Aelred of Rievaulx and SSJE’s Stone & Light – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis AlmquistJohn 15:9-17

In the calendar of the church we remember today Aelred of Rievaulx, who was born in year 1109 not far from Durham, England.  He was educated in Scotland and as a young man served in the Scottish King David’s court.  At age 24, Aelred decided to become a Cistercian monk.  Cistercian monks were 11th century French reformers of Benedictine monasticism, and they set out to more strictly follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.[i] By the end of the 12th century, more than 500 Cistercian monasteries had been built in France, England, and throughout Europe.  Aelred, at age 38, was made Abbot of the great Rievaulx Abbey, the first Cistercian Abbey in the north of England, founded just 15 years earlier in 1132.

Chapel_ArchesI imagine some of you here have visited the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey.  It’s in the most serene, pastoral setting and with the most stunning architecture, something distinctive for Cistercians.  Many of the most beautiful buildings of the Middle Ages were Cistercian monasteries: Fountains Abbey, Tintern Abbey, Byland Abbey, Aelred’s Rievaulx Abbey, to name just a few.  More than one hundred Cistercian monasteries were built in England alone.

Cistercian architecture has been called the architecture of silence: austere and simple, focusing on stone and light, with open, proportional space, and visual harmony.  The early Cistercian architecture drew inspiration from Romanesque, then Gothic architecture, two traditions which also inspired the architect of this monastery and chapel, Ralph Adams Cram.[ii] I’ll describe several architectural features of Cistercian monasteries which we also find here in this beautiful monastic chapel.

Romanesque architecture, a style of Medieval Europe, is particularly characterized by semi-circular arches.  You see these here in the antechapel, the back of the chapel.  The Romanesque style evolved into the Gothic style, beginning in the 12th century.  The Gothic style was characterized by pointed arches which you see in the choir.  So many people guess that this chapel is much older than it actually is.  The chapel was completed in 1936, but it does look much older.  One significant reason is this subtle change in the progression of the arches: beginning in the rear with the round Romanesque arches, and then moving forward to the pointed Gothic-style arches… which visually moves you along several hundred years.[iii]

Arches do several things, very powerfully.  For one, they lift the eye, but not like in the way the eye follows a bird in flight.  Rather, arches are grounded, and they lift the eye and raise the soul to a higher plane without our losing a sense of space and time, of here and now.  Arches convey the soul’s longing to be both grounded and lifted up.  The psalmist prays, “I call upon you, [O God], from the ends of the earth with heaviness in my heart; set me upon the rock that is higher than I.”[iv] “You are my glory, the one who lifts up my head.”[v] Arches do that.  They lift our perspective to a higher plane, and so they elicit hope.

Chapel_Arches2Arches also carry a great deal of weight in a very particular way.  Something extraordinary is happening to allow an ascending stone wall, which also bears the weight of wooden roof beams and a slate roof, to be supported by so much empty space.  Arches are amazing.  Arches can carry a tremendous load solely because the solid stones are complementary and interdependent.  The stones are cut to lean into each other; they absolutely need each other.  Remove any one stone in the arch, whatever its size or placement, and the arch will fall and everything that is above.  Architecturally, arches create the visual structure of a spiritual truth repeated many times in the Epistles and Gospel according to John, what we have heard this evening.  Jesus calls us to abide with one another, that is, to make our abode with one another.  And Jesus calls us to love one another – love, not as a feeling but an action.  It’s to love one another by laying down our life for one another, which is very much like stones of an arch.[vi] The individual stones which comprise arches are a symbol of that kind of deference in love for one another: abiding with one another; holding one another up.

Another characteristic of Cistercian monasteries is a sense of liminality.  Our word “liminal” comes from the Latin, limen, a threshold over which you must pass to enter a space.  You don’t simply end up in a Cistercian chapel accidentally, nor do you this chapel.  You enter and your stride is intentionally broken.  Here you enter by an outside doorway, and then you must turn (to the left) to cross a threshold to enter the chapel.  Entering this space is actually an architectural experience of conversion.  The church word “conversion” comes from the Greek which literally means both a physical turning of your body and a change in attitude or perspec­tive towards God.[vii] This architectural feature requires you to turn – to convert – before you come into this holy space.  You enter it with intention and direction and obeisance.  And you experience a firm foundation with the slate and marble floors, the granite walls, and limestone pillars and arches.  The psalmist says, “God is my rock and my salvation”.[viii] Meanwhile the arches remind you that you are not alone, that you belong, and that you’re created to soar.

