Pilgrimage from Lastingham to Whitby

Lastingham Saint Cedd

A few weeks ago we picked up a flyer in church and read that between 9th and 10th June Fr John and Presbytera Georgina Nankivell would be leading a group of members of the Community of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Walsall on pilgrimage to Lastingham in North Yorkshire.  Although we knew Lastingham fairly well from several earlier visits, we had never attended a Liturgy or indeed any Orthodox service there, so we had no hesitation in joining the band of pilgrims along with our own Andrew Davies.  Our group of a dozen or so was later joined by a number of local Orthodox from Yorkshire.

Lastingham is what Ronald Blythe would have called ‘a divine landscape’, one of those ‘thin’ places where heaven and earth seem very close together. It is the site of a monastery founded in 659AD by St Cedd in a place given him by King Ethelwald, the son of St Oswald.  St Cedd (born c620) was one of four brothers – St Chad of Lichfield was another – brought up on the island of Lindisfarne by the Irish monk Aidan of Iona.  St Aidan was well known for his personal austerity, deep spirituality and disregard of wealth and power, and Cedd and his brothers were brought up in that tradition.  Cedd was sent by Aidan’s successor St Finan and King Oswiu of Northumbria to evangelize the East Saxons, and was then made Bishop of the East Saxons.  His stone church stands to this day in Bradwell, Essex.  When he came to Lastingham in 659, in the words of St Bede, ‘Cedd chose a site for the monastery among some high and remote hills, which seemed more suitable for the dens of robbers and haunts of wild beasts than for human habitation. His purpose in this was to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass, with reeds and rushes’, so that the fruits of good works might spring up where formerly lived only wild beasts, or men who lived like beasts.’  Today it is quite hard to visualise this wild and savage aspect.  Lastingham is now a charming little village situated on the edge of the North York Moors, which admirably combines both the spiritual and temporal through its lovely church of St Mary, built on the site of St Cedd’s monastery and, close by, its very attractive and hospitable pub, ‘The Blacksmith’s Arms’, where the two of us stayed during the course of the pilgrimage.

On the Monday evening Vespers was served in the Norman church, the chanting of priests and cantors echoing among the stone vaulting. For the first of several times we sang the moving Apolytikion of Pentecost, ‘Blessed art Thou, O Christ, who made fishermen all wise….’  Following Vespers, Fr John spoke briefly but movingly about St Cedd and his significance.  Afterwards we descended into the hauntingly beautiful crypt, which dates from about 1070 and is reputedly the site of Cedd’s burial place.  Within it were many Anglo-Saxon cross-heads and grave slabs from the Anglo-Saxon monastery.   Cedd was abbot of Lastingham to the end of his life, combining this with his work as a missionary bishop, in the course of which he travelled far from his monastery, eventually coming home and dying here of the plague along with almost all of his community.

Most of the party were staying in the Tantara Hotel in Aislaby, and there we repaired for dinner, during which we had the opportunity to get to know our fellow-pilgrims better, especially those who had joined us from Leeds and York.  Early the following day Matins was served, followed by the Liturgy, at which we were joined by the Vicar of Lastingham, the Rev. Michael Sinclair.  At the end of Liturgy Fr John, on behalf of the Community of the Nativity of the Mother of God, presented the Vicar with an icon of St Cedd written by Atilla, a member of the Community. The Vicar then joined us at ‘The Blacksmith’s Arms’ for an alfresco lunch. This concluded the formal part of the pilgrimage, and we spent the rest of the day walking on the marvelous moorland.  

But for us the pilgrimage was not yet over.  Earlier in the year we had read that English Heritage had uncovered the foundations of a small seventh-century chapel on the site of St Hilda’s double monastery of nuns and monks at Whitby, and, accompanied by Fr John and Presbytera Georgina, we travelled across the moors to see the excavations.  Unfortunately, the workings had already been filled in, and so we were only able to view where they were (within the former monastic cemetery) and wonder at the huge size of the Anglian monastery, which would have dwarfed the medieval monastery that stands on the cliff top overlooking the town of Whitby.  And despite the lack of visible remains, we felt a very special sense of place; for here was held the great Synod of Whitby convened by King Oswiu of Northumbria in 664 to settle once and for all the method of the dating of Pascha and the form of monastic tonsure, which at that time were dividing ‘Irish’ and ‘Roman’ Christians in England.  On the ‘Irish’ side were Hilda, Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne and Cedd; on the ‘Roman’ were King Oswiu’s son Alchfrid, St Wilfred, Agilbert, Bishop of the West Saxons, and the Deacon James. R H Hodgkin has said that the Synod ‘was one of the great turning-points in the history of the Anglo-Saxon race…the Synod turned the scales, and decided that the English should take their religion and their civilization from the Roman (i.e. oecumenical) world rather than from what Wilfred called “one remote corner of the most remote island” ’.  Hilda and Cedd accepted the decision of the Synod, Bishop Colman left Lindisfarne for Iona, taking many of the Community of Lindisfarne with him, and Cedd made his way back to Lastingham, there to die on 26th October.

After this momentous visit we parted from Fr John and Presbyera Georgina and made our way to York, where we continued with a short holiday.  But all the time we were travelling we were thinking of those words of St Arsenios of Paros (d.1877): ‘The Church in the British Isles will only begin to grow when she begins to venerate her own saints.

Holy Bishop and Abbot Cedd, pray to God for us.

Liz and Michael Asser | July 2014

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