The Sacrificed King

©Image by the author

Easter is symbolically the time of the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ. This thread of story and principle runs through our civilisation very deeply; and Easter Sunday is the most important day in the Christian calendar.

Jesus (the) Christ did not proclaim himself king, despite being labelled ‘King of the Jews’ – quite the opposite. He said he came ‘from the Father,’ not from some royal and kingly forebear. The lineage he claimed was of a deeper and less material nature – one that would only manifest itself in right actions and the generation of goodwill through a deeper understanding.

In so doing, Christianity is more explicit in the nature of the change to human nature represented by the older and more ‘pagan’ stories of the Sacrificed King. The common elements are worthy of exploration.

Would we expect any ‘king’ to be the subject of sacrifice? Killed by his enemy, perhaps, as in the case of the Egyptian king Osiris – cut into pieces by his brother, Set. But would we expect sacrifice as part of a process of psychological or spiritual transformation? Surely the state of kingship represents the pinnacle of temporal existence?

The King does, indeed, represent the ‘fullness’ of mundane existence, and it is precisely this quality of achievement that brings on a ripeness for a transition to a higher order (or plane) of consciousness. To continue the metaphor of ripeness, the King becomes the self-sown seed for what is to come. King in this sense may, of course, be male or female, though our patriarchal history more frequently assigns the male.

The Kingly achievements become the soil in which the seed of the sacrifice is sown, the fuel for the journey. The parallel stories of alchemy teach that, once begun, the transformation will continue as a ‘descending fire’ until the earthly nature is symbolically burned away, and the new and reborn spiritual nature shines for the first time in this world, potent and filled with the innocence of a consciousness that has no past.

The Sacrificed King has much to teach us. The force behind this transformation is particularly strong at this time of year, as the long winter gives way to the spirit of the spring – the astrological year, renewed…

A deeper understanding of this process will reprise the story of Osiris. The many parts into which he is cut are lovingly re-assembled – minus his penis – by Isis, who searches his ‘kingdom’ tirelessly. Eventually, he comes to rule a different land – the Egyptian underworld, the place of the ‘Gods’.

This year, surrounded by the horrors and frustrations of the Covid-19 situation, we have much to consider about life and death. The Sacrificed King stories refer to a symbolic rather than a literal death – but one which carries just as much potency… some would say, more.

We wish you healthy, happy and reflective Easter.

©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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Keys of Heaven (10): final resting place…

continued from Part 9

The village of Lastingham, of the southern edge of the North York Moors, was a fitting place to end our weekend – both for its mysterious wells and also on the basis that the crypt of St Mary’s Church marks the final resting place of St Cedd. Following the fateful Synod of Whitby in AD 664, Bishop Cedd returned to his beloved Lastingham, the place where he had founded his originally monastery; but tragically caught the plague and died, bequeathing the care of Lastingham to his brother, Bishop Chad – later St Chad. Chad became bishop of Lichfield shortly thereafter and had to manage his brother’s bequest from afar.

(Above: St Mary’s Church, Lastingham, in all its simple beauty…)

We have to wonder at the irony and sadness of this: first to lose (in the service of his king, Oswiu) the Celtic Christian tradition in which he had been raised since a boy; then to lose his life in one final visit to his beloved Lastingham.

Cedd was buried here, and the place of his burial in AD664 became the ground on which all the layers of the present church were constructed.

(Above: The unusual semi-circular apse of St Mary’s church contains the entire history of the building and its ancient foundations)

St Mary’s church attracts visitors from all over the world. Christian and non-Christian ‘pilgrims’ are welcomed here in a warm spirit of spiritual openness. Though not formally a Christian, I am entirely happy with the scriptural idea of Christ as the ideal and perfected ‘inner man’. I am at home in most temples of the spirit, but seldom have I felt the kind of harmonic energies that are present in St Mary’s.

There is, in the words of one of our companions of the weekend ‘Something very special here…’ And you can feel its presence in the air around you.

(Above: Ancient Celtic designs in the crypt)

The original monastery was wooden, and nothing remains of it. But the present church of St Mary’s is built upon its site, and specifically, upon the original crypt that was constructed over the location of St Cedd’s grave two hundred years after his death. This region (of what was then Northumbria) was a wild place, and lawless – possibly one reason why Cedd devoted so much of his time establishing the original monastery as a spiritual refuge for the local people and their hard lives.

