Wednesday, May 20th, 2020. The Holy Island retreat on Thomas Merton continues with its second day.

Here’s the problem I have with the whole concept of contemplation. It is either presented as, or is often perceived as, a superior way of prayer, and those who practise it (‘contemplatives’) are perceived as a superior class of Christian. So the incentive is for people who aspire to go further in their Christian life, to read books about contemplation and seek to ‘do’ it. But we are also told that it’s impossible to achieve or attain contemplation – it can only ever be a gift of God, which presumably may or may not be bestowed according to God’s inscrutable purpose. But then again, we can’t receive this gift unless we practise it. And then again again, contemplation is not only for some special high caste of Christians, but for everyone.

I speak from personal experience as one of those who at one time wanted to make spiritual progress and thought I must do that by ‘practising contemplation’. The proposed ways of doing that emphasised such techniques as Centering Prayer (“Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship,”) and also the method proposed in The Cloud of Unknowing. (“For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.”) They are similar in their effort to still the mind and focus on God, ceasing to have any ‘thoughts’, and when thoughts rush in as they inevitably will, returning to the repetition of the single-syllable prayer word.

I’ve tried this stuff, and it defeats me. I’ve had much better results at approaching to something that may (or perhaps, may not) be contemplation, with techniques like the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer, stilling my mind by constant repetition of a simple prayer, which I find a better help at moving beyond thought.

And then, the mainstay of my prayer has always been the Daily Office and a reading of Scripture that I would like to make much more like Lectio Divina. I’m pleased to see that the Centering Prayer website says, “Like Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina cultivates contemplative prayer. Unlike Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina is a participatory, active practice that uses thoughts, images and insights to enter into a conversation with God. Lectio Divina also is distinguished from reading the Bible for edification or encouragement, Bible study, and praying the scriptures in common, which are all useful but separate practices.” But I would add that Lectio Divina often leads from ‘thoughts, images and insights’ to that imageless ‘being with God’ to which Centering Prayer aspires – which is, perhaps, pure contemplation.

Well, those are my musings on Contemplation.

Thomas Merton

When we meet up with David Cole today, his theme is what Thomas Merton has to say about The True Self and The False Self. The aim of prayer, as of the whole Christian life, is to discard the False Self which sin and the modern world favour, and to discover the True Self as we discover God, or discover God as we discover the True Self.

So long as we are in the world, it’s impossible to leave the False Self entirely behind. In fact, we may never discover the True Self until we die. So there’s a lifelong task for us. That’s what I like. I’d hate to run out of things to do.

☐ Discover True Self…

Holy Island Retreat

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020. One of the things I love most about staying on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne is the opportunity to join in prayer at the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, beside the remains of the ancient Priory. Morning Prayer is offered every day at 7.30 a.m., Evening Prayer at 5.30 p.m. This much isn’t unusual for any parish church where the clergy take seriously their commitment to saying the Daily Office. What is less common is that the attendance at these times of prayer may be 20 to 30 people. Some of them will be people staying at The Open Gate, perhaps, or other pilgrim visitors to the Island. But some will also be parishioners who are drawn to this holy practice, day by day. When I was a working vicar it was always a bonus when one or two others joined me. For 25 years I was most often alone in the chancel. Twenty or 30 others was a figure beyond my best hopes. Yet it says something about just how much Lindisfarne is experienced as a ‘thin place’ where the presence of God can be clearly felt.

So we begin our day with Morning Prayer together, before breakfast at The Open Gate, and an opportunity to get to know some of the other retreatants better. For our pilgrimage is also now a retreat, led by David Cole of Waymark Ministries, on Thomas Merton, and Contemplation. I have doubts and questions about the whole idea of Contemplation and Contemplative Prayer. Perhaps I will have an opportunity to explore them during the next three days, though I’m anxious that I may offend, or perhaps, even worse, be jumped upon by any of the others who are True Contemplatives. (Though I suspect that a True Contemplative wouldn’t jump on anyone who disagreed with them.)

This morning’s session draws on Merton’s own writings, especially in New Seeds of Contemplation, which is a 1962 revision and expansion of the original Seeds of Contemplation (1949). My edition of it is a 1972 edition called Seeds of Contemplation, which bears on the title page the information, Originally published as New Seeds of Contemplation. Are we confused yet?

