Are we there yet?… Sue Vincent

This week, I will be sharing again a little about the people behind the Silent Eye…

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My grandfather gave me his annotated copy of the Mystical Qabalah by Dion Fortune when I was fifteen. “This is the only magical book that you will ever need,” he told me. “But you’ll fill a good many bookshelves before you get there.” He was right. It was all in that first book; but learning is a spiral and you have to come back to the same point over and over again, bringing new knowledge and understanding each time before you can really see what lies in your hand.

I was born in Yorkshire into a family that was about as spiritually eclectic as you can get. The various members were Jewish / Buddhist / Methodist (but High Church for special occasions), with one grandfather who taught me very early about the Qabalistic Tree of Life, the other a Spiritualist minister and one grandmother a noted psychic, like her mother before her. I attended the Zion Baptist Sunday School with my Hindu and Moslem friends and that pretty much completed the picture. So, throughout my childhood, a lot of things were thrown into the melting pot.

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Everyone, it seemed, celebrated the convergences rather than the differences between their chosen paths and everything was treated as possible. I grew up simply accepting the spiritual journey, encouraged to find my own path forward, not encountering religious or spiritual prejudice until I was much older. There was never any question of there not being a greater reality, it simply was. So was the journey; that meant growing up in the understanding that you hold responsibility for every thought, word and action… not in fear of some celestial tally-keeper; you, your Self hold the scales… and when you look through the eyes of the soul, there is nowhere to hide… it is between your soul and the One.

In outward respects, life was perfectly normal, with me getting into as many scrapes, as much mischief and making at least as many mistakes as any other youngster. Little has changed there, then, except the age… There was nothing, as far as I knew, any different; my family was the same as any other, it was only in much later years I saw how incredibly lucky I had been to have that particular education; educing rather than dictating, letting me stub my toes and learn through experience how I could grow and what I could believe. Nothing was imposed, nothing dismissed with contempt or disbelief; ideas were greeted with an open mind and the acceptance of possibility. I was given a rich education in mythology, folklore and symbolism… and that too I simply accepted at the time as ‘normal’.

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I delved into ‘low magic’… divination, numerology and such through my teens… in fact, all the fragmentary systems you could ‘do’ rather than ‘be’, with the overconfident abandon and incomprehension of youth, while reading all I could find on the Tree of Life, the Qabalah and the magical path. Even now I marvel at the quality of the material available in my family at a time when such books were very hard to find. Then I went back to the Mystical Qabalah and read it again. This time, the dots began to join up. I put aside the ‘doing’, stopped playing with spirituality and started to learn.

For the next ten years, I studied alone, trying to apply the learning to my life. I learned as much from meditation and dreams as from waking. I moved to France, married a musician who had been raised a Catholic and was a member of AMORC, a Rosicrucian order; over the years I added some of their perspective to the store. My mother-in-law was a Martinist and from her I learned about esoteric Christianity. There was the intellectual accumulation of knowledge and a philosophical intent to put it all into practice, but knowing how, finding the keys, would only come with time and living.

In my late twenties, I had what I can only describe here as a life-changing experience that brought the reality of the inner world to vivid life for me. About that time too, I had planned on joining an esoteric school, feeling the need for structure and discipline as well as spiritual companionship, but was clearly shown I should wait, learning to live in the world first. A chapter in one of Dion Fortune’s books, The Training and Work of an Initiate, speaks of serving the Hearthfire; I read it, wept, and resolved to wait.

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We had moved back to England and, although the outer life revolved around the family, the inner life had become very intense too. It was a period of deep commitment, for want of a better phrase and the two separate halves of my life seemed to meld until I realised there was no separation. There never had been, but I had been too blind to see.

It was some fifteen years later when my sons were grown, that I decided once again to apply to a school. Browsing the internet, I read an address by the Director of Studies of the Servants of the Light, Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. The article was called, “To Serve the Light” and in an echo of that day fifteen years earlier, I sat with tears streaming but this time felt I had come home. I commend that lecture to any seeker, no matter what Path you follow.

My years with the Servants of the Light were both a personal joy and a steep learning curve. Much of the theory I had already found in my own studies and meditations, but the discipline, structure and camaraderie were as new as the perspectives and techniques that bring the teachings to life. I felt the connection to others within the school, and to that greater family of those who serve the Light. I knew without a doubt I was in the right place at that time.

Many threads fan out from that moment. It was at a SOL gathering I first met Steve Tanham, albeit briefly. At that same gathering several things happened that would change the expected course of my life and I met a woman who became both a sister of the soul and a teacher who walked with me on a path she herself had taken long ago.

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In 2012 it became plain that my place was with the new school, the Silent Eye… and the rest, as they say, is history. But, of course, the journey continues.

“Are we there yet?”

Well, no. I don’t think we ever are. The longer you walk the path of the seeker, the more you see that there is to unfold, until one day you realise that ‘there’ was already ‘here’… waiting for you to open your eyes and heart. And then off you go again, exploring another curve of the spiral of life, armed with perhaps a little more knowledge, a little more understanding… just enough to highlight the wider horizon that is waiting to be Known.

