Posts Tagged ‘Rievaulx Abbey’


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.


+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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IMG_1830The Stones Do Speak

My first visit to the medieval abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire had an element of the forbidden about it.  It was cold;  heavy mist blanketed the landscape;  and here and there patches of green grass poked through the snow.  What made it an especially delicious moment, however, was the fact that the place was closed.  It was December 26th — Boxing Day — the holiday on which the English gentry used to bestow gifts on their servants.

Given that there was no one to collect the £1 entry fee, Brother Dietrich and I did what any monks who had come 4,000 miles would do.  We climbed over the fence and made ourselves at home.  For over an hour we had the vast ruin to ourselves.  Then an English family drove up and climbed over the fence.  By then we were more than glad to share the haunting beauty of the place, and so we all exchanged greetings, in lieu of gifts.

IMG_1844For years I’ve wanted to return, and last week I finally had the chance.  Happily, the times have been kind to the abbey, and today a small visitors’ center and cafe welcome guests.  Even better, there are restrooms.  Unfortunately the admission fee has shot up to £8, but it’s definitely worth the price to see one of the most impressive monastic ruins in all of England.

Cistercian monks from Burgundy founded Rievaulx in 1132, and its most famous monk, Aelred, presided as abbot from 1147 until his death in 1167.  By his time nearly 600 monks and lay-brothers called it home, but by the 1530s it had shrunk to a more realistic twenty-five monks and no lay-brothers.

IMG_1846As the site guide today states quite emphatically, it was a spiritually sound if not large community when Henry VIII booted everyone off of the property in 1538.  He commandeered  the lead roof for himself, to be turned into bullets and cannons, I presume;  and the rest he awarded to a shrewd neighbor.  The latter in turn promptly stripped it of every scrap that could be carted off and sold.  Today not a lot remains except for the pillars of the church and the foundation stones, but what is still there is due largely to the preservation efforts of people like William Wordsworth and his fellows in the Romantic movement.  Fortunately, an inspired owner rescued and landscaped what still stood, and today visitors savor the gardens that frame the buildings.

What goes through the mind of a 21st-century monk as he meditates on a once-thriving community?  For one thing, I can’t help but be impressed by the dynamism of the monks who built such a fantastic place and for 400  years worked and prayed daily in it.  Like many others I also ponder the many misdeeds of Henry VIII, whose life began with such promise and ended in such personal disappointment.  Then there’s the practical side of me that calculates what it might cost had such a complex survived intact.  To maintain such a pile today would be an insurmountable financial burden — one that no monastic community could possibly manage on its own.

IMG_1856Beyond that, I appreciate the enduring attraction of a site that draws even more visitors now than it did in Abbot Aelred’s day.  Therein is an obvious irony.  The enterprising individual who wrecked the place and sold the stones in the local market would be surprised to learn that he’s only remembered for his act of vandalism.   Whatever he did with the proceeds of the sale matters little today, while the stunning ruins he left behind preach a message far more powerful than his commercial ventures.  The walls proclaim that for hundreds of years men gathered in that place to seek God.  They led sometimes challenging and yet beautiful lives.  Those walls also invite thoughtful visitors to consider the direction of their own lives.  To what purpose or mission have we visitors committed ourselves?  Ironically, the stones ask these questions on behalf of generations of monks, and they do so eloquently.

In sum, I’m grateful for the witness of these monks.  If today their home stands ruined, there’s consolation in that as well.  They lived for God and not for the walls.  Wonderfully, the walls remind us of that too.

In the end we have to wonder who it is who is more creative in life.  Are they the ones who build up or the ones who tear down?  Are they those who live solely for themselves or those who try their best to serve their neighbor and the generations yet to come?  It may be a stretch to imagine that the monks of Rievaulx meant to speak to us in the 21st century, and yet their message  has lost little of its urgency though the centuries.  Theirs is a witness well worth pondering.


+For most of last week I was in England, to be present as Donald Jackson, the scribe for The Saint John’s Bible, received a papal knighthood in the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Cardinal Vincent Nichols presided at the ceremony, which took place at Westminster Cathedral in London on June 15th.  Present for the occasion were nearly 170 guests and friends of Donald Jackson and Saint John’s.  Among the latter were a group of twenty-five alumni who had flown from Minnesota, as well as a small group of friends of the Bible who had come from New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Sydney.   Also in attendance was Bishop Nicholas Holtam, the Anglican bishop of Salisbury, who is a long-time friend of Saint John’s, and Abbot Geoffrey of the Benedictine abbey of Douai, located near London.  On the previous evening we held a reception at the Church of Saint Martin in-the-Fields, at which Donald Jackson gave a lecture on his experience in creating the Bible.  Saint Martin happens to own a set of the Heritage Edition, which is on permanent display in the educational center.

IMG_1873+During the two days preceding these events Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University, and I led a group of 25 on visits to Greenwich, downriver from the center of London, and to Hampton Court.  The latter has always been one of my favorite places in the world, because it is two palaces in one.  The Tudor portion dates to the time of Henry VIII, while the other half is the creation of Sir Christopher Wren.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the abbey of Rievaulx, which I visited on June 16th. In that area of Yorkshire there were three monumental Cistercian abbeys whose ruins survive today.  Fountains Abbey, which I visited many years ago, arguably is just as impressive as Rievaulx;  and Bylands is equally large in scope.

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