The opening two chapters are What is contemplation? and What contemplation is not. They provide what you might call a thorough taste of the enigma and paradox of this way of prayer – or is it, way of life?

The afternoon session allows more discussion, feedback, questions and sharing of experience, while touching on the theme of The Life of a Contemplative.

Thomas Merton’s writings have had a great influence on my Christian growth and thinking. It seems he was not universally liked by all his Trappist brothers at Gethsemani Abbey. And I’m left wondering whether I would have liked him, or found him rather unnerving or even terrifying? I would like to have liked him, and to have been able to call him a friend. But we can’t always choose, can we?

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Monday, May 18th, 2020. Today we arrive at the principal destination of our pilgrimage. It is an island off the Northumbrian coast, connected to the mainland by a causeway that is passable twice a day at low tide. There are frequent tales of motorists taking a chance of getting across at the last possible moment, forgetting that the water comes in very fast. There are refuges built up on stilts at intervals, where the unlucky drivers can sit out the next four hours contemplating the fact that, though they will get back to their car when the tide goes out, their car won’t be going anywhere quickly.

The reason for our overnight stay in Bamburgh was to allow us to make the crossing well before the latest time of 11.25 a.m. You can always check the crossing times on the Holy Island crossing times website.

Holy Island gets lots of visitors in the tourist season. It is at its loveliest during high tide, when many of them have hurried back to the mainland, leaving a quieter place for those who are lucky enough to be staying. We are staying at The Open Gate, the main house of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, who run retreats and conferences there, and provide accommodation for visitors at other times. When we’ve checked in, found our rooms and taken up our suitcases, we head off for a walk to the north shore.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is shaped like an axe, and legend has it that when there was war in heaven (Revelation 12.7) and Michael and his angels fought against the dragon – that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan – and the devil’s battle-axe was struck from his hands and fell into the North Sea, forming this holy island as a constant reminder that the evil one is defeated.

It is one of those sacred places that draw down the presence of God: ‘thin places’ they are called, like Iona, Skellig Michael, and Bardsey Island. Here St Aidan founded Lindisfarne Priory. And here, on June 6th 793, one of the first Viking raids on England took place. The raiders were astonished by the monasteries they found scattered along the coast in sparsely populated places. Full of wealth and extraordinarily precious works of art, and inhabited by peaceful people who bore no arms and were unable to resist.

Lindisfarne North Shore

Walking on the sand, we reflect on how our 8th century Christian forebears must have thought about these events. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, [a scribal error?] the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

And St Alcuin wrote: Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.

A new unknown terror was unleashed upon them. Perhaps it seemed to them something like 9/11 has seemed to us, or the numerous terrorist attacks of our times, or the COVID-19 pandemic. For the monks of Lindisfarne, the arrival of the Vikings was not a looming uncertain anxiety about what might happen. It was about certain death: perhaps even more terrifying than the experience of the most seriously ill patients of our own times when they are rushed into hospital, treated by masked and gowned strangers, intubated and sedated and attached to ventilators.

I have wondered often, during these days, about what it is like to face death so immediately, to know that one is dying. And I come back to what I think is one of the most brilliant imaginings of it (for none of us can know) in Christian writing. It’s in C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 31. The devil Wormwood’s Christian ‘patient’, serving as an air raid warden, has just been killed in a World War Two air raid. The senior devil Screwtape writes in rage, threatening the most terrible retribution and describing the patient’s experience of death, as his eyes are suddenly opened and he sees not only his angel guardians, but also Christ his Lord:

Did you mark how naturally – as if he’d been born for it – the Earth-born vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! ‘Yes. Of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?’

As he saw you, he also saw Them. I know how it was. You reeled back dizzy and blinded, more hurt by them than he had ever been by bombs. The degradation of it! – that this thing of earth and slime could stand upright and converse with spirits before whom you, a spirit, could only cower. Perhaps you had hoped that the awe and strangeness of it would dash his joy. But that is the cursed thing; the gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange. He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not ‘Who are you?’ but ‘So it was you all the time’. All that they were and said at this meeting woke memories. The dim consciousness of friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now at last explained; that central music in every pure experience which had always just evaded memory was now at last recovered. Recognition made him free of their company almost before the limbs of his corpse became quiet. Only you were left outside

He saw not only Them; he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding suffocating fire to you is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man.