Spirit y’all? – Stuart France

This week, I will be sharing again a little about the people behind the Silent Eye… this is Stuart’s journey…

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‘Our own journey is entirely imaginary: that is its strength.’

– Louis Ferdinand Celine.

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I grew up in a religiously tolerant family which knew a thing or two about love and faith. Nan left the Catholic Church to marry Gramps and their eldest son, Uncle Geoff, my mum’s little brother eventually rejoined the Catholic Church in order to marry Aunty Cath, which meant that when we went to spend holidays with Little Geoff and Janet and Mandy we went to their Church with them which was Catholic, and when Little Geoff, Janet and Mandy came to spend the holidays with us they came to our church which was Church of England. It didn’t seem odd to do this and it came as something of a shock to realise that in olden times people had lost their lives for less.

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Anyhow, I eventually grew suspicious of a Church which required me to stand and proclaim my belief in something that is seemingly physically impossible and so I ceased frequenting on Sun Day’s, although, I still liked to ‘rock up’ around Christmas time to sing Carols, and even at the height of my teens I could be found attending Midnight Mass of a Christmas Eve.

My Religious Knowledge teacher at senior school was a good sort, Mr Whalley by name. He taught that all religious systems essentially referred to the same ‘thing’ which he called Spirit, and he stressed the personal nature of the contact which could be enjoyed with this thing. I liked the stories too, and not just the Christian ones. I liked all the stories because it felt like they were trying to tell me something, if I would only listen… It wasn’t though an immediately obvious thing and it wasn’t historical either because it went beyond history, although I liked historical stories too. I would have liked to study Religious Knowledge at ‘O’ Level but the selections were not set up right, so I couldn’t.

I suppose, really, I came to spirituality through literature and philosophy which I studied to degree level. One shouldn’t really be putting pen to paper unless one has something communal and good to impart and philosophy, properly, is the ‘Love of Wisdom’.

The Spirit is infinitely wise…

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Knowing that, though, is a lot easier than living it… so, really, my spiritual education was only just beginning when I joined and studied with a series of Spiritual Schools. First, OBOD, The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which teaches love for the Spirit of Nature, then, AMORC, The Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, which teaches love for the Spirit of Mysticism, and finally, SOL, Servants of the Light which teaches love for the Spirit of Magic.

Can anyone conceive a well lived life without a love and reverence for the spirit of nature, and the inherent magic, and mystery of existence in some form or another?

I know I can’t.

I don’t think it is necessary to belong to a Spiritual School in order to be spiritual, quite the contrary, because life itself can be regarded as a school of the Spirit, which of course it is, but joining a Spiritual School can certainly help because what these schools really teach is a series of techniques which enable us to access our natural abilities in order to attune with the spiritual dimension of the world around us in a meaningful and productive way.

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Our School, the Silent Eye, in that respect, is no different from any of the others, we just have a different set of techniques and, perhaps, a slightly more modern approach.

‘The easiest way to approach spirituality is through stories, they are common to every tradition on earth and rather than demand belief all they ask is a willing suspension of disbelief…’
– The Initiate.

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…Y’all come back now… you hear?

My Spiritual Journey by Steve Tanham

This week, I will be sharing again a little about the people behind the Silent Eye, starting with its founder, Steve Tanham:

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Sue has asked Stuart and I to record, in an interview style, our individual spiritual histories. Here’s my offering:

I was born in May 1954. I came into the world (with the help of my mother and a good midwife), in a terraced house belonging to my grandparents in a working-class district of Bolton. I had the good fortune to be born into a Rosicrucian family. My father had come across an advert for AMORC (one of the best-known Rosicrucian Schools) in a magazine he was reading while waiting at a railway station. He was on his way to carry out his basic training at an army camp. Later, he became the spiritual beacon of our family, and my mother married him, largely, she claims, because he was “different” from other men in this respect.

I was enrolled into AMORC’s Junior Order of Torchbearers as a child, and loved the gentle introduction to the Mysteries that they offered. There was no hint of indoctrination in those early lessons (nor since) and the gradient of teaching was very gentle – perhaps too gentle.

Fast forward twenty years and I joined the local “Lodge” of AMORC, in Manchester, of which Dad had been a founding member. I served diligently and, a few years later, became one of the youngest Masters of the local body. The word “master” here corresponds to the use of “Magus” in a magical lodge, and relates to work undertaken rather than spiritual superiority.

diggingdog 266I was first married in 1980. Our two sons were born in the mid-80s and I took a decade off from mystical service to be as active a dad as my busy corporate life allowed. Something in me changed during that period. I became conscious just how much the expectations of being a good son and successor to my father had featured in my earlier involvement with AMORC. I had been dutiful, yes, but had I acted from the perspective of my own soul? No. So, when I re-joined AMORC in 1999 I was determined to approach it from an individual perspective, rather than doing the “expected thing”.

Today, I would recognise that as a breaking free from one aspect of the Superego, but, back then, it came as a growing realisation of the need to find my own path – which is an equally valid way of describing it. That drive, that search for a personal path, became quite dominant and often led me to lonely places. It was only much later, and reading works by such writers as Kishnamurti, that I realised the significance of what I had done. We often have to cross deserts alone . . .