(Above: St Mary’s extraordinary crypt)

After the Synod of 664, the seat of religious power moved south from Lindisfarne to York, though Whitby survived for a while, in the form of the influential Abbey whose abbecy passed from Hild to Eanflæd, the wife of King Oswiu, upon his death. A royal princess and later queen to Oswiu, she brought grace and dedication to the abbey in the town that would later become Whitby.

(Above: the Benedictine Abbey at Whitby)

But, the age of the Vikings was upon the land and the northern Saxon kingdoms were eventually overrun. Little is known of life here during that period and the former monastery was left to decay.

Over four hundred years later, in 1078, Stephen, abbot of the recently rebuilt monastery at Whitby, obtained permission from no less a person than William the Conqueror to take a team of skilled monks to restore the monastery at Lastingham as a Benedictine house.

Stephen designed the crypt we see today and built it over the place where Cedd had been buried. Above this crypt he began to build a new abbey church, but work was abandoned in 1088 when Stephen and his monks moved from Whitby to the all-powerful York; there to build St Mary’s Abbey… This may have been due to the increasing lawlessness of life within the hills making things impossible for the monks.

The Lastingham Crypt deserves a post in itself, but our story of the Keys of Heaven weekend (now ten posts) has to be brought to a close.

There was a communion service on that Sunday morning. We took care to arrive after it had finished, but I hoped we would be able to meet one or two of the local team. Historic places are fascinating, but the ‘now’ contains some miracles, too. As we pushed open the heavy oak door, one of the church wardens greeted us and we were welcomed into the ‘coffee area’ of the church and urged to join the larger than expected residual group of parishioners.

(Above: The main floor of St Mary’s interior – above the crypt, but the shape of the apse walls reveals the upwards continuity of the structure)

This was my third visit to St Mary’s. The main floor of the building is special in its own right, but I knew the ‘attracting power’ of what lay beneath. Most of our companions drank their coffees then melted quietly away down the stone staircase and into the crypt. But, by that time, as leader of our group, I had not only been given ample coffee and biscuits, but introduced to a cleric in a splendid set of robes… somewhat grander than I had expected for a small village.

Bishop Godfrey is well known throughout the North York area. He has served the Christian cause all his life and is now part-retired with a special attachment to Lastingham; a place in which he feels very much at home. He asked about our group and I was honest about our affiliations and goals. He seemed delighted with our attempts at local scholarship and offered to solve my one remaining problem of the weekend…

(Above: the kindly Bishop Godfrey with Briony, one of our companions of the weekend)

Ten minutes later, happy to pose for a photo as long as someone else was in it, Bishop Godfrey waved us with his blessing down into Lastingham’s very special crypt – the final resting place of St Cedd. As I walked down the stone steps I couldn’t help but feel just a little ‘blessed’ as we finally entered the place where the mortal remains of another very special bishop were interred.

(Above: a peaceful figure in meditation…)

Most of the group had already found their bearings, and were quietly exploring the beautiful crypt. But, one figure sat in the middle of a stone pew locked in total inner and outer silence. His back was to us, and he later described how the crypt had both embraced and entranced him… exactly the effect it had always had on me.

(Above: the vaults of the crypt are filled with priceless history)

The meeting with Bishop Godfrey had made me late into the crypt and we had two important things to do. With an inner certainty, I knew that this visit was for my companions. I had done my part in bringing them here and the magical place was doing the rest. Snapping a few photographs to supplement the ones I had taken in October, I sat quietly, giving thanks that the weekend had gone well; and that we had largely achieved what we set out to do.

(Above: just across from the church – the Blacksmiths Arms)

I could see that the group were tired and in need of some lunch. Across the road from the church is the Blacksmith’s Arms, a lovely and traditional Yorkshire pub with a fine Sunday lunch menu. There are no ‘facilities’ in St Mary’s church, but Bishop Godfrey and the landlord have reached an amicable agreement. The pub displays a sign saying that those attending or visiting the church may use the pub toilets but are asked to leave a donation towards the upkeep of the church. The bishop had smiled as he told us of the monthly cheque the landlord brought him…

The lunch was wonderful… An hour later, with the afternoon upon us and time running out, we set out on the last trek – a last walk around the village to visit Lastingham’s celebrated wells.

