The Sun, the Lion and the Ashes

(Above: The beautifully restored town of Arras in northern France)

We are in northern France, visiting relatives that were only re-discovered three years ago, after an eighty years gap… My paternal grandmother was the youngest sister of an elder brother (also Stephen) who survived the horrors of WW1, married a French girl and eventually settled near Calais.

(Above: North-West France, with Arras highlighted bottom right)

When France was overrun, the Nazis wouldn’t allow Stephen to take his family back to England and, eventually, contact was lost… He escaped arrest because his adopted craft of running a local bakery – which his wife’s family had taught him, was a ‘protected’ occupation and so, apart from being watched, periodically, he was left alone.

His frequent assistance to the Resistance went undetected, or his fate would have been very different…

Today there are two branches of our once-lost family: one in Calais (the Duffys – after my great uncle) and the other in Lille (the Bertaloots) near the Belgian border. For the first few days of our trip, we are staying with the family in Lille. Nearby is the small city of Arras, an ancient Roman town whose last-century history is dominated by the First World War. The damage to the town, and the magnificent reconstruction undertaken by the local people faced with the devastation of their home is the basis and the inspiration for this post.

We; the Tanhams, the Duffys (Stephen’s surname) of Calais and the Berteloots of Lille have become good friends – indicated by the fact that these lovely people have taken two days off work to show us around a couple of the places we asked to see.

(Above: Late January afternoon in Arras)

Returning to WW1, the ‘Battle of Arras’ was fought in May 1917, as a joint operation between general Haig – at odds with his Prime Minster, Lloyd George – and the senior French commander, General Neville. The French forces dominated this part of the war’s front and it was Haig’s job to support them.

The French plans proved over-ambitious and Haig’s forces suffered heavy casualties for little gain, though four divisions of the Canadian army combined to take the important Vimy ridge. The nearby town of Arras was largely destroyed during the shelling.

Following the Armistice in November 1919, hostilities ceased and the battered French citizens set about the huge task of rebuilding their city…

(Above: Arras as it looked after the devastation of WW1. From a photo in the town hall. There was nothing I could do to escape the reflection in the glass!)

I found the photos of the post-war ruins poignant and relevant to current British politics.

Recently, the same people who drove the ‘Brexit’ process turned their backs at the opening session while a dignified European Parliament looked on in disbelief. The same people, still funded by the EU, now want to have London’s Big Ben strike out the chimes of Britain’s official ‘leaving date’ at the end of January in a show of jingoistic pride… one could hardly write a novel to match the recent events, but we would be unwise to consider this fantasy… nightmare, maybe.

For me and people like me, they have created a similar devastation in the minds and hearts of the half of Britain’s population who wished to remain part of the united Europe that emerged from the ashes of blitzed London and shelled Arras.

(Above: a Canadian sculpture representing a country’s sorrow after war)

Fascism is innate in human nature. The school bully is a fascist, recruiting the weak and unthinking to a cause of personal glory which elevates his or her ego above any common cause of progress. By doing this, he finally exists… However, the emotionally settled child, perhaps growing up in a good family, knows that their existence must be balanced with the needs of a wider circle of caring humans.

What is little considered is that the dictator-fascist is only a school bully… and that sustained courage will unseat them.

(Above: the restored town hall of Arras)

Arras emerged from its ashes when its people rejected the devastation bequeathed to them by the madness of privileged ego. Everyone came together to rebuild the town; and the collective consciousness of that town recreated the ‘extravagant gothic’ style of each house and shop, street by street.

(Above: inside the restored town hall of Arras)

A little-known fact is that, from the 17th century, it was obligatory for anyone building a new house in Arras to submit a copy of the plans to the town hall. It was the possession of these plans that enabled Arras to emerge, accurately, from the devastation of the war that exploded like a volcano around it, to reconstruct what it had been… Its past, with all its art and tolerance was documented.

