Full Circle: Fragments of home

 

Penrith is a lovely old market town with narrow alleys and some wonderful old buildings. Sadly, we would not have time to do the place justice over the weekend, but at least we had a glimpse as we walked to our next site, the Parish Church of St Andrew.

The church itself is an interesting one. It appears to be a Georgian edifice, having been largely rebuilt and remodelled in 1720, by Nicholas Hawksmoor, inspired by St Andrew’s in Holborn, London. The elegant interior seems almost out of place in a northern market town, and lacks the homely feel of churches that have retained their character and appearance of antiquity. But the church has stood on this spot since 1133 and, taking a moment to ‘feel beyond form’, you can indeed feel its age and the centuries of prayer its walls have held.

The building is perfectly cross shaped, but, unusually, the ‘crossing’  is at the far end from the altar. You may enter from any of the three short ‘arms’ of the cross, with the nave and altar forming the longest axis. Coming in from the cold between the incongruous pillars that flank the west door, we found two medieval grave slabs and a carved font… one of three in the church of various ages. The font is used in the rite of baptism, which could be seen as one of the keys to the ‘way home’ for those choosing to follow the path of Christianity. This particular font is carved with symbols and we asked Steve to explain the one representing the nature of the Trinity.

On either side of the entrance, stairs lead up into the tower whose height was extended in the fifteenth century. The stairs are flanked by the weathered effigies of a husband and wife in Tudor dress.

On our visit a few weeks earlier, we had found the nave decked with banners bearing the names of the Celtic saints… it seems that the Ionian form of worship still has a place in the heart of the northern church. This time, though, it was discretely decked for Christmas, with each window embrasure holding a small tree, dedicated to various sectors of the community… including a poignantly bare tree for those who cannot celebrate this Christmas.

Leaving everyone to explore, we asked them to think about what the idea of ‘home’ might mean to the congregation here, knowing that the embrasure of the East Window behind the altar holds a heavenly mural, painted in 1844 by local artist Jacob Thompson.

There is plenty to see inside the body of the church, including some beautiful stained glass by such renowned makers as Burlison and Grylls, Clayton and Bell and Hardman and Powell. These are all ‘modern’ windows, with the newest being installed to celebrate the Millennium.

The oldest windows, though, consist of mere fragments of medieval glass, salvaged from the depredations of time, storm and war. Most of the fragments are unidentifiable… just whispers on the wind of time. A few can be recognised… the hand of St Peter holding the Keys of Heaven… the angels of Revelation swinging their censers… a crowned and sceptred king who may well be Richard III.

Set into another modern window embellished with the white roses of the House of York are two fragments once thought to represent Richard and his queen, but they are now thought to be his grandparents. It is curious that Richard, the last Plantagenet king, should feature so much in Penrith, when the theme of the weekend was ‘finding the way home’. Richard was killed in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 and his body, tied naked to a horse, was taken to Leicester and, eventually, buried at Greyfriars Church. That church was lost after the Dissolution, and Richard’s remains were thought lost too…until a team from Leicester University managed to locate them in 2013. There followed a long, and ultimately unavailing campaign that sought to bring the last monarch of the House of York back ‘home’ to Yorkshire.

There were monuments too to those who had fallen in more recent battles, that their names and deeds might, at least, be carried home, even though their remains are scattered across the battlefields of the world. And a tree in a window for those who have no home at all.

So many concepts of ‘home’ in one small church, so many layers of history; a story two thousand years old had seen nine hundred years of worship in this place. Did the story of this site, though, go back even further? Many old churches are built on far more ancient sites, where once a wooden chapel may have stood unrecorded, chapels which may have been built upon pre-Christian sites. Although there seemed to be no definitive mention of an earlier church here, there were certainly clues in the churchyard… and as the light began to fade, we headed outside to have a look…

Castlerigg from a distance #acceptance

Not Tomatoes

IMG-5062 Castlerigg at dawn. Photo Credit: Lara Wilson

I went as far as the hills in dreamtime while they gathered to greet the dawn below. Disappointment comes in many forms and sometimes it reaches out to hold the hand of acceptance. I’m not going to lie. This has not been an easy one to come by. The land at Castlerigg calls to me in a language the predates words. It speaks to the very heart of my being and fills me with the irrepressible longing for home. Yet, it is not my time to return here, and I know when it is, this body I wear must accompany my spirit. Sometimes the cells need to remember wholly and completely. And, Casterligg has called my whole being to be present someday. But not yet.

