During the reign of King Edward III a house put and ten acres of land on Farndale Moor were given to the Order of Crouched Friars (see below), who had been unable to find a home in York and received this land for the building of an oratory and other buildings. It is thought that the friars founded the Inn around 1554 to lighten their poverty. Friar Inns are common enough in all parts of the country – Scarborough having  at least two.

A Mendicant (‘living in the community’) Friar (image Britannica)

The order of Crutched or Crossed friars (Fratres Cruciferi) was a mendicant order whose origins are unknown. Despite having their own buildings, Friars from Mendicant religious orders lived and worked among those they served – usually the poor. They claimed a middle-eastern foundation in the 1st century AD, but were later reconstituted in the 4th century in Jerusalem. Time has not allowed me to look into possible Knights Templar or Knight Hospitaler links (with deliberately obscured origin) but this would bear investigation, especially given their medical work – their properties usually comprised a hospital and a chapel.

Historically, they were known in Italy in the 12th century, when Pope Alexander III gave them a constitution and rule life similar to that of the better known Augustinian order. In England, the order first appeared in England at the synod of the diocese of Rochester in 1244.

We need to consider also the proximity of Lastingham, which will be our final visit of the weekend. This Celtic Christian church was established in the 7th century, prior to the polemic Synod of Whitby. More on this will be discussed in our final blog, prior to the worskhop.

The Crossed Friars were not a large order in England, but they established houses at Colchester, London, Reigate, Oxford, Great Weltham and Barnham (Suffolk), Wotton-under-Edge (Gloucestershire), Brackley (Northamptonshire) and Kildale (Yorkshire). The order seems to have disappeared in the 15th century, possibly because of Henry VIII’s dissolution of monastic orders.

Returning to the more recent history of the Lion Inn, around 1750, local farmers from Commondale, Danby, and Fryup established a market on the site to sell surplus corn to horse breeders and stable owners from the more prosperous Rydale area,

In the 19th century, the newly established iron mines brought increased custom to the Inn. The arrival of the motor car opened up the moors to visitors, and the age of the modern Lion Inn was begun.

The ancient Waymarks – standing stones and stone crosses – known as ‘Fat Betty’ and ‘Ralph’s Cross’ bear witness to the continuous tradition of passage over this the highest point on the North York moors. Much of its earliest history remains a mystery.

But… stand on the edge, looking down into the twin valleys and ‘feeling’ the inherent spirituality of the peak, and some of that ancient mystery becomes self-evident.

Our Sunday morning begins with a small challenge for those attending… locating and getting to the Lion Inn! So much easier by car than the hours or, more likely, days of walking that ancient visitors had to make to get to this point. Once there, we will gather for morning refreshments and to discuss the final day of our weekend.

We will also consider the ease with which we achieved the ‘climb’ and reflect on the dedication of those pilgrims whose journey was less opulent – such as the journeys by foot of St Cedd; Bishop Cedd as he was then, in the days when he travelled through his ‘diocese’ in this bandit-infested and lawless region of intense winter hostility…

Following our visit to the Lion Inn and its historic ridge, we will descend into the surrounding valleys to begin our visit to our final location: the magical church at Lastingham… and its wonderful and mysterious crypt…

Lastingham… our final journey

To be continued…

Details of the Silent Eye’s ‘Keys of Heaven’ Weekend

Places are still available. Email us at rivingtide@gmail.com

©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.

The perception of memory

I slowed to let the young lad on the bicycle pull out onto the roundabout. That looks like… I raised my hand to wave to my son’s friend and instantly realised my mistake. It might have been his son, but it certainly was not the boy I had known. It couldn’t be… he would be in his thirties now and this youngster was little more than a child. Even worse, he looked like my son’s best friend when we had first known him, almost twenty years ago, not as I had last seen him a couple of years ago, well over six foot tall and as broad as a tank.

Memory is a funny thing. I recalled a recent conversation where we had discussed how the images that we hold in our minds of people we know are not always accurate. Sometimes we picture them from a single moment in time, often the first time we met them. Sometimes we build up a composite picture, snapshots from across the years we have known them, all melded together and occasionally shifting from one angle to the next. Then again, we always look through the eyes of emotion, seeing a face that may reflect more about the true depth and nature of our feelings for that person than what they actually look like.