(Above: the first well is on private property)

Space does not permit too much description, but, briefly, there are four of them. Two are set into the walls of local properties and one is in the garden of a private house near the church. None of these are currently flowing… but the fourth one – St Mary Magdelene’s well – is. The problem is that it’s well outside the village and very hard to locate. On our recce trip in October, Bernie and I had failed to discover its location, despite directions from the Blacksmith Pub’s landlord.

(Above: St Cedd’s well)

But now I was miraculously equipped with the more precise instructions from Bishop Godfrey and I could feel the ‘cogs of happenstance’ aligning.

(Above: St Cadmon’s well)

I explained to our companions that we had the chance to discover St Mary’s well in a very real way. We drove to a where the place where I had given up looking in October and I pointed out the sloping bank to which Bishop Godfrey had directed us.

(Above: Finally found! St Mary Magdalene’s well)

Within seconds, Gary – the figure in a peaceful trance in the crypt – had found it…

We stood around it in an arc and I explained the final purpose of the small empty jars given out to everyone on our opening trip to the beach, so long ago on the late Friday afternoon.

St Mary’s well is a small arch of stonework set into a stream-filled bank that leads down to the small river that flows through Lastingham. And now, as the only person with wellingtons, I needed to fill each of the jars. The only way to do it was to stretch my legs over the small valley of the spring and lean towards the stone arch, reaching down (thank you, Pilates) to fill each jar. I could hear the mental bets being taken that I would end up in the water, but reached the last jar still vertical, albeit locked into the muddy banks on either side…

(Now to try to fill the small jars…)

A set of friendly hands were outstretched in case I lost my footing, but, with one last push and the weekend’s second sound of a mired boot breaking free, I managed to reunite my legs and scramble away from the water and mud. Everyone now had a Christmas candle and a small jar of very rare St Mary’s well water to take away.

Moments later, with jars tucked safely into travel bags, we hugged and said our goodbyes. The Keys of Heaven workshop was over; and it had been a success. In silence, I drove back to Runswick Bay to collect Bernie for our promised beach walk for Tess and our extra night in the location to unwind.

Later, we would walk through the darkness to the Cod and Lobster and reflect on the weekend. But that is where our story began…

End of Series

Other parts in this series of posts: Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine This is Part Ten, the final part.

©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.

Keys of Heaven (9): blown down the mountain

The welcoming warmth of the Lion Inn on Blakey Ridge

continued from Part 8

My companions of the Silent Eye’s ‘Keys of Heaven’ weekend were waiting when I arrived at the Lion Inn. We had coffee and biscuits and we discussed the options for our last day of the workshop. Everyone was looking forward to the visit to the celebrated St Mary’s church at Lastingham – the final resting place of St Cedd.

The coffee before the storm…

There was a group excitement; a buzz. Human nature responds to being ‘on top of things’ in both a physical and metaphorical sense. We had all managed to find the Lion Inn – it’s not trivial! We were at the highest point in the North York National Park, but we weren’t there just for coffee and the views. We planned to take advantage of the rich history to be found in the immediate area of the Inn, which, although completely isolated, has a site that has been occupied for hundreds of years; and contains archeology that is thousands of years old.

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(Above) Top of the world…

There are some very special pathways that cross these high moors. Some of them link ancient sacred sites, often marked by crosses that surprise with their age – over a thousand years old in some, cases… possibly a lot older in others.

Where they cross – or meet, might be a better word – they create a special place of exchange and, often, hospitality. Years pass, then hundred of years, and there becomes established a place of meeting. In a few rare cases the meeting point defies the often hostile elements by becoming a permanent building of refuge and hospitality.

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(Above) The Lion Inn – a refuge in the sky

The Lion Inn on the top of Blakey Ridge is one such. As high as you can be in the North York National Park (1,325 feet), it sits astride a crossing of ancient ways and alongside the more modern road linking Castleton to Hutton-le-Hole. The Inn has been run by the Crossland family since 1980. Being on the highest point, it offers breathtaking views down into the Rosedale and Farndale Valleys.