IMG-5071 Photo Credit: Lara Wilson. I love how the blurred image reveals the faces in the stones.

I didn’t…

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The Big-Bold-Blue of Beyond…

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… When Brother-Warrior entered the chamber of the princess, because of his Cloak-of-Darkness, she thought she was enjoying converse and congress with a spirit.

So too, did all her hand-maids but before departing he took off his cloak and left them with the fleeting vision of a ‘Fairy Warrior’.

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After Brother-Wizard and Brother-Warrior had left for the wooded isle, Brother-Smith wasted no time in fomenting the populace who were missing the usual round of the wondrous cow.

He walked to each home-stead in turn crying “no milk today, the King of Castle-Hill has stolen your cow.”

In this way they were left in no doubt as to who was to blame for their loss of sustenance and the King of Castle-Hill spent the next nine months touring his lands putting down local revolt after local revolt without the use of his baleful eye.

The king had no opportunity to visit his daughter, as promised, and indeed, as few knew of the islands existence and the magic halter and the wondrous cow were still kept there, it would have been foolish for him to do so.

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“It is time to collect the magic halter,” said Brother-Wizard to Brother- Warrior after a time.

Together, the two of them, again, set out for the wooded isle in the coracle and once they reached the tower and the nine home-steads they collected not only the magic halter, which the king’s daughter freely gave to them but also the ‘fruits’ of Brother-Warrior’s last visit.

The nine children of the hand-maids were given together in a blanket fastened by a thorn which Brother-Wizard carried on his back whilst the grandson of the king was kept in a separate cloth which Brother-Warrior kept slung upon his breast.

As they made their way back to the mainland the thorn holding the blanket broke and the nine children of the hand-maids fell into the sea and were turned into seals, by Brother-Wizard, so they would not drown.

Brother-Warrior brought the grandson of the king safely ashore…

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Some of them…

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I had half expected the town to be deserted.

That is Memory again.

It acts like  some indifferent film director moving extras around, concerned only with their ebb and flow.

Over time the ‘peripherals’ fade leaving only the ‘principals’ behind.

And that goes for events too…

I have no memory of our initial ‘run up’…

Only the camber to the stones and the ravens, wheeling and cawing, and eventually settling in unison on the portals as we approached.

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Contrary to the insistence of our fastidious manipulator of experience, we had not been alone that first time…

There had been ‘others’ in the field but it had not seemed to matter so much then.

Possibly because in those days I did not take photographs.

There were no ravens this time, but plenty of people.

A line of motor vehicles clogged the lane and patches of bright colour flitted about the stones, uncertainly, like overgrown butterflies.

The colours too have now faded, as colours tend to do…

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Perhaps, I have become over sensitive to synthetics?

In the event we easily outlasted three separate groups before the extreme cold became too much.

They do not stay long.

They have, you see, nowhere to file their experience…

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Nothing to lend it context…

Maybe, it appears crude to the mind too far removed from nature?

Would one call hills crude?

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Shadow Play…

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‘Shadowing’ is our term for the phenomenon whereby a standing stone, or group of stones, recreates a distant landscape feature and thereby renders it immediately apparent or tangible.

Most other megalithic writers on the subject have also, independently, recognised this phenomenon although they usually refer to it, less accurately perhaps, as ‘mirroring’.

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This being the case, it is highly unlikely for such a notion to be the product of fantasy, yet it is still quite difficult to credit the skill set required to so accurately render this technique, and especially so in a people still regarded by many as ‘primitive’ in relation to us.

