|bayham abbey, united kingdom. june, 2011.|
a long, long time ago the roof tumbled down, as did most of the walls—not all at once, of course, but gradually—after the place was dismantled, abandoned, and left to decay. but because it was set in such an idyllic spot, people cleaned up the debris and—with great foresight—left the ruin in its natural state to be enjoyed by those who might find their way to the abbey one day in the future.
wild rabbits were among the first to arrive. they made themselves at home—witness the many rabbit holes!—and multiplied in what became a well-tended park surrounding the abbey.
they were the only other visible life forms besides myself, my husband—who i no longer actually saw, as he had disappeared into the ruins—and the young man minding the gift shop and collecting the entrance fee. at first i didn't notice them—the wild rabbits blended in perfectly with the browns and grays of tree trunks and rocks and woody bush stalks and ordinary dirt that were fixed at rabbit level around where the abbey stood. i picked out one of the descendants of the original rabbits and as i watched it, it watched me, its head in constant motion bobbing in the grass, its eyes simultaneously on me and the sweet green vegetation comprising its late afternoon snack. this went on for some time—we were both equally patient.
while the rabbit grazed, i leaned against a wall and enjoyed my reverie in the sunshine.
sanctuary—i sensed it under the dome of the sky. the remains of the walls that once surrounded a house of worship now surrounded me. within the pewless wreck, little hints of glory and joy. i shaded my eyes against the sun and scanned upwards. i imagined a choir loft filled with chanting trees—evensong in leafsong—as hymns of summer wind strained through outstretched branches. i read words of praise in a book, the book of crustose, lichen etched over blocks of stone. once, inside of what had been whole walls, a long-vanished altar had proudly claimed a spot on this earth. years later, opportunistic roots dug into ancient slabs of rock—rocks with a determined faith that, even in decay, held fast. once an altar stood where animals now deposited their own offerings.
the rabbit stopped nibbling choice shoots of grass. suddenly, it turned and fled.
as i walked under archways and lingered in the outlined shells of former workrooms, i saw the shadows of hooded monks laboring, baking their daily bread, brewing the daily beer. i wasn't inclined to compare the shambles i observed with exalted spaces boasting fine stained glass, paintings, and statuary, hundreds of flickering candles illuminating precious gold and silver, cold inlaid marble floors, perfectly white altar cloths and heavy chalices filled with blood-red wine.
i had no need for the established trappings of respectability—no. i was satisfied being a congregant in a broken place, a place that had been humbled and brought down. it was here, that spirit of peace—that unchangeable old thing—and remained with me in the land of crumbling rocks and snakelike roots and countless creatures. it held me the way nothing else could.
~ when i got home from italy over the weekend i was glad to find the house exactly where i'd left it—that beast, hurricane sandy, hadn't blown it down while i was away (although, sadly, on the jersey shore houses were blown to smithereens). except for a lot of sticks and oak leaves littering the yard, there was no evidence a monster storm had streaked through here. the power didn't even go out in our neighborhood like it usually does. (jim, our electrician, joked a bit after he finished installing a generator for us. he said the generator was probably the best insurance against power outages.) with travel on my mind, i wrote this piece about a previous jaunt before i left on this most recent one.