(Above: the mother figure – The female Elder – at the Vimy Ridge monument to WW1 Canadian soldiers. She stares down at her empty womb…)

The process of war via fascism – all war and all fascism – is, for me, perfectly symbolised by the nearby Vimy Ridge monument. This startling sculpture by Canadian artist Walter S. Allward rises high above the ridge-line at Vimy – a place where eleven thousand Canadian soldiers were killed in order for the ridge to be taken back from the Germans.

(Above: the father-figure – the Elder – rakes his skin in anguish)

I intend to write a post dedicated to this moving monument and reveal some of its intricately-wrought emotional detail. For now, here is a glimpse of two of the figures that are revealed when you pass through the anguish of the parents and into the actuality of the war as it happened before their loss…

(Above: the process of war; its participants and victims. The downward facing side of the Vimy Ridge monument – the subject of a future post)

To conclude, let’s go back to the title of the blog: The Sun, the Lion and the Ashes.

(Above: the Lion has always been one half of the story of Arras)
(Above: the sun-symbol of Louis XIV – part of the identity of all the towns in this region of France. This example is from the Vaubon-designed Citadel at Lille)

We can all find ourselves the wrong side of how we think things should be. The views above are my own and do not necessarily represent anyone else in the Silent Eye School. What is important is how we react to the ‘ashes’ of our perceived world. If, like the people of Arras, we have ‘documented’ what be believe to be vital in our world, we will be able to begin again in the new circumstances secure in the knowledge that we brought the best of it with us.

©️Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye school of consciousness, a distance-learning teaching organisation that operates on a not-for-profit basis to help people deepen their life experiences without fluff and with personal supervision. You can find out more about the Silent Eye by clicking here.

A New Beginning…

Since the birth of the Silent Eye, we have held regular workshops, including, for the past seven years, an annual residential weekend of ritual drama in Derbyshire. We have had a huge amount of fun with these weekends over the years, in spite of the months of writing, work and preparation they entail. We have made some wonderful friends and seen our companions rise above the challenges to create pure magic within our place of working.

At the same time, we have also been pioneering a new kind of workshop, set within the living land. It is not enough to follow a spiritual path within the confines of a hallowed hall. Spirituality must be part of everyday life and must move in the world before it truly comes to life.

With this in mind, our landscape workshops visit ancient and sacred sites, right across the country, in varied and beautiful places, allowing the land and its history to illustrate and reveal the heart of the spiritual principles we explore.

Last year, we took the decision that we would follow the call to move all our workshops out into the landscape, with this year being the last residential weekend for a while. At our last monthly meeting, with confirmed bookings not meeting the necessary criteria, we decided that, rather than risk being unable to deliver a well-rounded weekend for our companions, we would move this event too out into the landscape.

And, as soon as we made that decision, the details and structure of the weekend fell into place.

Sometimes, you simply have to listen to what the winds of change whisper… and when you do so, magic happens…

Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

There are mysteries just beyond the doorstep, sacred places and hidden stories in every landscape. From the five thousand year old track that once crossed the country to the enigma of the secret orders that have hidden their true purposes behind sanctity or debauchery, the landscape of rural Buckinghamshire abounds in unsolved riddles.

Join us as we ask why a medieval church was built upon the site of a prehistoric settlement… Why Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hellfire Club met beneath a sacred hill… and how the landscape beyond your threshold can open the door to adventure.

The weekend will be based around Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, and runs from Friday afternoon to early Sunday afternoon, and costs £75 per person. There will be a moderate amount of walking, some of it across field paths.

Meals and accommodation are not included in the price and should be booked separately by all attendees. Meals are often taken together at a local pub or café. For those arriving by public transport, we are able to offer a limited number of places in shared vehicles; please let us know if this would be required.

Contact us at Rivingtide@gmail.com for more details. Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

A magical path

“What,” asked my correspondent, enquiring about the School, “is magic?” It is not the first time I have been asked that question, once the difference between performance magic and the magical work of the esoteric path has been established.