Further to The North

We wake up on Sunday, May 17th. The Fifth Sunday After Easter, and Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

We’re going to be driving further north today, but first we plan to join the congregation of St Paul’s Jarrow for their Sunday Eucharist. To receive the Sacrament in this place where Bede and all those other Anglo-Saxon and later monks, and congregations of Christians ever since, have received it, gives this time of worship an extra dimension. It is bread and wine, yet shared with the sense of all it has meant and means to all the believers who have gone before us. It colours the words we say, that we join in worship and praise of God “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven”.

After the service we return to the car and leave The Old Rectory behind us. We haven’t given much thought to lunch, and a Google search of ‘Best Sunday roasts along the A1 north of Newcastle’ doesn’t shed much light. So we stop at The Jolly Bowman in Wallsend, which has a carvery. I’m still not sure whether it was the best choice, but it’s done.

Skirting the north-eastern edge of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (and being careful to call it Nyuhcassell, not Nyoocarsell – that’s what you get from marrying a lass who was born in County Durham) we pick up the A1 which we follow as far as the B1341, where we turn off for the final stretch to Bamburgh. We are booked for one night only at the Sunningdale Hotel, so after checking in and finding our room, we set off for a short walk around Bamburgh.

On this virtual Sunday afternoon there is plenty of time to visit the Castle on its commanding height, and then walk back to St Aidan’s Church in time for Evensong. Before entering the church we look at the grave of that great Victorian heroine Grace Darling.

Grace Darling is buried here
St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh

According to Bede, St Aidan died close to this place, and his shrine in the church is another reminder of our fellowship in the communion of saints with those great Christians of the early British Church.

Shrine of St Aidan

Jarrow and the Venerable Bede

Saturday, May 16th, 2020. Today we are thinking about a man you could claim was the most significant Englishman of the first millennium: the Venerable Bede. Though it’s thought he hardly ever travelled outside of his native Northumbria, his fame spread throughout Christian Europe. Two centuries after his death, a Swiss monk wrote “God, the orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the fourth day of Creation, in the sixth day of the world, has made Bede rise from the West as a new Sun to illuminate the world.”

Bede was born around 673 A.D. on the lands of the monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. At the age of 7, he became a boy scholar there, under the founding abbot Benedict Biscop, and his successor Ceolfrith. His education and studies there went on throughout his life, and scholarship was so important to him that, though it is thought he should have become abbot in turn, he insisted that his primary calling was study and writing.

His most famous work is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, still widely read today. It is a primary source of much of our knowledge of Britain in the first eight centuries, on the strength of which Bede has often been called ‘the father of English history’. But he was far more than just a historian. He wrote numerous biblical commentaries, saints’ lives, and hymns. He was also a man of science, and wrote a treatise called De Natura Rerum, which had chapters on

1. De Quadrifario dei opere (on the fourfold work of God) 2. De mundi formatione (on the formation of the earth) 3. Quid sit mundus (what the world is) 4. De elementis (on the elements) 5. De firmamento (on heaven) 6. De varia altitudine cœli (on the differing height of the sky) 7. De cœlo superiore (on the upper sky) 8. De aquis cœlestibus (on the celestial waters) 9. De quinque circulis mundi (on the five circles of the earth) 10. De plagis mundi (on the climes of the earth) 11. De stellis (on the stars) 12. De cursu planetarum (on the course of the planets) 13. De ordine eorum (on their arrangement).

He understood the influence of the moon on the tides, he knew the world was round, not flat, (though I’ve always believed the idea that people of the middle ages believed the world was flat is a complete myth), he invented ‘A.D.’: Anno Domini,the system of dating years from the Birth of Christ.

The first time we really realised the extent of Bede’s Europe-wide fame and influence was when we visited Melk Abbey, and saw proudly displayed in its wonderful, wonderful library, a manuscript of De Natura Rerum. But in fact his works were sought after even further afield, and can be seen on display as far away as St Petersburg, where they were in the possession of monasteries. One of these is thought to contain the earliest example of a portrait within an illuminated capital.

