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Archive for February, 2013

February 25, 2013 051The Vatican Diaries

I was not the first to dream that particular dream.  As a lowly graduate student, toiling away on my dissertation, I entertained the highest of hopes.  If I wrote well, mine would be among the few dissertations that got read.  No dust would bury it on a shelf with countless other unread tomes.

That was not to be, of course.  I did finish it, but along the way I picked up a few nuggets of wisdom.  The first came from reading a dissertation by a wunderkind of the medieval studies world.  I was shocked when I read it, because it was so awful.  “I can do better than that,” I thought to myself.  But it was a real eye-opener because of one simple fact.  The writer adhered to the old saw about dissertations:  “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

That was something that my own advisor had drilled into all of his doctoral students.  “If you’re destined to be a great writer, then don’t spend a lot of time on your dissertation.  It will just get in the way of your life’s work.  And if you’re not destined to be a great writer, then don’t spend a lot of time on your dissertation.  It will just get in the way of your life.”  Sustained by that thought, I finally got it done.

February 25, 2013 058Sad to say, the world was not waiting for my work on 13th-century Leonese history.  Medieval Spain was not on anybody’s radar screen, and no political turmoil since then has caused CNN to call me up for expert commentary.

I’ve grown to accept my place in academic oblivion; but every now and again envy raises its ugly head.  I gazed in awe when my colleague who wrote on Kossovo became the go-to guy during the Balkan Wars.  For a brief span, he showed up regularly on National Public Radio and some of the other networks.  What a lucky break — his day in the sun had finally come.  But when the war ended, so did his celebrity.  Today no one remembers Kossovo.  Nor can anyone remember Professor What’s-his-name, the expert on that obscure place.

More recently the networks have beaten a path to Norman, Oklahoma.  It’s not the logical place to find out about Syrian politics, but one professor at the University of Oklahoma has hit the jackpot.  He had studied the arcana of Syrian political divisions; and now he too enjoys the briefest of moments in the sun.

February 25, 2013 062I say all of this by way of introduction to John Thavis, a 1973 alumnus of Saint John’s University.  For thirty years John worked as the bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service.  Through all those years, he kept eyes and ears open, and he met some of the most interesting people on the planet.  On retirement he penned a volume on the inner workings of the Vatican, and months ago his publisher decided to release the book on February 20th.  And so, a few days after Pope Benedict announced his retirement, The Vatican Diaries hit the bookstores.  John had won the lottery.  Now the interviewer has become the interviewee.

John’s points are few and simple.  First, if you think the Vatican is a monolithic absolutist state, you are laughably wrong.  If you assume that all members of the curia speak from the same page, you have lots of homework to do.  Lastly, if you imagine that everyone in Rome is a rabid careerist, you’ll be surprised.  John maintains that an awful lot of people in the curia go about their business trying to build up and serve the people of God.  And they do it quietly, to the best of their ability.

February 25, 2013 028John does not expect the reader to take this on faith.  In great detail he recounts various episodes, being careful to weave into them his primary theses.  His chapter on the Lefebvrites and the Tridentine Mass is an excellent case in point.

To the outside world, Pope Benedict’s decree that re-authorized the use of the old rite of the Mass appeared to be a case of turning back the clock.  And it provoked howls of protest in certain quarters.  In context, however, he had something entirely different in mind.  In one fell swoop he broke the monopoly on the Tridentine Mass held by the ultra-conservative Lefebvrites.  If you could attend the rite in a church in communion with Rome, why would you go to a schismatic church?  Benedict shrewdly gambled that most old-rite enthusiasts did not especially care for the right-wing political and social baggage of the Lefebvrites.  On this he is likely correct.

February 25, 2013 075Meanwhile, Pope Benedict also guessed there would be no stampede back to the Tridentine rite by mainline Catholics.  And to put his own money where his mouth is, Benedict has let his actions speak in tandem with his words.  As Thavis notes, Benedict has had eight years as Pope to celebrate his own Tridentine-rite Mass.  He has yet to do it.  And he’ll never do it while he’s pope.

Throughout his book Thavis knits together a fascinating tableau of gifted and inept individuals who serve at the highest levels of the Church.  Some are unabashed careerists.  Some worry about the welfare of their individual departments, oblivious to the bigger picture.  And not a few get so wrapped up in local issues that they forget how the public forum might misread their words and actions.  In short, Thavis suggests that hasty generalizations about Vatican policies can easily miss the mark.  When it comes to the Vatican, there is always more than meets the eye, except when there is less.

