Imagine that climate change or nuclear Armageddon has erased humanity from the earth. Imagine that extraterrestrials have arrived on our planet, landing in the middle of Paris. Imagine them encountering the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral, and trying to puzzle out the nature of the beings who had created this titanic ruin, and what it might have looked like before disaster struck.
Fountains Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales could be the stage setting for the above scenario. This site was formerly one of the largest and most prosperous monasteries in Europe. You can see where the rose windows once were in the massive church, and imagine them illuminating the gaily painted interior, casting a rainbow glow over the monks and the faithful who worshipped here.
The disaster which struck here was no natural catastrophe, nor military strike. It was called Henry VIII. When Henry disassociated himself from the Catholic Church, his new status as head of the English church allowed him to plunder the wealthy monasteries for their long-accumulated riches. These were the funds which propped up Henry’s massive investment in building up the Royal Navy, his ongoing wars with France and the Holy Roman Empire, and his extravagant tastes in food and dress. The monasteries were disbanded, their monks and nuns forced into secular life, and the buildings left to disintegrate from weather, neglect, and the tendency of local residents to recycle and reuse the elegant stonework for everything from houses to holding pens.
As I walked among these towering ruins, I couldn’t help but think of a future a few thousand years from now when the great cathedrals of Chartres, Notre Dame, St. Paul, and others might be reduced to empty shells, overgrown with grass and moss. We humans seemed quite small, and quite transient compared to these sad relics.
It was an eerie and humbling experience, but also peaceful. Insignificance can be very restful.