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An essay by Arthur C. Benson

The Abbey

Title:     The Abbey
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

The fresh wind blew cheerily as we raced, my friend and I, across a long stretch of rich fen-land. The sunlight, falling somewhat dimly through a golden haze, lay very pleasantly on the large pasture-fields. There are few things more beautiful, I think, than these great level plains; they give one a delightful sense of space and repose. The distant lines of trees, the far-off church towers, the long dykes, the hamlets half-hidden in orchards, the "sky-space and field-silence," give one a feeling of quiet rustic life lived on a large and simple scale, which seems the natural life of the world.

Our goal was the remains of an old religious house, now a farm. We were soon at the place; it stood on a very gentle rising ground, once an island above the fen. Two great columns of the Abbey Church served as gate-posts. The house itself lay a little back from the road, a comfortable cluster of big barns and outhouses, with great walnut trees all about, in the middle of an ancient tract of pasture, full of dimpled excavations, in which the turf grew greener and more compact. The farm-house itself, a large irregular Georgian building covered with rough orange plaster, showed a pleasant tiled roof among the barns, over a garden set with venerable sprawling box-trees. We found a friendly old labourer, full of simple talk, who showed us the orchard, with its mouldering wall of stone, pierced with niches, the line of dry stew-ponds, the refectory, now a great barn, piled high with heaps of grain and straw. We walked through byres tenanted by comfortable pigs routing in the dirt. We hung over a paling to watch the creased and discontented face of an old hog, grunting in shrill anticipation of a meal. Our guide took us to the house, where we found a transept of the church, now used as a brew-house, with the line of the staircase still visible, rising up to a door in the wall that led once to the dormitory, down the steps of which, night after night, the shivering and sleepy monks must have stumbled into their chilly church for prayers. The hall of the house was magnificent with great Norman arches, once the aisle of the nave.

The whole scene had the busy, comfortable air of a place full of patriarchal life, the dignity of a thing existing for use and not for show, of quiet prosperity, of garnered provender and well-fed stock. Though it made no deliberate attempt at beauty, it was full of a seemly and homely charm. The face of the old fellow that led us about, chirping fragments of local tradition, with a mild pride in the fact that strangers cared to come and see the place, wore the contented, weather-beaten look that comes of a life of easy labour spent in the open air. His patched gaiters, the sacking tied round him with a cord to serve as an apron, had the same simple appropriateness. We walked leisurely about, gathering a hundred pretty impressions,--as the old filbert-trees that fringed the orchard, the wall-flowers, which our guide called the blood-warriors, on the ruined coping, a flight of pigeons turning with a sharp clatter in the air. At last he left us to go about his little business; and we, sitting on a broken mounting-block in the sunshine, gazed lazily and contentedly at the scene.

We attempted to picture something of the life of the Benedictines who built the house. It must have been a life of much quiet happiness. We tried to see in imagination the quaint clustered fabrics, the ancient church, the cloister, the barns, the out-buildings. The brethren must have suffered much from cold in winter. The day divided by services, the nights broken by prayers; probably the time was dull enough, but passed quickly, like all lives full of monotonous engagements. They were not particularly ascetic, these Benedictines, and insisted much on manual labour in the open air. Probably at first the monks did their farm-work as well; but as they grew richer, they employed labourers, and themselves fell back on simpler and easier garden-work. Perhaps some few were truly devotional spirits, with a fire of prayer and aspiration burning in their hearts; but the majority would be quiet men, full of little gossip about possible promotions, about lands and crops, about wayfarers and ecclesiastics who passed that way and were entertained. Very few, except certain officials like the Cellarer, who would have to ride to market, ever left the precincts of the place, but laid their bones in the little graveyard east of the church. We make a mistake in regarding the life and the buildings as having been so picturesque, as they now appear after the long lapse of time. The church was more venerable than the rest; but the refectory, at the time of the dissolution, cannot have been long built; still, the old tiled place, with its rough stone walls, must have always had a quaint and irregular air.

Probably it was as a rule a contented and amiable society. The regular hours, the wholesome fatigue which the rule entailed, must have tended to keep the inmates in health and good-humour. But probably there was much tittle-tattle; and a disagreeable, jealous, or scheming inmate must have been able to stir up a good deal of strife in a society living at such close quarters. One thinks loosely that it must have resembled the life of a college at the University, but that is an entire misapprehension; for the idea of a college is liberty with just enough discipline to hold it together, while the idea of a monastery was discipline with just enough liberty to make life tolerable.

Well, it is all over now! the idea of the monastic life, which was to make a bulwark for quiet-minded people against the rougher world, is no longer needed. The work of the monks is done. Yet I gave an affectionate thought across the ages to the old inmates of the place, whose bones have mouldered into the dust of the yard where we sat. It seemed half-pleasant, half-pathetic to think of them as they went about their work, sturdy, cheerful figures, looking out over the wide fen with all its clear pools and reed-beds, growing old in the familiar scene, passing from the dormitory to the infirmary, and from the infirmary to the graveyard, in a sure and certain hope. They too enjoyed the first breaking of spring, the return of balmy winds, the pushing up of the delicate flowers in orchard and close, with something of the same pleasure that I experience to-day. The same wonder that I feel, the same gentle thrill speaking of an unattainable peace, an unruffled serenity that lies so near me in the spring sunshine, flashed, no doubt, into those elder spirits. Perhaps, indeed, their heart went out to the unborn that should come after them, as my heart goes out to the dead to-day.

And even the slow change that has dismantled that busy place, and established it as the quiet farmstead that I see, holds a hope within it. There must indeed have been a sad time when the buildings were slipping into decay, and the church stood ruined and roofless. But how soon the scars are healed! How calmly nature smiles at the eager schemes of men, breaks them short, and then sets herself to harmonise and adorn the ruin, till she makes it fairer than before, writing her patient lesson of beauty on broken choir and tottering wall, flinging her tide of fresh life over the rents, and tenderly drawing back the broken fragments into her bosom. If we could but learn from her not to fret or grieve, to gather up what remains, to wait patiently and wisely for our change!

So I reasoned softly to myself in a train of gentle thought, till the plough-horses came clattering in, and the labourers plodded gratefully home; and the sun went down over the flats in a great glory of orange light.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Abbey