February 25, 2013 006Of course there’s lots more to the Vatican than just politics.  To the world it can appear to be a well-oiled machine.  But from the inside there are elements of a Marx Brothers movie. To cite but one example, Thavis narrates the return flight of a papal trip to Africa.  As a storm delayed flights, the vintage 707 carrying the pope and his entourage of tired aides and journalists circled the Rome airport, with little prospect of landing.  Dangerously low on fuel, the pilot decided to fly to Naples.  No one in Naples was expecting the Pope at 1 am.  From the airport they went to the train station, where they boarded a two-car train back to Rome.  Meanwhile, one can only imagine what the homeless in the Naples rail station thought.  At 2 am they had just seen the Pope and a pack of tired reporters straggle through their station.  Who would ever believe a story like that?

Then there is the delightful chapter on Fr. Reginald Foster, the papal Latinist.  He remains the world’s greatest Latinist, and certainly was among the least pious employees at the Vatican.  While he loved his work of translating papal encyclicals, he’d tell anyone within earshot that “no one will ever read these things.”  His unauthorized tours of the Vatican offices became the stuff of legend, not least because he worked just down the hall from the Pope.  I can only guess what went through Garrison Keillor’s mind when Fr. Reginald pointed to a door down the hall — “The Pope works there.”  For that courtesy Reginald got honorable mention on A Prairie Home Companion.

February 25, 2013 032I don’t want to spoil The Vatican Diaries for you, because you should read it for yourself.  It’s engaging and entertaining; and it will upend your stereotypes about the Vatican.  It really is a trove of information, presented with not a little affection for the subject matter, and with no hint of an ax to grind.

So I applaud John Thavis for his career and for this new book.  And I congratulate him for his incredible timing.  How in the world John got the Pope to announce his retirement just days before the publication of The Vatican Diaries is beyond me.  Now if I could just prevail on John to get the new pope to move to Leon, or even Castile, I would owe him big.  Maybe then my own day in the sun might finally arrive.

February 25, 2013 015Notes:

+Last fall I had the opportunity to make a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible, at Saint Mary’s University College in Calgary, Alberta.  While there I participated in the making of a video on the Bible at Saint Mary’s, and only recently did I obtain the link to the video.  The president, one faculty member and I all speak on The Saint John’s Bible, and I thought perhaps you might enjoy seeing what I do with some of my time when I am away from the monastery.

+During the past week I was home at the abbey the entire time.  I filled my time by catching up on work in the office, by doing laundry, by ironing, and by reading The Vatican Diaries.  What a great week it was.  I also enjoyed the snow.  As the pictures hint, we are running out of places to put it.

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Mission Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara

Letting Go

Like most everyone else, Pope Benedict’s impending retirement caught me flatfooted.  Of course as a historian I am aware that several popes have resigned;  but I never thought that such a thing would happen in my lifetime.  Shame on me!

I now realize how myopic my attitudes about the papal office had become.  The pope may be infallible when it comes to faith and morals, but no pope ever claimed to be divine.  Every pope knows he will someday meet his maker, just like the rest of us.  But they’ve also known that they can and do wear themselves out, and that no one is indispensable.  Most popes too have been under no illusion that there are more than enough candidates who are only too happy to step into their shoes.  Such paragons of self-sacrifice have always hovered near the papal throne.

Mission Church, interior

Mission Church, interior

While everyone professed to be flabbergasted by Pope Benedict’s decision, no one had a right to be surprised.  After all, the hints have been there for years.  Nor should anyone engage in the condescension that I have picked up between the lines of some of the commentary.  For one thing, medicine can prolong the lives of people well beyond the point of “useful” service.  Modern medicine can keep people alive for years while they are in a coma.  And modern medicine can become an end in itself.  Our ailments and their treatment can easily become the central focus of our lives, if we are not vigilant.

Was Pope Benedict possibly unaware of this?  Even granting him no benefit of the doubt, I suspect the implications of this dawned on him years ago.  In retrospect, his hints were frequent and obvious enough for anyone to pick up on.  But somehow the professional pope-watchers missed it all.  In fact, why should anyone be surprised that Pope Benedict paid attention to his own words on the subject?

Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University

People are astonished at his readiness to walk away from power, and that’s another mistake.  We’ve too often thought of the papal office in terms of authority and the exercise of raw power, forgetting that the pope is a human being, just like the rest of us.  Should we be amazed that Pope Benedict thinks he’s getting up in years?  Why shouldn’t Pope Benedict be allowed to consider retirement?  At the age of eighty-five it’s probably a good idea to give it some thought; and it’s highly likely that he’s thought of it often.  After all, he’s spent many of his waking hours trying to find replacements for his fellow bishops, who all retire at seventy-five.

No, I suspect that Pope Benedict has been thinking about retirement from his first day on the papal throne.  For eight years he did the job out of a sense of duty; and he did it to the best of his ability.  But he also realized that someday duty would demand a different course of action.  That day came.

Pope Benedict deserves a lot of respect for his decision, but I’m not so sure he deserves it just because he’s done this at the age of eighty-five.  Rather, he better deserves our esteem because he’s examined the direction of his life at a critical juncture.  He weighed his life in a balance between ministry and his personal journey of faith.  So I give him credit for knowing when to turn in his two weeks’ notice; but I give him greater credit for knowing what he wants to do with the rest of his life.  Ideas on how to spend retirement are already pouring in.  One writer suggested that Pope Benedict buy a condo in south Florida — preferably one with a nice pool and lanai.  No doubt that could be a great boost for Florida real estate; but the pope is no more likely to do that than he is to sit around in t-shirt and sweatpants, drinking beer and watching European football all afternoon.  No, that’s just not him.

photo (4)It should astonish no one that Pope Benedict has no plans to loll away his remaining years on sunny Mallorca like so many of his fellow Germans.  The reason?  He still has way too much to do.  I have no doubt that his job jar has been filled to overflowing for years; and he should know, because he’s been filling it himself.  He must be incredibly excited at the prospect of dipping his hand into that jar now and again.

If there’s one bit of wisdom I’ve learned from people like Pope Benedict, it’s this:  letting go does not mean giving up.  I have many friends who allege that they are retired, but they are far busier than I.  Walking away from a job did not frighten them, because there were so many interesting things that they’d put off for  years.  And now they are busier than ever and happier than ever.  And in so many ways they’ve enriched their community for it.  But why is it so much easier for some to let go of a job, when it is so threatening for others?

Santa Clara University:     Saint John's Bible Exhibit

Santa Clara University: Saint John’s Bible Exhibit

In his Rule Saint Benedict encourages the abbot to rotate work assignments so that no monk becomes proud or begins to think of himself as indispensable.  Of course not a few communities have suffered when a great cook passed the spatula on to a klutz, but you get the point.  What Saint Benedict meant to teach was something fundamental about the meaning of our lives.  While holding a particular job should be fulfilling, each one of us is far more important than any job we hold.  Each one of us has some terrific gifts and winning qualities, and perhaps we’ve used them well through much of our lives.  But if you’ve done one job well for forty or fifty years, what have you given up in the meantime?  What talents have remained dormant?  What have you failed to discover about your own life? Knowing when to let go is a matter of timing as well as an art.  But it’s a lot less scary if we recall that we’ve been given additional years to acomplish something really important.  I suspect that Pope Benedict can’t wait until 8 pm on February 28th.  He’ll go to bed a happy man, and on March 1st he’ll probably wake up early, because there’s so much he’s eager to get done.  Good for him!  And we should all be ready to do the same when the time is right for us.

photo (6)Notes

+The last week has been quite busy for me, and not entirely free from stress.  On February 9th I flew from Minneapolis to San Francisco, but the check-in did not  bode well.  As I watched the agent tag my bag, I pointed out that he was sending my bag to Puerto Vallarta.  I then asked my neighbor in line if he happened to be going to San Francisco, because his bag had just headed off in that direction, courtesy of my baggage tag attached to it.  He wasn’t; and it took two agents twenty minutes to scour the airport to retrieve and relabel his bag and mine.  Fun.

+On February 12th I delivered a talk at the Bannon Institute at Santa Clara University.  The Institute’s Winter Quarter theme is “Sacred Dialogue: Interpreting and Embodying Sacred Texts Across Traditions.”  My talk was entitled “Texts and Pen: The Legacy of Biblical Art and The Saint John’s Bible.