Saint Aelred’s chapel at Rievaulx Abbey and all other Cistercian chapels have two chief characterizations, two qualities also beheld in this monastery chapel: stone and light.  The stone, is undressed and unadorned, smooth and pale in the simple beauty of its creation.  You see it here.  And the other quality: light.  We here, on a cold winter’s night, are using electricity to light our way, a technology, of course, unknown in the Middle Ages.  Nonetheless, we still light candles at the altar as a reminder of primordial light, the very first thing God creates in the Genesis creation account.[ix] The electric lights above us help us read; the candle lights at the altar help us remember, remember our need for light to enlighten our hearts and to enlighten our way.  The psalmist prays, “You, O Lord, are my lamp; my God, you make my darkness bright.”[x] Some of you may particularly suffer during the winter months from Seasonal Affective Disorder, where you are prone to be sad for want of enough light.  All of us have a version of this need for light.  The lighted candles at the altar lift up our hearts.  The high clerestory windows and the rose window at the back lift up our eyes, to behold God’s glory, in whose light we see light.[xi] Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”[xii] And he invites us to receive that light and then to bear that light as we go into the world.[xiii] Here you see an architecture of light, which raises your eyes and your soul from the material to the immaterial.

Lastly, the Cistercian monasteries were places of silence and contemplation, and for two reasons.  We, here, share one of those reasons, and that is the experience of shared silence.  For Aelred and the Cistercians, and for us, there is the Greater Silence of the night and the Lesser Silence of the day.  Each day there is space hallowed just for listening deeply within one’s soul, not conversing.  Then there are times demarcated when speaking may happen, if it is necessary and edifying.  The point of this discipline is not that there’s little to be said.  Quite to the contrary.  It’s the recognition that words are so powerful and need to be used with discretion and discipline, and there is so much to be listened to.  Some of this listening comes from memory, and that takes space.  Monks – Cistercian monks and we here – live under a vow of obedience.  The English word obedience comes from Latin, ob + audire: to listen deeply.  This beautiful space in which we worship invites and enables silence and deep listening.

We have the honor of welcoming so many of you, our guests, into this space throughout the day and throughout the year.[xiv] Sometimes groups of young children come from schools to visit the monastery and chapel.  When they enter this space they simply become silent, without having to be told verbally.  The psalmist prays, “For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation.”[xv] This chapel is an outward sign of that inner grace of longing for and meeting God.

Where the silence experienced in our monastery, chapel, and guesthouse is quite different from the Cistercian experience is the context.  Most Cistercian abbeys and churches were built in remote valleys far from cities and populated areas.  Here the incessant traffic on Memorial Drive, and the work of a university, a hotel, and other commerce that surrounds us is far afield from a remote valley.  Our location brings its challenges, and yet it brings even more opportunities.  In the early 1900s, as the brothers were looking to move from downtown Boston, finding property in close proximity to the Harvard University was a high priority.  And it came to be here, thanks be to God.  For nearly 75 years this monastery has been a place of sanctuary and sustenance for so many people seeking to find God along the way.  As we say in our own Rule of Life, we seek to help people “pray their lives,” and they, like you, come to us right off the highways and byways of life, and return home in a new way, we pray.

During his years teaching at Harvard, T. S. Eliot was a frequent visitor to our monastery chapel.   He observed that people come “to kneel where prayer has been valid.”  For these many decades the monastery has been well prayed in, made holy as much by the monks who have lived and prayed here as it has been by you – all of you – who bring Christ to us, into this place.  We realized several years ago that we were at a point of critical discernment.  We would either need to vacate this monastery or restore this monastery.  We have1920s electrical wiring, a heating system that is undependable and inefficient, a hot water system that doesn’t adequately reach the guesthouse, windows falling off their hinges, inadequate insulation, tremendous accessibility challenges.  This and more would have to be addressed, or we would need to vacate this property, where the monastery would likely join the ranks of monastic ruins, seen in so many parts of our world.

