29 March 2012
St. Mary's Abbey was once a strong community of Benedictine monks. The picture here is what remains of the church, all other evidence of their presence - including their graves - has long disappeared from history. Henry VIII had this, along with hundreds - perhaps thousands - of other such places ransacked for their centuries-worth of resources.
Places like this are impressive as they are depressing, as one naturally turns to a spiritual presence, however imperfect it was, that was laid waste by the greed of a ruler of a nation which would later become utterly secular, utterly turned in on itself, utterly sad.
I went that morning to mass for the feast of St. Joseph at a Catholic church which sits in the shadow of the Minster. Only a few of us were there, but I was impressed by the diversity of those gathered. Some still believe, I thought, all these hundreds of years later, and I felt a connection not only to them but to all those countless who came before me to seek some Greater who could speak to and hopefully assuage some of the angst so common in human life.
My emotions ranged from sorrow to sentimentality to hope for a future yet unborn. These broken walls, this floor of grass reminds me of the impermanence of all in the world; the monks who toiled here did so because of a hope in that which would not come in this life. And so, in the end, their project did not fail even though its buildings did. The Tudor king did not get the last laugh. Their monastic project goes on in the timeless wisdom of their founder, who encouraged all not to put much stock in the things of this world.
A few days later I knelt on an old carpet in a dingy room where an ancient monk said mass against a wall. He gently lifted the paten then the chalice. He recited the ancient prayers in the same Latin that would have been murmured in the darkened chapels of St. Mary's Abbey centuries before. His withered hands carried on a tradition that had been all but destroyed by generations of oppression. He raised the host against the horizon of a culture that continues to so comfortably mock and scorn the simplicity of belief. And he did not waver.
I knelt there and I trembled. I felt the overwhelming heat of recognition that I was witnessing a saga that led not a few in this country to torture and death. One could not escape the moment; there was no avoiding the intensity of the earth calling out to God in silent wailing.