continued from Part 9
The village of Lastingham, of the southern edge of the North York Moors, was a fitting place to end our weekend – both for its mysterious wells and also on the basis that the crypt of St Mary’s Church marks the final resting place of St Cedd. Following the fateful Synod of Whitby in AD 664, Bishop Cedd returned to his beloved Lastingham, the place where he had founded his originally monastery; but tragically caught the plague and died, bequeathing the care of Lastingham to his brother, Bishop Chad – later St Chad. Chad became bishop of Lichfield shortly thereafter and had to manage his brother’s bequest from afar.
We have to wonder at the irony and sadness of this: first to lose (in the service of his king, Oswiu) the Celtic Christian tradition in which he had been raised since a boy; then to lose his life in one final visit to his beloved Lastingham.
Cedd was buried here, and the place of his burial in AD664 became the ground on which all the layers of the present church were constructed.
St Mary’s church attracts visitors from all over the world. Christian and non-Christian ‘pilgrims’ are welcomed here in a warm spirit of spiritual openness. Though not formally a Christian, I am entirely happy with the scriptural idea of Christ as the ideal and perfected ‘inner man’. I am at home in most temples of the spirit, but seldom have I felt the kind of harmonic energies that are present in St Mary’s.
There is, in the words of one of our companions of the weekend ‘Something very special here…’ And you can feel its presence in the air around you.
The original monastery was wooden, and nothing remains of it. But the present church of St Mary’s is built upon its site, and specifically, upon the original crypt that was constructed over the location of St Cedd’s grave two hundred years after his death. This region (of what was then Northumbria) was a wild place, and lawless – possibly one reason why Cedd devoted so much of his time establishing the original monastery as a spiritual refuge for the local people and their hard lives.
After the Synod of 664, the seat of religious power moved south from Lindisfarne to York, though Whitby survived for a while, in the form of the influential Abbey whose abbecy passed from Hild to Eanflæd, the wife of King Oswiu, upon his death. A royal princess and later queen to Oswiu, she brought grace and dedication to the abbey in the town that would later become Whitby.
But, the age of the Vikings was upon the land and the northern Saxon kingdoms were eventually overrun. Little is known of life here during that period and the former monastery was left to decay.
Over four hundred years later, in 1078, Stephen, abbot of the recently rebuilt monastery at Whitby, obtained permission from no less a person than William the Conqueror to take a team of skilled monks to restore the monastery at Lastingham as a Benedictine house.
Stephen designed the crypt we see today and built it over the place where Cedd had been buried. Above this crypt he began to build a new abbey church, but work was abandoned in 1088 when Stephen and his monks moved from Whitby to the all-powerful York; there to build St Mary’s Abbey… This may have been due to the increasing lawlessness of life within the hills making things impossible for the monks.
The Lastingham Crypt deserves a post in itself, but our story of the Keys of Heaven weekend (now ten posts) has to be brought to a close.
There was a communion service on that Sunday morning. We took care to arrive after it had finished, but I hoped we would be able to meet one or two of the local team. Historic places are fascinating, but the ‘now’ contains some miracles, too. As we pushed open the heavy oak door, one of the church wardens greeted us and we were welcomed into the ‘coffee area’ of the church and urged to join the larger than expected residual group of parishioners.
This was my third visit to St Mary’s. The main floor of the building is special in its own right, but I knew the ‘attracting power’ of what lay beneath. Most of our companions drank their coffees then melted quietly away down the stone staircase and into the crypt. But, by that time, as leader of our group, I had not only been given ample coffee and biscuits, but introduced to a cleric in a splendid set of robes… somewhat grander than I had expected for a small village.
Bishop Godfrey is well known throughout the North York area. He has served the Christian cause all his life and is now part-retired with a special attachment to Lastingham; a place in which he feels very much at home. He asked about our group and I was honest about our affiliations and goals. He seemed delighted with our attempts at local scholarship and offered to solve my one remaining problem of the weekend…
Ten minutes later, happy to pose for a photo as long as someone else was in it, Bishop Godfrey waved us with his blessing down into Lastingham’s very special crypt – the final resting place of St Cedd. As I walked down the stone steps I couldn’t help but feel just a little ‘blessed’ as we finally entered the place where the mortal remains of another very special bishop were interred.
Most of the group had already found their bearings, and were quietly exploring the beautiful crypt. But, one figure sat in the middle of a stone pew locked in total inner and outer silence. His back was to us, and he later described how the crypt had both embraced and entranced him… exactly the effect it had always had on me.
The meeting with Bishop Godfrey had made me late into the crypt and we had two important things to do. With an inner certainty, I knew that this visit was for my companions. I had done my part in bringing them here and the magical place was doing the rest. Snapping a few photographs to supplement the ones I had taken in October, I sat quietly, giving thanks that the weekend had gone well; and that we had largely achieved what we set out to do.
I could see that the group were tired and in need of some lunch. Across the road from the church is the Blacksmith’s Arms, a lovely and traditional Yorkshire pub with a fine Sunday lunch menu. There are no ‘facilities’ in St Mary’s church, but Bishop Godfrey and the landlord have reached an amicable agreement. The pub displays a sign saying that those attending or visiting the church may use the pub toilets but are asked to leave a donation towards the upkeep of the church. The bishop had smiled as he told us of the monthly cheque the landlord brought him…
The lunch was wonderful… An hour later, with the afternoon upon us and time running out, we set out on the last trek – a last walk around the village to visit Lastingham’s celebrated wells.
Space does not permit too much description, but, briefly, there are four of them. Two are set into the walls of local properties and one is in the garden of a private house near the church. None of these are currently flowing… but the fourth one – St Mary Magdelene’s well – is. The problem is that it’s well outside the village and very hard to locate. On our recce trip in October, Bernie and I had failed to discover its location, despite directions from the Blacksmith Pub’s landlord.
But now I was miraculously equipped with the more precise instructions from Bishop Godfrey and I could feel the ‘cogs of happenstance’ aligning.
I explained to our companions that we had the chance to discover St Mary’s well in a very real way. We drove to a where the place where I had given up looking in October and I pointed out the sloping bank to which Bishop Godfrey had directed us.
Within seconds, Gary – the figure in a peaceful trance in the crypt – had found it…
We stood around it in an arc and I explained the final purpose of the small empty jars given out to everyone on our opening trip to the beach, so long ago on the late Friday afternoon.
St Mary’s well is a small arch of stonework set into a stream-filled bank that leads down to the small river that flows through Lastingham. And now, as the only person with wellingtons, I needed to fill each of the jars. The only way to do it was to stretch my legs over the small valley of the spring and lean towards the stone arch, reaching down (thank you, Pilates) to fill each jar. I could hear the mental bets being taken that I would end up in the water, but reached the last jar still vertical, albeit locked into the muddy banks on either side…
A set of friendly hands were outstretched in case I lost my footing, but, with one last push and the weekend’s second sound of a mired boot breaking free, I managed to reunite my legs and scramble away from the water and mud. Everyone now had a Christmas candle and a small jar of very rare St Mary’s well water to take away.
Moments later, with jars tucked safely into travel bags, we hugged and said our goodbyes. The Keys of Heaven workshop was over; and it had been a success. In silence, I drove back to Runswick Bay to collect Bernie for our promised beach walk for Tess and our extra night in the location to unwind.
Later, we would walk through the darkness to the Cod and Lobster and reflect on the weekend. But that is where our story began…
End of Series
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.