Our first visit this morning is to St Paul’s, Jarrow, the site of the Jarrow monastery.

St Paul’s Jarrow
St Paul’s Jarrow. The Nave, looking towards the Chancel

Much of the church building is later than the time of Bede, but the chancel is the original chapel of the monastery, dating from 681. It’s one of those special thin places where you can reflect that Bede himself prayed the Offices there, and though separated by centuries of time, we are united with him and his eighth century brethren in the communion of saints.

For lunch, what could be a more fascinating sounding place than The Viking Tandoori? Alas, it is ‘only’ an Indian restaurant, rather than one with a peculiarly Nordic flavour. Curried pickled herring, anyone? Not a chance.

After lunch we visit Jarrow Hall, the Anglo-Saxon farm, village and Bede Museum. Anglo-Saxon fun for all the family, with reconstructions of 8th century houses, people in costume weaving baskets, children dressing up as monks and practising their illuminated letters.

Later we go for a drive as Alison has a hankering for the sea, and we take a stroll along Marsden Beach.

Marsden Beach

Tomorrow we head further north. It’s a long road, and somehow The North is always beyond you, so that you wonder whether you will ever actually arrive… Perhaps that too is a parable of Life.

Jarrow and its Saints

Friday, May 15th. We wake up in Jarrow. For a Deep Southerner like me, it’s a name that conjures up ideas of bleak, run-down towns, poverty, boarded up shops, derelict factories. ‘Memories’ of stark events that happened years before I was born: the Jarrow March of 1936, when 200 men marched to London with a petition asking for the reopening of the shipyard, the major employer, which had closed in 1934. Somehow it was an event which moved the nation, and was still a potent folk memory when I was growing up. ‘The North East’ was already a deprived area, not enjoying its share in the wealth it could see in the rest of the country, especially in the South East where all the power was concentrated. How can you not reflect on how little seems to have changed in 85 years? In the Brexit referendum of 2016, South Tyneside voted by 62% to leave the EU; though unlike many other north-eastern constituencies, Labour did succeed in holding Jarrow in the 2019 General Election.

Yet back in the 7th century, Jarrow was a thriving, prosperous seaport and a world-renowned centre of learning. It would have ranked as the Oxford University, or the Sorbonne, of its day. This was because of the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, the homes of two of the most important saints of the Anglo-Saxon church: Benedict Biscop and the Venerable Bede.

Benedict Biscop (628-690) was a well-connected and well-travelled man, who became a monk at Lérins and later an abbot in Canterbury, before returning to his native Northumbria where in 674 he established the first foundation in Monkwearmouth. The monastery buildings were among the first in Northumbria to be built of stone. Biscop also wanted them to have glass windows – a technology as yet unknown in this country – and he brought over expert craftsmen from France to make the stained glass and teach others. Sunderland was for centuries a centre for glass-making and is still the home of the National Glass Centre.

So we begin the day with a visit to St Peter’s Monkwearmouth.

St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth

Just like the last time we tried to visit, we find the door locked. But as we turn away in bitter disappointment, a strangely dressed little man comes round the corner of the church carrying a key. He seems to be wearing some kind of habit, though that can only be our imagination: at most it could be a verger’s cassock. “Let me open the door for you,” he says. “We’ve been expecting you.” He lets us in and waits for us to walk a short distance down the nave; but when we turn to thank him, there’s no sign of him. Probably just slipped off into the vestry. There’s so much we want to ask him, let’s hope we catch him when he comes out.


It feels a comfortable, prayerful place – perhaps because it carries this imprint of a history we love. We can sit here for a long time with our reflections and prayers, and we do. When we have looked around we leave the church to explore the outlines of the monastic buildings which have been excavated on the south side of the church. Now and again we catch a glimpse of the little man who opened the door for us, but he always seems to be hurrying away round a corner on some business or other.

Outline of the abbey

By the time we’re ready to leave it’s time for lunch, which we enjoy at Bear Natural, where (unusually) we both choose the same dish from the menu, the Keralan curry, “A creamy, aromatic South Indian coconut, chickpea and lentil curry served with lime and coriander rice, and soya mint raita.”

We wander slowly back to the National Glass Centre. We’ve been before, but it’s always fascinating to learn more about Sunderland’s glassmaking history, and wonder at the skill that produced these beautiful objects. It’s a tragedy that religious communities were regarded as places to envy and plunder – by Vikings and Tudors and many others through the ages. So much has been lost through the accidents of time.

But sometimes lost things can be found again, in extraordinary ways. The abbeys of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow produced three manuscript bibles which were supreme works of art. Two of them have been lost. But the third was sent as a gift to the Pope. It too was thought to have been lost, but in 1888 it was established that a copy of the Vulgate in the possession of the Laurentian Library in Florence was in fact the Bible mentioned by Bede, that had been sent to the Pope. For centuries it had belonged to the Abbey of the Saviour at Mount Amiata in Tuscany. (Hence the name by which it is known, the Codex Amiatinus.) It is thought that the party of monks carrying the gift to Rome had been delayed (by winter? illness? death? the threat of robbers along the way?) and those who survived had simply stayed there, along with the priceless manuscript. At some time the inscription on the dedication page, “Ceolfrith of the English” was altered to “Peter of the Lombards”. But the original can still be faintly seen. Ceolfrith was the abbot of that distant Saxon monastery who had commissioned the manuscript and sent it to the Pope.

“Ceolfrith of the English” was altered to “Peter of the Lombards”

It is a huge volume, the oldest surviving complete text of the Latin Vulgate, and still regarded as the definitive text of Jerome’s Latin. We saw a reproduction of it when we last visited Jarrow, but later saw the original when it was on loan to the British Library last year. If only you could actually touch the exhibit… For me that would be something more wonderful than seeing most of the other relics of the saints that Christians have venerated through the years.

The Abbeys of Yorkshire – 3

It’s Thursday May 14th and today we’re making an early start. We have miles to go before we sleep, and we want to make four stops along the way. So it’s a full English breakfast to keep us going, pack up the suitcases and the car, and we’re on our way. Goodbye to the capital of Northern posh, as we head north on the A61 to Ripon, the A168 to Sowerby, then a short stretch of the A19 before turning off on some miles of minor roads to reach our first stopping place, Byland Abbey (shown above). This was founded in 1135 as a Savigniac abbey, but was absorbed not long after by that Borg among monastic orders, the Cistercians.

The ruins are impressive, especially the remains of the West front with a rose window which was the model for the similar window at York Minster. We also read about one of the manuscripts owned by Byland Abbey in the Middle Ages, now held by the British Library (Royal MS 15 A xx). Primarily a 12th-13th century copy of the Elucidarium and some tracts by Cicero, it also contains a collection of twelve ghost stories. These have been edited by M. R. James, leaving us to wonder how much his own wonderful ghost stories were influenced by those old tales, and what those old monks thought of them. Did they hear them at mealtimes in the refectory? Tell them to one another in the Chapter House? Read them secretly in the scriptorium, when they were supposed to be studying medieval theology and folk belief?

From Byland it’s a short hop of nine miles to Rievaulx Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in the north of England, founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey. Under its second abbot, it became a large community of around 140 monks and 500 lay brothers. And this was a man we’ve heard of, Aelred of Rievaulx, who is celebrated in the Church of England’s calendar of saints on January 12th. He is remembered largely for his writings, some of which are still in print, the best known of them being De spirituali amicitia (Spiritual Friendship). It’s not a subject I’ve heard preached or spoken about as much as it deserves to be. Aelred’s shrine was in the abbey church until the Dissolution, and though we don’t find where it might have been we say a prayer in remembrance of him, and give thanks for the gift of spiritual friendship.

By this time we’re feeling peckish, but we’re not going to eat just yet. First we drive the 23 miles to Mount Grace Priory, where in addition to the ruins of the abbey church there is a mansion, adapted from the priory’s guest house, and extensive gardens. First, a bread and soup lunch in the Orchard Café, then to explore.

Ruins of Mount Grace Priory church

Mount Grace Priory was one of the few Carthusian monasteries in England and is the best preserved. The Carthusians lived and worshipped communally, but differed from other monastic orders in that they were semi-hermits. Each monk lived in solitude in one of the cottage-like cells that are ranged around the Great Cloister. One of these has been reconstructed and looks quite comfortable. Maybe if you had to choose, it’s the Carthusians you would want to join?

There’s lots more to see in the gardens and house, which was remodelled in the early 20th century on Arts and Crafts principles, but little time to see it before we have to set off again. Alison has specially asked that we include the Saxon church at Escomb on our way.

Here it is. Built around 675 it is one of the oldest and most complete Saxon churches in Europe. It’s also still in use for weekly services, so it has more of a holy feel to it.

Then we leave on the last stage of today’s journey, to drive the 35 miles to Jarrow where we have booked a two-night stay at The Old Rectory. We’re pretty tired by now so we check in, unpack and wander out to eat at the nearest place we can find which is Martino’s Italian restaurant. That’s OK by us.

And so to bed.

York Minster and St Mary’s Abbey

Today’s plan is to drive to York to visit the Minster and St Mary’s Abbey. We set off early so that we can be back in time to explore Harrogate, on our last day here. We drive 24 miles to the edge of York, and park in the Askham Bar Park & Ride, taking the bus into the city centre. We’ve been to York before, but it’s always good to see it again, to walk on the ancient city walls and through the medieval streets around The Shambles. When we arrive at the Minster, we’re faced with the usual annoyance of having to pay to enter the house of God: it’s £11.50 for adults and £10.50 for seniors. It’s not so bad, when this is only virtual money. But in the real world I guess Jesus would have had something to say about it. At the very least, what about a means tested admission charge? The poor widow could get in for a farthing, which was ‘all her living’. (Mark 12.44) And the billionaire tax-dodging financier would be assessed at the same rate. That would surely fund the whole Cathedral for a few years, and until that contribution was all spent, they could let visitors in free of charge.

Approaching the Minster through York’s medieval streets
York Minster, the Nave

Cathedral websites in the virtual world are different from the ones we see in the real world, too. They show you not only the location of the gift shop, the café and the toilets, but also the places where you can pray quietly. That’s what we’ve come for. It’s often great to pray at the shrine of a favourite saint – like those of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral. The only shrine in the Minster is that of St William of York, about whom we know nothing except that the purpose of establishing his shrine was chiefly to compete with Canterbury (who had Thomas Becket’s relics) as a centre for pilgrimage. So we pray briefly, before setting off on the 7-minute walk to St Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens.

Ruins of St Mary’s abbey church

St Mary’s Abbey used to be the richest abbey in the north of England. The first church was founded in 1055 and dedicated to St Olaf of Norway; but it wasn’t long before the conquering Normans put their own mark on it. The land was given to some monks from Whitby, who established a Benedictine monastery on the site. Apart from the ruins of the church, all that remains is the Abbot’s House built in 1483, which became the seat of the Council of the North in 1539. In the Museum you can also see one of the former treasures of the Abbey, the 13th century figurine of Christ.

The Abbot’s House
The St Mary’s Abbey figurine, 13th century

It’s time to talk about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, especially after reading The Mirror and the Light. The great project of tackling the wealth and supposed corruption of the medieval Church, embodied in the monasteries and other religious houses, features largely in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy as one of the major schemes masterminded by Thomas Cromwell. At the same time it must be one of the greatest acts of vandalism, corporate greed and theft in the whole history of England, rivalled only by the enclosures of the common land. (About which George Orwell wrote, ‘Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.’ Quoted from his essay On the Origins of Property in Land, 1944.)

It would have been one thing to legislate so that excessive wealth held by the Church should be shared with the people of England. But no: the Dissolution of the Monasteries was all about stealing that wealth and sharing it out among the rapacious King and his cronies. You could argue (perhaps) that the wealth of the Church belongs to all God’s people; that’s certainly not true of the same wealth once it had been seized by the rabble of dukes, earls, barons who are the self-styled ‘aristocracy’. Some of the wealth may have been used to provide hospitals, hospices and schools – which had often been provided by the monasteries – but more of it went to line the pockets of the rich and powerful.

So, was Thomas Cromwell a Good Guy, or one of the baddest of the Bad? It’s yet another example of the truth that there are no easy, simple answers. There is no good intention in human history, but that it’s capable of producing evil results. I’d like to hope there is no act so evil that it cannot equally have some unintentional good result. But I’m not so sure. Cromwell’s passion for Reformation and for making the Bible available in English were admirable. But the Dissolution of the Monasteries was not the only ill effect of the Reformation, after all.

Where will we have lunch in York? wagamama is a favourite, so we go to the one in Goodramgate, where Alison has a Yasai Pad Thai and I a Ginger Chicken Udon.

Then we get the bus back to the Park & Ride and drive back to Harrogate where there’s plenty of time to explore. Harrogate is ‘the capital of northern posh’, according to a character in Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. So we take a stroll around the Valley Gardens and the Montpellier Quarter. We’re looking forward to teatime, so that we can visit Betty’s Café and Tea Room, one of Jackson Brodie’s favourite places. (In the same book, we read about his project of visiting all the Betty’s Tea Rooms in Yorkshire. It’s a different kind of pilgrimage.)

Betty’s Tea Rooms

We won’t need any more to eat for the rest of the day after enjoying Betty’s set tea. Well, maybe an evening drink before bedtime…

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.

The Great North Road

The next part of our planned pilgrimage is to drive up to Yorkshire and explore some of the ancient abbeys there. We’ve visited some of them before, but others will be new to us.

And so we pack our bags again, say Goodbye to the Charming Old Chapel, and head off to join the Great North Road. It sounds so romantic, but there’s something about the greater comfort (to say nothing of the speed) with which you can make the journey in the 21st century, which takes away some of that romance. The A1(sometimes M) largely follows the older route of the Great North Road, except that avoids the towns and cities which used to be the major staging posts. We could cover the 84 miles to our next overnight resting place in less than two hours, but we’ve decided (this is Alison’s influence working already!) to stop along the way to see something new.

So we turn off the A1(M) near Doncaster, and join the A19 to take us to Selby where we will have lunch and visit Selby Abbey. If you can’t make a real pilgrimage on foot, perhaps horseback will do as it did for the Canterbury pilgrims. If you haven’t a horse, maybe a car is just about permissible, but you should probably choose to take the B-roads, or as a last resort the A-roads, in preference to motorways. Google Maps is less helpful than I hoped. Its preference is to make you take the motorway. When I tried to drag the proposed route so we could go by the A19, it really has something against the A19, and there was one small section that it absolutely would not let me take, and instead proposed to take me miles around the middle of nowhere to avoid:

Google Maps doesn’t like that bit of the A19

We ignore Google Maps and stay on the A19, without mishap.

Selby is a small Yorkshire town about 12 miles south of York, yet its parish church is one of the greatest of the surviving medieval abbey churches. The abbey was founded by Benedict of Auxerre in 1069 – another work of the conquering Normans, then, imposing their power over the conquered Anglo-Saxons – and was such an important foundation that it was granted the status of a ‘mitred abbey’, which it retained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Why did some of the dissolved abbey churches continue to serve as parish churches, while so many others were allowed to fall into ruin? I suppose there isn’t one single answer to that question, though I guess it had something to do with whether the church was in a town, and was valued by the townspeople, rather than being in the middle of beautiful countryside that was coveted by one of Henry VIII’s henchmen, and didn’t have a large local population to save the church for its proper purpose.

Arriving in Selby we decide to have lunch before visiting the Abbey. We fancy some Turkish cuisine today, so we choose The Olive Branch in Gowthorpe, where we share the mixed mezze for two. My mouth waters as I write…

Mixed mezze for two

Then to the Abbey, which is indeed grand. It would be easy to make the assumption that it was a small cathedral, and if it’s reminiscent in some ways of Durham Cathedral, that’s because it was modelled on Durham. We would love it for that fact alone. Do we have a strong sense of the beauty of holiness here, then? It is tempered by the fact that we often find small village churches, which tiny congregations struggle and work hard to lovingly maintain, have more of that sense of Presence. So I reflect on how it is that all the parish churches of England are equal in God’s eyes, but in the sight of the world, some of them are much more equal than others.

After a short wander down to look at the River Ouse we return to the car and take the A63 to rejoin the Great North Road. We follow it as far as Wetherby, then turn off onto the A661 which takes us in to Harrogate, where we book in at the Majestic Hotel.

The Majestic Hotel, Harrogate

We’ll take the easy option and eat in the hotel restaurant this evening.