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Visit to English ruins transport visitors back to a time when things were in the text of one’s life

      Why do people visit ruins?

      In the north of England, near the town of Helmsley, nestled in a valley, lie the ruins of the former Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx (pronounced “ree-VOH”) Abbey.

      Founded in the year 1132 by Cistercian monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France, Rievaulx expanded throughout the 12th century to become a powerhouse of hundreds of monks under the abbacy of St. Aelred. 

      Rievaulx also grew to be a marvel of Gothic architecture. The eventual length of the church was over 345 feet, with a width of 65 feet. Put into context, the church was 45 feet longer than a football field, and it was nearly as wide.

       The floor of the church was paved with glazed tiles and the nave boasted nine bays (an additional seven bays filled the later eastern extension). Its great cloister was 140-foot square.

      However, with the Act of Supremacy passed by Parliament in 1534, Rievaulx Abbey’s days were numbered. Two years later, in 1536, came the Dissolution of the Monasteries throughout Great Britain. Then, in 1538, the monks gathered in chapter to sign the legal papers that handed over the abbey to the Crown. 

      Rievaulx was dissolved. As was the custom under the Dissolution, the monastery was ordered to be uninhabitable. Thus, Thomas Manners, Earl of Rutland, and the new owner of the former abbey (given to him by the Crown), complied. The Earl hired a wrecking crew and demolished nearly all of the abbey structures. 

      In a span of 400 years Rievaulx Abbey moved from monastery to monument, and a dilapidated one at that. Over the centuries the remains of the abbey continued to crumble and decay.

      By the dawn of the 20th century, the ruins of the abbey were in peril of complete collapse. So, in 1917, the ruins of Rievaulx came under the guardianship of Britain’s Office of Works (now known as English Heritage). Standing walls were shored up, centuries of debris were removed and excavation exposed buildings and other archaeological findings hidden since the Dissolution.

      Today, tens of thousands of people annually visit the ruins that stand in a park-like setting. Which brings me back to my opening question: Why do people visit this place?

      Curiosity? Perhaps. After all, Rievaulx is a segment of British history, and people just might be flat-out curious as to what these ruins were all about.

      I’m guessing, however, that for many people, the reason to visit Rievaulx is a much deeper one. I’m guessing that for many people it is more akin to why people here in the U.S. visit the memorial at Pearl Harbor or the battleground at Gettysburg. It’s about being drawn by the people who once dwelled there and the events that once occurred.

      Listen to Walter Daniel, the abbey infirmarian at the time of Aelred’s abbacy from “Life of Aelred of Rievaulx.” 

      “High hills surround the valley, encircling it like a crown. These are clothed by trees of various sorts and maintain in pleasant retreats the privacy of the vale, providing for the monks a kind of second paradise of wooded delight.

      “From the loftiest rocks, the waters wind and tumble down to the valley below, and, as they make their hasty way through the lesser passages and narrower beds and spread themselves in wider rills, they give out a gentle murmur of soft sound and join together in the sweet notes of a delicious melody. 

      “And when the branches of lovely trees rustle and sing together, and the leaves flutter gently to the earth, the happy listener is filled increasingly with a glad jubilee of harmonious sound, as so many various things conspire together in such a sweet consent in music who’s every diverse note is equal to the rest.” 

      High hagiography for sure, but that’s the point. People don’t visit the memorial at Pearl Harbor or the battlefield at Gettysburg or the American cemetery at Normandy in order to witness carnage taking place. They go there to ascertain the meaningof the carnage.

      Similarly, when that visitor sits on those grounds described by Daniel, I’m willing to bet he or she also hears, inside his or her head, the tones of monks chanting, sees monks in procession, smells the incense at Vespers and hears the reading at table. 

      For the ruins transport the visitor back, not to an ideal time, but to a time when such things were in the text of one’s life, not a footnote, and that is comforting to the visitor.

      Perhaps you have visited Rievaulx. If you are so inclined, let me know of your experience. I would be interested in hearing it.  


      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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