The story of the inn on Blakey Moor dates back to the 16th century. During the reign of King Edward III a house and ten acres of land on Farndale Moor were given to the Order of Crouched Friars, who had been unable to find a home in York.. It is thought that the friars founded the Inn around 1554 to lighten their poverty. Friar Inns are common enough in all parts of the country – Scarborough has two. Since that time there has always been an inn here.

We were fortunate that two of the most significant historic sites are adjacent to the inn. All we had to do was take the short walk from the Inn’s door.

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(Above) The Neolithic Burial mound of Loose Howe is next to the Lion Inn

The grave at Loose Howe (above) is a short scramble up a hillock to the east of the inn. It can be seen from the windows in the bar. Here, a Bronze Age chieftain was interred in a boat-like oak coffin: armed, clothed and equipped for his voyage.

Cockpit Howe is a Neolithic burial mound just behind the inn, facing the Ferndale valley, below.

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(above) Cockpit Howe

The ancient Waymarks – standing stones and stone crosses – known as ‘Fat Betty’ and the Ralph Crosses (previous post) bear witness to the continuous tradition of passage over this pinnacle of the North York moors. The earliest history of these markers remains a mystery.

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We had a plan. Our destinations were all within a few hundred metres of the Inn – two of them much closer. The above photos (taken during our recce trip in October) show how simple it should have been…

But…

What really happened, when we stepped out of the Lion Inn on that freezing December Sunday, was this:

Loose Howe stands about twenty metres taller than the Lion Inn. By the time we had climbed half that height the winds were making it difficult to walk forward. By the time we reached the mound itself, we had to huddle or grasp the stone to stay upright.

The expressions and body language are all the narrative needed. Photo by Gary Vasey
Loose Howe – moving safely was a two-person job! The intense wind was literally tearing at our clothes.

It was no better down behind the Inn at Cockpit Howe. If anything, it was worse. The wind was so strong that it was becoming dangerous.

(Above: Even a strong figure like Gary struggled for a secure footing)

By the time we got to the third site, a marker stone a hundred metres down the Blakey Ridge road, only a handful of us were still able stand against the ferocious winds. We knew when to give up.

Our four of us made the final leg along the Blakey Road to the last standing stone…

My success crossing the bog, earlier in the morning, seemed a long time ago…. The winter had won. Our only choice was to abandon the peak at Blakey Moor and escape down the mountain, earlier than planned… However, wildness has its attractions and no-one seemed unhappy with the experience!

But fate and circumstance have a habit of ringing the changes… and continuing to do so. We retreated to the safety of the cars and, once warm again, drove – slowly – down to Lastingham,

Where the magic was waiting…

To be continued…

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

©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.

Keys of Heaven (8): crosses at heaven’s gate

The traveller’s ancient friend: Young Ralph’s Cross

The high pass over the North York Moors is seventeen miles long and crosses the ‘roof of the world’ in the heart of the national park. You’d think twice about going there once the autumn has given way to winter. Local photos show the many times that groups of people have been stranded on the long line of its peak. In one case, in December 2010, a group of seven (two customers and five staff) were snowed in for eight days at the nearby Lion Inn that straddles the highest point on the road – a route known simply and famously as Blakey Ridge.

(Above: December 2010. Snowed-in for eight days at the Lion Inn. From the Inn’s own website)

We were arriving at this elevated meeting point – in my case, an hour early – to begin the Sunday morning of the Silent Eye’s Keys of Heaven workshop. The plan was to gather an hour later at the very top of the pass; at the Lion Inn, an historic place of refuge, and the centre of local history going back thousands of years. But, in order to create a dramatic extra experience for the group, I had something else to do, first.

You’d have to take great care if you were planning to take a group there on a weekend in early December. But, if the forecast was good, you might take the risk and gain the sheer exhilaration of being in one of the most wild and remote places you could imagine.

The local weather forecast – clear of snow and ice for our Sunday – doesn’t always show the likely winds…winds that are not an issue, twenty miles away in Whitby, but here on the roof of the world…

(Above: A schematic of the whole North York Moors National Park. Map Google
The heart of the North Yorks Moors. Locate Castleton (middle top) and trace the white road to the words ‘North York Moors National Park’. Just beyond there is the peak, and the location of the Lion Inn – our first destination for the Sunday of the Keys of Heaven workshop. Map Google.

