What Makes a Place Holy?

Added about a year ago by Gavin Wakefield

GUEST BLOG: Yorkshire is full of places that pilgrims and visitors would consider holy, but what is it that makes them so? Gavin Wakefield gives his perspective.

I’ve really enjoyed visiting and re-visiting lots of places in Yorkshire that are considered holy by many people. Who isn’t moved in some way by the wonderful monastic buildings of Fountains and Kirkstall, Jervaulx and Whitby? York Minster attracts visitors from all over the world—well, when we are not restricted from travelling! And I’ve loved connecting the stories of people with the places in this book. It has brought the buildings and landscapes to life in a fresh way for me.

So what makes a place holy? During the Covid-19 lockdown many people have been trying to work out how they feel about their church buildings and other sacred sites. If we are worshippers most of us feel we want to gather with other people to worship God. But which is more important? The place or the people?

On the one hand most of us have a few special places in our lives where something important has happened for us: the church where we were married or parents had their funerals, the beautiful landscape admired with a lover, the city street where a stranger was unexpectedly kind. And some of those places have this effect for many people and become widely known as holy or thin places.

But on the other hand, what is important to us are the people who have shared that experience with us. The family, the lover, the stranger and so many others we’ve met along the way. In religious terms, the congregation, the fellowship of believers, God’s own people are the important factor, and we’ve discovered we can connect via worship broadcast on YouTube and prayer and conversation on Zoom.

My own conviction is that the people come first and it is what happens to people with God in a place that can make it holy. Being in a beautiful or dramatic location may make us more open to God but I believe most of us get more help from other people, possibly more than we realise. God is everywhere; the difference in our openness comes from associations created by being with other people.

So, yes, Whitby Abbey is dramatic, set high on the cliffs above the North Sea and that’s great. But what sets it apart for me are family trips over many years, the opportunity for retreats in the area, learning more of Saint Hilda and her work, and even having a grandmother called Hilda!

That’s why this pilgrimage book around God’s Own County of Yorkshire starts with stories of people. By sharing stories of people—saints—who have encountered God in a whole variety of places I hope you may become more aware of God’s presence and activity wherever you are. I’ve called them saints because in the Bible saints are people trying to follow God’s ways. You don’t have to be perfect to be a saint; in fact there wouldn’t be any if that were the case!

The book does include beautiful places like Whitby and Rievaulx. It does include dramatic buildings like York Minster and Beverley Minster. And it also includes what I dare to call some scruffier bits of the county not usually understood as places for pilgrimage.

I’ve done this because the place doesn’t have to be beautiful or dramatic for God to have been at work.

Most of us live in large towns or cities and it helps to be reminded that God is at work amongst his people in these places. You can be encouraged by the stories of Joseph Rowntree (York) and Smith Wigglesworth (Bradford), of Ted Wickham (Sheffield) and Richard Oastler (Leeds and Bradford). They all lived and worked in industrial cities and discovered God was there. Those places are just as holy as the peaceful countryside or the pulsating coastline.

And you can follow the stories and the journeys from home if you need to! The book offers the chance of a virtual pilgrimage through the stories of the people and short descriptions of the places. Wherever possible I’ve added web links so you can learn more about a person or place, and at the end of each chapter is a short prayer bringing together some reflections on the stories.

What makes a place holy? It is ordinary people doing the extraordinary in following God. What makes Yorkshire—and anywhere else—God’s Own County are the people who live holy lives.

Gavin Wakefield is Director of Training for Missional Ministry in the Diocese of York, overseeing a team responsible for lay and clergy development. His new book, Saints and Holy Places of Yorkshire, is a unique guide for visitors to the many pilgrimage sites in Yorkshire and the holy people who have been associated with these places. Get your copy today.

Photo: Whitby Abbey at dawn (Michiko Smith/Shutterstock)

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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