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Either, the ‘circle constructors’ had an incredible eye for, and memory of, the natural landscape, which they, inevitably, would have done anyway , or, they ‘crudely dressed’ the stones once placed.

Please note the  innaccurate use of the notion ‘crude’ here.

There is nothing crude about the ancients’ ability to dress stone in this way, quite the opposite.

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Even more perplexing, perhaps, is the question of precisely why the circle constructors would do this?

The terms ‘false perspective’, ‘collapsing distance’ and ‘correspondence’ are all useful in formulating an answer to this intriguing riddle.

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All the images in this post display examples of ‘shadowing’ in one form or another, although you may have to work quite hard to discover each and every one of them.

‘Damn those pesky primitives!’…

Wish you were here…

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In Olden Times,

Holidays were originally just that…

Holy Days.

The whole community would lay aside their work day duties and together engage in deeply or intrinsically symbolic activities which related to the situation that they all found themselves in.

For example…

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Cheese Rolling…

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May Poling…

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…and Beating-the-Bounds.

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond fear

Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond fear

 A weekend with the Silent Eye

Derbyshire, UK

Friday 13th – Sunday 15th September 2019

We are all afraid of something.

There are the fears of the everyday world, from arachnophobia to a fear of the dark, and the deeper fears of the personality, that play upon the mind and heart.

What purpose might such fears serve, beyond protecting us from potentially harmful situations?

How have our ancestors addressed such fears across the centuries? Can we learn from the past a way to see beyond our fears to a future lit by serenity and hope?

Join us on Friday the thirteenth of September, 2019, in the ancient landscape of Derbyshire as we explore how to lay our personal gremlins to rest.

Based in the landscape around Tideswell, Bakewell and beyond, this weekend will entail some relatively easy walking on moorland paths.

The weekend runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £50 per person. Meals and accomodation are not included and should be booked separately by all attendees. meals are often taken together at a convenient pub or cafe.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

Why Myth?…

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‘…history became legend, legend became myth…’

What a pleasant conceit, to suppose that this process produces myth. Whilst undoubtedly true for many legends the process can also work the other way. Many legends for example have produced history. Pre-eminently in this respect, at least for Britain, is ‘King Arthur’ whose story the scholars do indeed now refer to as a mythos.

But what is really going on here?

It is probably more accurate to regard all these forms as stories. We are not supposed to regard History as a story but as ‘recorded fact’ and also ‘true’, but well, really, the clue is in the name. So why do we set such store by stories? The clue is in the question.
The truth of stories lies in a realm other than the literal. And what is ‘the literal’ anyway’?

‘The literal is something that actually happened.’

‘And what do we mean by something?’

‘We mean an ‘act’.’

‘Do we mean an act in a play?’

‘No, we mean a physical act; we mean the physical actions of a person.’

‘What, any act, and any person?’

‘Usually a significant act and a significant person’…

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…A woman set off in the west, coming this way.
She was carrying her baskets for plant foods, her digging stick and a fire-stick.
She was coming, travelling along, camping and then setting off again.
As she went along she was looking about her and where she saw plenty of small creatures and plant food she would stop and eat and then camp.
At sunset she would settle down and sleep and early in the morning she would set off again.
Going on she saw that salt-water tide had come up at a place she hoped to go across.
So she camped there.
She made a sleeping platform in a tree because so many mosquitoes were biting her.
When at last early morning came she made a paper-bark canoe, paddling with her hands to cross to the other side.
Then she started off again and eventually came to a cave house…

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…A Dust-Devil was living in the cave house.
Tall, thin and hairy he was with a crooked body and bat-like wings.
‘My woman has come,’ he said, ‘my body’s no good but today we two will sleep together.’
When they met the woman offered him vegetable food and the Dust-Devil reciprocated with fish.
They slept together but the woman did not like the look of him so she cast about the cave house, found a stone axe and began sharpening it whilst he slept.
The Dust-Devil woke up.
He stretched himself and was preparing to eat the woman. She slashed his neck.
Then she looked around made a fire and cooked his body.
Perhaps he just tossed away the flames that Dust-Devil?
He came out the fire, ‘you woman, why did you kill me? I will cover you with my wings.’
The woman tried to hide but he found her.
He sealed her up in the cave where she was lying.
That cave remained for her then a dark cave.
She kept on talking in there, abusing the Dust-Devil.
At last she became like a rock.
She stands there a rock, forever.

