At the heart of an ancient landscape is the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas. The village grew up around a Benedictine Abbey founded there over a thousand years ago and it is still a place where folklore, myth and legend come together…and few of them agree.
The holy spring rose from where St Augustine struck the ground… or where St Edwold saw a vision, depending on which story you prefer, just as the giant on the hillside dates from the Iron Age… or is a seventeenth century political statement. The mysteries here are real… but underpinning them all is the fact that the place was undeniably seen as sacred.
The name is interesting in itself in that respect; ‘Cerne’ is believed to come from a Celtic word for ‘stone’ and ‘Abbas’ is the Medieval Latin ‘abbot’, which means ‘father’. Does the name refer to the Abbey, or did the abbey take its name from the chalk-cut Giant? If so, would that make him the ‘Stone Father’? Some have likened the image to that of Hercules, and there are traces of what could have been a lion skin draped over his arm. In Arabic, ‘abbas’ means not only ‘father’ but can be used to speak of the lion, while in French, ‘cerne’ means circle… and the imagery of the golden-maned lion as the sun is present in many cultures.
Add to the mix that Cernunnos is the name of a Celtic god of fertility, and even the name of the village itself becomes an intriguing mystery. But…if all the tales point to the ‘father’ in the landscape… where do we look to find the Mother? Perhaps we must first look for the Maiden? And what other secrets does this landscape hold?
It is at the heart of this land of wildflowers, myth and mystery that the Silent Eye will be holding its June workshop weekend. Join us this summer on our pre-solstice event for an interactive excursion into the Living Land of Dorset…
The Giant and the Sun Cerne Abbas, Dorset Friday 15th – Sunday 17th June 2018
The weekend is informal and open to all, no previous knowledge or experience is required. We ask only that you bring your own presence and thoughts to the moment.
Workshop costs £50 per person. Accommodation and meals are not included and bed and breakfast/hotel in Cerne Abbas should be booked separately by all attendees. Lunch and dinner are usually shared meals.
History and Mystery on Caldey Island – Final Part (5) , Warriors of the Heart
Their age is uncertain, but most observers place them as medieval. I’m no expert in ancient Christian symbolism, but, on my first visit to Caldey, a decade prior, I knew that the uncovered plaster etchings on the lower walls of St Illtud’s church were unusual. My first reaction was that they could also be partly alchemical, but I have no evidence for this, other than the initial impression of certain visual similarities.
Now, I was back, with a better camera, and determined to obtain a good set of photographs despite having to crouch low to take the shots of the old stone etchings which line the lower walls of St Illtud’s church.
A sun drawn as a circle (see first photo, above) with a smaller circle inside it. Four straight lines radiate from the upper and lower verticals, and the left and right directions. Further straight lines radiate out in each quadrant, but the mid line of each quadrant is wavy, as we might draw a ‘wavelength’ line in physics.
A dove descends (second photo) – a common Christian symbol of the the Holy Ghost – but this dove descends from a figure of the sun above, and its own body radiates the ongoing life to those below.
Three fishes swim in a sea clearly marked by its surface (third photo). The three fishes form what looks like the head of an arrow pointing downwards. Smaller fishes curl at the lower edge of the piece, but these are not part of the power of three represented by the core group. Three is, of course, a symbol of the Trinity; and, prior to Christian thought, the mystical symbol of creation, ‘three primary forces in one’, the radiating of divine will into the ‘primal stuff’; the embodiment of that will; the projection from the ‘male’ energy of a receptive ‘female’ form into which the potency of the male may reside… leading to the birth of the world, or should we say, our realisation of the birth of that world…
Esoteric Christianity contains some of the most profound mysticism in the history of mankind and I wondered how much of this was being shared by the creators of these designs, etched in the past, where the ‘past’ is anything from one hundred to one thousand years ago.
There are over twenty of the ‘etchings’. When I first came to Caldey, they were dilapidated; and many were mouldy. Now, they had been lovingly restored (in red and gold) under the supervision of Father Gildas, the Abbot of Caldey, though he recently confessed to the local newspaper, The Western Gazette, to knowing very little of their origin.
