If you have ever visited Whitby, you will know that Whitby Abbey stands on the headland of East Cliff, overlooking the harbour and looking out to sea. This, more than once, has led me to ponder, why, when the Celtic missionaries, first built the original wooden structure and monastery in 657 AD, they chose to perch it so near to the cliff’s edge? Being spoiled for choice, with many suitable, inland hillside alternative sites, why choose this wild and vulnerable spot?
Padraigin Clancy in the book, Celtic Threads, perhaps gives us a hint as to their motivation, explaining 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 combined to help them make their decision, as it spoke of the fragility and changeableness of life, which could only find safety in the worship of an Almighty and unchanging God. Whilst nature teaches us that all things are subject to change, including our lives, being as they are, intertwined with the rhythms of the seasons, so citing the Abbey in such a precarious place, reminds us of our vulnerability and challenges us to “empathise with the vulnerability of others,” whilst helping us to cling to our Creator and Redeemer God. 1 Just down from the Abbey, observant walkers, who take a stroll on the West Pier, will see, inscribed on a plaque, affixed to the south side of the lighthouse, 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”. Life has a way of overwhelming us. At such times, Scripture points us to Almighty God, who unlike all that is temporal and shifting; fearsome and overwhelming, is all-powerful and unchanging and can be utterly relied upon by us, to guide our lives into the safe harbour of His rest and peace.
Such a God is worthy of our worship still! The Abbey may now be a ruin; but the God who inspired, its building, is still worshipped and adored by many in Whitby. And, in the words of an old hymn, we can still express our worship as we look, dependently on Him:
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. Clancy, P, Celtic Threads: Exploring the Wisdom of Our Heritage (Veritas 1999)
2. Hymn composed by Nicholas Brady(1659-1726) and Nahum Tate (1652-1715).