Through the early years of this century I continued to work with AMORC, again becoming Master of the local Lodge (it was actually what AMORC calls a “Chapter”) and going on to become a Regional Monitor and then Grand Councillor for the North of England. Looking back on this period I can see both the spiritual and egoic patterns of my life evolving, as they have to, in a lifetime that contains an unfolding quest of this nature. I often cringe as I revisit the ego-based decisions that accompanied this period in my life. I was enjoying considerable commercial success at work and took that to indicate a cross-life ability to deal with everything in the same way. Looking back, I became insensitive to the many cries for a more gentle approach as I pushed by own “business-like” agenda through AMORC, aided by others who felt the same way. Some of this was necessary, but much of it showed a lack of real spiritual development, and also compassion. The period was also characterised by the pursuit of mystical knowledge, which I mistook for depth. Some very hard lessons lay ahead . . .

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I retired from AMORC in 2006, shortly after I met Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki, the Director of Studies of the Servants of the Light (SOL) and her husband Michael, who ran the administration systems using manual techniques. I remember the grim day on which my father, hearing the news that I had resigned from AMORC, remarked, bitterly, that I had become the “master of surprises”. The wound lingers, but, from where I now look back on those days, I would not have changed that decision.

I had become fascinated by the magical Qabalah and its use of the Tree of Life. To this day, I believe strongly in the power of the right symbol to help teach – and teaching had, by then, already become my passion. I wanted to study with (and assist), an organisation with a genuine lineage back to the time of the Golden Dawn. I was looking for what I saw as an authentic “Englishness” – something that would take me deeper into my own landscape and geographic spiritual heritage. The seven years I spent with SOL were richly rewarding on both sides. Dolores taught me many things, and she, Michael and I shared triumphs and crises together, as I helped bring SOL’s administrative systems into the digital age and put its operating finances back on an even keel. I was not alone in this work, many other lovely people gave their time and efforts to help.

What I learned most from Dolores was the sheer beauty and power of ritual. More than that, I learned how freely we can use ritual, if such innovation is applied with respect for the powers one is dealing with. These powers are not “external” to the human mind. They are directly related to how we engender a change of consciousness in a group, opening a door for the Higher to enter the prepared space; and the prepared people. Towards the end of my time at SOL, I undertook the creation of two annual workshops, using the innovative formula of a single (new) story, told in a number of ritual dramas over a weekend. These workshops were known as Alchemy I and II. Despite being unsure that I could pull this off, I wanted to do this so that SOL members could count on a continuation of the School’s excellent dramatic and ritualistic workshops at a time when the former architects of such events had moved on to other things.

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Dolores and I worked very closely on these, and the results are a living part of me today. I remember what I think of as my “graduation” from her ritualistic nurturing, when, during Alchemy II, arm in arm, we left the temple room in Great Hucklow after one of the main ritual dramas and she turned to me, smiled and said, “Well, they don’t come any better than that.”

Alongside my Qabalistic studies another thread was developing in me, marked by a desire to break away from historical symbolic systems and to find or develop something entirely “modern”. This implied no lack of respect for Qabalistic work, I simply felt that the underlying truths could also be told in a different way. I had studied Gurdjieff as a lone student, since I couldn’t find a school near enough. I was deeply attracted to Gurdjieff’s no-nonsense approach, and the fact that he saw spiritual development as something that should take place during each moment and not be relegated to a remote meditation period. For me, he was also the first person to point out the destructive effect the personality (ego) has on spiritual development, and the importance of countering this, before anything else could be attempted. Many people have had individual “peak” experiences, only to lose their effects shortly afterwards due to the power of habitual responses from the entrenched personality. Gurdjieff did not teach that the personality was a bad thing, simply that it had to be harnessed to the Will of the developed Essence – the personal part of Being that is the deepest layer of our Soul.

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Having come across the original use of the enneagram in Gurdjieff’s work, I was increasingly fascinated by the impact of those who had developed from a Gurdjieffian base and used the principles of esoteric psychology, in conjunction with the enneagram, to tell of the journey of the Soul. With great sadness, I left SOL in 2012 to pursue this, and thus was born the Silent Eye School. I had approached Sue Vincent to work with me as a mystical artist to create what I thought would be a new Tarot deck (really an Oracle, since we were not using the Tree of Life as a basis). She graciously agreed but then found herself drawn to the greater quest and joined me as a founding Director in 2012.

I considered it inappropriate for the new School to be a ‘daughter school’ of SOL, since the symbolic bases were so different. The Silent Eye had to sink or swim on its own merits. Dolores and I agreed to keep closely in touch as the new School began its life.

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I brought with me what I had earned; and took nothing else. A handful of people from our old SOL Lodge in Manchester joined me and I introduced them to Sue, in her new role. Stuart France has since joined us as a fellow Director of the School; and that completes our “triad”.