This was my second visit to Blakey Ridge. Bernie and I had visited during our recce trip in October. The weather, then, had been cold, wet and dreary, so we didn’t linger. We had to get across the moors and down to Lastingham to check out the final location… and to find a missing sacred well! We had only a few hours to finish our planning trip and get back to Kendal in time to collect our cat from the local cattery…

Now, I was back; and back in time to do what we hadn’t had time to do on the previous visit: to find and photograph Young Ralph’s Cross

The first step is easy: you can’t miss the junction for the Westerdale road that descends into the Farndale valley to the right of Blakey Ridge. It’s marked by a nine-foot stone cross, set into a sturdy platform – the first of the ‘Ralph Crosses’ – Young Ralph’s Cross. The location of this is important, for it marks the start of a walk that will get you to the more mysterious ‘Old Ralph’s Cross’ – whose location, according to the guidebooks, is not visible from the roadway.

(Above) Young Ralph’s Cross – old, but nowhere near as old as what lies on the ridge behind it

The age of Young Ralph’s Cross is uncertain; but it likely marks the site of a much older Anglo-Saxon wooden cross from the medieval period. The presence of the older cross is referred to in folklore as ‘The Roda Cross’, meaning Rude (primitive) Cross. Folklore tells that the older, wooden cross was carved with a large ‘R’.

Whatever the origin, it is certain that Young Ralph’s Cross is an important way-marker on this ancient ‘high’ way. Sitting in the warm cabin of the car, reviewing my notes, I wondered why anyone would expose themselves to the elements in this way – on foot, or if they were wealthy – on horseback. Surely the valleys below would have been more sheltered?

My question would shortly be answered in a very graphic way…

The legends surrounding Young Ralph’s Cross are even more interesting. The most common folk-tale tells of a local farmer – one Ralph from Danby – who found there the dead body of a penniless traveller who had starved to death on his journey – only a mile from the Lion Inn – a centuries old Friar’s Inn, which, had he possessed a few pennies, could have offered him at least a meal.

Farmer Ralph had the cross made, then carved a hollow into its top. Wealthy travellers, on horseback and mindful of their own need for good fortune, would be encouraged to place a few coins there. The coins would be accessible to any poor travellers who could ‘shin up’ the cross, enabling them to buy a hot meal at the nearby inn.

Farmer Ralph vowed that the tragic death of the unknown traveller would never be repeated… and his ‘good work’ seems to have carried its own spell, though damage to the cross over the past half-century might indicate that visitors have been over zealous in their attempts to scale the nine-foot stone centrepiece…

Somewhere beyond Young Ralph’s Cross lies another, older one. To find Old Ralph’s Cross you have to take a compass bearing from its brother and cross what may have once been a side path, but is now more difficult.

Time to begin, I thought, noting that the car was moving slightly in the wind… As soon as I opened the driver’s door, I realised why the car had felt so buffeted during the half hour journey from Runswick Bay. The large door, acting like a sail, swung open in the fierce wind and I was dragged from the cabin and onto the muddy rocks of the lay-by, my arms and at least one leg in the carriageway of the road.

Shaken but undeterred (must turn that one into a one-liner…) I wiped myself clean of freezing, muddy water and crossed the road; there to take the photos of Young Ralph. I took a bearing on my phone’s compass app and set off across the moor.. with a great deal of trepidation.

“And, boys and girls, he was never seen again…”

The guidebook instructions for locating Old Ralph’s Cross advise walking in summer and with good boots. It was December, but I did have my long wellington-style boots, which were protective and waterproof. As the above photo shows, there are no paths; only joined-up gaps in the heather and bracken.

In simple terms, at least in December, it’s a bog… And I had at least two hundred metres of the stuff to traverse.

The first time one of my boots slid, mid-calf, into the mud, I thought about abandoning the quest. I turned to look back at the car – now quite distant, and the icy winds tore into me again. I reasoned that I had less distance to travel than I had come… and, slowly and noisily wrenching my boot free, carried on… mentally marking the spot and praying it was the worst such location.

