Woman in Blue Reading a Letter – Johannes Vermeer 1663/4

I had not been to the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam before 2014, so was lucky enough to go a year after its magnificent refurbishment.  I walked into the Gallery of Honour drinking in every painting.  Despite half my degree being in History of Art, the 17th century was not a period that I studied so knew little about it.  I found myself in front of the Vermeers and was most particularly taken by Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.  I had no previous interest in Vermeer.  I thought of his art as Dutch fridge magnets.  But here, I was drawn into a stillness despite the bustle around me and into a meditative state for the longest time. I was completely overcome by what the painting was doing – or undoing. When I came back into the room, I was curious as to how he could have induced that in me.  The Vermeer cubicle was hung with Dutch 17C domestic scenes by other artists which only highlighted Vermeer’s greatness.   What was it about him? His intense colour, ethereal light and exquisite draughtsmanship served to hallow a moment of engagement in a daily task, in this case, reading a letter.  Time distilled like a human still life. He pays attention to the woman paying attention and so gently required me, the viewer to pay my attention. This story stayed for me because I had the experience before I got the meaning.  I did not go into the gallery looking for Vermeer and had no previous interest in him. Even now, I have no idea what experts say about him, but in front of this painting I felt in my body and soul why Vermeer is a genius.  Life happened to me unmediated.

My pre-lockdown routine is to walk by the Tyne every day.  The Tyne is made of 2 rivers – the North which begins at Kielder and the South which begins in Alston Moor in Cumbria.  The rivers meet near Hexham where I live.  It has been a deep pleasure of our permitted exercise to discover a new walk in the woods at Watersmeet.  As I stand with the trees behind me, amidst the branches and debris of the February floods, I listen to the sound of the river rushing by.  Whatever condition I come in, life is flowing on and I am part of it.  At my feet, over the weeks the wood anemones have given way to primroses and now there are bluebells and wild garlic. I watch the waters of grief and the waters of gratitude flowing into one, on their journey down to Tynemouth, 36 miles away.  Grief and gratitude, the twin inner streams of lockdown, are inseperable, one river flowing through me every single day.

I have good days and bad days.  We are locked down with the best and the worst of ourselves.  Even when I am feeling furniture-bitingly frustrated or sad and tearful, I let it all come and accept it without trying to understand.  This is how it is.  I can just let it be and it need not be covered over to get to the next thing on the timetable. Sometimes, it is like this in the night.  Dreams or the day’s moods can amplify and waken me.  My bed is comfortable, soft and white and I snuggle down even if I cannot get back to sleep and know that whilst the night-time phantoms are real, it is also true that all is well.  Grief and gratitude: the waters meet again.

The internet is awash with people trying to make sense of this time but this is a new time, a strange time, a never before time.  Rumi famously said “Exchange your cleverness for bewilderment”.  I choose to avoid the internet for my own self-care and stay bewildered.  I want to allow the wildness of myself and the earth around me, and this virus that we cannot entirely defend ourselves against, to be as they are.  I want to have the experience and let the meaning come later – and when it wants to come.  I want to delay the predictions.  I have heard them all from outright despair to blithe optimism for ourselves and the planet. I choose to be bewildered. The poet Kaveh Akbar commented that “in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder.” The strangeness of this time helps me to wonder.  I wonder at the quiet, at the birds singing or flying with twig in beak, at the new normal of crossing the street to show you care, at the slow motion of time, suspended as in grief or new parenthood. I am bewildered like I was in front of Vermeer, without understanding.  I will wait to see what this time has to show me, but for now, I will try to live it.

This poem which I have (unfairly) lifted lines from is from an epic poem called Labrador by Kenneth White.  It is of course, the wrong season – but the right silence.  I have long valued it as a poem about bewilderment.

I lived a winter there

it was a time of white silence

I carved a poem on the rocks

in praise of winter and white silence

among the best runes ever done

I was aware of a new land

a new world

but I was loathe to name it too soon

simply content to use my senses

feeling my way

step by step.

I lived and moved as I have never done before

the track of the caribou in the snow

the flying of wild geese

the red Autumn of the maple tree

bitten by frost

I tried to learn

the language of that silence

a man needs to fix his knowledge

but he also needs an emptiness

in which to move

religion and philosophy

what I’d learned in the churches and the schools

were all too heavy for this travelling life

all that remained to me was poetry

but a poetry

as unobtrusive as breathing

a poetry like the wind

and the maple leaf.

