Skip to main content

I do not pre­tend that work like the fol­lowing is good, much less great. Most of the writing within this journal is exper­i­mental, my meager attempt to craft beau­tiful things, that needn’t nec­es­sarily yeild to a broad audi­ence. Take it for what it is, a prolix, overly detailed account of a man’s last thoughts in a con­text that is sup­posed to be more revealing than any abstract idea.

The abbot reclines with a sus­tained and throaty sigh, sinking deeply into a plush, smoke-stained leather arm­chair. Domed gas-lamps with scin­til­lating flames cast a garish gleam over the musty, lice-rid­dled tomes that line the room’s four walls. The spines of these oppres­sive vol­umes stand cracked, lit­tering the lip of each shelf with red-rotted dust. This car­penter-cor­nered sep­ul­cher suf­fo­cates the abbot with its ruinous deca­dence and unyielding rigidity, the residuum of long past gains. Deeply cof­fered ceil­ings are strung with gos­samer threads spun by minute, creeping occu­pants sequestered into the crevices and recesses of the warped struc­ture. A bur­den­some ceiling bears down, a copious pal­lium of dearth and decay, evoking a sense of small­ness and insignif­i­cance in the aging churchman.

He breathes in the unclean air, the mildewy odor of neglect. Heaps of brittle, dust-laden, mold-mot­tled, twine-bound paper sheaves are strewn across an ornately carved library table, its veneer peeling and var­nish dap­pled with water spots. The abbot closes his heavy eye­lids, creasing his fore­head and screwing his face with deter­mi­na­tion. Innu­mer­able fine, hatched lines etch his fea­tures, betraying the harsh­ness of his latter years, years of want and iso­la­tion. A slow, thun­derous rum­bling peels over the room, shaking loose fran­gible plaster from buckled laths and causing sev­eral books to shed their spines in a cas­cade of filth.

The abbot col­lects him­self, recalling the cloister at its apex, filled with over two hun­dred brothers, none alike, each a man­i­fes­ta­tion of their Lord, their Savior, the Redeemer of their being, Jesus Christ. Each was dis­parate in their expres­sion as an alter Christus, but all were com­mitted to their calling, to their mission.

The once teeming monastery mate­ri­al­izes in his mind’s eye. Thick brown­stone walls enclosing the can­dlelit chapel filled and peo­pled with per­petual prayer, now light­less and barren. The close with its trailing ivy, now inva­sive, choking a statue of the Wals­ingham madonna. The open gal­leries where count­less men strolled con­tem­pla­tive or con­ver­sa­tional, now pooling with water and lit­tered with debris. The almshouse where the poor once came for surcease of their mis­for­tunes, now the abode of rodents and nesting birds. The refec­tory with its rough-hewn tables bedecked with simple meat and drink, the men sit­ting in refec­tion rosy-faced and laughing, now a hollow shadow draped in desolation.

So much had fallen into dis­re­pair including the society of shire. Ten­anted farmers and shep­herds had fled to the city, to the fac­to­ries. The monastery once a nucleus of hope, one of the few to have been restored after Henry Tudor had raped them of their worth, now lay empty, all the hum­ming of common life gone, replaced with a silent ener­vating stillness.

Where­from didst this decline find its origin? Where­from didst the devil make his entrance? Was it the scan­dalous affair of Brother Albert, dis­cov­ered dead, strung up from the rafters of his cell, a case of erotic asphyx­i­a­tion? The local papers rel­ished that account and the abbot remem­bered the Arch­bishop in his unholy apron descending on the monastery, as if he were some­thing more than a garden party socialite wooing the aris­toc­racy in gaiters. Was it when Brother Edmund, the almsman, was found thieving from the almsbox, a five per­cent embez­zle­ment over six years to pay for his Dionysian attrac­tion to scotch whiskey? What did the provin­cial bursar say,

— It is our policy that such crim­inal over­sight should be dealt with swiftly and without mercy by the mag­is­trate rather than an eccle­si­as­tical tri­bunal without penal recourse?

— The abbot had responded, did not our Lord for­give the sinner, dis­patching them into the world saying, go and sin no more?

— In fiscal and fidu­ciary mat­ters, we take a harsher view than does our Father in Heaven, the beak-nosed bursar replied peering over his wire-rimmed spectacles.

Or was it the year that the nearby uni­ver­sity stu­dents protested the war­mon­gering of the Amer­i­cans, when monastic voca­tions seemed to trickle in and then stop entirely? In 1882 Niet­zsche declared that God was dead, but God was still in his death throes in 1969, the rattle deep­ening and fore­telling the end. The six­ties were nei­ther kind to the abbot nor to his monastery and as the decade closed, debt increased even as novices decreased. How did they sur­vive so long for­saken, he thought? Long­time brothers lai­cized, mar­ried, apo­s­ta­tized, or died; the build­ings and grounds fell into ruin, like museum-pieces exca­vated by arche­ol­o­gists, arti­facts of a bygone era.

The abbot breathes in the musty air, his heart is like a leaden weight cast into the sea. The room quakes again, a pile of books sup­porting a broken table-leg wrenches loose and piles of paper scatter across the floor in a spray of dust.

— Heloi Heloi lama sabac­thani – Deus meus Deus meus ut quid dereliquisti me, the Abbot mut­ters, his breath quickening.

Did not the man­uals of sys­tem­atic moral the­ology, all of that Jesuit casu­istry, pro­vide for this moment? Did they not say that while the preser­va­tion of one’s life was a moral imper­a­tive, they con­di­tioned that imper­a­tive on ordi­nary means. He thought of all that he had lost, had he lost his faith in god? Had he become naught but a legalist, observing Mat­tins and Even­song and aping the words Davidic psalmody? Did he believe? Did he trust? The abbot asked him­self whether standing up and leaving that which he held most dear, the memory of this monastery, the memory of his faith, was ordi­nary? Was it not an extra­or­di­nary act to abandon it, to pre­tend that his very life was not inex­tri­cably tied to it?

He hears voices in the dis­tance, the thick accents of workmen,

— All’s clear! Bring ’er fore.

— Right, mate.

Sud­denly the tremors increase with the vio­lence of apoc­a­lypse, the last battle rages out­side and the earth beneath the hooves of the horsemen shud­ders with each blade’s thrust. The walls begin to shiver and in an opaque cloud of dust the abbot raises his voice to heaven saying,

— Pater, in manus tuas com­mendo spir­itum meum.

The walls col­lapse inward, burying the abbot beneath them. His bones crack and the blood seeps out of his face. Staring upward, his eyes wide with wonder, he sees in those last moments a light flick­ering out and a booming voice,

— There’s a lamp on in ’ere!?

— Fuck, mate, someone’s in ’ere!?

The abbot’s eyes close as shock over­powers his senses. And that brief flame that lit his coun­te­nance is snuffed out forever­more. Dies iræ! Dies illa solvet sæclum in fav­illa: teste David cum Sibylla!

Image Credit /​/​James Char­lick (mod­i­fied)