The Monastic City

                        The Monastic City                             (Glendalough)   [Foreword: This poem is an imaginative presentation of life and motivation in a mediæval monastery. It should not be considered as an expression of the author’s […]

                        The Monastic City



[Foreword: This poem is an imaginative presentation of life and motivation in a mediæval monastery. It should not be considered as an expression of the author’s personal religious beliefs.

Parts (i) and (xviii) together make a complete poem. Parts (ii) -(xvii) form a quasi-historical parenthesis within it. (This narrative describes a routine event that could have occurred on any day between c.800 to c.1650 AD).

St Kevin established the monastery at Glendalough c.600 AD. It was probably suppressed during the Crowellian Supremacy (c.1650) in Ireland. Only the tall, conical-roofed Round Tower — with its door situated some 12 feet or more above the ground — remained intact when I visited the site in 1983.

Colmcille is the Irish name for St Columba who is famous for confronting the Loch Ness monster and for converting much of Scotland and Northern England to Christianity. The name also refers to the monastic site which he founded at Derry in Ireland that became an important shrine for pilgrims to visit.]




     Between this river and that stream

The small monastic city stands:

Beneath high, brooding mountains steep

Close-wooded craggy slopes, down which

Leap white, wild waterfalls that soon

Will mingle with the darkly-smooth

And placid lakes, or add their force

To those more violent, more calm

Effusions of pure purity —

The rushing cataracts and prayers —

That wash the walls which Kevin built.

     How beautiful, upon my eyes,

The colours of this place!. Here green

Of grass, here darker green of gorse;

And there, green-almost-blue of pines.

Mixed with those greens are browns of earth,

Dull sedge and faded bracken-ferns;

Contrasting them, the solemn greys

Of lichened boulders, glooming blacks

Of wind-scoured peaks and valley-scarps.

     All are reflected on the face

Of peat-dark lakes and seem to add

A strange translucency to them,

Metamorphosising their tones

To almost-pastel shades of smooth

And shimmering delightfulness,

Enhanced by subtle tints of blue

And white drawn from the sky and clouds.




     My mind flies back, through centuries!.

Into this valley of serene

And isolated calm, there rides

A cavalcade of pilgrims who

Seek shelter from the coming night.

Their route is muddy, treacherous

And overhung by sullen trees

But, as the sun declines behind

The looming mountains to the West,

They reach the monastery gates

And ask for hospitality,

As is the custom at such sites.

     Admitted to the precincts they

Surrender, temporarily,

Their weapons which they should not need

Whilst in this place of holy calm

And meditative peace, sheltered,

By defensive walls against rude

Bandit groups that, if they could — for

In the Irish countryside, far

From the fortified large towns

And cities, the rule of lawful

Conduct is often unobserved —

Would murder, pillage and erase

Such sites and all their occupants.

     No sooner done, a monk arrives

To greet, instruct and guide them. He

Is cordially jovial.




     “Hello!. I’m Brother Dominic,

Deputed by the Prior to be

Your guide-companion while you

Enjoy such hospitality

Our monastery can afford.

(Speaking of which, if you so wish,

A voluntary donation —

However small — to help defray

Our costs would be most gratefully

Accepted, for we are not rich.

I’ll say no more than that, because

Such mercenary matters have

A low priority for us

And all we offer you is free

Of any monetary charge).

     We welcome pilgrim-guests like you

And wish to make your period

Of residence — however long

Or short it be — as pleasant as

Our limitations will allow.

     So first, (although I realise

You will be weary from your ride

Along that fraught road through this wild

And unprovisioned glen), before

The darkness falls, I’ll shew you what

You need to see and know…


                                                 This is

The gatehouse, where we’re standing now,

And over it you’ll find the room

That you will occupy. Later,

You can explore it at your ease.

Meanwhile, please follow me…”.




                                                  “This is

The refectory where you’ll eat

In company with us and hear

The lector reading passages

From holy texts to edify

Our souls with spiritual food

Whilst bodies’ hungers are assuaged.

     (We dine in silence, you should know,

So that attention to the words

Read by the lector are absorbed

Without profane distraction. Please

Observe this rule during our meals).

     Above this refectory are

The dormitories where we monks

Take our repose in cubicled

Compartment-cells for privacy.

      Beside this building you can see

The kitchen and the bakery

Where simple but nutritious fare

And fresh bread are prepared each day.


     The granary, here, stores the grain

We cultivate outside the walls

And harvest in late Summertime.

We grind it into flour in this

Mill-shed to make our daily bread”.