A Young Woman meets a Dust-Devil

(Adapted from ‘Speaking Land’ by R.M. Berndt and C.H. Berndt)

North-easterly VII: A final grace

 

“…Manifest thy light for my regeneration, and let the breadth, height, fullness and crown
of the solar radiance appear, and may the light within shine forth!”

Abbe de Villars, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’

“We’ve just got to the top of the slope by the castle,” said the voice on the phone, in answer to my query. We had been a few minutes late arriving on Holy Island, and our companions had begun to stroll out towards the medieval castle that dominates the island landscape. Having failed to find them in any of the three cafés where we had looked, we had located them by phone and, putting on a bit of a spurt, finally caught up with them. From here we could look back at the beginning of our journey, over the water to Bamburgh Castle, just as the spiritual pilgrim looks back on his inner journey and sees with greater clarity than before, how short was the true distance he had to travel , no matter how difficult and tortuous the route he felt he had to take.

The plan was that we should spend an hour exploring in our own way before meeting for a light lunch and our departure, so while some visited the castle, the rest of us walked back into the village and met the sparrows. Time always makes its presence keenly felt on Holy Island, which is odd, because, in so many ways, it is a timeless place. As you cross the causeway from the mainland, that sense of stepping outside of time is one of the most striking feelings, and, if you remain when the tides come in, flooding the causeway and cutting off the island from the shore, there simply is no time, only the spirit of place. Yet the tides rule all and the clock ticks regardless, and for those who must leave before the waters rush in, time is always limited. The very consciousness of that knowledge makes every moment precious.

When we had gathered once more, we walked over to the ancient parish church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. In spite of the fact that there have been people on the island since the very earliest of times, this is the oldest building to remain. It is built on the site of St Aidan’s original monastery, founded in 635, and parts of the building date back to that century.

A service had just finished, and we had no wish to intrude, so simply sat quietly for a while, in contemplation. Faith is unique to each of us, no matter by what name we know it or what path we walk. Each of us has our own relationship with something other and greater than ourselves and the simple silence of St Mary’s seems to welcome all those who turn their faces to the Light.

There are beautiful stained glass windows, touching tributes to those who have served in the church and those who have lived on the island and worked with the sea. There are windows that glow with colour and light, a statue carved from elm and called ‘The Journey,’ that shows the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s coffin on its long odyssey, a transcript of the Lindisfarne Gospel… the beautifully illuminated manuscript from the last years of the seventh century, made by a monk called Eadfrith in honour of St Cuthbert.

Fourteen hundred years is a long time for any place to be at the heart of a tiny community, and the church holds that community in its heart.

You ‘may sense the ‘thinness’ linking with the ancient saints who trod the same ground so many years before,’ says the church website. And you can. There is a very real sense of the sacred here, of something older and deeper than the exoteric Church that we know today. It is impossible not to be moved by the echoes of so many centuries of prayer.

In the churchyard, the lives of those who walked here are both remembered and forgotten. The oldest inhabitants have no grave-markers, their names and stories are, for the most part, lost. Only those whose stories were written in the annals of history are remembered by name and deed, and those who lived recently enough that their headstones survive.

Two nineteenth century headstones caught my eye. One was that of a Freemason and soldier who served in India. His affiliation to Freemasonry is not explicitly mentioned in the inscription, but the Masonic Square and Compasses tell their own story. Another local rejoiced in the name of Field Flowers. Time and weather have worn away much of the inscription, but he still rests in the shadow of the Saxon Abbey.

From the church, we walked down to the shore, passing the old well that shelters beneath the walls. I had long wanted to visit St Cuthbert’s Island but on our previous visits, either the tide or time had always been against us.

