The Abbeys of Yorkshire – 1

Tuesday, May 12th. And suddenly, all my mind is clouded with a doubt… What’s the point of a virtual pilgrimage, anyway? Surely pilgrimage means travelling, physically, in time and space, to actually inhabit the same holy space that something or someone has made holy? For a moment I think of packing everything up and driving straight back home.

Then I remember the words of the Tao Te Ching (which I also venerate as a kind of Scripture):

Without going outside
one can know the whole world
Without looking out the window
one can see the ways of Heaven
The farther one goes
the less one knows

Thus the Sage does not go, yet he knows
He does not look, yet he sees
He does not do, yet all is done
(Chapter 47)

And in a similar vein the ancient Celtic saying which I try to reconstruct from memory, something like:

To go to Rome is much trouble, little profit:
you will not find the Lord you seek, unless you take him with you.

So we will continue. We’ve come to Yorkshire to visit some of the great abbeys of the county, and at this point I realise that, unless a virtual day is like the TARDIS – much larger inside that it is outside – it’s just going to be an impossible task. There are so many of them – I gave up counting Wikipedia’s list of them – that visiting them all would be the work of a lifetime, not of a pilgrimage of a few days.

Today we have decided to visit just three, driving north of Harrogate to start with probably the most famous of all, one of the largest and best preserved ruins of Cistercian abbeys in England, Fountains Abbey. It was also one of the wealthiest, owning large and profitable estates which made it a highly covetable prize for the powerful and greedy who profited from Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Fountains Abbey
Bare ruin’d choirs?

On a fine day it’s lovely to walk among these beautiful ruins, and on a virtual pilgrimage, we have it all to ourselves, without the usual crowds of visitors. We wander around and think Romantic thoughts about ‘bared ruin’d choirs’.

The problem with virtuality is that you can do an instant search for the phrase, which you always thought was Wordsworth, probably from Tintern Abbey, and find that it’s actually from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. And is not about ruined abbeys at all – the ‘bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’ are actually the leafless branches of the trees in autumn, to which the poet likens his declining years. Don’t say you can’t learn something, even on a virtual pilgrimage.

Our reflections take the form of a Wonder. What was their life like, these monks of one of the wealthiest Cistercian houses in the country? Were they faithful, devout, zealous in their prayers, offering all those Offices for the world and for the glory of God? Or did they just enjoy a soft and luxurious life, eating and drinking in plenty, while the common people of Yorkshire struggled and often starved? Leading up to the Dissolution, Abbot William Thirsk was accused of immorality and inadequacy, and was removed as abbot. Was he really guilty as charged? Or was it a ruse to find the whole Abbey corrupt, needing to be dissolved? Wikipedia is silent about this.

Leaving Fountains Abbey, we drive a few miles into Ripon to visit the Cathedral.

Ripon Cathedral, West Front
Ripon Cathedral, the Nave

The present church is the fourth on the site and was built between the 13th and 16th centuries. It became the Cathedral of the new diocese of Ripon when the diocese was founded in 1836. But before that there was a long history of a monastery on the site. Founded first by Scottish monks in the 660s, it was refounded as a Benedictine monastery by St Wilfrid in 672. We do not speak of St Wilfrid in our household, because of his role in the Synod of Whitby where he advocated the Roman point of view which eventually ‘won’ against the native, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon position. (There we go again, choosing the ‘Good Guys’ in history.) In truth, Wilfrid must have been an uncomfortably prickly character, often disagreeing with his superiors in the Church (and probably making life uncomfortable for his clergy, too) but there’s no denying he was zealous for his Lord, a missionary, and is said to have introduced the Rule of St Benedict into England.

The Cathedral boasts a colourful rood screen, full of more saints than you could possibly name.

The Rood Screen

We’re feeling like eating Italian today, and our choice is the nearby Uno Momento in Kirkgate. Pizza or pasta, or? Hmm, we fancy all of them.

And then it’s 15 miles further north-west to Jervaulx Abbey. More beautiful ruins in a beautiful setting. I long for that frisson of awe, of the Numinous. And find you can’t just summon it up for wishing. An abbey needs a praying community – the ghosts, however many and sincere, somehow just don’t do it.

Jervaulx Abbey

And so we drive back to Harrogate. Must explore the town more before we actually have to move on. Maybe tomorrow.

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