+On Feburary 15th I delivered the keynote address at a dinner at the cathedral in Los Angeles, celebrating the 900th anniversary of Pope Paschal II’s bull that recognized the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (later known as the Order of Malta.)  Then on February 16th I spoke at a parallel event in San Francisco.

photo (7)+Our alumni of Saint John’s University continue to amaze me with their career choices.  This last week one member of the class of 2008, Joe Mailander, and his high school classmate, Justin Lansing, won a Grammy Award for the best song in the category of children’s music.  Known as The Okee Dokee Brothers, Justin and Joe grew up in Denver.  Joe graduated from Saint John’s, and several friends from Saint John’s contributed to the background music.  They won the award for their album Can you Canoe, but all of their songs are a delight.  After you’ve watched this video, then listen to Brothers.  You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy the music, the lyrics, and the lovely Minnesota scenery.

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Crucifix, ca. 1150-1200, Leon-Castile, The Cloisters Museum, New York.

Crucifix, ca. 1150-1200, Leon-Castile, The Cloisters Museum, New York.

Lent: What’s a Person to Do?

I’m one of those people who never know what to do about Lent.  Should I deny myself and give up a whole bunch of things?  Should I do something proactive?  Should I do nothing, except pray and meditate on where I’m going with my life?  Or should I ignore Lent altogether and get on with things?  Given that life has challenges enough already, might the latter be the best course of action? (Or inaction, in this case.)

The first option is worthy of consideration because tales of heroic self-denial have been real crowd-pleasers through the centuries.  Of course everybody prefers horror stories of carnage and mayhem; but if we can’t get those, we’ll generally settle for the out-and-out bizarre.  Small wonder that the Lives of the Saints don’t bother to recount how some pious soul gave up candy for Lent.  Frankly, who cares if someone foregoes dessert on every third Thursday of Lent — especially if the alternative is a tale of some genuinely eccentric person.

Abbey chapter house, entranceConsider for a moment the fifth-century Egyptian monk who stood for all of Lent.  Assuming that he wasn’t a raving maniac, he at least expressed himself in a naively off-the-wall way.  I’ve never been sure how this effort nourished his spiritual life, but for his troubles he did get into the Church’s version of the Guinness Book of Records.  And I suspect he also got a case of fallen arches, and he likely racked up a big fat sin of pride as well.  After all, we’d never know about him except for his very successful public relations campaign.

There’s also the complication of conflict of interest — where you become the chief beneficiary of your own asceticism.  It would kill me to give up Cheetoes and shed fifteen pounds for Lent.  I would feel the pain of every bag left uneaten, and every ounce of weight lost.  But on the other hand there’s no denying the well-being that would come my way.  The value of Cheetoes stock might ebb if enough of us did this, but the health benefits could be tremendous, at least until Lent was over.  So I’m not at all sure that ascetic practices that align with pure self-interest get you anywhere either.

Walkway from chapter house to church.

Walkway from chapter house to church.

Switching to the proactive approach, I could elect to be nice for all of Lent.  I know full well that there are moments when this is a no-brainer (especially when I’m asleep); and even for much of waking time it’s easily done.  But when people are around, “being nice” can become a major chore.

So “being nice” would be an excellent resolution for Lent, were it not for my fear of falling into yet another terrible trap.  The fact of the matter is, a great many people assume that all Minnesotans are nice.  That’s why they coined the term “Minnesota Nice.”  So once again, what virtue is there in being merely who you are supposed to be already — even if you were nice with a vengeance? Worse still, if I were nice for all of Lent, I would only reinforce what many consider to be an unhealthy social stereotype.  I certainly don’t want to demean my fellow citizens of Minnesota any more than we are already.  “Nice” — what a put-down.

Stairs in Chapter House/Pavilian.  Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Stairs in Chapter House/Pavilian. Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Before I drive myself mad with logic-chopping, it’s good to remember that we humans have an excellent facility for rationalizing virtually anything.  We can transform the bad into good and the good into bad, with scarcely any effort.  Such is the power of spin, particularly when no objective principles hold sway to ground our ethical reasoning.

