Keys of Heaven (6): the greater force

The greater force... What did they know of it!

Anyone could see it in the fall of boulders in the mountains; in the crashing of the seas on the rocks, in the burning of the forests when the wildfires took hold; in the legends of the earth boiling and glowing when the ground ruptured…

But only a few could see it at work in the eyes of men… and some women, thought King Oswiu, looking across the chamber at Abbess Hild, seated across the square of the small, altar-like table in the chamber at the Abbey of Streanshalch, facing her fellow warrior of the mind – Bishop Cedd. King Oswiu had ordered that neither were allowed to take a side in the arguments that had raged all day in the chamber. That was Wilfrid and Colman’s role; but both had steered the course of that passion to bring it to this point of pregnant silence; silent but not finished…

Beside Oswiu, the Queen’s chair was barely cold. The King had sent her to bed, seeing the pain her hunger caused. Perhaps the final part of the day would bring her some ease from the Lenten observances?

The King put down his drained goblet of mead and gazed at the embers of the fire. He had prevented the page boy from replenishing both grate and cup. He wanted to watch their faces as the fire began to lose its power… and the darkness and cold from the clifftop crept into the abbey’s warmth… affecting the imagined power they took to be theirs.

He wanted them to feel that dread, that uncertainty; and to know that was how he had lived his entire life. His ageing eyes followed the thin red flames as flickered across the blackened logs. A distant memory returned, unbidden. He was a boy of four again, gazing at the living source of heat and life in the burning peat of that far place called Iona.

Across the night, and north to Iona – still the seat of the Ionan Christian faith – he sent his undying love back to the monastery established by Columba, to where he and his brothers had been spirited on the death – in battle – of their father. There to be brought up in the love and compassion of Christ within a dedicated and artistic tradition rich in myth, devotion and the potential for individual creation. How he missed the simplicity of those times… Iona had been even colder than this place, yet his life had been warm beyond measure.

Outside, now, was the coldest night. Outside were the robbers who roved the dark paths of his kingdom of Northumbria – more animal than human. The King looked across at Cedd, along with Hild one of his true friends in this theatre of the soul. There were rumours that bishop Cedd wished to build a church in those high places – or the valleys beyond. The King shuddered at the thought… and wondered at the man’s courage.

Cedd must have know that his sovereign’s thoughts were on him. He stood, holding the silence in a way that was customary only for Kings… and yet, with total humility.

“My Lord,” he said. “the hour is late, and you have instructed us to finish this before the sun rises?”

King Oswiu felt the forces of the world-to-be stirring. What did they know of power, these scholars? Or fate or circumstance and the dreaded whirlpools with which it turned the ground beneath your feet to liquid… a liquid that ran away down paths and ravines never seen before; yet which had lived as foundations to a man’s life. Unseen, unfelt, until that terrible moment of unfreezing.

King Oswiu gestured to the page to refill his mead, but did not extend the kindness to the others. “Timely spoken, Bishop Cedd,” he said. “We must find a way of bringing these matters to a head?”

The statement was rhetoric. Both knew. Cedd bowed. “Will the principals from York and Lindisfarne present their closing arguments!” he said. It was not a question. Everyone in the room feared the intellects of both Cedd and the Abbess Hild – a noblewoman in her own right. But all knew that Oswiu had placed them in a position where they could only facilitate, not act as guardians of one position or the other.

Scholar Wilfrid rose to take his place in history, eager and licking lips made dry with fine words. “My Lo–” he began, but was immediately interrupted by the King.

“We will hear the words of Bishop Colman, first!”

The chamber flooded with silence. “My Lord!” Wilfrid bent his head low, keeping it there as he returned to his seat. Bishop Colman rose, stiffly, his older bones slow. He stared at the churchman’s still-bowed head, finding amusement but little comfort in its angle. For a second his eyes, returning to the gaze of the King, found mirth in that shared and momentary exchange. But both knew that such kinship of mind was built on earth that was merely frozen.

The King sipped his mead, allowing Bishop Coleman time to compose the most important words of his life…

These monks knew their scriptures… and knew the King’s passion for that same cause. But Wilfrid’s bird-like eyes did not speak of this. His furtive movements and cruel smile – whenever he or his scholars scored a point against Colman’s men – spoke of the man’s soul. There was a sadness in Oswiu as he studied Wilfrid. He knew the scholar’s presence here was entirely due to the machinations of his own son, Alchfrith – regional king of Deira, part of Oswiu’s overarching Northumbria… and a never-ending source of agitation and provocation.

But Alchfrith had been clever, first promoting the ambitious churchman Wilfrid to his own Ripon estate, then sending him to Pope Gregory’s Rome to prepare himself for the arguments to come. The Pope had sent back the scholar Wilfrid as its intellectual spear, sharpened and focussed for this moment.

