Gothic Enlightenment


Self-consciously I traced my way around the grassy labyrinth. Glancing up I caught the eye of a fellow pilgrim and sheepishly we exchanged wry smiles as I wondered, “Does he think I look ridiculous? Do I?”. The answer was an emphatic no, as I took a deep breath and continued on my way.

100_6682Arriving earlier at Whitby Abbey the cement bunker where we bought our tickets had been gloomy and disappointing, however on walking around the corner and up we were transported in time as chanting Benedict monks beckoned us forward across the sunny plain. Clad in long sweeping brown or white habits, heads adorned with flat round hat, their presence brought alive the ethereal spirituality of centuries ago as with heavenly voice their hymns awed the visitors into silence.

Quietly a monk explained the concept of the Path to Paradise, a circular interloping path cut from the grass, a time for inner reflection and meditation. There was only one way round, leading to the centre and here upon the granite altar we were requested to place a blessed stone from his basket and with it make a wish or prayer.

Soon thoughts drift from myself to the abbey, looming ahead, bathed in sunlight, the gothic ruins vibrating with life. Time slows, my son runs on ahead, diligently following the path and I enter a new dimension of total serenity and I immersed myself in contemplation. Here views of the long harbour wall, tiny dots of people meandering along, their children scampering between the fallen pillars of the abbey, some clambering on them.


100_6679Shattered as a clear voice breaks through and a monk recites a story; there he is, sitting in the middle of the circle, surrounded by fellow pilgrims. Just then my son places his stone upon the granite rock and without a pause dashes away to find his friends. The End


With only a week until our holiday in North Yorkshire I recalled this piece I wrote as my first assignment for a creative writing course. Gothic Enlightenment describes our fortuitous visit to Whitby Abbey during their Path to Paradise celebrations.

“A good part of the business of fiction is performed half-consciously, even sub-consciously. So I’ll do a little scene and then another little scene and try not to think of the extent of the task ahead.”

Hilary Mantel

6 thoughts on “Gothic Enlightenment

  1. Mike

    Love the idea of monks wandering (and wondering) about the abbey ruins.I believe that these ruins retain their original splendour and purpose and sometimes these seep through time as a result (intentionally or otherwise) of a catalyst, be it a monk, catching the light of the stones, or being alone in an obscure corner somewhere. And for a brief period you feel part of that time – before being dragged back to the 21st Centuryall too soon by the sound of cell phones or shouting. Magical though.


    1. The monks (who were later actors I found out – which ruined it a bit!) definitely set the spiritual atmosphere for the day. Indeed the abbey has so many secret corners it was easy to catch a moment or two for quiet contemplation and trying to imagine what it would have been like when fully functioning.

  2. Peter R

    What a magical experience. I think there is still an aura around the great abbeys of England, despite the best efforts of Thomas Cromwell. Perhaps the centuries of contemplation and worship have somehow seeped into the very stonework. On a much larger scale, the Camino de Santiago must have the same effect. I don’t think my feet would be up to that one though.

    1. It was amazing what an effect such a short ‘pilgrimage’ had upon me (and many others no doubt). I couldn’t imagine what it would be like doing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage although having read a lot about it the outer and inner journey sound physically enduring but spiritually rich. Yes, one does though have to think about one’s feet! 🙂

  3. I am glad you could feel the magic and spiritual nature of our day out. I must admit I thought my son would become bored and run off to play quickly, but he precisly and quielty walked round and round the labrynth following it religiously. We were told it was as a form of meditation but below is an explanation by an English Heritage Manager. I was astonished at the peace I felt by the end, the world had stopped spinning so crazily for me and I felt calm inside!

    “This is a long way away from the labyrinths of ancient mythology; there are no stone walls and certainly no minotaur, in fact, you can see the end-point of the labyrinth from the start, as the pattern is cut out of grass that is only a few inches high,” explains English Heritage’s event manager, Jon Hogan. “However, the idea is that walking the route opens your mind to ponder some of the great questions in life. A labyrinth in an abbey such as Whitby would have been used almost as a meditation tool for the residents, to help them focus their thoughts on matters spiritual whilst gaining some exercise within a relatively confined space.

  4. Mirja

    Soon thoughts drift from myself to the abbey, looming ahead, bathed in sunlight, the gothic ruins vibrating with life. Time slows, my son runs on ahead, diligently following the path and I enter a new dimension of total serenity and I immersed myself in contemplation.

    I can just feel the wonder you experienced. Your whole posting draws me in and the
    stillness and lightness flows out to us readers.
    Do you remember the monk’s explanation of the concept of the path to Paradise.
    Magic! Your young son has subcontiously experienced a blessed day.

    Now I just know Whitby Abbey will have to be on my agenda on the next visit to
    Love the photos by the way.

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