Read any tale of magic, or indeed, the centuries-old treatises and grimoires that survive, and you would have to assume that magical work is all about gaining control. Spirits, demons, elementals and angels, all are to be summoned by the magician and bound to his bidding. Even those who have trained within an established and respected magical system will still use the old forms that look and sound as if this is the case. Young students who are just starting out on their path may well hold a vision of standing on a mountaintop commanding the storm like a Hollywood Merlin, anticipating the wild exhilaration of power. Are they deluded? Is there something real behind the dream? Or are they simply destined for disappointment?

The universe is held together by vast, natural forces; amongst them are many things science does not and may never understand. Is it really possible for a single human soul to take control of the machinery of the cosmos?

In his book, Magick in Theory and Practice, Aleister Crowley defined magic as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” Crowley, quite justifiably, acquired a polarising reputation amongst contemporary occultists that continues amongst their more modern successors. At best, that reputation is ambivalent, at worst downright unsavoury, but few would deny the value of his body of written work to the serious student of magic. Personally, I found his books invaluable… as long as you strip back the intentional blinds and ambiguities that are strewn throughout and read them with clear eyes.

Crowley’s definition is, in my opinion, probably the clearest and most concise way of describing magic. Yet, even in such a short phrase, there is enough ambiguity to lead the seeker astray. Over the years, I reached the conclusion that the magician’s quest for control is accurately described, but lacking one significant clue to the true nature of magical work; the arcane forces that are to be brought under control are all elements of our own being. We are part of the universe and its forces flow through us and have their echoes within us. The dark and bright aspects may be externalised and personified in order that we might work with them, but their source and the result of that work is the same; what changes is the magician.

On the surface at least, that sounds as if all you would have to do is train the will and bring it under full control and focus, in order to effect change. That would fit the common understanding of the type of magic of which neophytes might dream. It is, I believe, behind the misconception that human will is the highest manifestation of man. But what if the Will of Crowley’s definition is not our own, but that of the Divine? Is it then not saying that magic is the art and science of causing change by conforming to, and aligning ourselves with a Higher Will than our own? Creating change, both within the world and within ourselves, in accordance with the Cosmic Will. When you get right down to it, that is pretty much the aim of all spiritual and religious practices, regardless of the name or definition that is applied to divinity.

The definition is a clever one, precisely because of its ambiguity. Within the phrase lies the story of the seeker’s quest… a journey from the reactions and desires of the ego, through realisation, to harmony. How it is read reflects where we are on the path and whether it is to our own will or a higher Will that we surrender ourselves.

Within the Silent Eye, it is this change from within that we seek and encourage, allowing our Companions to seek their own, personal path to realisation and their own door to open to the forces of being.  But where does that leave our hopeful Merlin? Is there no storm to control after all? No wild exultation to feel as the forces of the universe course through him, body, mind and soul? On the contrary, once we ’open up and get out of the way’, setting the stormy and imperative desires of the ego aside and allowing the universal forces free expression, through and within us, we experience that change in accordance with Will. And that is truly magical.

Keys of Heaven (10): A Final Resting Place

continued from Part 9

The village of Lastingham, of the southern edge of the North York Moors, was a fitting place to end our weekend – both for its mysterious wells and also on the basis that the crypt of St Mary’s Church marks the final resting place of St Cedd. Following the fateful Synod of Whitby in AD 664, Bishop Cedd returned to his beloved Lastingham, the place where he had founded his originally monastery; but tragically caught the plague and died, bequeathing the care of Lastingham to his brother, Bishop Chad – later St Chad. Chad became bishop of Lichfield shortly thereafter and had to manage his brother’s bequest from afar.

(Above: St Mary’s Church, Lastingham, in all its simple beauty…)

We have to wonder at the irony and sadness of this: first to lose (in the service of his king, Oswiu) the Celtic Christian tradition in which he had been raised since a boy; then to lose his life in one final visit to his beloved Lastingham.

Cedd was buried here, and the place of his burial in AD664 became the ground on which all the layers of the present church were constructed.

(Above: The unusual semi-circular apse of St Mary’s church contains the entire history of the building and its ancient foundations)

St Mary’s church attracts visitors from all over the world. Christian and non-Christian ‘pilgrims’ are welcomed here in a warm spirit of spiritual openness. Though not formally a Christian, I am entirely happy with the scriptural idea of Christ as the ideal and perfected ‘inner man’. I am at home in most temples of the spirit, but seldom have I felt the kind of harmonic energies that are present in St Mary’s.

There is, in the words of one of our companions of the weekend ‘Something very special here…’ And you can feel its presence in the air around you.

(Above: Ancient Celtic designs in the crypt)

The original monastery was wooden, and nothing remains of it. But the present church of St Mary’s is built upon its site, and specifically, upon the original crypt that was constructed over the location of St Cedd’s grave two hundred years after his death. This region (of what was then Northumbria) was a wild place, and lawless – possibly one reason why Cedd devoted so much of his time establishing the original monastery as a spiritual refuge for the local people and their hard lives.

(Above: St Mary’s extraordinary crypt)

After the Synod of 664, the seat of religious power moved south from Lindisfarne to York, though Whitby survived for a while, in the form of the influential Abbey whose abbecy passed from Hild to Eanflæd, the wife of King Oswiu, upon his death. A royal princess and later queen to Oswiu, she brought grace and dedication to the abbey in the town that would later become Whitby.

(Above: the Benedictine Abbey at Whitby)

But, the age of the Vikings was upon the land and the northern Saxon kingdoms were eventually overrun. Little is known of life here during that period and the former monastery was left to decay.

Over four hundred years later, in 1078, Stephen, abbot of the recently rebuilt monastery at Whitby, obtained permission from no less a person than William the Conqueror to take a team of skilled monks to restore the monastery at Lastingham as a Benedictine house.

Stephen designed the crypt we see today and built it over the place where Cedd had been buried. Above this crypt he began to build a new abbey church, but work was abandoned in 1088 when Stephen and his monks moved from Whitby to the all-powerful York; there to build St Mary’s Abbey… This may have been due to the increasing lawlessness of life within the hills making things impossible for the monks.

The Lastingham Crypt deserves a post in itself, but our story of the Keys of Heaven weekend (now ten posts) has to be brought to a close.

There was a communion service on that Sunday morning. We took care to arrive after it had finished, but I hoped we would be able to meet one or two of the local team. Historic places are fascinating, but the ‘now’ contains some miracles, too. As we pushed open the heavy oak door, one of the church wardens greeted us and we were welcomed into the ‘coffee area’ of the church and urged to join the larger than expected residual group of parishioners.

(Above: The main floor of St Mary’s interior – above the crypt, but the shape of the apse walls reveals the upwards continuity of the structure)

This was my third visit to St Mary’s. The main floor of the building is special in its own right, but I knew the ‘attracting power’ of what lay beneath. Most of our companions drank their coffees then melted quietly away down the stone staircase and into the crypt. But, by that time, as leader of our group, I had not only been given ample coffee and biscuits, but introduced to a cleric in a splendid set of robes… somewhat grander than I had expected for a small village.

Bishop Godfrey is well known throughout the North York area. He has served the Christian cause all his life and is now part-retired with a special attachment to Lastingham; a place in which he feels very much at home. He asked about our group and I was honest about our affiliations and goals. He seemed delighted with our attempts at local scholarship and offered to solve my one remaining problem of the weekend…

(Above: the kindly Bishop Godfrey with Briony, one of our companions of the weekend)

Ten minutes later, happy to pose for a photo as long as someone else was in it, Bishop Godfrey waved us with his blessing down into Lastingham’s very special crypt – the final resting place of St Cedd. As I walked down the stone steps I couldn’t help but feel just a little ‘blessed’ as we finally entered the place where the mortal remains of another very special bishop were interred.