     “Just over there — set far apart

From other buildings to reduce

The risk of fire from it spread

To other places — you can see

The smithy where, if need be, we

Can make new horseshoes or, perhaps,

Some other metal articles

That we, or travellers, might need.

     (We also use it to maintain

A few hand-weapons, for we are,

Though peaceable, subject to threats

From bands of lawless robbers who

Would steal all that we have, if we

Could not defend ourselves from them)”.




     “And here’s the church, the focal point

Of our existence at this site.

Here we assemble every day —

Eight times in all! — to celebrate

Those Offices our Order’s rules


                      For your convenience —

     Since this place is in constant use —

We have reserved for you that small

Side-chapel where, at any time

You want, you can say your own prayers

Without fear of disturbing us.

     Should you desire a Mass be said

For your intentions, simply tell

Me and I will arrange it for

A time that suits your wishes best.


     Beyond that little wall is found

The hallowed ground in which are laid

The last mortal remains of those

Of us who’ve gone to meet our God

After a lifetime, in this place,

Of service to His Majesty”.




     “Here is the carpentry beside

The masons’ workshop. In these sheds

We carve materials, (both wood and stone),

To maintain building-structures and

Embellish them with works of art;

Statues and paintings that, also,

We sell to those who want to buy.

The money gained enables us

To pay for raw materials

And food required for our own needs”.




     “And here’s the tower, built to be

Of triple usefulness; for first

It points to where our thoughts should be,

In Heaven with our God; second,

It serves as refuge when rough bands

Of rude marauders — godless men! —

Sometimes invade in search of loot

Or food to satisfy their greed;

Thirdly, it is the place we use

As penitentiary for those

Of our community whose faults —

Of flesh, morals or discipline —

Offend our Order’s rules in ways

Too scandalously. For, although

We strive to make ourselves more like

The angels and the saints, we are

Mere men whose innate faults sometimes

Surpass our will to overcome

Temptation’s malign influence”.




     “Here are the stables where we keep

Some horses we can sell to those

Who need a remount to proceed

Towards their journey’s end elsewhere.

     These are the cattlesheds, close by

The dairy and, beside them, you

Can see our sheepfold. Cattle give

Not only meat and leather, milk

And cheese to us, but also haul

Our ploughs and carts. And from the sheep

We also get meat, milk and cheese,

As well as wool from which we weave

Our garments. From their skins we make

The vellum pages of our books.

(The abattoir, the tannery

And looms are just behind their sheds)”.




     “Just over here we have the school

Wherein we teach our novices

The Orders rules, the Offices

We daily pray and how to write

And read; as well as the techniques

Of metalwork, sculpture, painting —

To fresco walls or decorate

Statues: the cleverest of them

Will illustrate the manuscripts

We make and sell for profit here —

As well as practical advice

On methods to improve the yields

From agriculture and the care

Of our domestic animals”.




    “Now we are back, after our tour,

Where we began; the gatehouse. Come

With me to view where you will sleep.

     But first, here just beside the stairs,

This hand-pump by the trough

Is where you can wash off the stains

Of travel or refresh yourselves

With water suitable to drink.

      Now let us mount aloft to see

The room where you will pass your nights.

And here it is, quite large enough

For twenty persons. (To provide

A modicum of  privacy

For females, you can draw across

Its width that curtain which you see).

     The straw is freshly changed each week —

Most recently two days ago —

So you should not be bothered by

 Insects or other nuisances.

     And here’s the neccessarium

Where you may deal with bodily

Imperatives when you have need.


     We eat within the hour, so you

Have time to organise yourselves

Before I come again to lead

You to the refectory room.

Till then, I leave you to yourselves!”.




     “Hello, again!. It’s Dominic,

Come to conduct you to your meal.

I hope you’ll like the food; it’s plain

But palatable fare, wholesome

And designed for healthful living;

Mainly comprised of cereals

And fish since red meat, in excess,

Is not thought good for we who must

Struggle each day to keep control

Of our base appetites. (Red meat

Is thought — by those who are well versed

In alimentary concerns —

To boost the carnal in the blood,

Thereby disturbing innate calm

 And weakening defence against

Fleshly temptations that can lead

To spiritual compromise).

     There’s also bread and vegetables,

Of course, washed down with fresh-brewed ale —

Or water, if you should prefer,

Straight from the cistern that is fed

By conduits from those streams that flow

Beside the outer walls that mark

This holy site’s perimeter —

So you should be well satisfied

When you have finished your repast!.