And, it was then that I understood the significance of the ridge – the path, now the road… By definition, the ridge had to be made of hard material – stone. Water runs downwards from this, so the valleys below would not be as sure a path in the worst of the weather, but the ridge would alway be there. In my mind, I could see generations of travellers gripping their garments around them and trudging along this track through the day – or even night – to reach the safety of the Inn, a mile ahead.

Shortly after, my resolve to continue through the bog was rewarded by the first sight of the cross in the near-distance. The local landscape had changed – there was a new energy here… as there often is in places that are designated as ‘magical’ in some way. With growing confidence and a sense of elation, I crossed the final few metres through the bracken to stand before Old Ralph’s Cross.

(Above: Old Ralph’s Cross – the highest point on Blakey Moor)

Old Ralph’s Cross is located on Ledging Hill – the highest point on Blakey Ridge. It dates from at least AD1200 and is probably a hundred years older than that. One of the previous owners of the land, Charles Duncombe, had holdings that spanned the 40,000 acre Helmsley Estate on which Old Ralph stood. He had his initials carved onto the north face of the cross in 1708. On the top of the cross – more accessible than Young Ralph’s Cross, is another depression for coins to be left for travellers.

(Above: coins placed in the ‘bowl’ of Old Ralph’s Cross)

Testing my weight, and being as gentle as possible with the ancient stone, I pulled myself onto the plinth and smiled to see a few coins already there. Dangling in the freezing wind. but smiling, I pulled a silver coin from my pocket and placed it into the ‘bowl’. I wanted the ‘ferryman’ to oversee my safe return across the watery bog to the safety of the car.

No-one knows the origin of Old Ralph’s Cross. The symbolism of the cross is pre-Christian, but the majority of ancient stone crosses date from a period when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion. In the case of this former part of the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, there were even two forms of Christianity; one of which – what we know now as Celtic Christianity – was much closer to the ‘nature-following’ paths that would now be considered pagan or druidic.

Generally, ancient crosses would supplant whatever ‘landscape marker’ was there before. These would include market crosses, village crosses, wayside and boundary markers.

A short distance from Old Ralph’s Cross I found a more recent memorial (below) – probably pagan. The beautiful flowers, newly placed, felt very symbolic of the joy of getting here…

(Above: I was not alone in viewing Old Ralph’s Cross as reverential… Near to the cross I found another, freshly tended)

The words I had drawn from the bag at our Friday meeting came back to me:

Flattery – Pride – Humility – Will

As the workshop’s author, I knew their significance, but there was a special resonance in this wild place. Sometimes we have to surrender to a greater will to achieve a purpose for a group. In so doing, we make the internal journey towards inner reality signified by the partial ‘path’ of the four words above.

I had hoped to bring the group here after coffee at the Lion Inn – and hence my need to find the path. I realised now that this was impossible. The dangers were too great and we could, literally, die of exposure here… We had enough before us in the local history of the Lion Inn and its historic environs (see next post) and the wonders of Lastingham on this final morning… and at least I had my photographs to share over the forthcoming coffee..

Departing, I walked around Old Ralph’s Cross one last time. It had been a very special meeting. I located the car on the horizon of the moor… lined up the two… and said a small prayer.

(Above: leaving Old Ralph’s Cross.. with a small prayer for my safe path back to the car!. The colour of the sky gives some idea of the winter temperature…)

Fifteen minutes later, grateful but frozen, I made it back to the car without sinking into the bog, again. I sat with the engine running and thought about the sheer intensity of the experience…

We were insulated travellers on this moor. Our cars remove us from the anguish and the ‘being’ of crossing its forbidding paths. What we gain in time is lost in the depth of experience – any walker will tell you this. Are we really equipped to understand the past of a landscape this dramatic?

The journey here was intended to be symbolic of that taken by Bishop (later Saint) Cedd as he walked across this moor to establish his church in the lovely valley at Lastingham. A little hardship had done me no harm at all… and, as I pulled the car back onto the old road and towards the Lion Inn, I gave thanks to whatever ‘spirits’ had guided my feet in that treacherous place.

Ahead of me, my Companions of the Keys of Heaven weekend would be gathering by a warm fire for coffee and biscuits to begin our final day.