Bishop Colman straightened his neck and spoke. “My Lord, the matters before us are simply stated, but dense with implications…” he let the words settle on the gathering.

The King nodded his head imperceptibly. Everyone new what was at stake, here. The matter of the monks’ tonsure was trivial. No-one was going to lose sleep over a haircut.

“You may limit yourself to the important matter of the computus,” instructed Oswiu. “We must end this, swiftly…”

Bishop Cedd let his body fall, gently, back into the chair, freeing the space in the centre of the room for Coleman’s piece. Knowing, with great sadness, that what followed would make not the slightest difference to the outcome. The computus was the method used to calculate the date of Easter, and only scholars understood it. It required a complex cross-reference of the tables of Sun and Moon, now wrenched free of its Jewish roots by Rome, which insisted it be on a Sunday… The original date had been set down by St John, viewed as the most mystical of the scripture writers, whose work now faced being sidelined by political forces.

Bishop Colman was closing his remarks, guided in brevity by his King.

“We honour our God who made the stars and the sun and moon, that in their written heavens lies the truth… unmoved by man’s adjustments, my Lord.” He bowed, and withdrew from the fading warmth of the space by the King.

Scholar Wilfrid of Ripon was eager to bring his case to point.

“And so, my Lord, the case from York – from…” he hesitated, “…from Rome… is this: that the proposed computus is that used in Rome, where the apostles lived, suffered and are buried.”

Wilfrid paused to look at his king. Oswiu’s return stare gave nothing away, but the King’s words had a sting: “I suppose you will tell me that the customs of the apostle John were peculiar to the needs of his community and his times and that, since then, the Council of Nicaea has established a different practice?”

“Yes, my Lord,” continued Wilfrid, seeing no reason to pause in his attacking torrent. “And that this method is the universal practice not only in Rome, where lie St Peter’s bones, but throughout the civilised world. Bishop Columba did his best with the skills at his disposal, but our methods have become more refined…”

The voice in the centre of the room was gentle, knowing that what it had to say would honour the intellectual forebears but hold no sway in what would follow. But like a blade she drove it home..

“Except that this method proposed by York and… Rome is not actually practiced in Rome at all…” Rising to stand, Abbess Hild’s words cut Wilfrid like a knife. “The nearest to Rome these methods are actually in use is Alexandria, in Egypt!”

There came a noise like grinding… then King Oswiu’s goblet shattered with the pressure his right hand was applying to it. Shards of white-edged pot flew from the arms of his throne across the room. No one dared move…

“Power sacrifices truth each and every day,” he said, in deadly tones, silencing the voices of dissent and disbelief. “One question alone will decide this!” His breath was visible and icy in the darkening room. He stood and pulled his heavy cloak around his shoulders.

“Who holds the Keys of Heaven?”

Cedd watched the world melt at the feet of the King as the greater force was released; looked deep into the royal eyes of despair as an age ended and another began to run its muddy coarse; watched as all nobility and striving was lost in the torrent of dirty mud… and then realised what the life of a King truly consisted of…

Minutes later, Wilfrid, triumphant, was led by his acolytes from the room. The King had spoken. The Roman way was to be the way. The authority of St Peter was restored… from Rome to Pope to York, Ripon and, now, the place that would one day be called Whitby, in a wooden building lost to time in all but deed, replaced and commemorated in the rigidness of stone.

The Synod of Whitby had ended…

{the above is a work of historical fiction, though based upon the facts known to history. It was written in this form to give the reader a flavour of the political and religious importance of the events that took place at the Synod of Whitby in AD664}


Bishop Coleman returned to the monastery at Lindisfarne to resign and take his remaining Celtic flock back to Iona, where they prospered for a while among the Scots before retreating back to Ireland, where Celtic Christianity had, for a time at least, a surer footing

Bishop Cedd and Abbess Hild continued their work, adapting to the new Roman ways. Cedd died a year later in Lastingham, after contracting the plague.

It seems that King Oswiu’s son, Alchfrith, disappeared from the historical records in the year after the fateful events of AD664. It is unlikely that he profited from the use of religion to upset the reign of his father via Wilfrid’s participation in the events above.

Wilfrid did, initially, prosper from the synod and was made Bishop of Northumbria by King Oswiu’s son, Alchfrith. Wilfrid led an ostentatious life and refused to be consecrated in England, saying he believed it to be insufficiently sacred ground. Instead, he went to be consecrated in France. While he was away, Alchfrith mounted an uprising against his father, which was unsuccessful. Exposing their collusion, King Oswiu stripped Wifrid of his title and role. For the next decade, Wilfrid repeatedly appealed to Rome for his ball back, but his fortunes were repeatedly dogged by English attempts to thwart him.