What is known is that the site of St Illtud’s church was the original home of the 6th century Celtic Christian church; the medieval Benedictines; and the more recent group of monks who created the modern religious landscape of Caldey in the last century. Although the present Abbey is Cistercian, the founding group of monks of the recent cycle of habitation were also Benedictines, and led by a very unusual man – Dom (Father, from Latin Dominus, master) Aelred Carlyle, also chronicled by some as the “Lord Abbot” and the “Druid Abbot” due to his highly unusual approach to his calling…
Dom Aelred Carlyle began his working life in London, where he tried to establish an institution that helped underprivileged young men to fit themselves for gainful work. This failed and he found himself in a series of roles, culminating in a vision that the restoration of Caldey Island as a place of isolated Benedictine worship should be the goal. He was, to say the least, an unusual man, not to mention an very ‘different’ priest. We would expect the word Benedictine to be associated with the Catholic faith, but Dom Aelred Carlyle’s followers were Protestant Benedictines – a line descending from the survivors of Henry VIII’s dissolution of most of the monasteries in 1536.
Dom Aelred’s proposition attracted some sponsorship, and, in 1906, the then owner of Caldey Island, the Rev Done Bushell, Chaplain of Harrow School, agreed to the sale of Caldey with certain strict provisions, including the construction of a formal guest house for visitors, who would be expected to pay, handsomely, for the privilege of being ‘part of the community’ for a while. A train was chartered to bring the Don Aelred’s existing Benedictine community from North Yorkshire to Tenby, where they were allowed to rest and wash, before making the short crossing to Caldey, their future home, in a local boat.
We have to admire their bravery, as they worked to complete the restoration what is now St Illtud’s church, at the same time as trying to feed themselves from the land and sea. The site of the Celtic and medieval communities had become, once more, the home to monastic worship on Caldey.
Sadly the story goes downhill from there. A series of grandiose plans for one of the largest abbeys in Europe were expensively shelved. But the present Italianate abbey was designed and built – taking Dom Aelred’s group massively into debt.
By 1929, the project was no longer viable–despite the construction of the present set of buildings, and the abbey was taken over by the Belgium (Catholic) Cistercian monks whose spiritual ‘descendants’ are today’s inhabitants. It is a tribute to them that they have continued to maintain and further restore St Illtud’s church and its long history. Today, the abbey is financially secure and the community is growing.
There remains one more treasure to document before closing this set of posts: that of the stained glass window in the sanctuary of St Illtud’s church.
One of the unsung heroes of the present-day story of St Illtud’s is the Rev William Done Bushell, who restored the church in the closing years of the 19th century, and was the man who sold Caldey to Dom Aelred’s Benedictine group. To crown the restoration, he installed the large sanctuary window, which shows St Illtud (also written St Illtyd) as a young Arthurian Knight, being visited by an angel who urges him to turn away from Arthur’s court and return to the religious life of his youth. It’s an interesting and potentially controversial message, given the mystical interest in the inner symbolism of the Arthurian stories today.
Perhaps we are best ending this by thanking the present monks for their care of precious things from the near and far past, and for keeping those treasures alive for us all to see… and wonder at…
I will conclude with a view of Caldey’s ‘Calvary’ monument, overlooking the arrival and departure of its visitors, and the borrowed sentiment we often use in the Silent Eye School: “there is only one truth but a thousand windows through which to see it…”
History and Mystery on Caldey Island – Part Four, Two Ships
There were two ships on that day, each of them spoke of other dimensions…One completed our journey back from Caldey, in a way that could only be seen as symbolic. The other was the vessel called St Illtud’s church, whose foundations, and, perhaps some of the contents, had carried the ancient wisdom of the sixth century and beyond, so that we could gaze on it today with something approaching wonder.
St Sampson (above) was the first Abbot of Caldey island. He established the 6th Century Celtic Christian church, and later, its monastery, on the site that is now a ruin, apart from the outbuildings which form the perfume factory and the church of St Illtud.
The latter is mysterious home of everything talked about in this post. St Illtud was the founding ‘father’ of the Celtic church in this part of Wales, and his personal influence spread as far south as Brittany. It was fitting and generous, therefore, that the Cistercian fathers who took over Caldey’s Benedictine Monastery in 1930 should re-name the original church of St Mary, which stood on the site of Samson’s monastery, St Illtud’s.
(the previous posts have discussed the history of worship on Caldey, see the foot of the post for fast links)
There is a growing interest in Celtic Christianity. Many see joy in its directness of worship and its sexual equality, and much spiritual vitality is seen in its art, such as the wonderfully ‘illuminated’ Lindisfarne Gospels. Celtic Christianity, derived from the Eastern Christian tradition and influenced by the Desert Fathers, was heavily oriented towards the works of John the Evangelist, which are widely seen as the most mystical of the Gospels.
