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Posts Tagged ‘Fountains Abbey’

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Looking Beyond the Artificial

On Saturday the lights went out in the monastery.  Actually, everything went off, thanks to a planned power outage that takes place every year at about this time.  I’m not exactly sure what the power people have in mind when they do this to us, and perhaps they haven’t a clue either.  But whether they know it or not, they turn our world upside-down.

We had no electricity for seven hours, and a lot of inconvenience happened in our little world of the monastery.  For one thing, the kitchen staff had to consolidate the cold food into storage that would stay sealed for the entire day.  As for lunch and dinner, we had the indoor equivalent of picnics, complete with paper plates and plasticware.  As expected, the lights were out, making things pretty dim in all the places we need to be — like the refectory, the church, the halls, the stairs, and our rooms.  The elevator to the health center was also out of action, leaving the retired monks stranded on the second floor.  Fans and the air-conditioning took the day off too, leaving most public rooms stuffy and close.

CB4C0FEA-424D-4A1A-B9C8-848368D1FD97This year’s shut-down was distinctive for one new element, however.  A few months ago we installed a key-card lock system in the monastery, and without power it was dormant.  The practical result was that monks could leave the monastery but couldn’t get back in.  Thankfully the prior had the foresight to prop open two doors, and woe to the monk who absentmindedly closed them on the way out.

Other than a cold shower and the inability to read in my darkened room, this business didn’t really inconvenience me.  I’m not saying that it wasn’t frustrating, sitting there trying to think of what I could do in the semi-darkness.  But it was an interesting test in patience as I sat there and waited for life as we know it to resume.

That evening I opened an email from a friend who had sent some photos he had taken that day.  They showed the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Fountains in Yorkshire, a monastery I’ve long wanted to visit.  It was fortuitous, because the photos were enough to suggest to me both continuity and discontinuity within the monastic tradition.  850 years after the monks built Fountains, we still follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the architectural elements of monasteries have remained pretty much the same.  But some differences are startling, largely because of electricity.

35C9C63C-75CB-477F-AB1E-AC6A691354AAToday we have things that medieval monks could scarcely imagine.  We have artificial light that’s lengthened the work day beyond imagination.  We have heat and air-conditioning, elevators, sound-systems and media equipment and noisy compressors everywhere.  White noise is an integral part of life, and silence such as the monks of Fountains knew is unknown to us.

In short, we monks — and most everyone else — live in a world in which artificial sound and light and air have isolated us from the things of the earth.  Meanwhile, the lights of civilization long ago screened from our gaze the dazzling display of stars that the monks of Fountains marveled at every evening.

I’m no Luddite, and I would be loathe to dispense with the things that make our lives both comfortable and productive.  All the same, however, I wonder whether there is a price we’ve had to pay as we’ve created an artificial world that shelters us from the reality of creation and the cycles of the seasons.  Has our world become unreal?

I wonder too whether our isolation from nature has engendered a corresponding isolation from one another and from God.  A recent study points out the prevalence of loneliness in our society, but the data provided one big surprise.  Researchers had expected to find loneliness among the elderly, but the discovery of a pervasive loneliness among the young was shocking.  No one had expected that.

6DA8C891-C0A0-422C-8321-CC785B4B21E6If we’ve insulated ourselves from close human companionship, have we done so with God as well?  It seems entirely plausible to me that if we can fashion our own little artificial world — entirely the result of the machines we have created — then we can just as easily close our eyes to the presence of God.

For better and for worse, something like a power outage reminds us of two things.  First, we aren’t omnipotent, despite what we may think.  In fact, we would be helpless without the power grid, until we learned to get along without it once again.  And second, we would eventually recall that there is something to life besides cell phones and the machines that now shape our artificial world.

Perhaps, then, it’s good to turn off the power every now and again, just to remind us that life is possible without it.  For one, we’d discover that life still has meaning.  For another, we’d discover that we still have each other.  In the faces of one another we behold the spark of the divine presence that never seems to grow dark or weaken.  Oddly enough, it’s the one spark of energy that the power company can’t seem to turn off.

0B940A52-A951-4703-98B0-C668166F4C9ENOTES

+On June 5th I returned from giving conferences at a retreat for members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Malvern Retreat House, located in the Philadelphia suburbs.

+On June 9th we monks of Saint John’s survived a planned power outage at Saint John’s.  Not willing to miss the opportunity to comment on that experience, I made it the subject of today’s post.

+Lacking photos of the medieval abbey of Fountains, I have done the next best thing by resorting to photos I took of the nearby abbey of Rievaulx.  Located outside of York, it is a stunning ruin, and it’s a miracle that builders and looters did not cart off all of its stones. Given that there were no glazed windows in the cloister to shield the monks from the elements, they managed to survive the winter by taking refuge in the calefactory — the one heated room in the entire complex.  That fireplace served some 600 monks and laybrothers at one point, and I can only imagine how they crowded around it in the dead of winter.  The photo of the fireplace is at bottom.

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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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