Memory and emotion are intimately linked. When we look back from the now, we see both events and people through the emotional eyes of the then. Our memory of events will inevitably be skewed, coloured by the emotions of that moment, rather than being the accurate record we think we hold. In many ways, that does not matter; what we remember is true… for us, as whatever we recall is what will have affected us as we moved through that moment and forward into the rest of our lives.

Some of those impressions will change us for the better, teaching us love, happiness, hope and understanding. They are gifts upon which we will build, little by little, for we are made of such fragments of memory, each one adding, as we grow, to the picture of who we will become. Some of them will leave a darker mark and a deeper scar, especially when we are very young, when we are not always equipped with the experience to see beyond the surface and simply react to the emotions.

Take, for example, the very small child who does something to upset his parents. He does not truly understand, only that he has upset them. He may feel he has let them down and disappointed them. His parents may simply be doing their best to teach the child or keep him safe… but the child cannot comprehend the adults’ motives. He only knows he has failed them…and that is what he feels. He feels it too when he knocks a glass of water over at school and the teacher is disappointed in him… That feeling is stored away as memory and becomes one of the most formative moments for him, though his parents may well have forgotten what was to them just a minor incident.

The child grows, always feeling that he can/has/will let his parents down. He does not necessarily remember the incident either, but its effects are carved on his heart. He tries hard, harder… so much so that he almost inevitably ‘fails’ to achieve his goals, in his own eyes at least, though to all others he seems to be doing well. That insecurity, that feeling of never being able to make his parents proud may go on to colour the rest of his life, actions and future relationships… and neither he, nor his parents, will ever know where it came from.

It is a tragedy that is played out in a hundred different forms, through almost all of our lives.

It is not always what we do that matters, but how it makes other people feel. It is that which imprints itself on their memory. Yet we are not responsible for how others interpret our words and actions, that responsibility lies solely with them. For ourselves, we can only act with consideration and thought, letting empathy be our guide. We will not always get it right… and if we did, we would learn nothing, but we can try.

But what to do about all those invisible scars that have formed and created fragile places in our hearts and minds? A trained therapist might take you safely back into the trauma of childhood dealing with the perceived events and the misconceptions that may have arisen. For most of us, that is probably a step too far and rather unnecessary… we are who we have become, based on our experience of life so far. It doesn’t really matter what or where the cause, what matters is to see the patterns that have formed and begin to address those that are having a negative impact on our lives and wellbeing.

One of the ways we begin that journey in the Silent Eye is to break down the human personality into ‘bite-sized’ pieces so that we can learn to understand them, relate to them… and see how, where and if they relate to our own lives.

We do not have to delve into the deep and murky memories that are buried beneath the weight of years. We do not have to reopen painful wounds. We can simply find the effects and work with them until we can see that the bars they have placed around us no longer hold us. We can learn to see them as gifts, for every experience adds to the richness and depth of our personalities and our possibilities of understanding both ourselves and each other. In this way we can free ourselves from old misunderstanding and, like a flower when the shadows of weeds are removed, grow to our full potential with a better knowledge of who we truly are.

 

A Prospect of Whitby (2) Steps in Time

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The Cross of Caedmon – a modern monument (erected 1898)

Good food is everywhere in Whitby. Even with our Collie dog in tow, we were able to find a wonderful and furry-friendly tearoom – Sherlocks in Flowergate. Forty minutes later we had enjoyed it so much we decided it would make a great refreshment stop for those coming to the ‘Keys of Heaven’ workshop on the first weekend in December.

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Bridges are always significant. We’ve lost that sense in our busy age: too consumed by ‘doing’ to think back to how civilisation was practically divided and delineated by these ‘crossings over water’ that used intelligence to change borders… Quite something, yet, today they are simply a convenience and we travel over them as though they were just another part of the road.

Children don’t… they squash their faces to the car’s windows to fully experience the water crossing – something in them is still alive to the magic of this.

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The ‘swing-bridge’ over the Esk river is in the centre of Whitby and unites the two halves of the town

The bridge in the centre of Whitby is known simply as the ‘swing bridge’. But it divides Whitby in two and allows three types of crossing: foot traffic and cars move over it, boats move beneath it. For both a junction in time and space is created. The river Esk completes its thirty mile course here, meeting the sea under the watchful eyes of light and cannon at the harbour’s entrance.

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The Gun and the Light… Whitby’s West Pier

We had come down from Whitby’s West Cliff and were passing the point of the cannon and one of the town’s historic lighthouses, when Bernie, looking up at the still-distant Abbey ruins, had said, ‘A light in the winter; something new will happen, I think…”

At the time, I hadn’t given much though to it. I presumed she was referring to our present visit and not the destination workshop in December.

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(Above) Sandgate – on of the two main commercial streets on East Quay

Now, crossing the swing-bridge and thereby the mighty river Esk, we entered the major shopping streets of Sandgate and Church Street and something made me return to her words.

“When you said something new would happen here, did you mean at the workshop in December?” I asked.

“Yes, December,” she replied. There was something in the landscape, back there with the cannon and the lighthouse that made me think that…”

She’s very intuitive. Sometimes I miss it the first time… She was right. There was a sense that this was a different type of landscape from what we had used before… and maybe we needed to react to it in a slightly different way?

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(Above) Across the ‘Swing Bridge’ – lower left – lies the older part of town – and leads to the Abbey

Historic towns always have a contrast between what is old and more modern. There is little in Whitby that would be classed as modern – its beauty lies in the fact that it’s an historic port. The ‘Dracula’ reputation has made it a centre for ‘Goth’ festivals – which are generally good-natured; but somewhat at odds with the religious past of the Abbey and its history. Despite this, there is one thing that epitomises the town and unites the two: Whitby Jet.

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Whitby Jet is a local gemstone made from fossilised wood which, millions of years ago, had been covered in other sediment in water environments and compressed into the shale beds that eventually became the North Yorkshire coast. It is a beautiful and lightweight material, making it ideal for jewellery.

Mining of Whitby Jet has never been allowed. Instead, a local tradition of lowering young men over the cliffs was permitted. They would dig into the cliffs to extract larger pieces of the raw Jet gemstone, fill their baskets and be pulled back up the cliff. It was considered an extremely dangerous career! Today, there is little left of the original deposits, but the local industry is resourceful – and world famous.

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The cliffs to the north of Whitby – a severe working environment!

Weather permitting, we would be including a cliff walk in the plan for the weekend. Time would not allow us to sail as the ancient pilgrims in these parts did, but we could be close to the water… and high above it!

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We made a note that ample time needed to be given in our December itinerary for a wander around the streets of Whitby to allow for some Christmas shopping…

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Beyond the market the streets began to narrow. You could just ‘feel’ that this far part of the town was the approach to something very different…

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A final turn – a final tearoom – and there were the steps up to Whitby’s famous Abbey. Nearly two hundred of them, apparently… The next stage of our exploration beckoned – and we would have to work for it… We were finally approaching the symbolic centre of the coming weekend.

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To be continued…

Details of the Silent Eye’s ‘Keys of Heaven’ Weekend

©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.

A Prospect of Whitby (1) The Abbey at the centre of time

Above – A Prospect of Whitby Abbey from West Cliff

The title’s cheeky… Bram Stoker created Count Dracula of Transylvania and had him come ashore at Whitby in a ship named The Prospect of Whitby. We’ll not be talking much about Dracula in our coming weekend workshop; we’ve got enough to contend with considering the truth…

There are many ways to approach the centre of Whitby, but only one to truly approach its heart… In the opening shot the phone camera is straining at the maximum of its zoom abilities, but at least generates a clear image across the considerable distance from West Cliff, where we stand, not far from where the car is parked, and excited to be back here here after a gap of fifteen years.

The right of the image shows the key detail: the wide, winding steps ascending from the bustling streets to the ancient ruins of Whitby Abbey. Even from this distance – which is across the mouth of the estuary – there is a feeling of sheer importance about that far place… Something of immense significance happened there, and it’s our job to consider it fairly and reasonably without too much emotion… and then turn it into the basis of a deliberately emotional workshop that will involve both heart and mind – and the undoubtedly freezing winds of a December weekend on the famously cold north-east coast of Yorkshire.

(Above) An edited photo of the town map showing (red mark) where we are at West Cliff; and (green marker) where we’re going (The Abbey). The nature of ‘approaches’ is symbolic and important.