Easter Morning


The Gothic Window 1900 Odilon Redon

Friends, here is the last day of the retreat – Easter morning.  People seemed to like the first image that I put up for this retreat – The Holy Women at the Tomb 1893 Maurice Denis so that is the picture for Easter morning. Women at the tomb Maurice Denis

Preparation Easter Morning and Easter Morning 2020

If you have been following this retreat I know it will have been a very different Easter to what we’re used to. All sacred spaces are about the circle and the space.  I hope the material has been a workable circle  to keep the space at centre open for the Beloved to easter in us.  I wish you blessing this Easter, one like no other.

Holy Saturday Morning and Easter Vigil

Mark Rothko Untitled

Mark Rothko Untitled

So here is Holy Saturday Morning – Preparation for a Day of Quiet  Preparation for Holy Saturday morning and Holy Saturday morning 2020

The Easter Vigil is for the evening but if you’re hardcore you could begin in the darkest hour of Sunday morning just before the sun rises.  Preparation for the Easter Vigil Saturday Night and Holy Saturday Vigil 2020

Here is the picture for the altar for this day Holy Saturday

Good Friday Mid-day and Tenebrae

Crucifixion 9 1987 by Craigie Aitchison 1926-2009Crucifixion 9 1987 – Craigie Aitchison

Friends if it’s all felt a bit complicated, it get simpler from here on in now that the basics of the retreat are set up. Here are the resources for the rest of Good Friday.  I meant to say that Good Friday morning is the most optional of all.  I would have said that Good Friday night is too but when I looked at the Lamentations reading again which would be read anyway for the Tenebrae, I was staggered how spot on it was this year as we wander our deserted streets.  So keep it if you can!  Good Friday Mid-day can of course be held any time between 12 and 3.  I posted the picture for Good Friday yesterday.

Good Friday Mid-day Preparation for Good Friday Mid  Good Friday 12pm 2020

Good Friday Night/Ceremony of Shadows – Tenebrae Preparation for Good Friday Night

Good Friday Night 2020

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday morning


The Nativity of the Virgin Paolo Uccello (1397- 1475)

Friends, I lied when I said for each ceremony there are 2 documents – I forgot the pictures!  There are 3 and actually for Maundy Thursday I have offered a choice.   One is a gentle picture. The other is, I think a very powerful picture of Christ and I don’t generally like realist pictures of Christ but this one moves me and I think it fits well with the Agony in the Garden.  It is up to you which you print and use. The gentle one is by Antonio Sicurezza 1969 called “Clean Hands” Antonio_Sicurezza_-_Clean_hands-1  Or Maundy Thursday 1.

As I said yesterday, there is then a Preparation document to be read ahead of time and then an “Order of Service”

For Maundy Thursday Preparation Maundy Thursday and Maundy Thursday 2020

For Good Friday Morning:  Picture Good Friday   Before the ceremony please read Body Prayer Introduction  No need to print. Preparation Good Friday morning and Good Friday Morning 2020

Blessings as you prepare for your Holy Week

Introduction to Easter Retreat 2020

No 22 - Special 1916:7 Georgia O'Keeffe.jpg

No 22 – Special. 1916/7 Georgia O’Keeffe

Friends, I wonder how this finds you today.  As the lockdown endures and the death toll rises, I find the weather of my moods moving through four seasons in one day most days. I have been battling with technology for this Easter retreat and not altogether successfully.  I thought I could just put a video here but this is not possible – you have to go through another platform so I now have a YouTube channel!  I find this completely excruciating.  So the videos will stay up for exactly a week.  After that, if you liked the Arriving Routine (Body Prayer) and would like to keep it, I will send it to your email address privately.  So for my Introduction to the Retreat video you need to go to YouTube.  It is called “Introduction Easter 2020 Retreat”  Don’t put in Tess Ward because that won’t take you there.  The same information is in black and white on the PDF of the same name Introduction to Easter Retreat 2020  Then there is a Preparation for Rituals PDF which tells of the objects you need to gather together. Preparation for Rituals

I will post Maundy Thursday and Good Friday morning on Monday.

Good Friday Mid-day and Tenebrae on Tuesday

Holy Saturday Morning and Easter Vigil on Wednesday

Easter Morning on Thursday.

