Once again I have been blessed by my work. Even in these challenging times of pandemic, I am fortunate to have sufficient editing and writing work to keep me busy. This past week, I had the opportunity to proofread the transcript of a series of talks by Cynthia Bourgeault, which are part of an online course being offered by the Center for Action and Contemplation. (Unfortunately, the course is already closed, but another of her courses will be starting in August; you can learn more here.)
One of the stories that I read in Cynthia’s transcript is available online, and I want to reflect on it today. She wrote it back in 2016, about a spiritual experience she had on the day before the US presidential election that November. In one sense, her experience echoes my reflections on that election, but she received her wisdom before the election occurred.
Cynthia’s experience occurred in the ruins of Tintern Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in Wales that Wordsworth made famous with a poem entitled “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” (The photo above is an oldie, from when I visited Tintern in the early 1990s.) She found herself in the ruins of the abbey church as the sun was setting, compelled to kneel where hundreds of monks had knelt in prayer over the centuries. In those moments, she was somehow connected with them, and with that larger frame of God’s reference that sees beyond our human catastrophes.
Kneeling, and then lying prostrate where monks were killed by King Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries to seize their wealth, Cynthia “knew beyond any doubt what the election results would be, and where the wheel set in motion the following day would most likely lead.” Yet, the walls of the monastery seemed to speak to her: “Do not look upon us as a destroyed monastery, but as a living transmission. Know that what is forged in the alchemy of love is beyond the ravages of time.”
Reading these words in the midst of the current pandemic is painful, but also important. Thousands of monks died five hundred years ago because of the hubris of one man (and his sycophants) who believed he could do whatever he wanted. Thousands are dying in America today because of the hubris of one man (and his sycophants) who believes he can do whatever he wants. The parallels are crystal clear to me. When I wrote my own blog post, three and a half years ago, I could never have imagined the level of destruction that would be wrought by one man (and his sycophants). I doubt that the Cistercian monks could have imagined their slaughter, either.
The good news is not about us as individuals. It’s about the endurance and ultimate perseverance of love. An abbey which once was a slaughterhouse has become a treasured national symbol of faith and of the eventual triumph of love. We don’t yet know what the treasured symbols will be that rise out of this pandemic. We likely won’t get to know; that will be left for our great-grandchildren to discover. Instead, we must trust in that alchemy of love. We must do our part to spread love and live out of love to the best of our abilities.
Then we must trust in God, to work that alchemy: to combine our faint efforts with those of others, around us and around the world. Then, somehow, in ways we cannot possibly imagine, we will build an abbey, perhaps even a cathedral, to love: a spiritual edifice that will withstand the ravages of time.
How will you contribute to God’s alchemy of love today?
Thanks very much for sharing this witness.
You’re very welcome, John.
The analogy between the 500 monks murdered at Tintern Abbey by order of Tutor King Henry VIII and the pandemic caused by the coronavirus seems flawed. Although President Trump’s response as the leader of our government was and is erratic and grossly inadequate, he did not personally cause nearly 70,000 American deaths. SARS-CoV-2 is responsible.
Nor can I see the hospital sites of Covid-19 in New York City deaths as future pilgrimage destinations nor the background for mystical experiences. Plagues bring no alchemy; these viruses bring only darkness and death. I cannot imagine a poem as fine as Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” inspired by this pandemic. Instead, I turn to Camus. ”
“We tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away.”
“They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”
Perhaps, to echo your words, we can learn to love more deeply and thus find hope in the darkness.
“But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:24-25)
Thank you, Diana, for your thoughtful reply. I do agree that there’s a difference in agency between Henry VIII and the US President, but I also believe that Jesus would say we are responsible for the consequences of our actions (think of his anger with the religious leaders who avoided caring for their parents by dedicating that money to the temple; see Mark 7:9-13). I believe that we are called to be “faithful stewards” of our power, not just our wealth.
I also cannot see a hospital becoming a pilgrimage site. One of the challenges of being in the midst of a crisis is that we cannot see where things will lead. Could you have imagined the reflecting pool in NYC in the weeks after 9/11? You do make a very good point about turning to Camus, in terms of this pestilence. We are none of us free–of pestilence, or of human community. We must be community to each other in these challenging times, and, as you quote, “wait for it patiently.”
Blessings on your, and our, faithful and patient waiting for God’s movement and guidance in these times!
Thank you for
Shirin—Thank you for these words from your experience. Cynthia Bourgeault’s writings have really touched me deeply. I am planning to take one of her courses in August. Now about Trump. Our country needed a businessman to stir up the years of corruption in Our government. He has the attitude of a New Yorker! But he has put great business men and women around him. In my mind he does listen to them but his job is to make the final decision. I think we needed him at this time. I do understand your concern. Thanks for your blog’
Thank you for your comments, Lorel. If we had an ethical businessman as president, I would agree with you, but he puts himself first, before the country, which does none of us any good (even him, ultimately). And I’m glad that you’re going to further explore Cynthia’s teachings. May you be blessed in them. Thank you for reading and pondering with me.