     As I told you before, you must

Be silent while we eat. Absorb the words

Read by the lector and reflect —

As sinners in this fallen world —

Upon their meaning for yourselves.

     After the meal I’ll bring you back

Here to your lodging-place. Then we,

(If you so wish), can talk of what

You will. Myself would like to hear

How you have fared upon you way,

Your destination and some news

Of that wide world, beyond these walls,

That is of useful interest

Or even more significance”.




     “Well, here we are again, returned

To your place of repose. I trust

The meal was satisfactory

And quite sufficient for your needs.

So, let us settle on this straw

Whilst you recount in my keen ears

Whatever news you care to tell.


     So, you have come from Arklow now

And travel on to Colmcille —

The sacred site of Ceannas Mor! —

Tomorrow morning once the sun

Has cleared the early mists that hang

Like blinding blankets overhead?.

     That is a journey worth the ride

Since, from it, you should all obtain

Indulgences and Benefits

Enough to keep you in God’s Grace

For many years to come!. No doubt

The incidents that mark your days

Of travel there will also teach

Much wisdom and experience

Of what occurs beyond the walls

That bound your homes and properties.

     But for myself, this blessed spot

Is all I need of of mundane sights

To satisfy my simple mind”.




     “Here isolated from the world —

Its violence, its cruelty

And greedy selfishness, which so

Mar secular society —

A man can find the time to think

Less of himself and more of God,

If he has strength of mind enough

To overcome, (through disciplined

Control of human frailties by

Rigorous privations, ordained

By our monastic Order’s rules

That ban all luxuries), the sins

Of self-indulgent pride and greed.


     When in the depths of Winter-time

You go into the church and join

Your brothers in the communal

Recital of the Offices —

Your freezing feet unsocked and shod

Only in open sandals, your

Threadbare gown no protection

From icy draughts, your aching knees

Bent to the damp, hard flagstone floor —

Then your own faith, in what you do

And why, is tried to limits that

The most pious lay man would not

Choose to experience, but once!.

     Compline, Matins and Lauds are worst,

For they are said when cold and damp

Are fiercest in the depth of night

And early dawn, when swirling mists

Invade your bones or stormblasts chill

Your blood!. It’s then that you must will

Yourself to offer to your God

The sacrifice of comfort’s ease!.

     (Those who believe that Brothers’ lives,

In quiet monasteries, are

Easy escapes from secular

Complexities have never beeen

Members of such communities!.

For I tell you, this life is hard

For even the most saintly men;

And that’s the reason why they choose

It for themselves — to mortify

Their sinful flesh and its innate

Deficiencies — so that their souls

Are purified and made, at last,

Worthy to offer to their God.

     Simple though it may seem to be,

This way of life is not for those

Whose hearts are faint, whose will not strong!.

Though in the balmy Summer nights,

I must confess, to be awake

And giving praises to the One

Creator of the universe —

Its glories of the earth and skies —

Brings such a rapture to the soul

As cannot be described in words.

It is a transcendental joy

That opens up the mental paths

Which lead to renewed faith and trust

That mankind yet may be redeemed!).


     Here, in this small community,

We pray and work, and pray and eat,

And pray and sleep, and pray again.

Prayer is the cornerstone of life

At Glendalough. It dominates

All that we do. Some cook and bake

While others are mere scullions.

Some till the fields and tend the beasts

While others fish, or build. Some keep

Accounts, others administer

The monastery’s  businesses.

Some brew while, others weave or write

And illustrate our manuscripts.

     The tasks are numerous, but you

Should not suppose that every monk

Does only one of them. For we are few

In number — fifty souls at most —

So all the work is organised

In such a manner that the tasks

Each monk must do, (at least three held

Concurrently!),  are changed each week.

This system obviates the risks

Of sinful pride in personal

Accomplishment and jealousy

Of others’ allocated work,

Whilst it ensures that we remain

A self-sustaining enterprise.

     Nor are there rest days here, we all

Are busy men from dawn to dusk

Throughout the year. Yet still we find

The time to pray eight times each day.


     The beauty of this hidden life

Of service in community,

Behind the austere walls that shut

The world out, is that we can find

Acceptance of God’s eminence

Through our rejection of the flesh

And all its selfish, base desires.

For, when you turn your mind to God

And Him alone — when all you do

Is offered as a sacrifice

To His eternal holiness,

And when you pray that other souls

May be redeemed from sin to God —

Then you achieve an inner peace

Beyond normal experience;

A sweet tranquility that fills

Each atom of your being, like

A crystal goblet filled with wine,

The ecstasy received from which

Inspires communion with Him

In contemplation’s mystic mode.


