Ruined abbeys are my favorites. As I type that, however, I feel a pang of guilt; I'm fearing I might be falling into my old trap of valuing the natural sublime over the messier beauty of community. Can I defend myself? I think there is actually a special sort of community at a ruined abbey. The one at Whitby teeters at the edge of England, on a high cliff battered by the North Sea. Its roofless arches point straight to the majesty of the sky. Underneath all that glory, however, the comic effects of wind and the abundance of climbable stonework allow something just as worthy as awe or meditation. Whitby's ruins make an exhilarating place to play.
Whitby's most famous story reminds us just how vulnerable and sacred the act of play can be. The Venerable Bede -- he of that loveliest of names -- tells us that once upon a time, when the abbey was just as windswept but still had a roof to its credit, all its denizens would gather of an evening to pass around a harp. Caedmon, the lowly shepherd, could not sing or rhyme. Ashamed, he would creep out and sleep with his sheep rather than reveal the terror these entertainments induced. One night, an angel came to the stable, expressly demanding he sing. How frustrated he must have been! If one can't squawk out a tune for a bunch of unwashed monks and farmers, isn't it a bit cruel for a member of the heavenly host to demand a command performance? And what was he to do but try? Yet one would hope an angel always knows what he or she is about, and this one surely did. That night Caedmon, the first English poet, found his voice.
by Katherine Leigh Carlson
where the ribs of the ruined abbey
card sea mist like wool,
I think of the shepherd Caedmon
going early to bed in the barn
for fear that the harp would pass to him.
I think of him lying in the musty hay
away from the warm light,
the laughter, and the honey-colored mead
inside, where he longed, but could not bear, to be.
Beside him the herd jostles quietly,
steam rises from manure,
and wind seeps through the cracked door.
Then sudden crush of whiteness,
chaos of animal screams,
and the voice of the angel
slicing away all other sound.
"Sing of all Creation."
So we lift our heads