By founding the Silent Eye we knew we were asking for a process of “rapid personal evolution’ and that it would work on each of us in different ways, according to our strengths and weaknesses. We could not condone teaching what we had not experienced for ourselves. The Silent Eye is focussed on a model derived from a synthesis of esoteric psychology and an inheritance from our former “magical” world. We have therefore, in many ways created the “magical enneagram” – the title of a book I am currently beginning to write.

What we teach is what we have become. It is based on the premise that we are born in contact with our Being – our true home. Life necessarily separates us from being, since we have to learn to be independent in the world. This outer growth via separation develops the Ego or Personality by a process of Reaction. That complex of fear and reaction becomes the pattern of our lives, even if it is well hidden. But Being is ever waiting for us to call it back into our lives, and our Souls are the intermediary to make that happen. I believe the soul to be the vehicle for our experiences in life – that the substance of that experience conditions the outer layer of the soul, which must be washed clean in order for the clarity of its depths to reveal the “lost horizon” of Being from whence it came.

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Looking back on my life to date, it has really comprised two major stages, separated by a ‘turning point’. The first stage, which contained all my outward successes, was really about the word ‘More’. The second stage, which came much more recently, is described by the word ‘Less’. The secrets of the inner life are revealed by a reduction in what we carry, what we wear, what we look through. These are metaphorical rather than literal, though they can be both.

Either way, to be true to your real self, you need to take away that which prevents it shining into the world. It already shines – we can never diminish it, but we can clean and polish the glass in the windows . . .Less is most certainly more.

Are we qualified to teach anyone else? That’s a very good question, in the sense that perhaps, ultimately, we have to take responsibility for our own spiritual education. But, we can, as a School, offer a method and companionship. Methods have an inbuilt danger in that they, too, can become mechanical, whereas a self-found path should always be in the “now” and filled with the emerging vitality of Being. Perhaps the best definition of the Silent Eye is that it seeks to be a Companion along the way, there to converse, to cajole and, above all, to be a friend. The method of distance learning, supplemented by workshops, is the best one we know to achieve this in a manner that is affordable. We are a not-for-profit organisation; we exist to teach and share, and we put a lot of our own resources into that work to supplement the meagre resources of the School.

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I have been told by my treasured colleagues, Sue and Stuart, that I am, essentially, a storyteller. I have always tried to use the mechanism of story-telling in my presentations and in the way I teach. I am passionate about how things are taught; and the Silent Eye’s three year distance learning programme is based on a continuous story – really a guided journey of the soul – to which is added the theory sections which accompany each month’s lesson. I am happy with that label. A good story, well told and brought to life, has been a human tradition around the communal hearth-fire for as long as people have gathered under the stars and looked up.

So if you’ll pass me that jug of ale, I’ll compose myself, draw a deep breath and begin . . .

The value of fluff…

Any journey has to start somewhere…and the only place you can start is at the beginning. For each of us, the spiritual journey will look very different… but at some point along the way, we all encounter what is known in esoteric circles as fluff.

I was always going to end up what my sons call ‘weird’. I was lucky, being born into a family where the term ‘spiritually eclectic’ was the understatement of the century. I was encouraged to question and learn from a wide extended family and, when the time was right, venture out into the unknown and find my own direction.

Between them, my family seemed to cover most spiritual and religious bases. One set of grandparents were a minister and psychic in the Spiritualist Church who, recognising nascent weirdness, wanted me trained as a medium. My other grandfather was a magician. Not the kind who pulls rabbits out of hats, but one who follows the magical path and learns to live by its tenets. His study, forbidden to most, but a place of delight for his small, curious granddaughter, was, had I but known it, a fully equipped ritual space. To me, it was just a magical place where wonderful things lined the walls. Strange diagrams, Egyptian gods, intriguing symbols… and a black mirror, the surface of which became a portal to a land where the rules of reality were other than those I knew.

It was this magical path that spoke to me. As a teenager, taking my first uninformed and tentative solo steps, I read everything on the subject that I could find. My grandfather’s books, the few rare volumes the local library could provide, odd tomes picked up in dusty shops and anything I could persuade the reference library to disgorge from the deepest, darkest vaults.

You soon learn which writers have something to say and which are simply riding the waves of curiosity. There has always been a market for books on magic; the majority are simply fictional or sensational. Some fictional works, written by those who have lived and worked with the magical systems, use storytelling as a way to explain and illustrate spiritual and magical concepts in action. Most of it, however, is written with little practical knowledge, often with one eye on entertainment and the other on the royalty cheque. Beyond fiction and sensationalism, though, there is a core of writers who genuinely walk the path and whose work may point you in the right direction. Sometimes, that direction is not what you first think it to be.

In any area of study, garnering knowledge via the intellect is an empty pursuit unless it is put to work. Until it is used, there can be no real understanding of its wider implications and true value. You may read as many books on plants and soil types as you wish, but you will not become a gardener or understand the beauty of encouraging a plant to grow, until you put your hands in the soil. For many who begin on the esoteric path, knowledge itself can be a trap. Magical systems and correspondences make a fascinating study and can occupy the whole attention until you forget why you began in the first place.

Looking for practical applications of what I was learning, I realised that, without joining a school… for which I was still too young… there was little I could do.  So, faute de mieux, like many who are drawn to this path, especially as youngsters, it was the readily accessible things… like tarot, palmistry and numerology… with which I started.