King Oswiu lived on in peace until his death six years later, in AD670. His domestic life made simpler by the fact that he and his wife (Queen Eanflaed) could now enjoy their Lent and Easter fasting and feasting together, instead of being out of sync within the different Christian traditions. After Oswiu’s death, Queen Eanflaed succeeded Hild as Abbess of Whitby. She continued this distinguished role until her death.

The Gospel of St John the Apostle and Evangelist continues to be studied by those of a ‘Christian Mystical’ persuasion, in the tradition of Celtic Christianity.

To be continued…

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

©Stephen Tanham 2020

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

Touching the Sun ~ A new book from Steve Tanham

A collection of my recent mystical poetry – assembled with love and care from my scribblings by Sue Vincent – our resident editor and publisher. Thank you for your interest… Steve

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

“The sun is always an adequate symbol for the Light of Lights…”
A.K. Coomaraswamy

In this collection of mystical poems, Steve Tanham, founding director of the Silent Eye, explores his personal relationship between the soul and the sun. Plotting its course through the seasonal round, we can recognise the beauty of this natural cycle and catch fleeting glimpses of the greater beyond.

One day the words will be unspeakable

The splinters brushed aside

By the eye beyond the Opening

And we – the world and it’s child

Will speak in unbroken silence 

Steve Tanham is a founding director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness; a not-for-profit online School of Enneagram-based esoteric psychology. He lives in the English Lake District with his wife, Bernie and a cat and a dog.

Available in Paperback and for Kindle

Via Amazon UK and Amazon US

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Three ghosts of Christmas present…

Christmas Eve, a lost near-blind dog escaped onto the fells… and a head-torch…

What could possible go more wrong?

©Stephen Tanham 2020

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

Keys of Heaven (5): the will of the king – gathering

We climb the steps to the Abbey at Whitby, aware that something different is happening; that the curtain of time is being drawn back… for as long as we can keep the critical mind at bay

The years pass away. From the present keepers back through years of being a rich man’s possession… As – in a mist – we see the year 1539 and the sacking and wrecking of King Henry’s agents as they work the carnage of ‘Tudor Dissolution’.

The pillaged ruins are left as we see them now.

A Norman conqueror named William appears. The beaches of Hastings see the death of King Harold and the Norman age of Britain begins. The Benedictine Monastery – the ruins of which we see today – rises and prospers on the wind-ravaged headland left empty after the mysterious vanishing of St Hild’s Anglian community. The likely agents being the same invading Norsemen who attacked the nearby holy island of Lindisfarne.

Everything in these parts unfolds before the Danelaw… at least for a while…

A woman stands at the head of the steps. Her name is Hild…. later St Hild of Whitby, though the name ‘Whitby’ came later, given when the port was established by Danish sailors. As we reach the top step and her outstretched hands, we are in the seventh century and this place is named Streaneshalch. The building before us – the new Abbey created by the grace of King Oswiu, King of Northumbria – has been built because of the influence of the woman who now waits… for our final steps.

(Above: St Hild. Source Wikipedia, public domain)

Later in history, she will be described by the historian Bede as being ‘the most precious necklace that was destined to fill all Britain with the glory of its brilliance’.

Hild is the Abbess of this place; whose name is not yet Whitby but Streanshalch. With another, she is about to perform the most important duty of her life: to oversee the Synod that will determine the nature of Christian worship in Britain.

Her voice welcomes and her arms pass us to those serving her. Men and women in plain robes appear out of the mist behind and stand in silence, ready to ferry us forward. Many of them look well-bred, and it is known that she takes such people on trust into her tuition, ensuring that their luxurious lives are left behind so that they can devote themselves to the development of the soul.

When all have been greeted she turns and says, “Be here without sin; but not in falseness, or fear, or with that attention whose heart is turned away.”

Strangely, she walks backward to the head of the stairway. “Walk this path with all your mind and heart and you will remain true…” she says.

Another figures crests the stairs, wrapped in a grey cloak of thick wool. He is a young man with intense eyes – which he keeps lowered…

Abbess Hild turns to a him. “Bishop Cedd, be welcome here…”

She holds out her right hand. From beneath the wet wool his appears and clasps hers. He seems intent on being as unnoticed as possible.

No words follow, but much is said in the three breaths before the fingers part. 

Abbess Hild ushers us through the great carved door of the monastery and into the warmth of its interior on this cold day. 

Chamber by chamber, we are led into the deep interior.

Until we stand before a crackling fire, as though high in a mountain fastness, and Hild is bowing before King Oswiu. Oswiu who, as a boy, was once an exile on the Scottish island of Iona. Returned as a king who has united the northern lands, he has forged the Kingdom of Northumbria in wisdom and, eventually, peace.

Mightiest of the Anglo-Saxon lords, his is the power on which the Church of Rome seeks to extend its empire of the book. 

But there are others here… of the Christ but whose book is slightly different… and whose path to God has a very different taste..