I am beginning to hear the phrase “when this is all over” a lot.  Far from being over on Easter Day, in Britain, we will be hitting the peak of deaths in our islands.  In the original retreat I played Nina Simone’s version of Here Comes the Sun.  I love her version because her voice carries “the long cold lonely winter” in a way the original doesn’t.  I knew it was not the right song for this year, sadly.  Too soon.  “When this is all over” isn’t about what we think is going to happen tomorrow.  It’s a conviction of hope.  And that is what Easter is about. I wish you a blest time in your retreat.

Easter in a Time of Isolation

Women at the tomb Maurice Denis


Hello! This is just a heads up for anyone who is not part of a gathered Christian community and would like to follow the story of Jesus from Maundy Thursday to Easter morning in a contemplative way.  I have adapted it for this time from the retreat I led at Othona in 2016.  It is a series of rituals, poetry, readings, music and art.  It will also include body prayer, silence and my own earthy written prayers.  The purpose is to help reflection in your own home, either on your own or with those you share a home with.  It will focus on the mystery of the cycle of living, dying and rebirth at the heart of all life.  I will put the first notice up on Sunday April 5 in order to give time to gather the ritual elements together if you choose to do those. The Maundy Thursday material will appear on Tuesday April 7 so each day will be posted 2 days ahead of the day it is due to be used.

We have, without exception, all had to adjust to such a profound change in the way we live in the last 2 weeks.  For me although the outside world is quieter, except for the birdsong – surely the signature tune of this strange time? – my virtual life got much much noisier.  It took a week to adjust to the far greater powers of discernment I now need to navigate the phone messages and online wonderful material that “bombard” both the devices I use – all offered in friendliness.  During that week I hesitated over whether to offer yet one more online Easter resource and add to the plethora already out there but my discernment has led me to do just that: offer it.  I hope it finds its way to at least 1 or 2 people who would value it.  I will explain it more on Sunday. And I hope that we all find what we need to resource our spirits in these extraordinary months.  Feargal Keane read this on the Today programme this morning from John O’Donohue so I will finish up here with it as it is the kind of material my Easter meditations contain:

“This is the time to be slow,

Lie low to the wall

Until the bitter weather passes.


Try, as best you can, not to let

The wire brush of doubt

Scrape from your heart

All sense of yourself

And your hesitant light.


If you remain generous,

Time will come good;

And you will find your feet

Again on fresh pastures of promise,

Where the air will be kind

And blushed with beginning.”

Quiet week in September by the Sea


This is a beautiful time away, at Othona, Burton Bradstock, Dorset.  It is nearly a week of quiet.  Not a retreat so much as time to let be and unfurl.  Othona do these weeks twice a year and they always book up so I’m posting this early.  My job is merely to prepare quiet in the wonderful chapel morning and evening and to be available should you want some time alone to talk.  This time we are thinking about emptiness and the different things it can mean when we experience it.  But it is not necessary to consider this at all! As always at Othona, the spirituality is open to all which is one reason why I return again and again.  If you have not visited before the beach is a 15 minute walk down a path across fields and the grounds of Othona are also a place for quiet in one of the turning seasons.

Our work is simply this: to become the emptiness that can receive.

–  derived from M. Eckhart by Sweeney and Burrows.

For more information and booking see



A Space for some wild spontaneous person!!


A space has come up on our Book of (H)Ours Retreat on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  Monday January 28- Friday February 1st.  See details below.  If anyone reading this would like to come and can come at such short notice, please contact The Open Gate on Holy Island.  You would be so welcome and we are all beginning to feel excited about our time together.

Book of (H)ours Retreat on Holy Island, Northumberland.


Lindisfarne in Winter: Monday 28 January to Friday 1 February

I am delighted to be offering with Claire Gibbs, a bookbinder, heritage expert, naturalist and priest, among many other things, and Mary Fleeson, an artist at the Lindisfarne Scriptorium, a creative retreat on Lindisfarne in deepest winter.  In January, Holy Island is quiet and even more elemental than usual.  So we can be out with the wind, tides and birds or in beside the fire at the Open Gate Retreat House, the home of the Community of Aidan and Hilda. Over the course of our time together, we will make our own Book of (H)ours to take home.  We will learn about Illuminated Lettering, Books of Hours and the Lindisfarne Gospels and each day will  begin and end with optional chapel times.  There will also be time for personal reflection and quiet.  It will be creative, reflective and time out to consider our prayer/meditation lives.

If you want to know more about it get in touch with me.

If you want to book go to the Open Gate website: