It is said that a chapel dedicated to St Catherine once stood on this hill, looking down at the little town of Cerne Abbas, below.
The original St Catherine was a pre-Christian figure about whom very little is known. She was associated with the symbol of an eight-armed wheel – the famous ‘Catherine wheel’, remembered now in the name of a firework….
Those visiting hadn’t known of the site’s link to St Catherine when the plans for the Silent Eye’s pre-solstice weekend were created by Stuart and Sue. But the presence of symbols related to St Catherine only added to the power of what would unfold in a hidden enclave, below.
Two women wait in the green-kissed shadows of a path leading down to a holy well. They are both recent graduates of the Silent Eye’s three-year course in Self-knowledge. One had her graduation celebrated at the April ‘Jewel in the Claw” workshop; the other has travelled far, from another continent, to be with us on this weekend. In return, we wanted to mark her graduation in a very special way….
The story of St Catherine, like so many of the ancient legends, was absorbed into early Christian mythology. There are many references to her in these parts of the south-west of England, and many are likely to be ‘Pagan’ in origin. The term ‘pagan’ was created to diminish anything that came before Christianity; but the discovery of our own rich spiritual past has given a different tint to this word, in much the same way that the word ‘Quaker’ was originally an insult to those of their persecuted and noble faith.
The woman who has already passed through the rite holds the hand of the other, who is blindfold. The beauty of the place of the flowing water is to be revealed in stages. From the site of the Silver Well, below, the chime is heard. Together: one in knowledge, the other in trust, they descend the path….
In the Christianised version, Catherine was the talented daughter of a noble Alexandrian family. She converted to Christianity as a child, after a vision of the Virgin and Christ Child. After speaking out against a corrupt emperor, she was ordered to be ‘broken’ on an eight-armed wheel. But the wheel broke, rather than its tortured occupant, and the eighteen year old girl was beheaded, instead.
The guiding hand stops the other at the very edge of the flowing water. She can only hear the beauty of what lies ahead. From across the water she senses before her, she hears the first of three voices. A question is asked: she must state what she understands has happened to her in the course of her inner work of three years. There are no right or wrong answers, but the consolidation of the achievement is an important blessing on the soul at this threshold….
The original eight-spoked wheel associated with St Catherine is likely to have been a symbol of the eight agricultural ‘festival’ dates of equinoxes, solstices and the cross-quarter days. Such a finely-tuned calendar would link the subtle changes in the human consciousness to the revolutions of the solar year.
Intense minutes have passed. The three voices beyond the water have ended their friendly questioning. The answers have been recorded and delivered, as a scroll, to the graduate. The blindfold is removed by the guiding companion. The beauty of the Silver Well and its mystical altar are revealed. Ahead of her lies a choice of paths across the stream. There is no wrong path, only what the soul chooses….
When the original St Catherine’s chapel had long gone from its hillside, the monastery of St Augustine stood at the edge of the town; and in its gardens there was a secret place, marked by a well. The well was loved and tended by the townsfolk. It provided much of their drinking water, being at its purest in the spring months when the flow from the hills was plentiful.
The monastery was, eventually, ‘dissolved’ on the orders of the King, whose name was Henry. Only a stone tower (now a private dwelling) and the well, which was likely to have been incorporated into the monastery buildings – as ancient holy wells often were – survive.
(Below: The pure and flowing water is also carved into the top stone of the altar)
She is shown the choice of paths, and chooses the stone bridge, over which the waters of the stream gently wash. Her shoes are removed and, entering the shallow waters, she crosses to the place of the graduates…
Although the monastery is gone, there remains an altar in this holy place. On its front edge are the Christian words ‘Whoever believes in me’. The full quotation from St John is continued around two of the edges of the altar stone:
‘Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
She stands on the bare earth before the altar. With water and with words her hands and feet are washed, and the way forward is revealed. She takes her place and is embraced by all.
The simple rite is finished… The water flows.
The Silver Well remains. The almost-hidden St Catherine’s wheel by the Silver Well maintains its silent presence by the waters.
The Benedictine monastery is long dissolved. The older chapel on the hillside is gone. The ancient saviour-warrior figure carved into the hillside endures, together with the legend of St Catherine. The town celebrates them all, together with the work of its fine church.
There is harmony in Cerne Abbas… and the waters flow.
Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find the reality and essence of their existence via home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised by email.
His personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.
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