And… at least as I first began to use these applications… they were spiritual fluff.

‘Fluff’ is a derogatory term for those things which, although often rooted in something much deeper, are either being glossed over and played with like bright, shiny toys or are being used with neither desire nor intent to delve into their deeper meaning. Many such things are widely known only in their degenerate and superficial forms and, as such, are dismissed as having no value. Even fluff, though, may serve a purpose.

By my mid-teens I was reading palms, working with numbers and reading the cards. It was never about fortune-telling, even then. I had at least grasped that much. For me, they offered windows into human nature, including my own. It did not take long, however, for the gaps in knowledge and understanding to start letting in the light.

Hands have always fascinated me and this extra dimension of observation offered a real insight… but it was also the first area where I learned that the insights you gain may not be what you expect. Mention palmistry, and many will hold out their hands, expecting an instant reading of their future. Offer a character reading and you soon realise that, no matter what you say, people will only hear what they choose. Palmistry was the first to be discarded.

Numerology was another excellent way of beginning to understand character and also the relationships between numbers. It was a good introduction to working with their symbolism and correspondences too. But it did not take long before frustration set in… I wanted to understand why the numbers had their meanings, where they came from and what they had to teach about a life greater than that of one human being. That too was discarded.

When you buy your first Tarot, it usually comes with a little booklet giving basic meanings. Your first ‘spread’ will doubtless ask a fairly predictable question, relating to some current issue. The answers can be surprisingly revealing and helpful, but even here, there was a sense of frustration. I did not believe that I could ‘magically’ choose the cards to give me the ‘right’ answer… nor did they choose themselves. I soon arrived at the conclusion that I was missing something.

And this was where the fluff became useful. Frustrated by the limitations of what I had learned, I sought to understand what value these practices might truly hold…and where they could lead.

Palmistry rehabilitated itself for me, though I never took it up again, when I learned that physicians use hands in diagnosis. In the West, this is limited to things like colour, temperature and anomalies of the nails, but in both China and India, the lines themselves are used. It had also taught me how blinkered we can be regarding our own self-image and how impossible it is to change what we refuse to see.

For me, the Qabalah held the keys to unlocking a deeper use for the Tarot and the beginning of a more profound understanding of numbers. The cards have never been discarded, but I use them for a very different purpose these days, as gateways to the subconscious and their images form part of a map of existence. Numerology I think must be a degenerate form of gematria; both are based upon the fact that in many ancient languages, letters also have a numerical value. But, where numerology skims the surface and holds a mirror up to life, gematria seeks to elucidate those hidden and inner meanings pertaining to Life.

The frustration of fluff and the desire for understanding that it engendered set my feet firmly on a path that continues to evolve.  Looking back at my inexperienced self, I would shake my head in despair, except for one thing… fluff served me well. Without its limitations, my journey would have been much poorer and my spiritual landscape would look very different.

Some of the things we encounter are, undoubtedly, no more than fluff… far too light and insubstantial to hold meaning in and of themselves. Even so, we should not dismiss them as being of no value. For some, they may represent the first step to climb a personal Everest and a journey that will last a whole life long.

 

A horseshoe nail…

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For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

That old rhyme has a lot to say. It is usually interpreted as being an admonition to pay attention to the small details from which cascade larger events and possibilities. The implication is that if a small thing is overlooked through lack of attention or laziness, then we may wreak havoc with the outcome of whatever we attempt… either individually or in the larger arena of life.

I thought of this rhyme after a comment was made about the pointlessness of an individual life. It reminded me of conversations with my sons when they were younger, where we established that without their presence in the world, it would not just be my life, but the whole of existence that would be changed. Ineradicably altered. What if we are the horseshoe nail?

I remember discussing with them the effects of their subtraction from existence. All the ‘what ifs’ that shower from that point of erasure. If they were not, then perhaps ten generations in the future the man who changes the fate of the planet would not be born, the cure for cancer not found… how can we tell? The branches of any family tree spread wide and in only a few generations its scions may be far from the original root. Were any one of us subtracted from the great mosaic of life it would not only change the world now, but for all the future yet to come.

Which is all very well, and theoretically interesting, but that doesn’t help the person sitting alone, day after day and wondering why they cling to a life that may seem to be without meaning.

Yet who can know how much difference a single life may make? We don’t always know how our friends really feel, as most have a public face that can hide a great deal and the word of affection, that bit of care, might be more meaningful that we can see. We cannot tell if a casual word of praise or encouragement, a much-needed shoulder or a friendly smile may change the day for another. Nor can we know how hard that day has been, or how many other hard days have preceded it… how tired, lonely, desperate or despairing a stranger may feel. There is no feedback, no report card that says, ‘you saved a life today’… yet it may be true. We can never know.

Even the apparently negative actions of others may be the catalyst for change, the tipping point that galvanises us to address injustice, learn empathy and compassion… so many possibilities flower from each moment and each life and we gather our own lives from that garden.

The life we share is a shared life, the actions of each of us cascade like a domino race across the face of time. Every life has its place, its purpose and its value. Even if we cannot always see it.

