Christmas past…

When I was small, my mother received a Christmas card that she loved. It showed simple silhouettes, in red white and gold, of a lion laid down with a lamb. The majestic strength of the lion held the vulnerable lamb, protected between its great paws. The tiny, fragile creature rested there in perfect trust… and, I have to wonder, of the two, which was the strongest?

Every year, for years thereafter, my mother tried to find something similar because, to her, the image symbolised what Christmas should be… a time of peace. The card meant so much to her that I remember it still, well over half a century later. The design was based upon the biblical saying that ‘the lion shall lay down with the lamb’, referring to a time of peace to come. These days, I know that no such saying exists in the Bible… that the closest is a verse from Isiah that speaks of the wolf laying down with the lamb… but there is much in the remembered image that speaks to the heart.

The heart is more than an organ at the centre of our lives, it is the seat of emotion and a centre of consciousness. Unlike the mind, it does not base its judgements on accuracy and fact, but on what it feels to be right and good. It might be fair to say that belief comes from the mind… for it always contains a choice… while faith arises in the heart where love rules and has its own intelligence.

People of many religions and paths, of many faiths and none, celebrate at this time of year. Whether their celebrations are based upon the love found at the heart of their family and community,  the turning wheel of the year or a religious festival, the message is one of coming together, as the old year draws to its close and a new one is about to be born, in peace, hope and harmony.

At the centre of many of these celebrations is the symbol of a light, be it a star in the heavens or a flame against the midwinter darkness, and that flame can burn within every heart, regardless of the different paths we follow.

Such celebrations are meaningless, though, until we bring them into our lives and hearts. We can all choose the strength of the lion, to champion and protect those in need. We can be as strong as the lamb and place ourselves, vulnerable, between the paws of trust. We can each be a light against the darkness.

However, and whether, you celebrate Christmas, may today bring you peace.

Rivington – The Gardens of Midwinter

rivington pennines 095We had never attempted a Silent Eye pre-solstice workshop before. December in Britain is a challenging time of year to ask a group of spiritually-inclined folks to brave the elements in a pre-solstice ramble in the freezing rain. mud, and, possibly, snow.

But this year we did… We put the idea forward, long in advance, and group of hardy souls turned up for a weekend of companionship to mark the approaching feast of Stephen, the ancient time of the shortest day and longest night, the mirror to the summer solstice–the day of St John, when the poles are reversed.

Our theme was the magic and mystery of what appears to be a very ‘dead’ time of year. From the day of St John, around June 21st each year, the days get shorter. Although still summer, this period, till the winter solstice in December, marks the decline of the light and a ‘victory’ of the growing dark.

What lessons does the darkest point of the year hold?

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The answers can be described by a figure we might relate to the Yin-Yang symbol, where the elements of polarity (in this case black and white) contain within them the seed of the coming cycle. Each part of the symbol, whose shape implies motion or change, is a perfect, if asymmetric, half of the whole. Each seed is both the offspring of what came before and the beginning of the next cycle. Thus, white contains its seeming opposite – black and black contains white. We can imagine an animated Ying-Yang where the seed of (in this case) ‘black within white’ grows to fill the whole of that half figure until it seems to take over the whole. At that very second, when there appears to be no polarity left, the seed of white is born – bringing the half-year of growing light and life into its next cycle, even though the winter is in full force.

In the case of December, the ‘seeds’ of what is to follow are hidden in the wet and cold depths of the earth, saturated and passive; as the only active force – the rotation of the planet – spins the whole into the next half of the dual cycle.

These were the core thoughts for the weekend workshop. We overlaid these with an invitation to our companions to consider the elements of a traditional Christmas – the tree, the child born in a manger, the three wise, men, the shepherds, the mother of Jesus, and the child – born of divinity; and to bring a reading to be used whenever it felt appropriate during the walk.

The landscape of the walk is described later. Our Friday night was spent gaining some cheer from a dinner in a busy pub in Horwich – the closest point to the beautiful moorland village of Rivington, from where we would begin the winter walk the morning after. We finished the Friday evening in good spirits, with a ‘reading in the dark’ in one of our rooms in the nearby hotel, providing a prelude to our re-evaluation of the darkness of winter.

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Saturday dawned, and the weather didn’t look too bad. We left the hotel, dressed in waterproofs and boots, of course, and left one of the cars high on moorland road not too far from where we would finish the morning on the upper level of Rivington’s Terraced Gardens. The gardens are a sweeping set of landscaped levels created by the man who became Viscount Leverhulme, the founder of the Unilever empire. The nearby town of Bolton is my family home. When I was a child, it was a special treat to come and visit this place, which has always held a special magic. We were all very much looking forward to the day, despite the weather forecast.

As a young man and local soap merchant, Leverhulme had courted his future wife on this hillside, and it was to be an area of special interest to him for most of his life. In those days, the only man-made feature of the hill was the stone structure known as the ‘Pike’, perched on the highest point. The Pike looks like a small stone fortress and marks the site of a warning beacon (bonfire signal) used during the English Civil War, when the area around was a stronghold of royalist support. A network of such signal points ranged throughout the high places in the north of England. The Pike is still the scene of much local activity, particularly on Good Friday, when thousands of locals and visitors stream up the hillside in the traditional hill walk.

Leverhulme was an innovative salesman, and soon inherited the original had-cart based business from his father. He is credited with the first ever widespread advertising campaign – something which launched his new company – Lever Brothers, and its brand – ‘Sunlight Soap’ and quickly secured his place in history. As his success and wealth grew, he looked for ways to decrease the costs of soap production and established a ‘model village’ for his workers at the new production facility in what became Port Sunlight on the Wirral. This meant that his shipping costs were not governed by the rates imposed on him by the owners of the Manchester Ship Canal company and he was finally able to have direct access to international waters from the regenerated Port Sunlight docks.

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Despite this, he continued to develop what had now become his country home at Rivington, and, during the economically-critical time of the 1920s, employed most of the stonemasons in nearby Horwich to convert the entire hillside into the series of terraced gardens we seen today. Leverhulme died in 1935. Despite decades of neglect, following the compulsory purchase of the land by Liverpool Corporation for its water rights, the gardens were so well constructed that they retained their basic structure, becoming an overgrown and other-worldly place of mystery for children and adults alike.

Within this mysterious and haunting landscape we were to enact a winter’s journey to mark the Silent Eye’s pre-solstice gathering. Saturday was to be the main day of activity and, since we were not all able to stay at the hotel, the day began with such delights as bacon butties at the Lower Barn, a restored part of the original Leverhulme estate.

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More to follow.