St Cuthbert’s Isle is a tiny islet just off the island’s shore. At low tide, it is just a short walk across the mussel-encrusted rocks, but to fully appreciate its isolation from the rest of the community,you have to see it when the tide comes in, completely sundering it from the island. We had done so one day, when we had stayed the length of a sea-tide on Holy Island, watching the sun gild a roseate path to the mainland as it sank beyond the hills.

It was to this tiny islet that St Cuthbert would retreat when he needed solitude. He had become a monk after a vision that came to him the night that St Aidan died. he felt called to a contemplative life, but his kindness, charm and generosity, as well as his gift of healing and deep faith, were to take him from his cell and make him Bishop of Lindisfarne and one of the best loved of the early saints.

The little island was his retreat, until in later years he sought the greater solitude of the Farne Islands. Today the foundations of his chapel remain on the islet, marked by a simple cross where pilgrims still leave tokens of respect, and earthworks that may be the foundations of his cell.

 

I once heard the monastic life described as being ‘in the world, but not of it’. In some respects this relates too to the journey of the spiritual seeker… pilgrims in the land of the living… who embrace the earthly life and its world fully, yet who know that the source of being is not of this world. It was the perfect place for us to end our weekend.

From here we could see the mainland and the dark outline of Bamburgh Castle. We could look back too at the Holy Isle and see the ancient church and the Abbey. Our journey together was drawing to its close, yet our journeys would continue. For a moment, we were once more outside of time and the spirit of place caught at the heart.

“I can hear mermaids singing,” said one of our companions. Sure enough, she was right. Turning our eyes to the sea, we scanned the waves and saw their faces in the waves. It was indeed magical to watch the seals watching us from the sea… playing and diving through the waters with what looked like joyful abandon.

But time touched us even here, and it was time for the weekend to end. Gary read the beautiful Invocation to the Flame from Abbe de Villars’, ‘The Comte de Gabalis’ and Barbara ended the weekend with a poem she had written. Then, with hugs and the knowledge that we would hopefully meet again soon, we parted.

For three of us, there was still a little time. Just enough to linger on the island for a moment or two… long enough to realise that the dark shadow on the sandbanks was not seaweed, but our ‘mermaids’.

The three of us, joined by silence and friendship, watched from afar, listening to their song. Such moments can justly be called a grace.

The sea-song continued, eerie and haunting on the wind as we left the islet and climbed to the Heugh. Sheltering in the lee of the ruined Anglo-Saxon chapel, we watched the seals from afar and saw a heron gliding over the waves.

But although, for once, we were in no hurry, Gary had a long drive ahead and had to leave. We walked the length of the Heugh, looking down into the ruined Priory that was already nearly a thousand years old when the castle was built. Time and distance were about to make themselves felt and it was with a certain amount of sadness that we descended from the outcrop, knowing that the world was about to take us once more by the hand. And that although at such moments we may wish the demands of the world elsewhere, it is right that it should do so. We are born into this world for a reason and to live in it fully is at least part of our purpose.

The weekend held one final and surprising gift though. As we walked across the fields towards the village, we came face to face with the past in the most surprising manner. Our timing could hardly have been more perfect and we watched archaeologists brush fourteen hundred years of earth from the faces of the early monks in the newly uncovered Priory burial ground.

“These men would have known Aidan or Cuthbert,” said the archaeologist, when I asked if it were permitted to take photographs. “Treat them with respect if you use the pictures.” I could not do anything else, for these were the men in whose footsteps we had walked the island, the men who had ‘trod the same ground so many years before,’ and whose faith has made this a place of pilgrimage, both religious and spiritual, for centuries. I may not share their particular form of religion, but we share the essence of faith and, in coming face to face with the past, I came face to face with myself. And surely, that is what any pilgrimage is supposed to achieve?

With thanks to Steve Tanham and Barbara Walsh for organising the Castles of the Mind weekend.

If you have enjoyed reading the story of our time in Northumberland and would like to join us for one of our informal weekends exploring the spiritual landscape of Britain, or at our annual April Workshop in Derbyshire, please visit the Silent Eye’s Events page.

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