To the barely swallowed anger of another, the Abbess present us to a man whose gentle eyes speak only of love. Bishop Coleman bows and asks why we have come so far – then laughs, and says “and so high!” Then his arm steers us to meet the angry man. 

“This is Wilfrid “ he says. “A scholar of York via Augustine’s Canterbury… and Rome.”

Wilfrid bristles. But swallows his anger.

A woman enters the room and all rise. Her beauty is so intense that the King’s eyes become moist as she comes to stand beside him. Yet, for all this display of love, the Queen has eyes that are unmistakably sad.

To be continued…

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

©Stephen Tanham 2020

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

Keys of Heaven (4): through the bones of the whale

(Above: Saturday morning. Our path down to Whitby framed and given destination by the whalebone arch – a monument to harsher days in the port of Whitby)

The pale winter sun lies – to our symbolic view – just beyond the East Cliff horizon. Its lowness and lateness in the cold sky speaks of the approach of the winter solstice, a time of maximum darkness and minimum light…. but also a time of turning.

History is made from a series of turning-points. Changes – some of them completely unforeseen and incapable of being predicted – but all of them remaking ‘the world’ in a way analogous to how baking irrevocably alters the ingredients of bread. The changed world can be different things to different people. For some it is positive change. For others, apparent sadness. Often, the death of a loved one; for others it is the death of a idea or a way of life or the perceived heartbeat of goodness in a civilisation.

Every turning point is a gateway into the new. Every turning point invites us to be a part of where it goes with eyes wide with possibility… or closed with regret. Until the point when things turn, we can resist or accept that, this time, the ship’s course may not be as we would wish. But it is a course that has been set and we are on that ship.

There are ships below us, now physical ships in Whitby’s harbour.

So, through the arch we must go… Perhaps the man known by history as St Cedd walked down this way to the bridge, or more likely, ferry, across the river Esk. On the far side, beyond the market square, there lay and lie the near two-hundred steps to the gateway of the Abbey. Inside waited Abbess Hild and their King, the mighty Oswiu, ruler of Northumbria, the most powerful of the Saxon kingdoms.

We can barely grasp the solemnity of the occasion.

These weighty thoughts on our mind, we descend. Sue ( who was here, many times, with her Grandfather when she was a child) points out – perhaps mischievously – that I should note the contents of the horizon; with particular reference to the view of the Abbey. Dutifully I do so, and make sure I take photographs with the longer lens of the ‘proper’ camera in my bag.

(Above: Taken from the West Key and across the river Esk to the Abbey at Whitby… or is it a more complicated view?)

You never know when you’ll need them…

Flattery>Pride>Humility>Will. These are the four connected words I drew from the little bag at our opening meeting in the cafe. In a series of blogs not far away, one of my fellow Directors of the Silent Eye, Stuart France, is working his way through his own sequence of words; words which I have come to think of as ‘Back Along The Spoke‘- I smile at the acronym BATS. There are twelve such sets of BATS. I will explain what they are as we go along. Each of the companions of this weekend has drawn one of them – their own set of four words. Their meaning is to be teased out as we travel and experience. There are no uniquely right answers – but there is a right direction.

We descend through the cold December sunshine and Sue remarks that I’ve been lucky with the weather, again. It would appear I (and usually Barbara, who, sadly has missed this workshop due to an operation – from which she is recovering remarkably) have, so far, thwarted the usual December weather’s attempt to crush our bold expeditions. I put it down to the indomitable willpower of our companions on these journeys… that and my very personal childhood link with the Norse God Thor – he of the hammer and deepest mysteries; at least before Hollywood got hold of it.

(Above: taken on our scouting trip at the end of October. One of the many tourist boats returning to Whitby from a short cruise up the coast)

Walking down the last section of steps, I think of how busy the quayside was, in October, just over a month ago, when Bernie and I made our scouting trip – whittling down the possible sites and checking the timing – and cafes, of course. Got to get the cafes right in December.

(Above: What was October’s bustling quay is now quiet…)

Now, the quayside has no more than a handful of visitors walking along it. The pubs and cafes are Christmas busy, though – which is a good thing for Whitby. I look at the empty pontoon used by the bright yellow ferry in the picture above… there’s a sense of ‘rest’ about it – a rest that will make it stronger when the sun’s arc takes us past the (solstice) feast of St Stephen and, slowly, into the warming arms of St John at midsummer’s polar opposite.

I wonder if perhaps Cedd arrived here by boat. And if he did, whether the element of water helped calm what must have been a feverish mind; helped frame his thoughts beneath the screaming voice of his Celtic faith:

“I do not go to my death, but to the death of everything I have loved. The powers will applaud but the voice within will be silent at the execution of the truth…”

I’m projecting this onto the unknown real character of St Cedd. But my inner senses tell me there is truth in the words. That truth will be confirmed by a real bishop before the weekend is done; confirmed in a way I could not have foreseen. After the unexpected meeting with historian and St Oswald’s churchwarden John Secker, it would be wise to leave us open to the grace of circumstance… and its kindness.

