We climb the steps to the Abbey at Whitby, aware that something different is happening; that the curtain of time is being drawn back… for as long as we can keep the critical mind at bay
The years pass away. From the present keepers back through years of being a rich man’s possession… As – in a mist – we see the year 1539 and the sacking and wrecking of King Henry’s agents as they work the carnage of ‘Tudor Dissolution’.
The pillaged ruins are left as we see them now.
A Norman conqueror named William appears. The beaches of Hastings see the death of King Harold and the Norman age of Britain begins. The Benedictine Monastery – the ruins of which we see today – rises and prospers on the wind-ravaged headland left empty after the mysterious vanishing of St Hild’s Anglian community. The likely agents being the same invading Norsemen who attacked the nearby holy island of Lindisfarne.
Everything in these parts unfolds before the Danelaw… at least for a while…
A woman stands at the head of the steps. Her name is Hild…. later St Hild of Whitby, though the name ‘Whitby’ came later, given when the port was established by Danish sailors. As we reach the top step and her outstretched hands, we are in the seventh century and this place is named Streaneshalch. The building before us – the new Abbey created by the grace of King Oswiu, King of Northumbria – has been built because of the influence of the woman who now waits… for our final steps.
Later in history, she will be described by the historian Bede as being ‘the most precious necklace that was destined to fill all Britain with the glory of its brilliance’.
Hild is the Abbess of this place; whose name is not yet Whitby but Streanshalch. With another, she is about to perform the most important duty of her life: to oversee the Synod that will determine the nature of Christian worship in Britain.
Her voice welcomes and her arms pass us to those serving her. Men and women in plain robes appear out of the mist behind and stand in silence, ready to ferry us forward. Many of them look well-bred, and it is known that she takes such people on trust into her tuition, ensuring that their luxurious lives are left behind so that they can devote themselves to the development of the soul.
When all have been greeted she turns and says, “Be here without sin; but not in falseness, or fear, or with that attention whose heart is turned away.”
Strangely, she walks backward to the head of the stairway. “Walk this path with all your mind and heart and you will remain true…” she says.
Another figures crests the stairs, wrapped in a grey cloak of thick wool. He is a young man with intense eyes – which he keeps lowered…
Abbess Hild turns to a him. “Bishop Cedd, be welcome here…”
She holds out her right hand. From beneath the wet wool his appears and clasps hers. He seems intent on being as unnoticed as possible.
No words follow, but much is said in the three breaths before the fingers part.
Abbess Hild ushers us through the great carved door of the monastery and into the warmth of its interior on this cold day.
Chamber by chamber, we are led into the deep interior.
Until we stand before a crackling fire, as though high in a mountain fastness, and Hild is bowing before King Oswiu. Oswiu who, as a boy, was once an exile on the Scottish island of Iona. Returned as a king who has united the northern lands, he has forged the Kingdom of Northumbria in wisdom and, eventually, peace.
Mightiest of the Anglo-Saxon lords, his is the power on which the Church of Rome seeks to extend its empire of the book.
But there are others here… of the Christ but whose book is slightly different… and whose path to God has a very different taste..
To the barely swallowed anger of another, the Abbess present us to a man whose gentle eyes speak only of love. Bishop Coleman bows and asks why we have come so far – then laughs, and says “and so high!” Then his arm steers us to meet the angry man.
“This is Wilfrid “ he says. “A scholar of York via Augustine’s Canterbury… and Rome.”
Wilfrid bristles. But swallows his anger.
A woman enters the room and all rise. Her beauty is so intense that the King’s eyes become moist as she comes to stand beside him. Yet, for all this display of love, the Queen has eyes that are unmistakably sad.
To be continued…
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.