Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Into great silence

Why would sane men want to live on a bleak, storm-swept ocean rock, in tiny hovels without a hint of creature comfort? Christian eremetic monasticism began in Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries. It was soon transported to Italy and Gaul by Athanasius, Cassian, and others. Patrick and Columba brought it to Ireland, then Scotland in the 5th century. The Skellig Michael community was probably established in the 7th century. By then Irish monks had carried the monastic ideal back to central Europe, in full flower.

A life as spare as that on the Skellig was certainly not typical. Only the holiest or craziest of monks would seek such isolation. By and large, medieval monastic establishments were places of great physical beauty, and, for their times, oases of security and comfort.

Which reminds me of the Plan of St. Gall.

This is a 9th-century drawing of an idealized monastic establishment preserved in the library of the former monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. I became acquainted with it in the early 1980s when our college library acquired the magnificent three-volume study of the plan by Walter Horn and Ernest Born, published by the University of California Press in 1979. I have just trundled down to the other end of the stacks to see if it is still here, and indeed it is. Oops, there goes the afternoon.

Not just three volumes, but three gorgeous over-sized doorstop volumes printed in red and black on high quality stock, with hundreds of exquisite drawings, detailing the Plan of St. Gall itself, but also providing a historian's best guess as to every architectural and technological feature of a typical 9th-century European monastic establishment. Don't go rushing to Amazon to buy a copy; it appears to be out of print, and a used copy will set you back hundreds of dollars.

The abbey church, of course, with sacristy, vestry, scriptorium, library, and various lodgings for master, porter, and visitors. Monks' dormitory and privy, laundry and bathhouse, refectory, kitchen, larder and wine cellar. Physician's quarters, infirmary, and house for bloodletting. Goose house, hen house, and stables for horses, sheep, goats, cows, swine. Granary, vegetable garden, medicinal herb garden. Mill, kiln, and workshops for coopers, wheelwrights, and brewers. And at the very heart of the complex, the cloister, a place of reflection, private prayer and repose.

A completely self-sufficient community, an eco-friendly way-stop on the road to heaven.

And beyond the walls -- brigands, wolves, grinding poverty, hunger.

Who wouldn't be attracted to such a life?

Hmmm? Where two or more humans are gathered together there's sure to be squabbling. Put two or more sex-starved men together and I would suppose you have a surefire recipe for crankiness and aggression.

Still, the beauty of the architecture, the liturgy, the chant. The opportunity for scholarship. The certainty of faith. Release from the niggling "mundanities" of life in the hardscrabble world. I will admit to being attracted to the monastic ideal in my youth, when I still believed. I am still attracted.