I think about cousin Barbara, again, and how much she would have enjoyed this moment. The new hip will make her so much stronger for what lies in the year ahead. And next year sees us using April to reveal the inner mystical power of the fairytale; June to the inner mysteries of astonishing Avebury; September to the likely journey of a lifetime to Orkney via the Pictish trail of northern Scotland. These are all listed in the Silent Eye’s Events page.

I’ve had my hand in a pocket of my jacket. My fingers stray onto a small, cloth case. I take it out and remember it’s a piece of Whitby Jet jewellery that Barbara bought here when on their family holiday a few years ago. As she couldn’t be at the workshop, she asked me to carry it to absorb the ‘vibes’.

(Above: Barbara’s silver bat – from Whitby and now visiting!)

It’s a very special and rare piece: the last one of a specially commissioned run – and it’s a bat. I smile at the coincidence – my four words prompted the acronym BATS for Back Along The Spoke. Now the two are united. I won’t dwell on it but it raises a smile…

(Above: Christmas carol singers near the swing bridge)

We’re almost at the Swing Bridge – the vital highway and footpath across the river Esk. The lovely voices are carol singers. We stop… of course we stop. There is joy here.

(Above: Looking up from the quayside, and wary of Sue’s smiling advice, I notice that the Abbey has disappeared but the church that wasn’t there before, is now present… What’s going on?)

Just before we cross the bridge that will take us – in the footsteps of St Cedd – through the East part of Whitby town and to the base of the near two hundred steps, I look again at what should be the Abbey ruins on the mound that is the East Cliff.

They are not there… instead, there is a church. I know it is St Mary’s but what’s happened to the Abbey? And if the loss of the Abbey is due to the edge of the East Cliff, then why couldn’t we see the Church of St Mary, before, from the higher West Cliff?

You’ll find the answer in a detailed second photograph in the blog. And, yes, it was a good idea to have the other camera with the long lens…

(Above: A mere ten minutes later, we stand before the ‘stairway to heaven’. The Abbey and St Cedd ‘s destiny await…)

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

©Stephen Tanham 2020

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

Keys to Heaven: Gluttony…

Stuart’s ‘spoke of words’ gains momentum…

The Silent Eye

Image result for odin's cross


The Norse God, Odin, hangs over all.

His attendant wolves symbolise our lower self,

and both their names can be translated, ‘greed’, which leads us to glut…


For most people the plan is simple:

to experience all they can in sensations quest,

and this too can lead to a sort of glut…


One cannot have too much of a good thing, can one?


After breakfasting we meet at the Whalebone Arch,

and it is difficult not to wonder how

long it will be before our gluttony

as a species empties the oceans…


From here, framed within the jaw bones of the once great sea beast,

we can see the skeletal remains of Whitby Abbey,

where weighty decisions about the religious tenor

of our country were once made.


We, though, make our way back into town, and a Cafe…

and from there, eventually, up to…

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Keys of Heaven (3): the synchronicity of kindness

There’s a certain ‘presence’ about kindness. Like the spiritual – or, more likely, as a part of it – the act of unexpected kindness drops into our lives like a messenger from the ‘Gods’.

So it was with our visit to the ancient church of Lythe in the middle of the Friday afternoon of the Keys of Heaven workshop. The village of Lythe lies just north of Whitby and marks the the beginning of the towering cliffs which run northwards as far as Saltburn. Within this landscape, Lythe church is set on its own hill and has commanding views all the way to Whitby Abbey in the distance.

(Above: the distant Abbey ruins on the far side of Whitby. Seen from the beach near Lythe

The church at Lythe is dedicated to St Oswald – the elder (deceased) brother of the man who was King of Northumbria at the time of the Synod of Whitby (AD 664); an event central to the storytelling basis of our weekend.

Northumbria was the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and it was King Oswiu (later Oswald) who presided over the fateful synod which resulted in the death of the Celtic Church in England.

(Above: the Church of St Oswald at Lythe)

St Oswald’s church is also a museum of what was found on the site – mainly Viking burial stones. The hoard of Viking burial stones was only discovered when the ‘modern’ church of St Oswald’s was extensively restored in 1819 and then again in 1890.

The most famous of the exhibits – and the one you first encounter on entering the church – is the ‘hogback stone’ shown below, which bears the ‘Gingerbread man’ carving. The word ‘hogback’ is misleading – the curved stones represent a large Scandinavian house – the spiritual home to which the deceased Viking would have wished to return…

(Above: The museum at St Oswald’s Church, Lythe – This section shows the celebrated Viking hogback stone)

The museum takes up the whole of the west end of the church. It was a group project, funded with the help of Heritage Lottery and Nortrail funding. A selection of the stones is on permanent (no-charge) display and was opened by the Marquis of Normanby in 2008.

