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My first visit to a Benedictine monastery was while I was a student at Oxford. I travelled down on the train first to Reading and then to the little station of Woolhampton, and set out to hike the mile or so up the hill following the old sign that pointed, “To the Abbey”

It was Lent and I remember the early spring cold, the mist rising from the green golden fields and the grey trees rising.

A monk met me at the door and silently showed me the church, the library, the refectory and my cell. I joined in with the offices and spent time early in the morning waiting for Lauds to begin.

This poem, written now thirty five years ago came to me as I watched and waited.

From where I lean in the misericord,
the stones rise up severe and white, and fuse
with the vaults above. There is a strict accord between the roof and the walls. It seems one could lose the fragile self in this hard discipline;
yet within these structures the soul is loosed—
like one of the windows enclosed in stone,
yet supported by it, they are made strong.
Their pale panes of olive and amber alone
suggest the refinement of what was wrong.

And as I watch the empty sky and wait,
a flock of black robed birds in morning flight rises and goes with a slow motion past, strangely at one with the stone and the glass.