The Lion Inn’s fire is always lit during working hours. It awaited me…

To be continued…

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

©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.

Keys of Heaven (7): the path to gentle darkness

The tiny fishing village of Staithes is a place of peaceful beauty. It lies part way between Whitby and Saltburn on the North Yorkshire coast. It’s geology is also one of the few breaks in the vast cliffs that define this region; and which are the main source of the famous Whitby Jet semi-precious stone.

(Above) The path of Whitby Abbey to Staithes along the Cleveland Way. Image Google Maps

Staithes was our destination… and I was taking a calculated risk in order to give us a dramatic contrast to the morning. The visit to the Abbey – to recreate in our own minds the seismic events of AD664 – had been intense. At the conclusion of the synod, Bishop Colman had known that his world was over; that the new age of Christianity would follow the Church of Rome model. He took his followers and walked out of the Abbey, northwards.

(Above) Whitby Museum – full of ghosts…

We can never know the emotion that flowed between Bishop Colman, King Oswiu (who was, until that point, a Celtic Christian) and the two facilitators of the synod, Bishop Cedd and Abbess Hild, but we can know that it did exist, and that as wise and experienced a king as Oswiu would not have acted without being aware of the consequences – including the impact on the holy island of Lindisfarne…

Symbolically, the group of us walking against the keen winds on the cliffs beyond Port Mulgrave had as little a choice as had Bishop Colman, walking away from Whitby – but our predicament was brief – whereas his changed the rest of his life.

We had been dropped off a Mulgrave… our only refuge would be to get to Staithes. Our risk was not great. The weather has been kind: windy but not too cold. December on the high Cleveland Way can be very different…

(Above) The sun begins to set on the Cleveland Way, which follows the edge of the cliffs from Whitby, north to Saltburn

Development of the Cleveland Way began in the 1930s when the Teesside Ramblers’ Association pressed for the creation of a long distance path in the north-east of Yorkshire linking existing paths along the boundaries of the North York Moors and footpaths on the Yorkshire coast.

(Above) The Cleveland Way: over one hundred miles of wild beauty from Helmsley to Filey (source)

A formal proposal to create the route was submitted in 1953 to the council North Riding of Yorkshire, by the National Parks Commission. In 1969, the path was finally opened – only the second of its kind in the UK.

Our problem was not the cold. It was the light. The path was muddier than we had expected and progress towards Staithes was slow. At an open place where the views of the coast fell away on either side, we stopped for our final exercise of the day. Once again, we revisited the sequence of four words we had each selected at the opening meal. By now, we knew each ‘pointed’ to a process whereby we could bring to consciousness one related set of psychological obstacles to our spiritual growth.

Flattery – Pride – Humility – Will

Facing the wind off the sea, we each voiced how our words could be seen as one of the keys of inner transformation.

With the light beginning to fade, we came down from the cliff path and onto the flat agricultural land that borders the upper village of Staithes.

(Above) The high cliffs from which we had descended to get to the fishing village of Staithes

Below us, the lights of Staithes were twinkling.

A ‘staithe’ is an old English word meaning ‘landing place’. The plural name “Staithes” of the fishing port is due to its twin ‘landing places’; one on each side of the stream that flows down from the moor and into the sea- named Roxy Beck.

(Above) Staithes’ twin ‘landing stages’.

Staithes was once one of the largest fishing ports on the north-east coast. It was also an important source of minerals such as jet, iron, alum and potash. These days, the huddle of cottages nestled between towering cliffs is an attractive holiday destination and lies within the North York Moors National Park.

The village is famous as a source of inspiration for artists, in particular the impressionist artist colony known as the Staithes Group, among them Laura and Harold Knight. The quality of light and the variety of perspectives offered by cliff-top views and winding paths have made Staithes a magnet for artists.

(Above) The timeless image of Staithes’ harbour front

The risk had been worth it. We arrived at our destination just as a gentle darkness fell. We had picked the Cod and Lobster tavern on the main quayside as a meeting point. Those who had been unable to make the walk met us there. After the intensity of the day, we needed simple refreshment. Tomorrow would be a challenging day.

(Above) The Cod and Lobster – our final destination for Saturday

To be continued…

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

©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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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 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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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 stevetanham.wordpress.com.