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Epilogue to Tintern

We’d arranged to spend a day of sightseeing on my most recent teaching swing through the UK, so the afternoon of November 7 found me in a car with my host Jackie Evans and my old friend John Moss, winding our way back to Bristol after a magical day of exploring some fabled holy sites and “thin places” in the picturesque Welsh countryside.

Darkness drops quickly in November; the sun was already barely cresting the ridge line when we rounded a bend in the Wye river, and suddenly there was Tintern Abbey.

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The sight does literally take your breath away. There, nestled in the river bend like a strange Gothic botanical, more growing out of the landscape than towering over it, stand the haunting ruins of a 12th-century Cistercian Monastery, still largely intact. In 1536, it fell victim to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries edict, his brutal initiative to disestablish the Roman Catholic Church in England. Monks were deposed or slaughtered, the building was sacked and vandalized, its treasures were confiscated for the crown. Three centuries of peaceful and compassionate striving in this “school for the Lord’s service” ended in an orgy of violence. Over the centuries, the old stone walls fell deeper into decay. Vines and wild brambles began to claw at their side. The Romantic poets and painters loved it. By the time the poet Wordsworth visited the place in the early nineteenth century, it far more resembled a Druidic temple or a wildly surrealistic set for a Dionysian mystery cult than any kind of sober and lucid monastery, let alone a Christian one.

Once inside its walls, however, I recognized the vibration instantly. I’ve been to other such Cistercian sites – Fontenay in Burgundy, The College des Bernadins on the Parisian Left Bank. I’ve also prayed with the monks at the beautiful
Abbey of Our Lady of The Holy Spirit in Conyers, George, modeled closely on these ancient, architecturally stunning Cistercian sites. The energy is palpable, serene – distinctly feminine, unmistakably Cistercian. Funny, I had forgotten – or perhaps never realized – that Tintern Abbey was a Cistercian house….

img_3408The day was unusually cold for early November – fortunately, as it turns out, for us, for as the sun swiftly disappeared beneath the ridgeline, the few remaining tourists disappeared almost as swiftly. John and Jackie and I were soon all alone in this great, solemn sanctuary, its roof wide open to the darkening sky, its former stone floors now a carpet of green.

I found myself being drawn more and more insistently to the east end, where a gaping window and a small outline of stones marked off what would once have been the steps to the high altar. And as I allowed myself to be drawn, those words from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets began to gather in my mind:

You are not here to verify
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid….

And suddenly I indeed found myself kneeling before that imaginal altar railing, and then in full prostration. The energy of it literally pulled me down. And there, on the eve of the American presidential elections, those ancient stones again began to speak, and in a few timeless moments some of their own ancient knowing came to be planted within me.

Words (even “reflected in tranquility”) cannot begin to convey it since, like most of those brief downloads mediated through what Gurdjieff called “higher emotional center”, the vibrational intensity overwhelms the rational faculties and leaves one stammering in the dust. It’s happened once or twice before, always like this.

Let it be said that when I rose to my feet once again, I already knew beyond any doubt what the election results would be, and where the wheel set in motion the following day would most likely lead. My heart ached, but I was at last ready to face it.

pietaIt was not the content of the message but its emotional coloration that left me so transfixed. With infinite tenderness, resolve – like the eyes of Michelangelo’s Pietà I had seen for the first time only weeks before at the Vatican – it spoke to me in those moments, shared what could be shared of the quiet endurance in the face of reversal, deepest sorrow, human atrocity. “Yes,” said the walls, quietly, “we know…And yet, through all of this, something still stands”.

“Just as we are still standing now,” they whispered to my heart, “and see how we have drawn you here and you are listening right now. 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 of ravages of time. All else may dissolve; this alone remains. But in your own transfigured heart, you will always find it.”

Then the walls fell silent, and the intensity slowly waned. I rose, rubbed the mud off my pants, and rejoined my friends. As we traced our way back to the car, the last ray of sunset set the whole scene aflame in a final eloquent coda.

Sin is behovely, but all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

Prayers for Fr. Bruno Barnhart

Last week, we received an alert about Fr. Bruno’s health. Please see Cynthia’s message below, as well as the original note from Fr. Cyprian.


Father Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam, has been a friend and spiritual mentor to many of us here in the Pacific Northwest through his close involvement with The Contemplative Society and his deep influence on my own work. Now approaching 85-years-old, Bruno has been struggling over the past few years with chronic health issues and, in the past couple of weeks, things evidently took a serious downturn. I have no information beyond what Prior Cyprian has so honestly and lovingly shared with us [see message below] in the accompanying notification. But Bruno is obviously in good hands and resting well, and he seems very determined at this point to get back on his feet and return to his beloved hermitage as soon as he can.

While I suspect he is not yet quite at the point of leaving us, it seems clear to me (and has for some time now) that Bruno is entering a new season of his life, the time when profoundly attained spiritual masters prepare for their final conscious leave-taking from this planet. I saw it with Rafe, with Raimon Panikkar, I’m seeing it now in Thomas Keating, and I sense it dawning in Bruno. It is a holy time, a time for “becoming all flame,” for pure incandescence. As his devoted students, the best we can do is to send him continual prayers for strength, transparency, hope, and a sure sense that he is loved and held as he does the work that the great ones are called to do in this sacred thin place. I invite you to join me in meditating, on his behalf, on these remarkable words from T.S. Eliot:

Old men ought to be explorers.
Here and there does not matter. 
We must be still, and still moving 
into another intensity 
for a further union, a deeper communion.

Bruno, we are sending you our love and gratitude! May you truly become all flame! 

~ Cynthia

Fr. Cyprian’s update (from October 30, 2015):

Dear oblates and friends,

Thank you for all your concerns, care and prayers for our beloved Fr. Bruno. Let me update and clarify the situation for you.

Bruno grew increasingly, frighteningly weak over the last week, and so we finally decided, in keeping with Bruno’s wishes and in consultation with our good friend and doctor, John Clark, to take him into the emergency room. He has been in the hospital for two days now. They have stabilized him, and he is resting very comfortably. I was with him last night and he is very serene. I helped him eat a good dinner (he ate the marinated chicken breast, some potatoes and bread, but he let me eat all the broccoli). The nurse this morning told me that he is alert and in good spirits today.

Today Bruno is going to move to a skilled nursing facility near the hospital, where they will continue to strengthen him and do some physical therapy to get him up on his feet again. He has chosen this option, a move toward wellness and healing. This is a very good sign of life, and we look forward to getting him back to the Hermitage as soon as we can.  
 
It has been hard for us and me personally to keep up with all the questions about Bruno’s health, so we will try to send out regular updates, and also perhaps an address if you want to send well wishes once he gets settled. We will be actively discouraging visitors during this time, though. In the meantime, I send my thanks, and you please send your love and prayers his way. 
 
As always, your friendship means a great deal to us.

Fr. Cyprian


The Contemplative Society has yet to hear more about Fr. Bruno’s condition. If you are interested in further updates, please send your request toadmin@contemplative.org.