From the windswept, quiet shores of the holy isle of Lindisfarne to the grand, sweeping halls of York Minster, this trip to visit the north of England and see where Christianity first developed and grew in Britain opened my eyes to the history of our Catholic faith on this island. Though each of the ruins and cathedrals we visited were grand, beautiful, and imposing in their own right, it was only once I learned of the history behind each of them that I was able to appreciate how amazing they truly are.
The ruins of the Lindisfarne Priory stand stark against the seemingly endless coast of the island. Looking at the stone walls and precariously towering arches, it almost seems possible that they might crumble overhead at any moment. It was here in 635 that Aidan, one of the first Christian missionaries in England, built his priory, and here that St Cuthbert, who travelled England to spread the word of Christianity, was Bishop. Though all that is left of now of the Lindisfarne Priory is crumbled walls, the presence of the men of faith who lived in Lindisfarne is still very much there, creating an intimate religious experience for pilgrims like myself.
What I was most struck by when we visited Durham Cathedral was how well they had integrated the ancient and the modern in this nearly thousand-year-old building. As our tour guide took us around the Cathedral, he showed us the first stone roof, the first flying buttresses, and the first examples of Gothic-style arches in a European church, which clearly showed how old the Cathedral truly is. He then pointed out a stained glass window installed in 2012 with an almost impressionistic depiction of the Last Supper, a modern statue of Mary that used facial features of ethnicities from around the world to create a truly international Mother of God, and an ongoing Lego recreation of the Cathedral, examples of the modernity that still lives and breathes there. In spite of its age, Durham Cathedral is far from being stuck in the past and is continuing to transform and be a part of modern culture and Christianity in England.
The allure of Fountains Abbey does not only come from its history as a religious institution but also what happened there after it was abandoned following the Reformation. The Abbey was not destroyed right away, but instead was systematically torn down beginning years later after being sold to a merchant. The lands surrounding the ruins were then turned into beautifully kept gardens during the Victorian period and Fountains Abbey soon became the second most visited tourist attraction in England, falling behind only London. I think what I loved most about visiting Fountains Abbey was the fact that I had never heard of it before, which is quite astounding considering its incredible history. Therefore, everything I learned was entirely new and exciting and only increased my enjoyment at exploring the Abbey.
Though each of the ruins and cathedrals we visited on the trip were affected by the Reformation and Anglicanism, it was in York Minster that I felt their effects most. We attended Evensong in York Minster, the Anglican form of Evening Prayer. As a lifelong Catholic, it was a very interesting experience. In that beautiful and grand cathedral, with the angelic sound of the choir echoing, I could see why Anglicans found Evensong an incredible experience of faith. It was different than most of the Catholic Masses and prayer services to which I have been. Experiencing this form of prayer which was very new to me caused me to reflect on the changes that York Minster underwent in becoming an Anglican cathedral after it was first built as a Catholic one. Outwardly York Minster still seems very Catholic: it is grand and ornate and very similar to Catholic cathedrals. Just as York Minster still echoes its Catholic history, Anglicanism is not so different from Catholicism and we even said the same Creed during Evensong that we as Catholics profess every week during Mass. However, there are subtle differences between the two and I could feel them during Evensong. Reflecting on the history of Catholicism and Anglicanism in England made me enjoy this new service even more.
When we learned about the martyr St. Margaret Clitherow, I thought even more on the relationship between Catholicism and Anglicanism. St. Margaret was martyred in the sixteenth century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. She was accused of harboring a Catholic priest and sentenced to be crushed to death after refusing to plea in an effort to protect her children, friends, and neighbors who were also practicing Catholics. The Reformation was a terrible time for Catholics in England, as their churches were destroyed or converted to the Church of England, they were forced to give up their faiths, and those who refused became martyrs when they were executed as traitors. Tensions between Catholicism and Anglicanism would remain for years following, even after Catholicism was finally made legal once again. King Henry VIII forever changed Catholicism in England, and though we are no longer living in an age when people like St. Margaret Clitherow can be executed for their Catholic faith, we cannot deny the effects it has had.
This trip to the north of England to explore the roots and history of Christianity in Great Britain was very enlightening. I feel I learned a lot about the monks who once ministered there, the people who worshipped, the great lords who built soaring cathedrals, and the faithful who were affected by the Reformation. As I attend Mass and celebrate my own Catholic faith here in London each Sunday, I shall remember them and what they went through and the marks in time they left behind for us to discover.
- Alexandra Bohnsack (London Undergraduate Program, Fall 2014)
Images ©Alexandra Bohnsack, all rights reserved.