If you have ever wandered around the grounds of an ancient monastery, such as Fountains, Tintern Abbey or Glastonbury, you might have spent a moment of regret for the dissolution of the monasteries – that great act of looting and demolition perpetrated by Henry VIII and his recently rehabilitated henchman, Thomas Cromwell. Places of architectural splendour – where prayer was poured out by cowled monks accompanied by beautiful polyphonic music, until the political expediency and greed of a monarch destroyed them – became little more than shells. But, of course, that wasn’t the only reason so many monasteries became picturesque ruins.
The taste for the Gothic amongst landowners at the end of the eighteenth century led to many being deliberately knocked about to make them more atmospheric! And although all were originally built with intact rooves and walls, many were designed austerely in the first place and put in remote spots, not to create a Romantic frisson, but to be sanctuaries where a deeper and more serious holy life could be lived.
On the 12th of January the Church of England remembered the life of St Aelred of Rievaulx, and it was thinking about him, that led me to want to share these thoughts this week.
Here are the bare details of his life. He was born in Hexham in 1109, and he joined the Cistercian order at the newly built Abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire when he was a teenager. When he was 34 he was made abbot of Revesby Abbey before returning to Rievaulx four years later to be its abbot, where he died at the age of 58.
The Cistercian order is the key thing here. We are so used to thinking of abbeys as abandoned old ruins we too easily forget that they were once brand new and full of life.
It is a bit confusing, but the Cistercian order – what in modern church jargon might be called ‘a fresh expression of being church’ – began at Citeaux in Burgundy under the initial leadership of an Englishman called Stephen Harding in 1110, but soon became the project of the charismatic and now far more famous St Bernard, who because of the daughter monastery that he founded in 1115 became known as St Bernard of Clairvaux. St Bernard remained the driving force behind the monastic revolution until his death in 1153.
Under St Bernard’s leadership there was indeed a revolution in the monastic life. Hundreds of new monasteries sprang up in his lifetime across Europe, and Rievaulx was part of that movement, being built in 1132.
Aelred joined an entirely new movement.
And to begin to understand this new movement we need to remember that the Cistercian movement wasn’t only a revolution in the monastic life – it was a revolution for the entire church in Europe.
If you were taught anything about the Reformation at school you will have taken in that that later religious revolution was about theology and salvation, but it was also a revolution in how you could be a good Christian. Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers all agreed that going into a monastery was not the best path, the elite track to salvation, and never had been. For when the Cistercian movement swept Europe 400 years earlier, it was an almost universally held view that the most perfect Christian was the one in a cloister. This was justified by the passage in the second chapter of the book of Acts where the first disciples prayed in the Temple together, shared their possessions, and devoted themselves to a life of charity.
So, in Aelred’s time the big question being asked was how can I be the right sort of monk or nun? Put very simplistically, the Cistercians sought to return to first principles. And in so doing, they set themselves against older monastic foundations which in their eyes had become very wealthy, completely enmeshed with the values and attitudes of monarchs and aristocracy, and had developed complex liturgies sung in elaborate and luxuriously decorated chapels by monks and nuns who, to speak in contemporary terms, slept in cosy beds under posh duvets. And they were supported by hordes of servants freeing them up to do nothing but sing prayers and read learned books.
This was always a bit of an exaggeration but was true enough to inspire a new movement, which claimed to be closer to the ideals of the first apostles and aspired to restore what they believed to be the most perfect expression of this ancient apostolic life: the sixth-century Rule of St Benedict.
I don’t think this is just a curious historical matter. I do believe that many of the questions and insights that St Aelred and his contemporaries pondered over matter to us today.
One such matter would be the importance of silence. We live in a society that does not like listening and is addicted to movement. And yet we did rediscover the joy of birdsong last spring and are currently living more static lives.
Joan Chittister, herself a Benedictine, has written:
Monastic spirituality calls us to live quietly. To walk quietly rather than to run… to turn down the volume rather than raise it. To give the gift of silence to others.
Imagine our spirits if our final thought of the day were not inspired by a television channel.
Imagine if our lives, work and relationships, were not stupefied by noise and would not tremble from tension.
Again, the pattern of prayer which emerged in the monastic settings was more about setting aside time to be in the presence of God rather than shooting prayers of need and desperation in his direction. It assumes God is present wherever we are, whenever we step aside from activity and distraction to be in our own real presence. Prayer is seen as being more about changing the ‘prayer’ than getting God’s attention.
This would be a very long reflection indeed if I were really thorough, but I will just throw out two last thoughts that we could all chew on. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote about the godliness and holiness of true friendship – either with those we live with or those at a distance.
And one of the reasons that the Cistercians wanted change was because they thought of work as a blessing. Making and creating, and mundane acts of industry and service, were all hallowed. They wanted to go back to that principle of an integrated spiritual life, where prayer, work, silence and companionship were all seen as part of the whole.