Wings of love

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The red kites are teasing me again, circling low over the garden… until I grab the camera, disappearing in their typical fashion as soon as the lens is pointed skywards. They were at it all morning, yet all I managed was a blurry pic and a handful of distant dots in the sky as usual.

I love those birds and cherish an ambition to get a really good photograph of the great birds in flight, one of these days. I can get a clear picture when they have landed, but in flight it always seems that I click the shutter when they are head down, or in odd positions where it is difficult to see their majesty, or a blurred one eye to eye. The birds seem to smile at my naivety.

It reminds me of the incident with the feathers. When we first began following the kites all over Buckinghamshire, it seemed that everywhere we went there were feathers of every conceivable colour. I kept picking them up. Stuart shook his head every time I took anything out of my bag, as clouds of the things fell out, the interior of the car began to look as if someone had been pillow fighting and I had feathers of every variety… except kite.

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Then, on one exceptionally hot day, we climbed our first real hill and walked miles in the heat. It was right at the beginning of the adventures that led to the writing of The Initiate and we barely knew what we were getting into at that point. It was, looking back, the first real physical effort we had put into our quest too. We walked up through ancient earthworks, seeking the path with dowsing rods and really getting a feel for the landscape. I remember Stuart talking about the sacrifice of energy required to climb the hills as part of the ‘contract’ with the heart of the land…. and then a red kite flew out of the sun.

We walked on, awed, in the searing heat… waterless as usual… climbing ever higher and following the ancient path of the Ridgeway, until I caught sight of something. I bent to pick it up… a whole bunch of kite feathers, plucked, it seemed, from the breast and shimmering with unexpected iridescence. We felt then that we had been accepted for the quest. If that sounds odd, it must be remembered that we had learned to trust and follow the birds, heeding the lessons in their flight, so it felt ‘right’ in ways I probably can’t explain. That afternoon unfolded with magic as we began to understand where and how we were being led.

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I came home that night and proudly displayed the feathers on the table. And because I left them there, the dog ate them. So, I was gifted a lesson in non-attachment too… and a reminder that a gift once given must be cherished and cared for; take it for granted and all you have is a memory.

So, although I still try for that perfect picture, it still eludes me and it feels as if the denizens of the sky are laughing gently. The elusiveness of the kites holds another lesson too, for some things are simply too big to fit inside a camera or to frame within the terms of the physical world. They are gifts of the moment to be treasured. Sure, I might get a good picture… but the great birds are more than just beauty and aerial grace; to watch them fly is to watch the spirit of the air and the feeling that brings is one of awe; something I don’t think any photograph could capture. They evoke a feeling I can only call love and it seems I can watch to my heart’s content, accepting the gift and grace of their presence, as long as I do not attempt to pin down their grace and essence… which is exactly how love should be.

Yet there is an acknowledgement, a reciprocal amusement, it seems, where I still try and they indulgently tease; a daily reminder that both spirit and love exist in freedom and their gift is there to be known, accepted in all simplicity, for as soon as you try to hold them, they lose something and are changed. You can only accept the gift and the grace when it is given… and cherish it.

If I get that ‘perfect’ photo one day, it will not be when I try to take it, but when it is given. All I can do is be open to the gifts of the day…

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Quest for a Quest: The Initiate’s Story

Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

17-19 April 2020

A Living Lore Workshop.

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

Fragments of Light

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I was talking with my son about the way life works out. The daily round of events and occurrences great and small that seem to be scattered, like pieces of broken glass, across the table of time. Some events hit your life with all the destructive power of a truck at full speed. Caught in the emotions of the moment it is hard to see beyond the pain, the fear, or the grief. Some are joyous rays of light casting bright pools of colour in the shadows. Most are the simple small-doings of everyday.

Taken individually, like pieces of a puzzle, they can be difficult to interpret… a patch of featureless blue or indistinct green may be hard to place within the image… especially if you don’t know what the picture is to begin with. Yet with a little patience, the pieces can begin to fit together. A detail here, a match there, and you begin to see the sense in the colours, to get an inkling of what the picture may be.

I am reminded of this when I am wandering around the old churches with their beautiful stained glass. Look too closely and they are just fragments of colour, odd shapes and sizes with little meaning. Stand back a little and the picture becomes clear. You can see how the seemingly random shards have been pieced together by a master hand to produce a glowing jewel of an image.

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Some windows are simple; easy to read, as the images are those we readily recognise from life. A face, a form, a creature or landscape. Others are abstract and require closer attention and more thought before the design becomes clear.

In some places, I see where fragments of glass have been salvaged from the destruction of history. There is no knowing what the original image may have been, yet the shards have been lovingly collected and fashioned into something new… different from the original design, but having a beauty all of its own when the light shines through.

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All the fragments have their place. We may not always see the bigger picture to know where they are supposed to fit, especially when we are concentrating too closely on the details. They may seem as though they will never make sense, or even as if they do not fit our design at all. Sometimes it seems things need to be broken apart so, as a friend put it, the light can shine through. Even the most glorious window, after all, is colourless in the dark. It is only with the light that the beauty becomes visible. The fragments of glass may make the picture, but only the light behind it gives it life.

