My family’s footsteps were quiet on the damp earth. That was fitting; loud noise seemed gaudy here. Even though the broken walls opened straight to the sky, the abbey retained its reverence—noise, it made clear, was permissible only in hushed tones, for here was a building where people had long encountered a mighty God.
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In our whole four-month sabbatical in the U.K., seeing a different historical or geographical site every weekend, I don’t think any place struck me the way this abbey did. Netley Abbey, it was called; just one of hundreds of similar sites, with little more than crumbling stonework walls. But Netley was different, somehow. For months after I couldn’t quite decide why.
We wandered through the ruin, just looking. We saw archways like portals to other worlds, grass and wildflowers spilling in through them. Pillars that stood tirelessly along the great halls, although the ceiling and second story they’d supported were long gone. A few chambers that, unlike the others, had floors and ceilings, and between whose stones weeds had crept up and mud puddles had pooled. We were awed; there are few places like that in America, places that have been nearly forgotten by the people around them, that have crumbled into nothing more than bits of columns, pieces of walls. It was one of the first ruins we’d seen, but although I’ve visited many more since then, I still remember it being especially beautiful.
The way the history and beauty intertwined was something I wasn’t used to. Little in my home country was founded more than five hundred years ago, let alone in 1238 AD, and it’s a testament to how long this world has been spinning that we were there in the ruins of something which had been great almost a thousand years before. It reminded me both of the saying history repeats itself, that people rise and build and fall, and hundreds of years later are still doing so; and the idea that time stops for no man. Still we live and die. And though we leave behind us monuments, proof it’s all gone on for a thousand, or two thousand, or ten thousand years already, we’re each just one beat in time’s forever-pounding heart.
Unsettling. Yet, beautiful.
As I roved on, I decided that the crowning features of the abbey were the windows. In the halls they were stately and impressive, edged with columns and soaring to the empty sky, but the one that struck me most was neither huge nor ornate. I found it in one of the completed rooms—one with a ceiling and floor, where I could almost see the monks kneeling to pray at some long-vanished altar, to the God I still pray to now. This window was simple, just three holes cut out of the stone: two arches at the bottom, a four-petalled flower on top. It was set alone in one wall.
I might not have noticed it if the sun hadn’t been playing games. At first the clouds covered the light; but then they slowly, almost imperceptibly moved away from it, and suddenly it seared.
That was how the window came to burn its shape into me, forever impressing the four-petalled flower on my eyes. How breathtaking to be overpowered by sun in a building which had toppled so long ago! How humbling to be this dark next to such a light.
It was only later that I wondered if maybe that was why it was so beautiful, though my own mortality was written in its ruin. It reminded me how light still shines in brokenness.
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