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}

Epilogue:

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

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.

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