The work took several decades and was led by local historian John Secker, whose detailed work on the Viking funereal relics became its basis. Until recently, it was assumed that the site was solely a Viking burial ground. This was based on its proximity to the sea – a traditional Viking criterion for such a sacred settlement – and the fact that all most of the stone artefacts were of a type known to be of Viking burial origin (10th-12th century).

(Above: The Cross-head)
This cross-head with a modelled human head dates from the mid ninth to tenth century and is very rare in Yorkshire archaeology, though it has some similarity with Irish crosses. There is no nimbus (halo) present so the carving may not have represented Christ.

After further work, a few of the pieces were dated to the 8th century. This suggested that there may have been an earlier Celtic religious building here – high on its own hill, and within clear, if distant sight of the Abbey on the other side of Whitby, then known as Streoneshalh. If so, then Lythe may have played a far more active role in the religious events of of the 7th century than previously thought…

(Above: The museum takes up the entire west wing of the church)

Readers of similar age to me, who remember the Stephen Donaldson novels based on the character ‘Tomas Covenant the Unbeliever‘ may recall the exiled giants and their sad ‘Grieve’. The history of myth shows that people of either conquest or perceived greatness were often depicted as ‘giants’. In the case of the Vikings, there appears to be surprising evidence of their level of homesickness…

(Above: The beautiful St Peter’s church in Heysham has strong similarities with St Oswald’s at Lythe, including the presence of an impressive Viking hogback stone. Note that this church is also built on a headland – the sea is visible in the right background of the photo)

Conquerors may not return home in glory, they may find themselves trapped in a new future, having put down roots that bind them far from the home they once had.

Myths may teach that only in death is that reconciled… The image below speaks louder than any words I could write. The idea of ‘house and home’ is one of the deepest sentiments we know. The mystic is constantly challenged to make the entire experienced world his or her home. There lies a powerful alchemy…

(Above: From the website here, a Scottish Hogback stone in situ, as a personal symbol of a Viking ‘home’)

I went internet searching for a hogback stone as it would have looked to cap the ‘body’ section of a grave and came across this blog (and picture above) entitled ‘The Viking Hogback Stone of Luss, Loch Lomond, Scotland’.

(Above pic – From Lythe’s St Oswald’s church. An artistic reconstruction of what the Viking burial ground would have looked like – note the visible sea, the essential ‘pull of home’

A close-up of the Lythe church’s largest hogback stone reveals the ‘Gingerbread Man’. This figure appears to show a human figure being devoured by two beasts. But the outlines of arms and the beast’s mouth are the same dovetailed lines and it could also depict the process of giving birth (by mouth) to a higher form of life, wisdom or simply consciousness. Space here does not permit a deeper examination, but Stuart’s recent blogs touch on this in more detail.

(Above: Close up of the ‘Gingerbread Man’ hogback stone, one of the museum’s primary exhibits)

A similar image exists on a hogback (see below) from Sockburn, County Durham. In that representation the figure has only one hand in the mouth of the creature. It is believed that the Sockburn scene represents the Viking god Tyr who had one hand bitten off by the wolf Fenrir.

(Above: the Sockburn Hogback. Image photographed from St Oswald’s Church)

The Lythe figure, however, has both hands in the mouths of the beasts, and the scene may depict the Norse legend of wolves devouring Odin, the ruler, at Ragnarock, which is the Viking end of the world

We could only smile, ruefully, at the potential comparison with modern politics on both sides of the Atlantic… The hands were the first basis of number and order, as well as the wielders of weapons. As such, they have often been used to depict the concept of balanced intelligence. The animal mouth may be its opposite: base hunger?

There are many other exhibits in St Oswald’s church. The montage below shows some of them. The set also includes two photos of the ‘Green man’ – a recurring icon in the history of Britain. Sue Vincent’s recent blog discusses some of these in detail.

Mention needs to be made of the striking stone coffin that sits among the pews in the main body of St Oswalds.

(Above: The restored medieval stone coffin at St Oswald’s church)

The medieval sandstone coffin was restored in 2007 by York Archaeological Trust laboratories. The coffin was air-dried before cleaning and re-assembly of the three broken pieces using steel dowels and conservation-grade adhesives. The image below, taken at the St Oswald’s museum, shows its original state before restoration. Looking at this, we can glimpse the work the local team have carried out over generations to provide a vehicle for the understanding and retention of the deep history of this part of North Yorkshire.

(Above: the unrestored state of the stone coffin)

The museum at St Oswald’s is an astonishing piece of our history, but I want to finish this blog with another of that day’s aspects – one that was invisibly present throughout the weekend and which is related to the title of this post: the synchronicity of kindness.