(Above: a peaceful figure in meditation…)

Most of the group had already found their bearings, and were quietly exploring the beautiful crypt. But, one figure sat in the middle of a stone pew locked in total inner and outer silence. His back was to us, and he later described how the crypt had both embraced and entranced him… exactly the effect it had always had on me.

(Above: the vaults of the crypt are filled with priceless history)

The meeting with Bishop Godfrey had made me late into the crypt and we had two important things to do. With an inner certainty, I knew that this visit was for my companions. I had done my part in bringing them here and the magical place was doing the rest. Snapping a few photographs to supplement the ones I had taken in October, I sat quietly, giving thanks that the weekend had gone well; and that we had largely achieved what we set out to do.

(Above: just across from the church – the Blacksmiths Arms)

I could see that the group were tired and in need of some lunch. Across the road from the church is the Blacksmith’s Arms, a lovely and traditional Yorkshire pub with a fine Sunday lunch menu. There are no ‘facilities’ in St Mary’s church, but Bishop Godfrey and the landlord have reached an amicable agreement. The pub displays a sign saying that those attending or visiting the church may use the pub toilets but are asked to leave a donation towards the upkeep of the church. The bishop had smiled as he told us of the monthly cheque the landlord brought him…

The lunch was wonderful… An hour later, with the afternoon upon us and time running out, we set out on the last trek – a last walk around the village to visit Lastingham’s celebrated wells.

(Above: the first well is on private property)

Space does not permit too much description, but, briefly, there are four of them. Two are set into the walls of local properties and one is in the garden of a private house near the church. None of these are currently flowing… but the fourth one – St Mary Magdelene’s well – is. The problem is that it’s well outside the village and very hard to locate. On our recce trip in October, Bernie and I had failed to discover its location, despite directions from the Blacksmith Pub’s landlord.

(Above: St Cedd’s well)

But now I was miraculously equipped with the more precise instructions from Bishop Godfrey and I could feel the ‘cogs of happenstance’ aligning.

(Above: St Cadmon’s well)

I explained to our companions that we had the chance to discover St Mary’s well in a very real way. We drove to a where the place where I had given up looking in October and I pointed out the sloping bank to which Bishop Godfrey had directed us.

(Above: Finally found! St Mary Magdalene’s well)

Within seconds, Gary – the figure in a peaceful trance in the crypt – had found it…

We stood around it in an arc and I explained the final purpose of the small empty jars given out to everyone on our opening trip to the beach, so long ago on the late Friday afternoon.

St Mary’s well is a small arch of stonework set into a stream-filled bank that leads down to the small river that flows through Lastingham. And now, as the only person with wellingtons, I needed to fill each of the jars. The only way to do it was to stretch my legs over the small valley of the spring and lean towards the stone arch, reaching down (thank you, Pilates) to fill each jar. I could hear the mental bets being taken that I would end up in the water, but reached the last jar still vertical, albeit locked into the muddy banks on either side…

(Now to try to fill the small jars…)

A set of friendly hands were outstretched in case I lost my footing, but, with one last push and the weekend’s second sound of a mired boot breaking free, I managed to reunite my legs and scramble away from the water and mud. Everyone now had a Christmas candle and a small jar of very rare St Mary’s well water to take away.

Moments later, with jars tucked safely into travel bags, we hugged and said our goodbyes. The Keys of Heaven workshop was over; and it had been a success. In silence, I drove back to Runswick Bay to collect Bernie for our promised beach walk for Tess and our extra night in the location to unwind.

Later, we would walk through the darkness to the Cod and Lobster and reflect on the weekend. But that is where our story began…

End of Series

Other parts in this series of posts: Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine This is Part Ten, the final part.

©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.

Keys of Heaven (9): blown down the mountain

The welcoming warmth of the Lion Inn on Blakey Ridge

continued from Part 8

My companions of the Silent Eye’s ‘Keys of Heaven’ weekend were waiting when I arrived at the Lion Inn. We had coffee and biscuits and discussed the options for our last day of the workshop. Everyone was looking forward to the visit to the celebrated St Mary’s church at Lastingham – the final resting place of St Cedd.

