Monday, March 3, 2008

Fountains Abbey: Wilderness Worship

On Saturday we had another excursion with the students, this time to Fountains Abbey north of York, near Ripon. The Cistercian monks who founded the abbey in 1132 had actually left St. Mary's abbey in York (the ruins are now part of the Yorkshire Museum gardens). They felt that the urban Benedictines at York had compromised themselves by getting comfortable--that they had become too much like the rest of "the world." So 13 monks trudged up to the wilderness to renew their commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience, settling in a valley on a river which provided an ideal location for a mill. At one point there would have been about 150 monks and 300 lay brothers who were part of the community. Sadly, as the abbey became wealthy from land donations and wool production, the cycle of assimilation and concern for comfort set in once again. By the time King Henry VIII's agents came to dissolve the abbey as part of the English Reformation, there were only 32 monks left and no lay brothers to be found. The stunning ruins of the abbey are a poignant and haunting reminder of a more radical vocation--and a testimony to our persistent penchant to fail to live up to it.

The building sort of narrates its own history: here in the nave --the older section of the church--the architectural grammar is very simple; in the later (13th century) chancel, the grammar becomes much more ornate and classically "Gothic." This was already a sign, in a sense, that the monks were becoming more concerned with prestige and visibility. (All of this was pointed out to us by a most able guide, Dr. Bob Whiting, a historian at York St. John who guided us through the abbey ruins both by his expertise and deeply Christian understanding of discipleship.)
Did we mention that there are quite a few sheep in Yorkshire? :-)
The kids are really starting to enjoy being with the students, and many of the students a very kind and attentive to them. It's a treat to be able to build real "flesh-and-blood" relationships with students outside of the narrow strictures of the classroom.

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