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Our own lives are so much like these fragmentary shards, a jumble of bright and dark as we immerse ourselves in them, dwelling on the details and getting so close we have no hope of seeing what the picture holds. If we stand back a little we may get a better idea, seeing the traced design running through our days.

When you are lost in the events it is hard to make sense of them, but looking back you can sometimes see how all the pieces, light and dark, have their place and time, taking on a rhythm and a purpose, building up the picture that is our own becoming.

Walking through history

We were out before daylight again, the dog and I. In spite f the storms, wind and rain, there are daffodils in flower and everywhere there are signs of spring. While the human half of this pre-dawn duo cowered gratefully in an overlarge coat, the smaller, but more energetic half bounded along joyfully, breathing steam like a miniature dragon. A resilient creature, impervious to the rain in, I realised, a resilient landscape.

Instead of our usual walk through the fields, and because I needed to call at the village shop, we returned to old haunts and walked down the lane towards the hamlet of Wormstone, so tiny it gets a mere one-liner in Wikipedia. Parish records indicate the name is derived from the Old English for Wærmund’s farm, but I have always preferred to wonder if there was an older, more interesting story of dragons and sacred stones behind the name. And why not? Man has always dreamed and wondered.

Still, even the name Wærmund takes the history back well over a thousand years, and I crossed the path of the old Roman road as I walked, taking history back even further, catching a brief glimpse of the site of the Iron Age remains in the fields beyond. Prehistoric flint tools have been found here, and human occupation seems to have been a constant in the area. There is even archaeological evidence of a vineyard under the site of the school, which, on this cold and wintry morning, seems rather bizarre, though gardeners still tended their allotments alongside the site until work began on the new houses that are being constructed.

To the casual observer, there is no evidence of this history. Few of the villagers seem to be aware of the long story of their home and the changes wrought by man are overlooked unless they are obvious… and then we simply accept them as part of the landscape. It does not take very long for life to move history forward or for Nature to colonise and conceal the traces of human habitation, folding a green counterpane around our passing.

The dog does not ruminate on her place in history. Her attention is immediate, especially when the jewel colours of a pheasant stands bright against the green or the red kite calls from the air. I huddle in my fur-lined coat and watch instinct take over as she freezes into the classic setter stance and I  cannot help but smile at the simplicity of her joy in her futile pursuit of winged creatures.

We are, after all, such small creatures. Our individual lives insignificant when compared to the slow life of a stone or the majesty of a mighty oak. There are ancient trees in the landscape here, beneath whose boughs lovers have met for centuries. Streams whose waters have run through the chalk to the rivers and seas, rising to the heavens before falling again to give life to the ground.

Every life matters, every life has its place in the pattern of this rich tapestry. We matter to ourselves and to each other, to those we love and who care for us, to those affected by our actions or our work. We matter in the grand scheme, because without each and every life the design would be incomplete and different. Imperfect.

Insignificant as we seem, every single one of us changes the world every day by the choices we make and the actions we take. We can change it for the better or for the worse, but change it we do. No matter how small the arena in which we feel we live, the effect we have on those around us and our immediate environment is real.

As a race, a species, we have deliberately altered the face of the planet more visibly than any other species, adapting it to our needs. Our actions have wide-ranging consequences for the lives of the other creatures with whom we share this world. Even the least of us can reach out across the globe with the technologies at our fingertips.

As individuals, we are not responsible for humanity’s collective past, but we hold its future in our hands. We are responsible for the mark each of us leaves as a footnote in history, even if our individual stories are neither written nor remembered but fade like the morning mist wraiths in the sun. The mark we leave on the greater landscape of life, no matter how faint,  is indelible.

Horseman in the Mist

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The lovely town of Cassel, near Lille in Northern France, is shrouded in mist – the same mist that had accompanied our first ever visit to the World War One cemeteries of Vimy and Notre Dame de Lorette.

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(Above: The town of Cassel in the populous Nord region of Northern France)

Six of us are slotted, snugly, into the mid-size people carrier bouncing at speed into the centre of Cassel. Behind us are a variety of warm coats that are going to keep us alive when we get out of the car. It’s freezing out there… and misty. It’s a biting cold that has followed us throughout our trip.

It’s all very French…

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(Above: The market square in Cassel. It’s so cold that taking photographs is painful..).

Christophe beats another driver to the one remaining free spot in the market square of Cassel and steps out, smiling at the cold. He slides on his thin coat. He’s our resident ‘action man’; a runner, swimmer and cyclist. The day before, he insisted on taking us to a long beach in northern Calais so that we could walk one of the family’s dogs… and he could swim in the sea… In mid-mid January, for heaven’s sake…

That brief cameo is amusing but doesn’t do him justice. He’s very intelligent and full of warmth. He’s a man of immense hospitality. Three years ago I didn’t know he existed. My wife, Bernie, discovered his family through the online Ancestry website. We had known the French side of the family existed, as my great uncle Stephen stayed in France after surviving the WW1… including the Battle of the Somme, whose site is only a few miles away. Christophe is his grandson.