The coffee before the storm…

There was a group excitement; a buzz. Human nature responds to being ‘on top of things’ in both a physical and metaphorical sense. We had all managed to find the Lion Inn – it’s not trivial! We were at the highest point in the North York National Park, but we weren’t here just for coffee and the views. We planned to take advantage of the rich history to be found in the immediate area of the Inn, which, although completely isolated, has a site that has been occupied for hundreds of years; and contains archeology that is thousands of years old.

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(Above) Top of the world…

There are some very special pathways that cross these high 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.

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. In a few rare cases the meeting point defies the often hostile elements by becoming a permanent building of refuge and hospitality.

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(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 York National Park (1,325 feet), it sits astride a crossing of ancient ways and alongside the more modern road linking Castleton to Hutton-le-Hole. The Inn 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 story of the inn on Blakey Moor dates back to the 16th century. During the reign of King Edward III a house and ten acres of land on Farndale Moor were given to the Order of Crouched Friars, who had been unable to find a home in York.. 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 has two. Since that time there has always been an inn here.

We were fortunate that two of the most significant historic sites are adjacent to the inn. All we had to do was take the short walk from the Inn’s door.

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(Above) The Neolithic Burial mound of Loose Howe is next to the Lion Inn

The grave at Loose Howe (above) is a short scramble up a hillock to the east of the inn. It can be seen from the windows in the bar. Here, a Bronze Age chieftain was interred in a boat-like oak coffin: armed, clothed and equipped for his voyage.

Cockpit Howe is a Neolithic burial mound just behind the inn, facing the Ferndale valley, below.

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(above) Cockpit Howe

The ancient Waymarks – standing stones and stone crosses – known as ‘Fat Betty’ and the Ralph Crosses (previous post) bear witness to the continuous tradition of passage over this pinnacle of the North York moors. The earliest history of these markers remains a mystery.

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We had a plan. Our destinations were all within a few hundred metres of the Inn – two of them much closer. The above photos (taken during our recce trip in October) show how simple it should have been…

But…

What really happened, when we stepped out of the Lion Inn on that freezing December Sunday, was this:

Loose Howe stands about twenty metres taller than the Lion Inn. By the time we had climbed half that height the winds were making it difficult to walk forward. By the time we reached the mound itself, we had to huddle or grasp the stone to stay upright.

The expressions and body language are all the narrative needed. Photo by Gary Vasey
Loose Howe – moving safely was a two-person job! The intense wind was literally tearing at our clothes.

It was no better down behind the Inn at Cockpit Howe. If anything, it was worse. The wind was so strong that it was becoming dangerous.

Even strong figures like Gary struggled to stay upright…

By the time we got to the third site, a marker stone a hundred metres down the Blakey Ridge road, only a handful of us were still able stand against the ferocious winds. We knew when to give up.

Only four of us made the final leg along the Blakey Road to the last standing stone…

My success crossing the bog, earlier in the morning, seemed a long time ago…. The winter had won. Our only choice was to abandon the peak at Blakey Moor and escape down the mountain, earlier than planned… However, wildness has its attractions and no-one seemed unhappy with the experience!

But fate and circumstance have a habit of ringing the changes… and continuing to do so. We retreated to the warmth and safety of the cars and, once warm again, drove – slowly – down to Lastingham,

Where the magic was waiting…

To be continued…

Other parts in this series of posts: Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight This is Part Nine

To be continued…

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 perfect teacher?

When the student is ready, the master will appear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accidents, mutations and evolution, say the scientists.

Really?

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

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

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

 

Keys of Heaven (7): the path to gentle darkness

The tiny fishing village of Staithes is a place of peaceful beauty. It lies part way between Whitby and Saltburn on the North Yorkshire coast. It’s geography is also one of the few breaks in the vast cliffs that define this region; and which are the main source of the famous Whitby Jet semi-precious stone.