(Above: John Secker – Churchwarden of St Oswald’s Church and local historian – holding, in incredible synchronicity, the Keys…)

The man in the photo above (taken with permission,) with the kind eyes, is John Secker – the historian mentioned in the introduction. John is also one of the churchwardens of St Oswald’s Church. Two weeks before the workshop, while I was mentally ‘building’ the possible stages of our Keys of Heaven weekend, I left a message on his answerphone asking if we could visit the church and, if possible, whether we could gain access to the locked crypt.

(Above: some of the many small pieces in the crypt)

I wouldn’t have known about the crypt at St Oswalds but for Sue, who, with Stuart, had called in at the end of one of their writing trips. It was locked then, too.

Wonderfully, John Secker returned my call and said he would come down to the church at 14:45 on the Friday afternoon of our visit to open the crypt door and allow us to descend to what is essentially a shelved storeroom for the artefacts not used in the main exhibits.

(Above: the Crypt of St Oswalds, far below the main church)

On the journey across to Whitby, John called my mobile to say that, sadly, he would not be able to be there for our arrival, but wished us well in our visit to the church’s main features. I thanked him for his efforts and said I understood the personal commitment that had prevented the crypt visit he had originally proffered.

(Above: the interior of St Oswald’s church)

At 14.45 on the Friday, I was standing in the church when I realised I was alone…. the others had seen all that was available on the ground floor and gone outside to study the external views. To my complete surprise, an internal door opened and there stood a man, smiling. It was John Secker… He had carved out a few minutes to come and unlock the door to the crypt for us. Looking at this mystically, we had to be there at the time promised… and he had to make an extraordinary effort to reach ‘down’ to us. When those two conditions were met, the linking of the known and the (as yet) unknown were married together.

My companions returned and we descended the stone steps to the crypt. John had never met us – all he had were the two phone calls – yet he made a heroic effort to make it happen for our band of ‘pilgrims’ in the footsteps of St Cedd.

(Above: Lastingham… it’s ‘pull’ could be felt throughout the weekend. But , first, we had to ‘earn’ its magical presence…)

There was to be another, similar act of kindness at the end of our weekend; but I will leave that for the final post, when that same band of pilgrims were, almost literally, blown off the North York Moors and down into the gentle arms of Lastingham’s magical church and mysterious wells…

(Above: Whitby Abbey awaits on the following morning)

The following morning would bring our pivotal visit to Whitby… and the site of the synod where Bishop Cedd was expected to manage a meeting of minds that would destroy everything that had made him what he was….

©Stephen Tanham 2020

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

Let go… G. Michael Vasey

Gary was with us at the Whitby weekend. Here are some of his experiences…

The Silent Eye

Gary continues to share his experiences on the recent weekend workshop in North Yorkshire:

The last time I visited Whitby Abbey I was a boy. I recall little of it. Just that I was bored. Of course, I have been to Whitby many times since, often with my father who had business there. He would leave me for an hour or so to wander and once I recall taking my oil paints to paint the harbor. I was last there just a few years ago with my parents, ex-partner and daughter. I do like Whitby!

I must say that the abbey ruins are fairly impressive but I felt no atmosphere or energies. It seemed a dead ruin to me. A stark reminder of other times. As we pondered aspects of the Abbey in the context of the spiritual prompts of the weekend, my sense was of the skeletal remains of…

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Keys of Heaven (2): a pocket left open for magic

It’s a winter’s tale, so best told in warm snippets… With a weekend workshop carefully envisaged, there’s always a moment where that mental and emotional picture becomes ‘invested’ with life. These old English words contain a wealth of linguistic depth so easily passed over in modern usage.

After months of refining the stages, and a preparatory visit, the latest of our ‘Landscape’ workshops was beginning in the far north of Yorkshire, to the east of the North York National Park – the coastline from Whitby to Saltburn, inland of the vast and wild hills of the moors.

(Above pic: The interior of the Barn Owl Cafe, near Staithes)

Whenever possible, we meet for a light lunch and to gather to discuss the purpose and plan for the weekend. This sets the scene for what follows and invites everyone to play their part.

December is cold, especially here, so we had arranged to meet at the Barn Owl Cafe just off the A174 coast road from Whitby. Bernie and I had visited Staithes on our scoping trip in October. We knew that the Barn Owl would be easy to find, and that its renowned warmth and hospitality would be welcome after the long journeys here.

I was early. I’m a stickler for that. But I was delighted to find the last of the companions for the weekend pulling in at the gravel car park with me. We left the cold of the exterior to find the owners had provided us with a large circular table; perfect for the planned soup and sandwiches, and also ideal to lay out the maps and handouts. The rest of the group were already seated, chatting and enjoying hot drinks.

(Pic above – First of the handouts: the all important Itinerary)

I had managed to condense the weekend’s busy itinerary into a ‘single pager’ which Misti the cat is now sitting on as I write (pic above)… You can see it’s well thumbed and has survived the weekend’s downpours – and frequent origami before being stuffed back into coat pockets.

