07 July 2010


Several weeks ago a friend passed along a book he thought I might like to read, given my vocation as priest. It took me some time open the front cover and get underway, but I'm now three-quarters through and thoroughly enthralled. Horrified, but enthralled.

The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Geoffrey Moorhouse is less about the history of the suppression and dissolution of the monasteries than it is about the state of monasticism on the eve of and during the English Reformation. Despite the fact that to make it through the chapters I have to have a dictionary at my elbow, I am coming away from the book's content with two distinct lines of thought which will stay with me for some time.

First, after the initial round of property seizures and, of course, the wealth associated with them, Thomas Cromwell and the king realized that coaxing those in the religious orders into surrendering their houses was less messy and helped them (Cromwell and Henry) avoid the charge of violent force. In a few cases those who gave up willingly were then allowed to continue their monastic lives, under authority of the king rather than the pope. One such instance was at Durham, my favorite of the English cathedrals.

I wonder what would have happened if Cuthbert Tunsall, Bishop of Durham, and the monks under him had resisted turning the monestery and cathedral over to Henry. Would that magnificent space have green grass for a floor and blue sky for a ceiling like so many of the other religious ruins across the English countryside? The other side of that coin, of course, is the fact that the deciding to give in for self-preservation's sake likely came at a terribly high personal price, costing nothing less than integrity. Where does flexibility end and abject capitulation begin?

Second, is the extraordinary (it seems to me) violence of the era. Even while I marvel almost daily at how cruel humans can be, this book has found a way to disturb me. The idea was the imposition of "demoralizing fear" throughout the realm in order to keep everyone, locals and the religious alike, in line, to "demonstrate that royal power was ultimately superior to all other forms of authority." (189) When Cromwell and Henry decided to make an example of someone, what an example it was.

What I'm reading in The Last Divine Office, however, is not unlike life as described in Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and other historical novels like it. Human life did not seem to hold the same worth we seem to grant it today, although I suspect we -- American citizens of my ilk -- are somewhat shielded from the truth of the matter, if by nothing more than the American myth of being a peace-loving people. But, I do marvel at the thought that any given infant can evolve into a brutal torturer. When does it happen? How does it happen?

So, why am I continuing to read? Well, because it appears I have to. Not reading it wouldn't make it any less true. Not reading it would deny me this particular chance for self-examination. And, in a passage from earlier in the book describingthe time during the suppression and dissolution prior to the transfer of Durham to the king's control this quote keeps me turning pages and looking up words:
So the monks of Durham carried on the traditions of their house, blending the busyness of practical necessity with the stillness of prayer and meditation, in a paradox of vibrant tranquillity. (150)

No matter what is happening all around the globe, life does go on. I have to work to remember that simple and difficult fact. If I can somehow be vibrantly tranquil and "quietly purposeful" (150) as I go about my local, personal routine, perhaps I will discover and keep discovering my own power to interject both tranquility and purposefulness into the muddle.

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