     But now I leave you to retire

And take your merited repose.

I trust you will not be disturbed

By ringing of the Office-bell;

But if you are you need not rise.

It is for Brothers, such as I,

To answer to that brazen tone

In the dark watches of the night.

     Tomorrow I shall come again

To check that all is well with you.

I bid you all ‘good night’. May God

Watch over you and keep you safe!”.




     Throughout that night the travellers

Slept undisturbed, their rest unstirred

By Compline, Matins, Lauds; although

The solemn tolling of the bell

Summoned the faithful Brotherhood

To their dark vigils in the church:

A confraternity of faith

That sleeps on thoughts of God with ears

Tuned to his frequent calls by long

Years of pious attentiveness.

(If good intentions were enough,

The world would be a better place!).




     ” Good morning all!. I trust you had

A quiet sleep and are refreshed.

It is a fine bright day — or will

Be when the early mist has burned

Away — so let us not waste time

In sending you upon your way.

     No doubt you’ll hope to spend this night

At Blessington, if you can reach

The village there before they close

The curfew-gates when dusk descends;

    But first you must break fast with us.

It is not good to undertake

A day on horseback without food

Beneath your belts!. It helps you sit

More comfortably in your seats,

Traversing those rough roads towards

The holy House of Colmcille,

When you have eaten well.

     Soon you will be upon your way,

And we will pray that no mischance

Befalls you on your pilgrimage

To Colmcille. We trust that you

Will visit us, as you return

From there to your own homes,

To tell us of that holy place

And what adventurous events —

Or other interesting things —

Seem worthy of recount to us.

     So let’s to breakfast!. Then to horse!.

The meal will not take long; you’ll  have

Good hopes of reaching Blessington

Before the darkness shuts you out!”.




     So many centuries have passed

Since that brief episode of my

Unbound imagination’s dream,

That history has changed to myth

And legend. Yet this ruined site

Can still evoke the atmosphere

That would have permeated it

In Mediæval times when bands

Of pilgrims crossed the countrysides

Of all the continent in search

Of personal redemption.


Like theirs is fading fast in these

More secular social ages

Since the sceptic Enlightenment

Proposed alternative beliefs —

Based less on faith than rational

Interpretations of the world

And mankind’s origin and place

Within it — that discredited

The mystic metaphysical

Theologies that once controlled

Whole populations’ minds and thoughts,

Inspiring them to build both

Meditative monasteries —

Plainly austere and functional,

Where prayer and abnegation were

Devoted to redemption’s cause —

And glorious cathedrals where

God could be worshipped in a style

Of ostentatious luxury

Befitting His great majesty,

Attracting crowds from near and far.




     When I survey this lovely site

Of Glendalough — ‘the glen of lakes’ —

I see why Kevin chose this place

To build a city for his Lord.

     The rugged grandeur of the scene

Should teach a heart respect for God

Through sheer appreciation of

This inland island of repose.

     Here the high places draw the eyes

From shadowed valley to high crests

Where God’s illuminations flare

From peak to peak at dawn and dusk

And light the lowlands when the sun

Is at its zenith in the sky.

     And when the humbled eyes look down,

(Pulled by the plunging waterfalls),

To gaze upon the surfaces

Of these kaleidoscopic lakes,

They see — reflected there anew —

Diminished in intensity

But magnified in potency,

The glories of the light transposed

To shimmering tranparencies;

Much as the human soul might be

A darkened mirror of God’s self!.

     And in the islet, where he built

His small retreat from sinfulness

Between this river and that stream,

I think he saw a symbol for

His private faith, (bathed on all sides

By God’s pure-flowing tears of love),

Its imperfections washed away

To leave only simplicity —

As on the day that he was born —

To meet his great Creator’s eye.

     The constant sounds of water, too,

Might have suggested, (as to me),

The murmurings of ceaseless prayer

And so commended it to him

As suitable for his design.


     Amid surroundings such as these,

Where you can raise your eyes aloft

Or lower them and still perceive

Your God displayed in wondrous majesty,

How could your soul fail to respond to Him?.


[Afternote:  The eight services which comprise the Breviary, (or Daily Office),  are — in order of recitation from dawn — Matins, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.

In some monasteries they were said, in others sung. Each service includes prayers, psalms, lessons, homilies and/or hymns.]




Author: J. A. Bosworth

See Home Page on this site.

See all posts by (359)

Leave a Reply