To quote from Andrew Dunn, an authority on the role of Celtic thought within modern Christianity:
“The Johannine emphases on the presence of God among us, the Word made Flesh, the Spirit who has come in Jesus’ name, the risen Lord speaking to his Church and drawing it, and all believers, into union with him (“Abide in me and I in you . . . without me you can do nothing”1) – all moulded the Celtic way.”
Celtic Christianity flourished on the fringes of Britain – particularly in the West, coming here from Ireland, and, prior to that, from the Eastern Church via Brittany, where there were training schools for early priests who would spread the word of the original church.
The Synod of Whitby, in 664 A.D., marked the official end of the endorsement of what we now call Celtic Christianity. It was gradually replaced by the Roman view of how Christ’s life should be viewed and emulated. But the Celtic Christian faith did not die out quickly, instead, it went underground, and continued to flourish for hundred of years in those Western reaches that had given it its early life.
Prior to all this, the people we now view as the original ‘Celts’ had been quick to adopt it. In their turn, the descendants of these people were keen to defend it, seeing in it a vital link to their forebears’ beliefs that nature was the ‘Second Book’ and that an understanding of the Divine Feminine was key to finding the ‘spirit’ in the world.
Rome took a different view and, even today, wrestles with the results…
When great beauty is expressed as spiritual art, as it has been from time immemorial, it presents the observer with an experience, rather than a seen thing. In the Silent Eye, we honour many of the ideas of the philosopher Gurdjieff, including his statement that such art reaches inner parts of our consciousness because it is objective – that is, it speaks an exact truth which is beyond the filters of belief, thought and prejudice applied by the subjective ego.
To create objective art requires that the ‘artist’ bring it into existence with this purpose in mind; and that such creators are then assisted by the innate power of truth in a creative process that can easily be seen as religious, but which can be described in many other ways, too, including those used by mystics. The inner cores of the world’s religions have always stressed that there is only one truth – and many windows through which it may be viewed.
In the Silent Eye, we use the ‘stations’ of the enneagram as, firstly subjective, and latterly, objective windows by which the evolving soul can come to gaze on the beauty of its origins…
There are three wonderful elements of St Illtud’s church that speak of what I have come to think of as its spiritual ‘playfulness’ of purpose. One is the Caldey Stone, with its Ogham script, introduced in the last post; the second is a set of plaster engravings which depict very early Christian images; and the final one is a magnificent stained-glass window of St Illtud, himself – but with a very mysterious subtext…
We will consider the Caldey Stone in this post and conclude the series next time with a look at the other two.
As far as is known, the Caldey Stone was dug up in the old priory grounds in the 18th century. Local records from the time quote and elderly islander, ‘Ned of Caldey’, as saying that other inscribed stones had existed on the island; but none have ever been found.
The ancient Ogham script was used by the Druids and comprises a series of notches on the edge of the stone. The Caldey Stone, which has both Ogham and Latin inscribed on it, has been translated in several ways. One of the most respected experts, Professor Burkitt, translated the opening words as “With the sign of the cross, I, Illtud, have fashioned this monument.” This interpretation would date the Latin text to the time of St Illtud, who died in around A.D. 535.
But the Caldey Stone is only a single artefact. Around the lower parts of the walls of the Sanctuary in St Illtud’s lower walls sit over twenty plaster reproductions of ancient Christian art, and some of these are very enigmatic, indeed…
History and Mystery on Caldey Island – Part Three, Ancient Suns
I had to crouch down to get the shot of the ancient sun, above. These wonders of ancient history occupy a very quiet place on Caldey Island, one I had stumbled across eight years ago, when we paid our first visit here. Then, the twenty or so plaster (reproduction) engravings were simply white and dusty and looked very neglected. Since then, someone has lovingly decorated them in red and gold.
They were the reason I had come back to Caldey. I remembered the chill of delight that ran down my spine as I first bent down with my camera, brushing dust and cobwebs off the old stone. Now I was back – and someone else had been back, too; someone official.
But let’s take this one step at a time; and return to where we left off: the eastward side of the main Abbey buildings.
