Jedburgh Abbey

This past Saturday, my wife and I rented a car with friends and fulfilled a desire we’d had almost since we arrived — we visited Jedburgh and Melrose Abbeys. Also, I drove on the left and succeeded in killing no one. Accident free. That alone made it a success.

Our first stop, after lunch at the Buccleuch Arms in St Boswells, was Jedburgh Abbey. We had seen Jedburgh Abbey driving up from a trip to England with the in-laws back in May of 2011. When you approach Jedburgh from the South, you are immediately struck by the long, three-tiered, Gothic nave of the abbey church. And it is pure awesome. Light and beautiful and … here, I’ll skip a thousand words:

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Of course, as this picture demonstrates, Jedburgh Abbey is one of those interesting places that is not a single architectural style. It has some Romanesque and some Gothic aspects. It was begun in 1138 under the patronage of Scotland’s great abbey builder, King David I (son of Queen St Margaret and Malcolm III [‘Canmore’], yes, of Macbeth fame) as an Augustinian Priory. By 1154, Jedburgh’s religious house was large enough to qualify as an abbey.

It was built from East to West (right to left in this pic). The chancel, where building began, was originally two Romanesque levels, but was modified and had a third Gothic level added in later years, along with an extension. I seem not to have a clear photo of this aspect, so this will have to do, looking West from the very end of the chancel — the walls are just visible on right and left before reaching the transept:

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Augustinians — who also had abbeys at Holyrood near Edinburgh Castle and Cambuskenneth near Stirling, places that, like Jedburgh, had royal castles — were not like the Benedictines (first in Scotland at Dunfermline in 1070 under Margaret & Malcolm) or the reformed orders that followed Benedict such as the Cistercians (first in Scotland at Melrose, also founded by David I) or Tironensians (first reformed order in Scotland Britain at Selkirk, later moved to Kelso, also founded by David I, also at Arbroath).

Technically, you see, Augustinians are canons not monks like Benedictines and the reformed orders (who follow the Rule of Benedict as well). Monks are meant to live in seclusion, away from the world, devoting their lives to simplicity and prayer. Augustinian canons, on the other hand, are all priests, and they take on responsibilities in local parishes. They, too, are meant to lead simple lives, but they combine the ministries of pastoring and prayer in a way that traditional monks do not.* They follow the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo, which was designed for parish clergy in the 4th-5th centuries; as an order, they were established in 1059.

This means that Jedburgh Abbey Church was also the local parish church. Local lay folks worshipped in the nave, on the other side of the Rood Screen from the monks. They entered through this Romanesque door:

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And they stood in this Gothic space:

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The canons, on the other hand, lived to the south of the church (so on the other side from the picture above). They entered from the cloister through either the East processional door, that went to the clergy-only area:

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Or the West processional door, leading to the nave (highly restored in 1876):

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Sadly, this abbey did not have an easy time of it. King David built it in the Borders, and he built it big and beautiful, specifically as a way of showing the authority and power of the King of Scots. Later centuries would see that power and authority challenged and hammered. The abbey was besieged and taken by the English on many occasions; Edward I even installed his own abbot.  It had to be repaired extensively in the 1400s, and in 1523, the Earl of Surrey, who had earlier slain King James IV at Flodden, set fire to the abbey. By the 1540s, only eight canons remained at Jedburgh.

In the 1560s it was converted into the local parish kirk, and operated in such a fashion until 1876.

Next up: Melrose Abbey. Then maybe some reflections on Augustinians and Cistercians.

*Mind you, the Benedictine monks I stayed with in Austria were involved in a lot of parish ministry, but that is not Benedict’s ideal.

Saint of the Week: St. Bonaventure

For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.

Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.

Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.

He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.

In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.

In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.

St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.

Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.

The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.

We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.

A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.

How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.

This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.

*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).

**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.