For me, monasteries are strangely compelling buildings - usually in ruins but always deeply alluring and interesting. They speak of another era, when Christianity was a uncomfortable mixture of immense temporal power and sacred piety, able to be all that it should in terms of preaching and living the Gospel but at the same time so often given to political scandal and spiritual waywardness.
As a boy, I grew up relatively close to the ruins at Tintern and was taken there by my family. Now I work at Waverley but it was only in recent years that I learnt of the historic link between the two Abbey buildings. Both are of a French Cistercian foundation and both were built just a few years apart; Waverley in 1128 and Tintern in 1131. Other major Cistercian abbeys in Britain include Rievaulx (1132) and Fountains (1132), situated in the north of England.
The Cistercians were a breakaway order from the Benedictines and were formed to more closely observe the Rule of St Benedict. They were known as the ‘White Monks’ and one of their hallmarks was a return to manual labour and to farming. Their monasteries were always situated in isolated, rural areas and rarely in towns or cities.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Coupled with this interest is the fact that one of my favourite hymn writers, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, was himself a Cistercian monk. His hymns have always stood out to me even as a boy, included as they were in the pietistic hymnbooks of the Darby and Open Brethren.
Bernard wrote three of my favourite devotional poems; ‘Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee’, ‘Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts’ and ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’, each of which has magnificent words and which, in my view, express in a really profound way, the depth and beauty of the inner spiritual life.
Martin Luther called him ‘the best monk that ever lived’ (praise indeed!) and also said ‘Bernard is superior to all the doctors in his sermons, even to Augustine himself, because he preaches Christ most excellently’. His writings show humility, devotion to Christ, and a reliance on grace that was rare before the Reformation, which is perhaps why his hymns were accepted into Brethren hymnody?
Bernard was born in Burgundy in 1091. He entered the Cistercian monastery of Citeaux in 1113 and became one of the most influential Abbots of his day, founding hundreds of monasteries throughout Europe before his death in 1153.
Tintern Abbey, Wales
Gerald of Wales (d. 1223) said;
‘Give the Cistercians a wilderness or a forest and in a few years you will find a dignified Abbey in the midst of smiling plenty’.
This was certainly the case at Tintern in Wales, set in the picturesque and tranquil Wye valley, seemingly miles from anywhere.
Tintern is the second Cistercian House in Britain – the first being Waverley Abbey – founded in May 1131 by the Anglo-Norman Lord, Walter Fitz Richard de Clare (d. 1138) whose own residence, Chepstow Castle was just a few miles downriver. Walter de Clare was related in marriage to the Bishop of Winchester, hence the Waverley connection. The white monks invited from France to Tintern were from the same Cistercian monastery – l’Aumone, Loir-et-Cher – as those who had founded Waverley.
Tintern’s superb Gothic church, which even today dominates the valley, was begun in 1269 and consecrated in 1301. This site was a centre of monastic life and prayer for some 400 years, eventually closing in 1536 during Henry VIII’s national act of vandalism, the suppression of the monasteries. Tintern then lay forgotten but was revived again in the 1790’s, this time as a romantic ruin, becoming even more popular after 1876, when the railways brought ever more visitors to these majestic monastic ruins.
Archdeacon William Coxe (1747–1828) wrote about his own visit to Tintern;
‘After passing a miserable row of cottages, and forcing our way through a crowd of importunate beggars, we stopped to examine the rich architecture of the west front; but the door being suddenly opened, the inside perspective of the church called forth an instantaneous burst of admiration, and filled me with delight, such as I scarcely ever before experienced on a similar occasion’.
Part 2 – Waverley Abbey, England will follow here shortly.
I lived in the North of England for 15 years. As a southerner, and therefore an ‘incomer’, it took a while for it to fully sink in that the northern counties of England were Christianised very early on in our island history. Monks, mainly from Ireland, had sailed across and planted Monasteries and Churches from Galloway in southern Scotland to Lindisfarne in Northumbria. This was not the Rome-centric Christian faith but the more vigorous and earthier Celtic form.
It’s a hugely thrilling and inspiring story which has impacted on many aspects of the Northern landscape. I returned south 15 years later with a much greater appreciation of the mystery and beauty of a Celtic faith that is anchored so very securely in the ‘here and now’. It certainly strengthened my experience of God and I remain very grateful for the experience.
In my opinion, the best exponent of Celtic Spirituality is David Adam (his books published mainly by the SPCK).
You cannot live in these Northern counties very long before you come across the name of ‘Mungo’; usually as a place name (as in Mungrisdale in the Lake District) but more often as the founding name of a Church. I started to look into the story of this 6th century Saint … and what a story it is! Much of what we know of his life comes from Jocelyn, a monk at Furness Abbey, writing his hagiography in around 1180AD.
Mungo was an early Saint – to give him his baptismal name, Kentigern – who literally evangelised his way across Scotland, England and Wales. There are places (notably Glasgow, Cumbria and St Asaph) in all three countries of the UK which have an association with St Mungo.
Kentigern was born in 516AD at Culross on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. He was almost certainly of royal blood but illegitimate. His father was a King of Rheged and his grandfather was King Loth (hence the name, Lothian). Kentigern was brought up in the Culross monastery and grew to become a godly man. As with St Cuthbert, we have several accounts of his miracles. At age 20, he left the monastery (due to certain petty jealousies) and travelled south on a missionary journey to Glasgow. He was obviously successful as he was consecrated very early on as the first Bishop of Strathclyde, conducting evangelistic trips into Aberdeenshire. He always travelled on foot, becoming known as St Mungo (meaning one dearly beloved).
Due to persecution which arose in Scotland, Kentigern moved south to Carlisle. From there he continued his work preaching to the people of Cumbria and founding a number of Churches across the county (Mungrisdale 550AD, Keswick 553AD). St Mungo then travelled as far south as North Wales where he met St David and founded a Christian community, St Asaph after one of his disciples. When Christianity (in the form of a local King near Penrith) took back control in Cumbria following the battle of Arderydd in 573AD, Kentigern was asked to return from Wales and he did so, travelling back via Cumbria to Scotland.
Kentigern revisited some of the Churches he had established on his way south; Great Crosthwaite (near Keswick), Mungrisdale (St Mungo’s Dale), Castle Sowerby, Caldbeck and Aspatria. All of these places continue to have their dedication to St Mungo.
Kentigern’s (St Mungo) Saints day is the 13 January. He is rightly remembered as the ‘Apostle of North West England and South West Scotland’. The City of Glasgow’s motto ‘Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of His word and the praising of His name’ and the more secular ‘Let Glasgow flourish’ are both inspired by St Mungo’s original call to “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the word”.
Along the way, St Mungo had many run-ins with the Druids but he lived to a good old age dying in his eighties, in either 603AD or 612AD (depending on your source!).
For a very good account of Kentigern’s life, see Shirley Toulson’s book ‘Celtic Journeys’ (Fount 1995) – now OP.