Lest we smugly think this is a byproduct of the modern political process, I like to keep myself humble by remembering that Saint Benedict has already written about this, fourteen hundred years ago.  He referred to the four kinds of monks, and the worst of these were the sarabaites, who were rationalizers par excellence.  “What they like they call good; and what they dislike they call bad,” Benedict wrote.  Therein is the challenge we all face when we try to find meaning in a world in which I am the measure of all things.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel.  Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Given that, Benedict’s advice that the entire life of a monk should be a Lenten observance can turn our attitudes about Lent upside down.  Lent for Benedict is no set of mental games played for a few weeks each year.  Rather, Lent serves to remind us of the seriousness of our lives.  We are not junk, because God never makes junk.  We instead are noble creatures, created in God’s image; and each of us is endowed with vast potential.

Lent then is not really a “time out” for doing less or doing more.  Instead, it is a season in which we do an inventory of our lives.  It’s a season when we recall that we were created from dust and will return to dust, and in the interval we are given a tremendous opportunity.  For Benedict, this “truce” in eternity is the gift of life that God bestows on each of us.  Why would we want to waste any of it?  Why would we not strive to rise above the merely mundane to become what God hopes for each of us?

This Lent I definitely will consider giving up Cheetoes and shedding fifteen pounds.  I will also try to be nice, even if people expect me to be so anyway.  But mainly I intend to give some thought to the kind of person God created me to be.  I’m fairly certain that God didn’t create me to be junk.  God has more thoughtful motives than that.  And I confess that I’m just a bit curious about what God may have in mind for me and for you.

Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Photo courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Notes

+On February 8th I was the chief celebrant at the Abbey Mass.

+At Saint John’s we’ve always been concerned about the quality of our environment and the architectural design that shapes our lives.  This was true for the intricate brick-work in our nineteenth-century buildings, as well as in our contemporary structures designed by Marcel Breuer.

With this in mind, we were delighted to learn that on January 11th the American Institute of Architects announced that its highest award will be given to Vincent James and his Minneapolis firm, for their design of our Blessed Sacrament chapel and the chapter house addition and renovation.

Mosaic pavement, Saint Mark's, Venice

Mosaic pavement, Saint Mark’s, Venice

The project was complicated, to say the least.  We needed a Blessed Sacrament chapel for reservation of the Eucharist and private prayer.  We needed an elevator to access the lower-level parish church.  We also needed additional bathrooms for the Abbey church, as well as bride’s and groom’s rooms.  Uppermost among our goals was public access to the Abbey chapter house, and an entryway that would service all these objectives.  And finally, a pedestrian tunnel to connect the guesthouse to the church was an important feature.

The design by Vincent James was simple yet ingenious.  A two-level addition to the chapter house provided access to everything, and the results have been a structure that is seamless in its efficiency and beauty.

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Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

Downton Abbey Revisited

I’m not surprised that a title like “Downton Abbey” caught my attention. After all, anything with “abbey” in it piques my curiosity. But I cannot imagine that everyone shares my interest; and so I (like not a few) have been mightily surprised by the ratings success of this series. Who could have imagined? Certainly not the major networks on commercial television.

At first glance Downton Abbey has little that should stir up such wide-spread fascination. After all, what could be more tedious than a show about a multi-generational household, and one in which people are constrained by the manners and customs of a bygone era? Leaving other things aside, just consider the constant changing of clothes, and the resulting mountain of laundry and dry cleaning. Who could possibly find that sort of thing at all interesting? But on that score Downton Abbey is stranger than fiction — or at least stranger than the fiction to which we have become accustomed.

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

I think that part of the public fascination with Downton Abbey has to do with its portrait of an age of privilege that scarcely any of our ancestors knew. Aside from those few of us who were pharoahs and empresses in a previous incarnation, most of us didn’t have ancestors that ranked even among the minor nobility. As for the ordinary people, the vast majority knew neither the security nor the relative luxury of working in a great house. And while we can point out the restrictions that constrained the servants, most of them would never have traded “life in service” for life on a peasant farm.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

But don’t envy the lords and ladies entirely, because their lot in life was not a constant round of peaches and cream, morning, noon and night. They were certainly in charge of things, but they did not enjoy the run of the place. They too lived by a code that regulated their behavior, even if it was a code with wider latitude. For nobles, too, there were things that people “simply did not do.”