An hour later, the company had been provided with maps; summary descriptions of the main locations; and an expectation of a busy but fun two and a half days. We were keen to begin. The right level of preparation is important to deliver a robust ‘skeleton’ – lots of coffee stops, for example, to counter the expected freezing temperatures of the Whitby coast.

But it’s also important to leave room for the ‘entry of magic’. These are spiritually focussed weekends, but not in a conventional sense. What we look for is the special quality of experience that can happen when a group of people work together towards a common goal. I think of this as ‘a pocket left open for magic’. It’s not provided consciously by the group; and certainly not by the planning. It’s filled by the ‘spirit of the moment’: a feeling with which many will be familiar. When this happens, the ‘air’ around us changes as though we had stepped into a world that runs parallel to our everyday one.

This kind of magic is very real.

Stuart France, one of my fellow Directors of the Silent Eye, has written a post on his blog about this recently.

Next, we spoke about the ‘heart of the matter’ – the psychological and spiritual basis of the weekend. The selection of Whitby was based upon an event from the distant year AD 664, known as the Synod of Whitby. This took place in an age when British Christianity had two flavours: the older Celtic Christian faith brought over from Ireland via Iona and Lindisfarne, and the newer Roman faith inspired by the work of Augustine.

Our workshop was subtitled: In the footsteps of St Cedd. The central character of our deliberations was the man who became St Cedd. Raised by the Celtic Christian monks on Lindisfarne, Bishop Cedd was a renowned spiritual and intellectual authority in what was then the Kingdom of Northumbria – ruled by the powerful Anglo-Saxon King Oswiu (Anglicised later as Oswald).

Under various pressures, the King hosted the Synod of 664 at the newly established Abbey of Whitby and arrange for the Abbess (later St Hild) to chair the process. Bishop (later Saint) Cedd was appointed to be what we would call today, the ‘Facilitator’. In so doing, Cedd had to use all his personal skills to mediate a solution to two central issues: the way the monks cut their hair (the tonsure); and the way the date of Easter was calculated.

The first sounds trivial to us. The second was profoundly important as Easter was and is the most important date in the Christian calendar.

King Oswiu was a Celtic Christian, his wife a Roman Christian… and thereby lies a familial tale for which there is not sufficient space in this post.

In the end, the King decided for the Roman faith and Cedd had to bear witness to what he knew would be the death of a tradition in which he had been raised and loved. The poignancy and spiritual nature of this task was the backbone of our deliberations for the weekend.

There are obvious parallels to our own times, here…

Just before leaving the Barn Owl Cafe, we asked each person to select a folded piece of paper from a small cloth bag containing nine of them. When unfolded, each had before them four words.

In my case the words were:

  • Flattery
  • Pride
  • Humility
  • Will

Mysterious and seemingly contradictory, they contained the personal seed-thoughts of an inner journey that would mirror the outer locations. More will be said on this in future posts.

There are challenges to running this kind of outdoor event in December; chief of which is the shortness of the days. As soon as we’d finished our lunch, it was time to visit a very special local church at Lythe, a village just to the north of Whitby. But to tell that requires a full blog, so I will return to the story of our visit to St Oswald’s church in the next post.

With the light fading on our short December day, we drove back up the A171 to carry out an important task – to construct the movements!

(Above pic – the beach at Runswick Bay; the place where we created the weekend’s ‘movements’)

Runswick Bay is one of the most beautiful of the coves between Whitby and Saltburn. The ebbing tide had left us a wide swathe of beach to allow our work. Sadly, the beach cafe was closed for the winter so a coffee would have to wait. What we were about to do would be an important part of our undertakings at each further location…

The idea of a set of movements to accompany the ‘pocket left open for magic’ is not new. One of the giants of the past from whom we derive many of the Silent Eye’s principles is Gurdjieff – a philosopher from the early years of the last century who gave the world a system that became known as the Fourth Way. Gurdjieff was from Armenia and his upbringing had made him a skilled musician and dancer. To assist with the absorption of the spiritual side of his teachings, he developed a set of unusual dances or ‘movements’.

The three of us who run the Silent Eye have been looking at the creation of a set of simple set-movements to be carried out, wordlessly, to establish a place of working in the outdoors. This was our chance to let the moment ‘speak’ and guide us…

(Pic above: In the fading light, four of the group prepare to demonstrate the idea of the ‘movements’ (photo Gary Vasey)

Almost as soon as we started, we were blessed with the birth of a set of movements that perfectly reflected not only the nature, but the historical and traditional basis we had selected for our Whitby-centred workshop.

We put it in our pockets and took it with us for the weekend…

Fish and chips beckoned. How could we come to Whitby and not do so! An early night and we were ready for what the morning would bring.

©Stephen Tanham 2020

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