Stephen married a French girl – the daughter of a baker in St Omer. They trained him up as (in their own words) ‘a kind of baker from Bolton‘, and he and his new wife prospered and had four children. We’ve visited Stephen and Adrienne’s grave. It was quite a moment.

Christophe is their grandson… and my second cousin. For over eighty years the two branches of the family were lost to each other. I’m hoping to write a book on the story and the amazing stroke of luck that led to the discovery of their existence.

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(Above: location of Cassel. Source Wikipedia)

Christophe and his mother, Mado, have brought us to Cassel as part of a day’s touring to show us some of their favourite towns in this part of France. The department of Nord lies in the far north of France, It was formed from the western halves of the historical areas of Flanders and Hainault, and the Bishopric of Cambrai. The nearest city is Lille -where the other branch of our long-lost family lives. The French Flemish dialect of Dutch is still spoken here, side by side with modern French.

The first thing to say about Cassel is that it’s a town on a hill – Mont Cassel. This is a flat part of France. At 176 metres above sea level, Mont Cassel towers over the surrounding countryside. Its peak offers a vantage point from which you can see all of the surrounding landscape… If the prevailing weather is not freezing fog as it was during our visit.

The main rock of the hill is limestone, capped with a harder outer layer of iron-bearing rock. This geological layering has made it an ideal base for military and social fortifications throughout its long history.

The hill was occupied during the late Iron Age by the Menapii, a dominant Belgic tribe who made their hill fort the capital of a vast territory extending from Calais to the Rhine. The Menapii fought against Julius Caesar, but the Roman governor of Gaul, Carrinas, subsequently quelled their rebellion, and the Menapii culture and territory were absorbed into the Roman Empire. The modern town takes its name from the Roman settlement, not the later middle ages fortification shown in the historic map, below:

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(Above: a painting from a 1641 edition of Flandria Illustrata showing the ‘peak on a peak’ on which the medieval castle stood. Flandria Illustrata was a description of the main towns and villages of the former country of Flanders. Little remains of the castle.
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(Above: The start of a very strange hill…)

But, first, Christophe wants to show us a different face of the hill in Cassel. The summit and its fortifications have long been re-purposed, and Christophe points us up a steep, cobbled path with some very strange concrete ornaments.

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(Above: the Alpin Stairs – considered a Bel Époque masterpiece in its day)

From the information board:

“The Alpin Stairs are a vestige of ‘rock-work’ architecture, typical of the end of the 19th century, like those at Buttes Chaqumont in Paris.

These pseudo-rustic architectural compositions imitate mineral or vegetable elements like stone or wood.’

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(Above: Another visitor postcard from the turn of the century)

I stare at the concrete forms. They are old and dirty; and it’s necessary to see beyond that facade to get to the spirit of their origin. The visitor board goes on to say that they were designed for two purposes: ‘to reflect nature and to remind visitors of the ‘atmosphere of the mountains’. In that latter sentiment, I can suddenly see what they meant… and with that comes a memory of another artist and architect of the time of the Art Nouveau movement – Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

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(Above: Glasgow’s own Charles Rennie Mackintosh had similar goals – to reflect the forms of nature)

At the top of the Alpin Stairs we come into the Jardin des Mont du Recollets (Garden of Remembrance). Normally, it provides expansive views over the plains of Flanders and, on a very clear day, the North Sea, but not today…

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(Above: from the elevated gardens, the view would have been spectacular…)

Historically, it was said that from Mont Cassel you could see five kingdoms: France, Belgium, Holland, England … and Heaven. We smile, ruefully and turn to examine the beautiful gardens.

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(Above: The Ornamental part of Cassel’s Garden of Remembrance)

Beyond the geometric beds, the pathway winds round a beautiful set of willow trees, frosted with the freezing fog. At this point the fog begins to add great beauty to the place..

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(Above: the freezing fog adds great beauty to the gardens)

The Kasteel Meulen is a real ‘Castle Windmill’ situated on the highest point of Mont Cassel on the site of the former castle. The original windmill, constructed here in the 16th century, burned down in 1911. It was replaced in 1947 by an 18th century windmill that was moved from nearby Arneke. The mill works and is still open to the public during the summer.

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(Above: the Castle Windmill is a functioning mill, open to the public in the high season)

The garden also hosts an equestrian statue of Marshal Foch and the Monument of the three battles. Marshal Foch was the Supreme Allied Commander during WW1 and Cassel served as his headquarters between October 1914 and May 1915.

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(Above: the dramatic statue of Marshal Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander during WW1)

He moved his headquarters to Cassel to take advantage of its strategic position near the northern end of the Western Front.

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From 1916-1918, Cassel was the headquarters the British Army under Sir Hubert Plumer. The town avoided major damage during the war, though it came under occasional shelling when the Germans advanced to within 18 kilometres during the Battle of Lys in April 1918, shortly before the end of the war.

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(Above: We leave quietly. The gardens have cast their beautiful spell – even in the cold fog…)

We leave the Remembrance Gardens quietly. They are a place of great beauty and contemplation. We may never be back and it feels good to have spent time here…

©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.