view from the hill

A look at the elements and events that come into view from where I'm standing...
... the stuff that matters in this life. Some flicker and are gone in a matter of hours
only to live in memory, others become life long travelling companions, never far from reach.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Tintern Abbey

There's something about the ruins of a Cistercian abbey that's just so damn cool. It's always a surprise to round a corner in the Wye River valley (or wherever these things lurk) and find a grand ruin nestled up against the hill. It's out of place, the skeleton of a cathedral with it's stained glass missing, the roof gone, and it's columns exposed to the elements. It's like stumbling upon a grazing dinosaur.

turnerWordsworth knew this allure. So did Turner. They captured the appeal and mystery of a ruin as the shabby-chic of the 1790s. These colossal heaps of vaulted stone became living poems. They whisper of a secluded past, and of violent ends when kings invented divorce and changed the religions of countries. They're the scar of historical whiplash, and the residue of a forced extinction. The destruction of the Cistercian abbeys left them to wander in the wilderness, while their C-of-E brethren thrived in the city centres.

Cathedrals exist in every town in England. They literally reach for the heavens with their spires, and are surrounded by a skirt of high-street shops and houses. They're majestic places that house the bones of kings and the flags of wars. These cathedrals are structured and solid tomes. They're air-tight and polished, assured in their righteousness. A well-ordered beast that demands respect in its silent authority. Religion carved in stone.

But a ruined abbey, that's an entirely different animal.

tintern2Abbeys have seen weather, their bones exposed to doubt. They're left out to pasture, a bit lonely and forgotten, a blind Gloucester wandering the heath.

But their lack of certainty also opens them to the Book of Life. There's room for questions. Scents of otherness flow freely around their columns. Swifts dart in and out high overhead, and clouds glide silently, framed by their stone webbing. It's a sketch of a mystery. An elusive poem of the past. They invite curiosity and compassion.

A cathedral has majesty and undeniable power, but give me an abbey exposed to the elements any day of the week. To feel the grass between your toes while held gently in a loose enclosure of stone - it's religion with the roof off. And the view is much better.



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