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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Synchronicity at Ampleforth Abbey

Exploring the two thousand acres of Ampleforth Abbey & College.
(Compare this with St. Andrew's Church in Aysgarth,
which at four acres has the largest church yard in England).

Sometimes it takes me awhile to get around to a book I want to read.  Several years ago, a member of a Bible Study class enthused about From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple.  While my reading list was rather full at the time (and the curriculum for the class was quite heavy-going), her description of the book--part travelogue, part history of Christianity—intrigued me.  I couldn’t get her suggestion out of my head.  By the time I phoned her to ask if I could borrow it, the Bible Study group had disbanded, we had left the church, and she had given the book away to a friend.  So it was off to the library for me.

It seems that William Dalrymple, a historian at Cambridge University in England, became captivated by the writings of John Moschos, a sixth century Orthodox monk who traveled from monastery to monastery, learning from the religious teachers he came in contact with.  Dalrymple decided to follow in Moschos’ footsteps, visiting the various countries, cities, and monasteries the monk once called home.  This quest leads Dalrymple from Greece, to such countries as Turkey, Egypt and Israel.  His Catholic faith often caused him difficulty, as what was left of Orthodox Christianity in these regions often opposed his beliefs.  The cultures, traditions, and situations he describes in From the Holy Mountain not only rival the best world-building efforts of Science Fiction and Fantasy authors, but also challenge the preconceptions of Christians in Europe and America. 

Some time after I finished Dalrymple’s book, I was doing research for a story, and I remembered a presentation from a former priest on the life in early Benedictine monasteries.  So it was off to the library again, this time to check out The Rule of Saint Benedict. 

A rather interesting chair in the lobby.
Perhaps made in the monastery workshop?

While staying in Thirsk on our trip to England this year, we found ourselves just a short drive away from Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that also runs a school.  Rather than drive long distances to explore the North York Moors, and pay to park so we could take a hike (or pay to park so we could then pay another fee to explore the ruins of an old building), we decided to visit Ampleforth Abbey (for free).  As a lady volunteer showed my wife around the Visitor Center, I spoke with a monk about life and practice in a modern Benedictine monastery.  While much of Saint Benedict’s teachings have been abandoned or modified (they would have to be in order to run a school), one rule is still held sacred: once a monk pledges himself to a particular monastery, he doesn’t leave it for any reason.  He certainly doesn’t wander off to visit another.  I compared this aspect of Benedictine monasticism with what I remembered of John Moschos’ journey.  To my surprise, the monk seemed aware of Dalrymple’s book.

My wife and I enjoyed a pleasant morning at Ampleforth Abbey.  We strolled the grounds, admired the various buildings, and worshipped with the monks during their midday mass.  Then we returned to our hotel for lunch.

Some goods on offer in the lobby.
Somehow, I wasn't expecting to see items like the
CD "Girls Aloud," or the movie "The Full Monty,"
at a Benedictine monastery. 

A week later, as I was culling the various guides, brochures, and papers we had collected during our travels, I came across the brochures my wife had picked up at Ampleforth Abbey.  My jaw dropped when I noticed a familiar name in a brochure called Famous Amplefordians.  I don’t know whether to label it coincidence, divine providence, fate, or synchronicity, but of all the places we could have visited while staying in Thirsk, how did I end up in the school William Dalrymple once attended?

Dumbfounded and amazed,
Dragon Dave

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