To help with that objectivity, I am doing my prep visit with my wife, Bernie, who is an historian by training… and is also a Catholic. I’m not a Catholic. I was raised in a Rosicrucian family which fell foul of the local Church of England vicar in a small Lancashire village… but that’s another story. The important thing is that, between us, we can be objective about the religious importance of Whitby and what happened here…

Fourteen hundred years ago…

We take one last look across the bay before beginning our descent into the town. It’s a bit like a mystical view of a life – seen before birth and imagined as a final glimpse of the whole before you become in-volved and begin the evolution that the individual life brings within the necessarily different existence of the gritty details…

(Above) Captain Cook was here…

Entering the grassed area at the top of the West Cliff steps we noticed an image of Captain Cook. Although not born here, he began his marine training in Whitby, aged eighteen, as an apprentice to the master of a local ship: John Walker. For the next nine years he served aboard cargo ships between London, Liverpool, Dublin, The Netherlands, and the ports of Norway and the Baltic. In the course of this, the gifted James Cook rose from apprentice to mate, developing skills that would enable him to become a master-mariner and lead his world famous voyages of discovery.

The significance of this to our forthcoming Silent Eye weekend is not lost on us as we walk down the steep hill. The steps become a winding road, and the road becomes the harbour that was the home of Fishburn’s yard. Fishburn’s produced all four of the Collier-class ships used by James Cook; including the famous Endeavour.

(Above) Captain Cook is celebrated with marine replicas, too…

In the broadest sense, a ship is a container…

The makers of such soul-carrying containers bear a great responsibility: to ensure they are fit for the passage of time, events and circumstance in which a group of people will travel. Our coming weekend bears little relation to Cook’s epic journeys; except in this regard: that if we make it a fitting vessel, it will serve the consciousness-deepening goals of the workshop with integrity.

“We should begin, then…” I say as we start to walk along the harbour’s quayside. Bernie gives me that look and smiles, knowing I’m about the launch forth into one of the pivotal statements for the coming workshop. “It’s not sufficient to say that the Christianity of the Anglo Saxons resembled two armies that met from north and south to meet at a battle named The Synod of Whitby – in AD 664..”

She inclines her head. Not used to such a fair-minded opening. “Mmmm… Whereas the truth is?” she asks.

“Whereas the truth is that both Celtic Christian and Roman Christian faiths were interwoven from region to region across Saxon Britain and no-one made much of a fuss about it till King Oswald (Oswiu) responded to his wife in the matter of settling the date of Easter!”

“Which was important because…?” She taunts.

“Which was important because he followed the Celtic Faith and she followed the Roman, which meant that when he was feasting she was fasting…”

“And, as King of Northumbria, he was the most powerful monarch in the Anglo Saxon world.”

“Quite!” she says, then, “Look – fish and chips ahead… The famous Magpie Cafe… with the usual queues.”

The celebrated Magpie ‘fish and chips’ Cafe – perhaps the Friday night of the weekend?

Whitby’s like that… From the deeply historic and serious to the frivolous in an instant. I look around and wonder if a Goth from the adjacent festival might rush us and offer something outrageous.

The swing bridge and then the lovely ‘Whitby jet’ jewellery shops await, on the way to the Abbey steps, but, first, we need something to eat. Breakfast was meagre and a long time ago.

St Mary’s Church and the Abbey await.. but it’s a long way up and we haven’t eaten yet

Across the harbour, the East Cliff looms over the town like an old guardian. But our own pilgrims will need refreshments upon their arrival on the Friday lunchtime of the weekend, so the body-not-soul research, trivial though it is, must be done before we make the climb.

To be continued…

Details of the Silent Eye’s ‘Keys of Heaven’ Weekend

©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.

Fear and Love in the High Peak – (2) “I want a posset!”

The first visit of the Silent Eye ‘Rites of Passage: Seeing Beyond Fear’ weekend was to the Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced Eem) – The Plague Village.

Our family has a personal connection with Eyam and the terrible events of 1665-6, when bubonic plague, newly arrived in Derbyshire from London, took the lives of 260 of its occupants: over seven-tenths of its population.

The parish church of St Lawrence, Eyam

No-one began the weekend thinking of heroes or heroines, but they were there in the records–and in the living landscape, though the word may not be entirely appropriate to describe the profound selflessness of its former inhabitants during that fateful year of 1665-6.

The Saxon cross in the church of St Lawrence

The name of the man who is our family connection was Edward Unwin. We do not know his occupation, but it was probably that of lead miner, a common occupation in those parts. This assumption is made on the basis that a close friend of his reported the strange events that follow to Catherine Mompesson, the wife of the new rector of Eyam, William Mompesson, who was a disciplined diarist. Her records are the basis of much of the history of the plague year of 1666.