We have spoken with many people – including some of you, here – to solicit counsel.  We have consulted with architects and contractors and other advisors.  We have said our prayers, fervently, wanting to make a right decision.  With clarity and much encouragement we reached a decision – as some of you may know – to restore this beautiful monastery, we pray, and not just for us here, but for many generations to come.  There is a tremendous spiritual hunger and we pray and work to be men of the moment, we and this monastery being up to the mark of the times for service to you and to others, and to God’s glory.[xvi]

We will tell you more in these coming weeks.  We seek your prayers, we welcome you questions and encouragement, and we need your financial support to make this holy space of stone and light available, we pray, for the generations to come.


[i] The name “Cistercian” derives from Cistercium, the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux, near Dijon in eastern France. Here a group of Benedictine monks founded Cîteaux Abbey in 1098 to more closely follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. The best known of the early Cistercians is St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).

[ii] An excellent resource is Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests – Medieval, Modernist, American, Ecumenical, by Douglass Shand-Tucci (University of Massachusetts Press).

[iii] The monastery chapel was completed in 1936 and added to the National Historic Register in 1982.

[iv] Psalm 61:2.

[v] Psalm 3:3.

[vi] John 15:12.

[vii] The New Testament uses one word (strepho, with its prepositions epi and apo) to denote both a physical turning and a change of attitude toward God.  For example, the New Testament stories in John 21:20 and Acts 15:3 are about “conversion.”

[viii] Psalm 62:2,7.

[ix] Genesis 1:1-5.

[x] Psalm 18:29.

[xi] Psalm 36.9.

[xii] John 8:12; 9:5.

[xiii] Matthew 5:14.

[xiv] Chapter 34 of SSJE’s Rule of Life speaks of the hospitality we offer our guests: “… It is not enough merely to offer accommodation to visitors.  Our faith must recognize the one who comes to us in the person of the guest, the stranger and the pilgrim.  It is the Lord, who has identified himself with each of his sisters and brothers.  If we are to give them bread and not stones, and truly meet Christ in them face to face, we must realize the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us for the ministry of hospitality, and remember how deeply people are yearning for the things of God.  We have silence for our guests, which protects the mystery of their hearts and brings healing.  We have our ongoing stream of worship, which they can enter.  We have the fellowship of our altar and our table.  We offer security, where guests are safe from intrusion and free to pray.  Our houses have simple beauty.  We offer courtesy, acceptance and intercession.  And the Spirit has given us gifts of guidance, teaching and encouragement by which we can help retreatants grow in Christ…”

[xv] Psalm 62:1.

[xvi] SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, called us “to be men, not simply of the day, but men of the moment, men precisely up to the mark of the times.  This makes the religious – so far from being the tradi­tional imitator of bygone days – most especially men of the present moment and its life.” From Father Benson’s Instructions on the Religious Life (1874); p.88.

© 2010

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  1. CMAC on October 25, 2012 at 09:01

    The Abbey on Iona. One day, soon I hope, your restored chapel. C.

  2. Joanne Wilson on March 5, 2012 at 08:50

    “My soul nods, yes”…as it did the first time I entered the Monastery’s chapel….thank you for including the photographs.There is an intimacy within that stone and light that I have rarely come across.

  3. Fr. Robert on March 5, 2012 at 06:26

    Brother Curtis reminds each of us that silence is indeed a gift from God, to the church and his people. Silence has been nourished by the monastics for centuries. It is a form of pure delight to the Holy Spirit and those of us who engage in such moments!

  4. Susan Moore on March 5, 2012 at 03:56

    I am moved by your observations of the history and effect of architecture on our spiritual experiences. I am prompted to do a spiritual analysis of our church, St. Hilary’s Church, Fort Myers, FL. It is round, no beginning and no end. No clear windows, only stained glass stripes coloring the light. One huge window of St Hilary behind the choir loft inspires all who serve at the alter. I will listen and allow God to speak to me about the meaning of these details of our architecture. Architecture connects us to our history as Christians and I love that. Thank you so much for reminding us of that.

  5. ben on January 27, 2010 at 15:39

    This was a wonderful lesson and a moving plea.
    As you travel, Curtis, I hope you will communicate the Stone and Light message as you did here. Its power will assure success in support of our campaign.

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