Sunday Story: Rievaulx of Refuge

This grabbed me as I wandered around Rievaulx Abbey. I wrote it out longhand over a few days. The sky was much darker than the photo at the bottom suggests.

“Here’s your map, and would you care for an audio guide?” The National Heritage volunteer reached for a small black box.

“No, thank you.” Her eager expression sagged, and he added, “I prefer to wander a bit first, get my bearings.”

The smile returned. “Lovely!” She pointed to the doors and the slope beyond. “That way. The museum is a good place to start.”

“Thanks.” He waited as a couple, followed by a quartet of chatting dowagers in red fleeces, came in through the automatic doors before making his way out into the chilly, gray afternoon. Past a row of trees, the ground rose, a steep sweep of greensward that led to the gray and gold ruins of the Cistercian Abbey. Walls fifty feet and more tall crowned the slope. The forested valley wall climbed higher behind the great pillars and stone lace of the church. The abbey bound earth and sky, or so it seemed. Long walls stood below, layers of levels carved out of the hill, or built up on the slope.

He began the climb up the footpath to the ruins. A third of the way up he stopped and read the sign about the founding of the abbey in 1132. The Cistercians, originally from the Frankish lands, sought austerity, simplicity, and the wilderness for their monasteries. Here they had found all three, far away from cities and soft lands. Monks from St. Mary’s in York had provided the core, monks who sought a purity that the busy urban Benedictine house in York could not provide. The Cistercians had diverted the river to the south side of the valley and had begun work. Stone cut from the valley walls became a church monastery, cloister and other buildings. He considered the guide book, the weather, and decided to work from the abbot’s house and infirmary up to the great church. He glanced at the bones of the old church. They carried a waiting stillness, perhaps, solid and patient above the rest of the monastery.

Low gray clouds raced overhead, driven by the wind. Lumps and billows of white above the gray hinted at showers. Turquoise blue gaps moved with the clouds, casting beams of sun on the ruins as they passed. He zipped his jacket a little higher and kept a firm grip on the guide booklet as he wound among waist-high pieces of wall. The higher, still-standing wall of the old infirmary deflected a little of the stout westerlies, but not much. Windflowers and grasses that grew in pockets and cracks in the stone bounced and danced in the wind. A few tiny drops of water appeared on his glasses, but nothing more. He ignored them in favor of peering up at the only remaining religious image left at Rivealux—a weathered plaque of yellow-white stone showing the Virgin Mary and St. Ann. It glowed a little against the grey around it, which was probably why the builders had chosen it to set there, if it had not once been painted. The infirmary had been quite large. Six hundred forty monks, plus lay-brothers had lived and worked here at the monastery’s peak, and needed care. He moved west, to the refectory.

Here the monks had made a virtue of topographic necessity. The refectory stood on the upper floor. The hill sloped steeply from the old riverbed, so they had made a ground-floor kitchen and bakery. Rougher grey and white stone rose up from the ground with finer, dressed blocks of honey and cream-colored stone above. The roof had vanished long ago, stripped of its lead, wood, and other things. Even so, he could imagine up to seven hundred fifty monks and novices, all clad in creamy white wool habits or robes, eating in silence as a senior brother or the abbot read scripture, theology, or devotions and meditations. Now only a few birds called to break the silence. The wind gusted through the arches and old window openings, making a few red wildflowers bow in their pockets of soil in crevices and cracks. He could just glimpse brilliant blue, pink, and white lupines through one arch, spikes of color in a farmer’s garden. The monks would have grown more serious plants. Or perhaps not, he decided. As he mused on monks and meals, the light dimmed.

He glanced to the west, then climbed the short set of stone steps to the cloister and chapter house. From here he saw blue-black clouds and darkness sweeping down the valley toward him. The flowing hiss of the wind in the trees deepened and a grumble of thunder reached his ears. He ducked into the protection of the doorway to the refectory, such as it was. The little museum half-way down the hill—he’d wait the storm out there. He zipped his jacket the rest of the way, folded the site map, and ran. He trotted down the uneven stone steps, now splotched with rain, and stretched his stride across the open sward. Three more steps and—

Locked! “Closed until further notice.” Blast it. He’d have to race down to the entry center and café. The sky roared, blue-black cut by lances of purple. The hair on his neck prickled. He peered around the corner, squinting against wind and rain. Darkness filled the valley, not the blue wall of rain. That had yet to arrive. A shadow, a wrongness, lapped the lowest level of the cloister ruins, like a river of soul-deep danger. He pulled back wiped off his glasses and looked once more. The first walls, below the museum, had disappeared, swallowed. Shadow rose higher laughing. Laughing? No, but he sensed . . . evil. Old, cruel, sadistic evil. He could not hide forever.