St David’s church stands outside the main Abbey enclosure. The Cistercian monks carry out their devotions in their own building, known as the Abbey Church. This was built by the earlier Benedictine monks in 1910. The Abbey Church is the eastern edge of the monastery cloister and was the first part of the Italianate-styled complex. The exterior has changed little, but the interior is far removed from its grand initial design, which burned down during a catastrophic fire in 1940. Today it is a very plain place, but no less sacred for that…
Visitors to the island may sit, quietly, in the viewing gallery, above the main church, to watch any one of the services which are strictly observed, beginning with Vigils at 03:30; then Lauds at 06:00; Concelebrated Mass at 06:45; Terce at 08:50; Sext at 12:15; Vespers at 17:30 and finally, Compline at 19:35.
Between these devotions, the monks work, study and, occasionally, eat. They are vegetarian.
Descending from the Abbey buildings, back to the common below, the path intersects a track that crosses over the raised spine of the island.
The climb takes you into what feels like a much less cultivated part of Caldey, ending on the headland at the place of the Caldey Lighthouse, beyond which there is only the ocean and… Devon.
But, about half way up the steep track, on the Western side, there is something remarkable…
A bank of once-tended gardens, with two of their own small lakes, marks the edge of a former area of cultivation.
An old stone circle – presumably a copy, but who knows? – lies, overgrown at the edge of a set of what look like grandly facaded farm buildings… and they are; but once, they were something else, something very different…
The spire gives it away – as a former church. But this complex of stone buildings, which for centuries has been used as a farm and, latterly, as the island’s perfume ‘factory’ is the site of the original Celtic Monastery which once went by the name of Our Lady Mary’s, and is now known, in honour of the saint who sponsored the original Celtic Christian presence on Caldey, as St Illtud’s Church.
Entering this very special place, you can feel the necessary division between the life of the Abbey, and its focus on the Cistercian Rule; and the more ancient worship of the Celtic Christian world.
St. Illtud’s Church is built on the ruins of the 6th century, original Celtic church and its monastery. Many believe that elements of the original buildings were incorporated into what survives. The most famous artefact, mounted on the wall for all to see and, delightfully, touch, is the Caldey Stone, which contains the ancient Druidic Ogham script (above).
There is also a mysterious stained-glass window (more next time on this) that links the once-Celtic church to the Arthurian legends; and finally, there is that remarkable set of plaster reproduction designs that someone has so wonderfully kept alive to remind us of the most ancient of Christian thoughts and symbols from an age which remembered the teachings of two thousand years ago…
History and Mystery on Caldey Island – Part Two, Layers of the Cold Eye
At the eastern end of the main complex of Caldey Abbey a stone stairway leads upwards to one of the most enigmatic parts of the island.
St David’s is the parish church of Caldey Island. This may seem a strange notion, given that the impressive Abbey is next door, but the island has residents and workers who are not part of the Abbey’s interior life, and their spiritual needs need to be met, too.
All the more strange, then, that parish church of St David’s is built on a small hill which has a remarkable and culturally-mixed history.
At first sight, St David’s church looks plain and in no way ancient. But looks can be deceiving. The main parts of the present building are Norman, but the foundations and, possibly, parts of the nave, are Celtic Christian in origin, dating back to the 6th Century A.D., the time of the first Abbot of Celtic Christian Caldey – St. Samson. Samson was a disciple of the renowned Saint Illtud, whose base was Llantwit Major, now a small town, approximately fifty miles east of Tenby on the coast between Swansea and Cardiff.
“Llantwit Major (in Welsh Llanilltud Fawr) is named as the site of the main church of Illtud, one of the founding Saints of the monastic settlements of the 5th century AD in Wales.”
“Illtud came to this sheltered valley of Hodnant in the last decades of the 5th century. On the Ogney Brook, a mile inland from the sea, close to the site of the present church he founded his monastery.
At its height this was a major centre for education and evangelism in the revived western church, its influence reaching through Cornwall and Devon to Brittany and beyond, led by the students and successors of Illtud, Samson of Dol, Gildas the Wise and Paul Aurelian. Of the nearly thirty churches dedicated to Illtud almost half are in Brittany.”
Saint Samson, as, first a monk, and latterly, the abbot, of the first (known) religious settlement on the island is therefore of considerable importance to the story of Caldey. His importance to the founders of the present Cistercian monastery was highlighted in part one of this series of posts.
