Tess Ward is a hospice chaplain and writer of prayers and liturgies. She facilitates both traditional Christian services and more personal, spiritually focussed ceremonies. Her books include The Celtic Wheel of the Year and Alternative Pastoral Prayers.
Some would call it serendipity, I would call it Spirit but in June I came to the clarity that though I had two books birthing inside me, the one that was to come first was a resource book and maybe app, for pilgrims in Northumbria. There are of course many of these but this would be a spiritual guide and I had been led to some out of the way places and would want to include those. Content enough that I had a shape to my new year back in Durham in September, not a week or more later, I was contacted by two American women who were bringing 3 others to these shores in early July. They had followed a trail from Ireland to Iona and now here to Holy Island and the North East. Together we came up with a plan to spend 2 days exploring St Hild, St Ebba and the Divine Feminine. This is a tiny fragment of what we got up to.
We walked across the sands from Sandsend to Whitby hearing the story of Hilda and bits of ceremony to orientate ourselves to the place and to Hild and then up the 199 steps to the Abbey. She is so strong and in the shadow of the referendum, I was struck by how much we need her wisdom today. Lowly folks and High Kings all came to her for counsel. She held the Celtic and Roman strands together and ran an equal monastery of men and women. Whitby was the greatest place of learning and education at that time (7C). She governed with energy and inspiration and saw the divine in each person and of course we especially know the story of Caedmon who was a cowherd at the Abbey but who became the first English poet (whose name is known) thanks to Hild’s encouragement.
The Abbey is breathtaking, standing proud on the edge of the land looking out to the sea below, with the sound of the waves and sea birds and swifts circling. Legend has it that when the birds fly over the Abbey, they dip their wings in honour of Hild. We christened this the “Hild tilt” with arms splayed, one low, one high. When we got to it, there was a Chartres labyrinth in the grass which several of us walked. This was a gift as the women I had brought here were experienced Labyrinth leaders and had wanted to find one in Durham. There were no notices about that and little information about Hild – tho if you wanted to know about Bram Stoker and Dracula, you were alright. It reminded us that even with a stonking great beautiful building right in front of you, the gift of women and wisdom generally, are like gossamer – barely visible. You have to look and more than that, you have to be tuned in, in silence and listening in the unknown. Wisdom always feels like this but none more so than in the UK post June 23, 2016.
Hilda spread your cloth of wisdom
Pass your shuttle of golden thread
Through the weft of our shared lives
And warp of all that’s torn and spent
May we as sisters on our journey
Spin with you this sacred web.
Heal the warp
Heal the weft
Pass your shuttle of golden thread.
Weave together the lost
Weave together the found
Weave together the broken
Weave together the strong
Weave together the sad…….
……..Reel us in
call us home
stitch us through with love divine
reel us in
call us home
help us trace the wisdom line
reel us in
call us home
mend the tattered fabric of our times.
C.Tess Ward 2016
Whitby Abbey – the Spectacular!
The next day we rose bright and early and drove through the Northumberland national park – o my! It’s breathtaking – way more sheep than people. I wanted to take my new found sisters to one of my out of the way places – the Lady’s Well at Holystone. Though it’s history is more 12C, it feels to me a holy feminine place as a convent of Augustinian canonesses lived here and I have always regarded water as a female element being about flow and honouring emotions (which it is associated with). Curiously though, when the Victorians put their Celtic cross folly in the middle of the pool, they dedicated it to Paulinus and put a statue of him there with his baptizing cloth. So although probably nothing to do with Paulinus, who baptized Hild, it fitted with our mini pilgrimage. To get to it, we walked in silence through the forest, across a field and it is in a magical grove watched over by yew, oak, beech and holly trees.
At the altar and round the pool, we had a morning ceremony. This included:
WHEN I AM AMONG TREES by Mary Oliver
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”
Thanks be to thee O God that we have risen today
to the rising of life itself.
Carry us like a leaf on a stream
in the abundance of your loving kindness,
new every morning.
C. Tess Ward 2016
By the afternoon we had arrived at Craster. Four of our party walked the coastal path to Beadnell travelling across the golden sands of Embleton, Low Newton and Beadnell.
We walked past Dunstanburgh Castle which stood sentinel at each point of our afternoon journey. The end of our pilgrimage was Ebb’s Nook. I may have tempted fate by taking water as a theme as by then, it began to rain. So we proceded with a shortened version of my Ebba Vespers. Unlike Whitby Abbey, Ebb’s Nook is hidden – I doubt many of the villagers of Beadnell know it is there. It is on a little promontory – which reminded me of the Burren. It is easy to see how the rocks would have formed the chapel in 12C. What remains is a natural chapel – grassy with layers of rocks and water pools and always the waves washing against the edge of the land. It was a pleasure to speak CF Alexander’s version of one of the verses of St Patrick’s Breastplate together:
I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three.
I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea
around the old eternal rocks.
Sadly so little is known about Ebba. She was a friend of Cutbhbert and an exact contemporary of Hild and like her, a Saxon princess who founded a double (both sexes) monastery at Abb’s Point across the border in Scotland which she presided over for 40 years. There is also the story of Ebba the Younger, who was 9C. When the Vikings raided she took a razor and cut off her nose and lips. Her brave sisters watched it and followed suit. When the Danes appeared they were so disgusted they fled but although the nuns were saved from rape, the invaders soon returned and set fire to the convent and Ebba and all her community were killed. We considered the flow of courage in women and how although waves move through the water, the water is at is – it keeps its integrity while being able to move and flow.
We also thought about how Time Team only a few years ago found baby bones in this place from 16-17C. They were unbaptized and Ebba’s Chapel will not have been a burial ground as it was too small. So we imagined the women coming to this sacred – and safe – place to bury their dead foetuses and babies in the hope that they would be taken to heaven. This seemed to us Ebba’s blessing across the centuries, reaching out to those beyond the boundaries.
We ended with a blessing and felt truly blessed by the still pool and chuckling spring of the morning, the rain and waves of the afternoon and the strong and wise flow of the sacred feminine present in this land that we had just trod, as of course, everywhere.
Bless to us this day the sun that is above us
The earth that is beneath us
The ocean all around us
Your rhythm of life within us
flowing and ebbing
and ebbing and flowing
into the evening which lies before us.
C. Tess Ward 2016 (adapted from Iona Community and they from Carmina Gadelica).