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.
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.
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:
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!
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…
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 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.