(Above) Whitby Abbey to Staithes along the Cleveland Way. Image Google Maps

Staithes was our destination… and I was taking a calculated risk in order to give us a dramatic contrast to the morning. The visit to the Abbey – to recreate in our own minds the seismic events of AD664 – had been intense. At the conclusion of the synod, Bishop Colman had known that his world was over; that the new age of Christianity would follow the Roman church model. He took his followers and walked out of the Abbey, northwards.

(Above) Whitby Museum – full of ghosts…

We can never know the emotion that flowed between Bishop Colman, King Oswiu (who was, until that point, a Celtic Christian) and the two facilitators of the synod, Bishop Cedd and Abbess Hild, but we can know that it did exist, and that as wise and experienced a king as Oswiu would not have acted without being aware of the consequences – including the impact on the holy island of Lindisfarne…

Symbolically, the group of us walking against the keen winds on the cliffs beyond Port Mulgrave had as little a choice as had Bishop Colman, walking away from Whitby – but our predicament was brief – whereas his changed the rest of his life.

We had been dropped off a Mulgrave… our only refuge would be to get to Staithes. Our risk was not great. The weather has been kind: windy but not too cold. December on the high Cleveland Way can be very different…

(Above) The sun begins to set on the Cleveland Way, which follows the edge of the cliffs from Whitby, north to Saltburn

Development of the Cleveland Way began in the 1930s when the Teesside Ramblers’ Association pressed for the creation of a long distance path in the north-east of Yorkshire linking existing paths along the boundaries of the North York Moors and footpaths on the Yorkshire coast.

(Above) The Cleveland Way: over one hundred miles of wild beauty from Helmsley to Filey (source)

A formal proposal to create the route was submitted in 1953 to the council North Riding of Yorkshire, by the National Parks Commission. In 1969, the path was finally opened – only the second of its kind in the UK.

Our problem was not the cold. It was the light. The path was muddier than we had expected and progress towards Staithes was slow. At an open place where the views of the coast fell away on either side, we stopped for our final exercise of the day. Once again, we revisited the sequence of four words we had each selected at the opening meal. By now, we knew each ‘pointed’ to a process whereby we could bring to consciousness one related set of psychological obstacles to our spiritual growth. Mine was:

Flattery – Pride – Humility – Will

Facing the wind off the sea, we each voiced how our words could be seen as one of the keys of inner transformation.

With the light beginning to fade, we came down from the cliff path and onto the flat agricultural land that borders the upper village of Staithes.

(Above) The high cliffs from which we had descended to get to the fishing village of Staithes

Below us, the lights of Staithes were twinkling.

A ‘staithe’ is an old English word meaning ‘landing place’. The plural name “Staithes” of the fishing port is due to its twin ‘landing places’; one on each side of the stream that flows down from the moor and into the sea- named Roxy Beck.

(Above) Staithes’ twin ‘landing stages’.

Staithes was once one of the largest fishing ports on the north-east coast. It was also an important source of minerals such as jet, iron, alum and potash. These days, the huddle of cottages nestled between towering cliffs is an attractive holiday destination and lies within the North York Moors National Park.

The village is famous as a source of inspiration for artists, in particular the impressionist artist colony known as the Staithes Group, among them Laura and Harold Knight. The quality of light and the variety of perspectives offered by cliff-top views and winding paths have made Staithes a magnet for artists.

(Above) The timeless image of Staithes’ harbour front

The risk had been worth it. We arrived at our destination just as a gentle darkness fell. We had picked the Cod and Lobster tavern on the main quayside as a meeting point. Those who had been unable to make the walk met us there. After the intensity of the day, we needed simple refreshment. Tomorrow would be a challenging day.

(Above) The Cod and Lobster – our final destination for Saturday

To be continued…

Other parts in this series of posts: Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six This is Part Seven

Whitby Weekend: Lastingham’s Holy Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.