An Abbey by the Sea!

Whitby Abbey stands on top of East Cliff overlooking the harbour and looking out to sea. I have wondered, when the Celtic missionaries, led by Hilda first built their original wooden structure and monastery in 657AD, why of all places did they choose to perch it so near to the cliff’s edge?

Padraigin Clancy in the book Celtic Threads (1. has the answer. He explains that “some of the earliest monastic settlements were by the edge of the sea, near cliffs, where the full majesty of nature exploded, illuminated and rested, paraphrasing the rhythms of our natural life itself, with its vicissitudes.” In other words, the fluctuating tides; the rising and setting of the sun; the raging and quietening of the winds, all speak of the mutability and changeableness of life. Nothing remains the same and thus the placing of the Abbey in such a precarious place, speaks to us of “our vulnerability” and serves to remind us that as “we are in touch with our own vulnerability” we can then begin to “empathise with the vulnerability of others”.

The current Benedictine ruin that sits on Whitby’s Headland, was itself a product of change, growing in its stately Gothic grandeur in the 14th and 15th Century until finally facing its long decay and ruin the time of the suppression of the monasteries in 1539. Now the Abbey stands as a perpetual reminder of the changing scenes of life. All things are subject to change and decay. However grand, however mighty, even the most magnificent of created things will, in the end, come to their end.

And yet just below the beckoning Abbey stands another great monument on the West Pier lighthouse. Look carefully and you will discover a plaque affixed to the south side inscribed with the words of Psalm 93:4, “Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea—the LORD on high is mighty”. Amidst all the turmoil and foaming of the sea, God stands supreme! Unmoved and unchangeable. Whereas all created things are subject to deterioration and decay, God immutably and gloriously stands above the shifting sands of time and change.

So, we can take courage because the God that we worship can be utterly relied upon, as the hymn writer says:

Through all the changing scenes of life,

In trouble and in joy,

The praises of my God shall still

My heart and tongue employ.

Oh, magnify the Lord with me,

With me exalt His name;

When in distress to Him I called,

He to my rescue came.

The hosts of God encamp around

The dwellings of the just;

Deliverance He affords to all

Who on His succour trust.

Oh, make but trial of His love,

Experience will decide

How blest they are, and only they,

Who in His truth confide.

Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then

Have nothing else to fear;

Make you His service your delight,

Your wants shall be His care. (2)


1. Padraigin Clancy: Celtic Threads. Veritas. 1999.

2. Nicholas Brady, 1659-1726 & Nahum Tate, 1652-1715.

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