29 March 2012

The Ruins

I stood alone on the wet grass early one morning in York last week. It was strange because I was partially surrounded by the ruined walls of an abbey church, and the soft grass beneath my feet had replaced what had most certainly been the laid stone floor of the medieval nave.

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.

I saw there Christ crucified, as I see him in the aimless homeless of our city and in the suffocating apathy of my students. I see the same Christ crucified in all who flee from him, in myself, and these ruins point to the liberation their cracked stones could not procure, nor can the modern cities nor their students or teachers procure. To reach toward the eternal, finally, is to let go of all the trappings of our own creation, to let go of our things and wants and ultimately, our very selves in order to be made new.

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.

1 comment:

Maureen Keithley said...

"The Tudor king did not get the last laugh..." Neither did/will satan when Jesus was crucified, nor will he when the King of Kings returns!

Thanks for sharing a terrific, reflective read for this holy week.

Let's challenge each other to keep this week and Easter for what they should be!!