From Diary of Catherine Mompesson, 5th July 1666:

‘I first encountered John Carter [the neighbour of Edward Unwin] on the morning following his summoning of Marshall Howe to give his ministrations to his near neighbour…’

Catherine Mompesson’s journal goes on to explain how Carter, the neighbour of Unwin, was ‘sharp-spoken’ and unkempt in the way of the local lead miners, but was ‘direct and honest’ in his conversation. In common with the other lead miners, he looked ten years older than his reputed thirty-four years. Catherine Mompesson relates that, in telling the tale, he had ‘a certain jocose air’ about him as he related the story of the previous day.

The grave of Catherine Mompesson, wife of Rector William. She died in 1666 of the plague.

The journal continues: ‘Knowing that Unwin was either dead or on the verge of death, Carter had summoned his fellow miner, Marshall Howe, who was acting as a self-appointed ‘sexton of the plague’; seemingly heedless of the danger to himself, but well aware that, since Unwin’s wife had already died of the plague, choice possessions from Unwin’s house would pass to him as his fee for the ‘sexton’s’ funeral duties…

Bodies had to be buried in the gardens of the deceased’s dwellings to reduce the risk of contagion from communal graveyards. The journal tells that Marshall Howe had already dug Unwin’s grave in the man’s ‘sweet smelling’ orchard at the back of the property and was carrying his body over his shoulder down the stairs when:

‘The still-warm body started to writhe and thrash.. then shouted out, “I want a posset!”

The interior of St Lawrence’s church

Edward Unwin was my wife’s tenth great grandfather. He survived the encounter with the ‘plague sexton’ and got his posset from a sympathetic neighbour. The self-appointed sexton fled but is recorded as subsequently continuing his job and surviving the plague. The incident gave voice to the opinion that Marshall may ‘have been overzealous in the execution of his duties several times…’

We know that Edward Unwin survived the plague. My wife, Bernie, hopes that whatever resistant DNA he may have had was passed down through the generations. The posset in question was a mixture of boiled milk, ale, bread and fats – a miner’s favourite sustenance and inexpensive, too.

Edward could not be described as a hero, regardless of his miraculous recovery… But the plague village and the area around it did have its heroes. Eyam, discovering that it was the new centre of a potential explosion of bubonic plague infection, did something remarkable: with some guidance from the clergy, it chose to cut itself off from the surrounding villages and towns, condemning all those ‘within’ to almost certain death.

The credit for this is normally given to William Mompesson, the young local clergyman. But the truth is more complex… Two rectors were involved in the formidable alignment of wills that gave Eyam its fame and historical status.

1662 was the date of the Act of Uniformity. Charles II was on the throne of England and Scotland, and Cromwell’s age of the Puritans had come to an end. The Act of Uniformity forced the ‘ejection’ of hundreds of puritan clergymen from their ‘living’. One of these was Eyam’s much respected rector, Thomas Stanley.

The old sundial on the walls of the church

Traditionally, these ‘ejected’ clergyman were expected to leave the region in which they had ministered. But Stanley continued to live close to Eyam – something the nearby Duke of Devonshire had the power to correct but didn’t, such was the standing of the former rector.

William Mompesson, Rector of Eyam Church. I could find no surviving pictures of Thomas Stanley.

The plague arrived in Eyam at the end of August, 1665, in the bite of fleas wrapped in a damp bale of tailor’s cloth. The inexperienced rector knew he had to do something radical but struggled to gain support from the people of Eyam – until he met with Thomas Stanley and shared views across the new religious boundary. Together, they framed the stance the people of Eyam would adopt; to imprison themselves, facing almost certain death, in order to protect the surrounding populations.

The Story of the plague. An unlikely stained glass window in St Lawrence’s church…

The Earl of Devonshire deserves mention in this context, too. He and his family resolutely supported Eyam in its self-imposed isolation. They provided food and other vital supplies for the villagers, left at safe boundary points, for the duration of the plague’s effects.

William Cavendish, First Duke of Devonshire and benefactor of Eyam during the plague. Image Wikipedia, public domain

Space precludes more detail of the beautiful village of Eyam, but Sue Vincent’s recent blog describes our exploration of Eyam in considerable detail.