The Celtic Christian settlement of Caldey continued until the 12th century, when the island was, once more, abandoned – to remain so until the early years of the 20th century. Historians differ as to the likely cause. Some say that the Celtic Christian monks succumbed to the ‘savagery’ of the marauding Vikings. Others say that the later non-Celtic church exaggerated the Viking’s story for its own political ends and that the invaders were quick to settle and integrate within Britain’s ancient landscapes…we may never know.
It is believed that Caldey’s name derives from two Viking words: ‘Keld’ meaning ‘cold’; and ‘Eye’ meaning island.
All this history lies, unnoticed, beneath the upper structure of what is now St David’s (parish) church…and elsewhere on Caldey, as we shall see…
The surrounding graveyard of St David’s church consists of simple wooden crosses – said to perpetuate the traditions of the ancient pre-history of this iconic hill which has been used as a place of sacred burial since time immemorial. This may be linked to the legends that islands were considered by the Celts to be ‘liminal’ places linking heaven and earth… Today, we might interpret liminal as ‘neither one nor the other’, but in the most ancient of Christian traditions, it could equally be interpreted as ‘partaking of the higher and the lower, producing something more, between…’
Entering the church of St David’s, you are struck by the simplicity of the place.
Simple, pilgrims’ wooden crosses line the entranceway, technically, I suppose, the narthex. Entering the nave you are immediately in a very simple place, yet one not diminished by this. Plain wooden chairs vie for space with the venerable font.
Turning to leave the simple space, everything changes when you look up at the western wall, over the entrance, to see the glorious stained glass design, “The Tree of Life”, created by Dom Theodore Bailey in the 1920s – shortly before the Benedictine presence faltered, to be replaced by the more austere, yet ultimately persistent, Cistercians.
The final image to be mentally taken away is a painting depicting the Christ with his Crown of Thorns, created by Cistercian Brother Gildas in 2008. You leave, feeling that much about St David’s – like the rest of Caldey, is unseen, and only to be revealed by much effort…
Caldey Island lies a half hour boat ride from the beautiful Pembrokeshire resort of Tenby. Tenby is bustling and vibrant. Caldey is a quiet and contemplative, and feels like a very different world.
Bernie and I had visited Caldey many years ago. Back then there were some unanswered questions in my mind, following our short visit; so, this time, I wanted to take a better camera and record some of the things that had fascinated me.
As the above photo shows, just leaving Tenby can be a challenging affair. The Pembrokeshire coast has a wide tidal range and very low tides can mean the whole boarding pier being pushed into or (as above) pulled out of the cold ocean to gain access to the beach or the waiting boat! This is not a luxury crossing…
Once at sea, the splendour of Tenby’s Georgian skyline becomes apparent.
The short crossing ends with a view of a wonderful, golden beach to welcome visitors to Caldey.
Disembarkation can be just as challenging, for, as we shall see later, both ends of the sea journey can involve some ‘roughing it’.
Once on Caldey Island, the routes available to the visitor are well signed. The majority of visitors are there to see the beautiful Cistercian Monastery, but there are other attractions, including the poignant Glade of Calvary.
From the quay, a short walk of half a kilometre reveals the first view of the Cistercian building. The complex of buildings was constructed in the decade from 1906 onwards by a group of pioneering Anglican Benedictines who bought the island island and, in a brave attempt to establish their dedication to the church, set about building the present structures. A bold Italianate style was used, topped by the imposing red towers, roofs and turrets.
In recognition of their efforts, the bold Benedictines were received into the Catholic Church in 1913, but, tragically, increasing financial difficulties forced them to sell the entire island, including the Abbey, in 1925.
The present Order of Cistercians, who live by a stricter and more contemplative variant of the Benedictine Rule, descend from a ‘rescuing’ group of monks from Scourmont Abbey, in Belgium. In 1929, they were sent to ‘seed’ the island as a ‘daughter house’; and to work for its full restoration, though from a slightly different tradition.
In a remarkable gesture, this group of Belgian monks honoured the original sacred tradition of Caldey Island, which was Celtic Christianity, by adopting St Samson, an early abbot of the original sixth century settlement, as their patron saint.
The threads that link back to that Celtic world are everywhere to be seen on Caldey. Some of them are obvious, but many are hidden, suggesting a complex weave of ancient and modern that make up the spiritual foundations of this enigmatic island. These threads will be followed in subsequent posts…