In some respects Downton Abbey presents a way of life that we cannot begin to fathom for ourselves today. The thought of a hundred people living as an extended family under one roof is simply inconceivable. The thought that night after night a score of them would seat themselves together at meals, in formal dress, dining on a carefully scripted menu, is hard to believe. And the thought that scores of finely attired human beings served others with ballet-like precision strikes many of us as highly undemocratic, to say the least.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

But perhaps what we moderns find most difficult to accept is the whole business of community living that Downton Abbey parades before our eyes. Today we shrink back in horror from the thought that several generations of a family might live together, under the authority of a paterfamilias. Not only does it sound stuffy, but it places stifling restrictions on individual liberty and on our hopes to become whatever kind of person we might choose.

A second bit that puts us off is the intricate social structure that makes it all work. Whether members of the household liked it or not, they all showed up for meals together and on time. (Recall the scolding meted out to the Prince of Wales for being tardy for dinner in “The King’s Speech.”) Neither the Prince of Wales nor the lord of the manor came bounding down at all hours to order dinner a la carte. Both lords and ladies on one side, and servants on the other, sat down to dinner together, ate it together, and finished the meal together. Anything less simply was not done, and it would render the house chaotic. After all, it was a home, not a hotel or resort. All had to be aware of the mutual respect necessary to make it work, and good manners were the key ingredient for a successful, if not entirely happy, household.

Bylands Abbey

Bylands Abbey

Though most families no longer sit down to dinner together, it would be a mistake to assume that the old ways are dead and gone. In fact, there are pockets where such a communal way of life survives, and monasteries are among their number. No monastery provides the level of luxury that Downton Abbey provides; but the monastic regimen roughly parallels the sort that made the great houses of Europe well-oiled machines. For one thing, both monasteries and great houses are multi-generational households. It’s safe to say that in both cases youngsters and seniors can enjoy drastically different perspectives. Similarly, neither in a monastery nor at Downton can one treat the place like a boarding house or a residential hotel. Respect is due to one’s fellows, and appreciation is expected for those whose labors make daily life possible for all.

Bylands Abbey

Bylands Abbey

In short, life together demands the sacrifice of some personal liberties, as well as the adoption of a certain etiquette. And if these are skills that we may lack when we are clothed as a novice, they must become part of our skill set if we are to persevere to final vows. There really is no room for those who put themselves first, above everything and everybody else.

In a society in which increasing numbers live alone, the assumption is common that big households like Downton Abbey and monasteries are doomed to become fossils, and that community life will become extinct with them. But before we consign them to the boneyard, take a look at real estate trends in any major city, or even in small towns, for that matter. One feature of the construction landscape is a boom in retirement and assisted-living facilities. Some try to preserve a modicum of independent living, but anyone who moves in must adapt to a way of life that harks back to the great households that once bound generations and classes into one. In these modern “great houses” no one can be the lone wolf around whom the entire building revolves. Instead, one becomes very much a part of a community, and in that community respect and mutual deference are prized skills. You had better bring them with you, if you intend to flourish in such an environment. So while some of us enjoy the third season of Downton Abbey, it might be wise to glean a few tips on successful community living as we watch. Who knows — they just might come in handy someday when we have to move into our own great house!

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

Notes

+On February 1st I visited over dinner with members of the American Associaton of the Order of Malta, gathered in Naples, FL, for their winter retreat.

+The very name “Downton Abbey” is a reminder of the earlier history of such homes. Obviously a fictional abbey once stood at the center of this fictional estate; and it, like many a real abbey, got recycled into country homes and cottages across England. Even today you can see the fireplaces, stained glass windows and stonework of abbeys and priories incorporated into buildings of all sorts. Nothing went to waste, though sadly little remains of many monastic sites.

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

Still, not every monastery vanished entirely. While nearly all were pillaged and looted in the sixteenth century and beyond, a few survived in ruined form and have become hugely popular tourist attractions. Today many ruins stand as the centerpiece of gardens and parks, where they give testimony to spiritual values that some mistakenly assume have vanished. Those hauntingly beautiful skeletons still inspire, in ways that words can scarcely match.

In late January we celebrated the feast of the late eleventh-century founders of the Cistercian Order. They were reformed Benedictines and fore-runners of the seventeenth-century Trappists — the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. In today’s post I’ve included pictures of three of my favorite Cistercian monasteries, each of which I’ve had the chance to visit. Rievaulx and Fountains are in Yorkshire, and Tintern Abbey stands near the Welsh border. Tintern is only a few miles from the scriptorium in which scribe Donald Jackson created The Saint John’s Bible.

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