He glanced around the corner, up to the abbey church proper. Pale grey and honey-colored stone walls rose, arched window frames still intact. Only the roof and glass had disappeared. The wind roared and trees bowed to the east as the storm and its horror raced closer. The river bend and hills disappeared behind the curtain of rain and darkness. The church’s walls stood as still and strong as they had for nine-hundred years. The stone gleamed against the dark trees and lowering sky.

He bolted. He dashed across the gravel walk and back into the ruins. Wet stone slid under the smooth soles of his shoes. Hunched low against the wind, rain, and lightning, he scrambled up to the cloister, then toward the great echoing emptiness of the nave. Shadow clawed at him, grabbed at his ankles. He didn’t dare look behind. Up four, uneven, rough stone stairs into the remnants of the west nave. The wind screamed! Sky-fire flashed, blinding him. He threw himself against the last bit of roodscreen, the edge of the monks’ choir and holy of holies, covered his head with his arms, and closed his eyes.

“On this rock,” he heard a teacher quoting as she explained a piece of art. St. Peter, petrus, stone. “And the gate of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Ancient, solid, maybe? Only a fool ran uphill, toward the highest thing, in a story. The Shadow in the valley laughed, reaching the edge of the museum’s walls.

Silence. Then men, all steady and strong, chanted, “Non timebo millia populi circumdantis me. Exsurge, Domine; salvum me fac, Deus meus.”* The chant continued. He dared to peer around. He could see rain tearing down, trees bowing hear to the ground from the wind’s fury. Black shadows lapped the walls on the south side of the ruins of the abbey. Inside? The rise and fall of chant, and stillness. A faint hint of perfume or incense surrounded him, not the scent of crushed grass. A dark half-wall with a single arched opening in the center crossed the nave—or was it a trick of the light? The stone under his hand held the sun’s warmth still. The stones—gold of honey, red-pink, gray of age—seemed to hold light as well and he fancied he saw a glow around the empty windows. “In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum: in justicia tuo libera me.”** The chant faded into stillness.

The liquid notes of birdsong danced on the gentle breeze. Warm fingers of sunlight combed the land, raced east as the clouds tattered and broke open. Water dripped from the stones and made diamonds on the grass. The grass outside the abbey, that was. He reached down and ruffled the short-clipped grass and daisies inside the walls. Dry.

He stood and on impulse bowed to where the altar once had stood. The faintest of rustling, like hundreds of pieces of heavy, rough cloth moving, brushed his ears. He backed with care to the edge of the west nave, then resumed his study of the cloister. The sense of watchful waiting returned, and a large bumblebee buzzed past his ankle to visit one of the daisies among the grass.

*” I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about. Arise, o Lord; save me, oh my God.” Psalm 3:7 Vulgate ( 3: 6-7a, KJV Translation)

** “In thee, oh Lord, have I put my trust. Let me never be ashamed; deliver me in thy righteousness;” Psalm 30:1 Vulgate (31:1 KJV)

[Psalm 30 Vulgate is Arthur’s favorite psalm. It’s also one of mine. KJV Translation Psalm 31]

I didn’t realize how the phone’s camera software had “corrected” the lighting. The sky was much darker than this shows.


6 thoughts on “Sunday Story: Rievaulx of Refuge

  1. What a blessing to be able to walk through history and devise a story behind it.

  2. We need a full story from this so we can throw money at you!

  3. That’s one of several reasons why I hate phone cameras, and still prefer the versatility of a dSLR. When you encounter a situation the camera chip hasn’t been programmed for, you lose.

    Excellent story-fragment – something like a cross between the Familiars universe and some of the more religious-toned stories from the Deryni milieu.

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