The day in Eyam had generated heavy hearts, even though these events were four hundred years ago. They let us reflect on the nature of fear… and of love. But this was an important counterpoint to the following day, which would begin on a much more sun-filled note.

———————————-

©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.

Fear and Love in the High Peak – part one

It’s not the best of photo resolutions, but the above image says it all. Briony saluting the Derbyshire landscape in her own way at the end of three days of the Silent Eye’s Tideswell-based workshop: Sue and Stuart’s creation; and a wonderful experience for the group of souls who braved the provocative title for the weekend…

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear

…and decided that they would examine the roots of their own fears… and face them in the warmth of loving companionship and symbolic danger.

It’s a time-honoured formula for all mystical organisations; one that brings us all to a point where the day to day ‘fog’ of habitual perception is cut through by the vividness of landscape and experience. That’s what we hope to achieve on these weekends. This one worked well – and in different ways for each person, as it should, for we all have different stories that have brought us to our ‘now’.

Sometimes, especially in reviewing such things, it’s better to start at the end. The picture (above) of Briony is of her at the ‘peak’ of the weekend; the last act of the formal part of our physical, emotional and spiritual wanderings across the ancient and mysterious landscapes of Derbyshire.

A short time later, we would be laughing in one of the oddest, oldest and most wonderful pubs in England…

But that’s for the final chapter of this short series of blogs. For now, let’s drift backwards in time to the sunshine of the Saturday morning. A day of ‘Indian Summer’ as good as any we been blessed with over the years.

Baslow Ridge

We were up high in a place called Baslow Ridge. Looking down on a series of valleys that lead to places like Bakewell, and the glories of the Chatsworth Estate.

The Eagle Stone – a place of proof of maturity, and a precursor to local marriage

The Eagle Stone stands alone, an outlier from a distant time of glaciation. It dominates the landscape like the monolith did in Kubrick’s film of Arthur C. Clarke’s story 2001: A Space Odyssey. People are drawn to it from miles around. It even featured in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as the place that Elizabeth Bennett visited and climbed… to get away from it all.

It is still used by local folk as a rite of passage. Those who seek the hand of marriage with the girls and ladies of the nearby town of Baslow are expected to demonstrate their suitability by climbing the stone unaided. It’s not a trivial ascent, as this second shot of the rock shows:

The Eagle Stone close-up shows how the higher layers overhang the lower; making an ascent difficult

The Eagle Stone is an example of a sacred folk-object at the centre of a local custom; a ritual, in this case. The ritual was a gateway into adulthood–and maturity. There would be real caution – if not fear- for anyone faced with the challenge. But, with some secret help from your friends, there was only an element of danger, rather than the certainty of death…

The Riley Graves

But many in the history of these parts have not been so lucky. Going back in time to our first visit of the weekend, we were brought face to face with personal fear and sadness of a degree that would be hard to envisage in modern life… and one of the most heart-rending sacrifices we could have encountered.

It’s 1666 in a small High Peak town, not far from Chatsworth. In the space of a single week, a lone woman buries all six of her children and then her husband. No-one will help her; no-one can help her. It is the most awful piece of personal history imaginable and yet the act which surrounds it is of the highest nobility.

Stuart… showing how it should be done

And so the story – the plot – of the weekend, moves from an historic example of fear and self-sacrifice – but seen through modern eyes, through the ancient stones set in the Derbyshire landscape and their cultural and symbolic use, to its finale in a rather foreboding place, high above a valley with a dark history…

Seen like this – backwards from the end, we can appreciate the careful construction of the weekend carried out by Sue and Stuart. Sue has begun its re-telling in her Silent Eye and personal blogs. She’s a great storyteller and there is little point in my replicating her excellent eye for detail.

Instead, I will pick certain moments of significance and focus on them – and hence this backwards-in-time introduction to set the scene.

It’s a long way from the Friday meeting place at Eyam to our final (small for drivers) glass of Black Lurcher at the Three Stag’s Heads near ‘Hanging Rock’, but it’s a fascinating journey. The weekend demanded a degree of serious intent… but we had lot of fun, too.

In the end, on Sunday morning, everyone was alone for a moment on that dark peak… Very Carlos Castenada, really…. but that’s just my personal take on it.

Next time we meet, it will be August 1666 and, in this part of Derbyshire, something remarkable, unique and utterly selfless will be about to happen.

 

 

©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.