Tintern Parva was a Cistercian monastery built in the Middle Ages, on the Welsh side of the River Wye. It was occupied continuously for about three centuries, then plundered and closed during the reign of Henry VIII. The ruins were popular with the English romantics of the 1790s. It was just their sort of place: the ancient stones were covered with ivy, an old beggar woman lived in one of the remaining cells. According to the poet William Wordsworth, the surrounding scenery included “steep and lofty cliffs,” “waters rolling from their mountain springs with a soft inland murmur,” “little lines of sportive wood run wild,” and “wreaths of smoke sent up in silence from among the trees.” In a sketch by the painter J.M.W. Turner, the whole area looked like it might have been full of chasms, measureless to man, haunted by ghosts wailing for their demon lovers.
There was a photograph of Tintern in the romantic poets section of my English literature text many years ago: an aerial view of the river winding through a valley of forested hills and cliffs, and the stone apses of the roofless church, covered with vines, nestled among trees, illuminated by the full moon. I used to stare at that picture for hours. I read Wordsworth’s poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” over and over until I knew most of it by heart. I read my favorite passages aloud to my young wife. We were nineteen years old. It was 1961.
. . . And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. . . .
Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki called this “big mind.” Chögyam Trungpa called it “basic goodness.” Before I ran across these Buddhist terms, I used the word “mysticism.” Through various vocabularies, I have kept rediscovering these lines during the last thirty years. Egolessness. Primordial, timeless beauty and the intelligence of natural phenomena. Nondual continuity and the inseparability of mind and universe.
Wordsworth, in 1798, would not call it God. He was trying to get outside the narrow definitions of his church by allowing himself to listen to another kind of language: the resounding cataract, the misty mountain winds, the speech of the shepherds and foragers whom he met on his solitary walks.
I was married three times. My children grew up. I became a grandfather. When that happens, you look back a lot, looking for the roots of where you are now. I still kept wondering what it all means. And I still liked the poem.
Impelled by solitary wanderlust, I took a plane to London and found myself crossing into Wales in a rented car. I went north along the Wye until I got to Tintern Abbey. Immediately, on catching sight of those “steep and lofty cliffs,” and those ruined arches open to the sky, I turned into a mad tourist, walking along the riverbank, snapping pictures.
Inside the abbey (which, ironically, is not even mentioned in the poem itself), I saw the kitchen, the refectory, the pantry, the church. A stone sewage culvert had grooved sides for a board that was inserted to dam up the water; the board was removed after ablutions, and the water flushed the sewage from the latrine out into the river. The monks ate in silence, taking their food from a stone shelf and washing their bowls after the meal in a stone basin; the shelf and basin are still intact. The guide showed me the sign language the monks used to say “pass the water”: hands moving inward and down, touching at the wrists. In a former life I was a monk.
In the adjoining room, the senior monks had convened to discuss the business of the monastery and mete out punishments. This was a contemplative environment, and there must have been plenty of prayer and devotion going on here to consecrate the space; but Tintern was also afflicted by the dark side of medieval Catholicism. The abbots were wealthy merchants with investments in France. Two young monks who had been caught stealing apples were hanged from the orchard trees. Another was convicted of a love affair with a village girl. The girl was strangled, and the monk buried up to his neck in the river mud. When the tide rose, he drowned. “This,” said the tour guide, “was the old-time religion.”
At the end of the tour, a female tourist told the group that a psychic had located bodies under the information office with a dowsing rod. “As a matter of fact,” said the guide, “two women were buried there just last month for being troublesome during my lecture, but I won’t tell you the exact spot.” He said this in elegant Oxford English.
The birds that live in the walls made a tremendous racket. They wheeled and dove through the mossy stones by the dozen, chirping, cooing, squawking, squealing, brawling, silhouetted in the empty spaces against the bright clouds. Ferns, purple wildflowers, and tufts of grass, rooted in the masonry, waved and fluttered in the soft wind. The haters of love strangled the girl and drowned the monk, but the flowers won.
I would have been the monk who fell in love. But why assume that? Maybe I was in the council room, thinking up their exquisite punishment.
From Tintern, I walked across the Wye and hiked up a trail onto the ridge on the other side of the river. Signs on the path pointed the way to a place called the Devil’s Pulpit. The trees were spaced far apart and wound with ivy. I passed an ancient, weather-beaten stone wall, not like the early New England farm walls, but made of massive, cut blocks that might have been assembled in Roman or Saxon times. From a distant field came the bleating of sheep.
“The single sheep and the one blasted tree.”
There were no biting flies, and no mosquitoes. In New England, my home, between May and October, you cannot escape them. The journals of eighteenth-century white fugitives who happened to get caught in the Northeastern American wilderness are full of references to these merciless dinner guests. How much easier it is to be romantic about forests without them around. If they had been introduced to Britain two centuries ago, they might have killed English landscape painting, and given a different tone to the nature poems of young Wordsworth.
The Devil’s Pulpit was a crumbling rock structure with fat trees growing out of it, their roots twined around the boulders. A few yards farther on, the forest opened out, and I got a perfect aerial view of the monastery grounds and the ridge on the Welsh side of the Wye. The picture in my English literature text must have been taken from this very place, on the night of a full moon.
After nearly two hundred years, it was still possible to feel the original context of the poem: the little lines of sportive wood interspersed with cottages, their yards green to the very door. Downstream I saw more steep and lofty cliffs. Below me, the monastery represented the remnants of an earlier, strictly regimented mode of contemplation, and surrounding it in all directions were the vastness and beauty of the natural world, inviting a direct opening of the mind, without the intermediary of priest or church. It is definitely a subversive experience. Maybe that’s why this particular spot was named the Devil’s Pulpit. If you were a young monk it would be difficult, after you had been here, to go back down and submit tamely to the authority of a rich abbot who hanged his novices for stealing apples. Not only that, but this would be a perfect sacred bower to take a village lass.
A great column of smoke billowed up in the distance from a trash fire. Two jet fighters cracked the air momentarily and sped away. On the path down, my heart was joyful and light.
I met a man near the bridge, coming up the trail on a bicycle. He asked, in a thick English dialect, “Excuse me, please, could you tell me how far is it to the Devil’s Pulpit?”
I said, “About two miles. It’s an hour’s walk. It might be a little steep for that bicycle.” He had wondered about that himself and was preparing to leave it behind.
“How’s your heart?” I asked.
“It’s in pretty good shape for a man going on sixty. I eat vegetarian, don’t smoke, don’t drink, and all that.”
“Really? You don’t look much over forty.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve been a very lucky man.”
“It’s not luck,” I said. “If you don’t smoke, and don’t drink, and eat vegetarian, that’s deliberately applied intelligence. I wish I had done the same.”
“Why, thank you again.”
He asked me where I was from. He had never heard of Vermont. “What brings you so far from home?” In truth, I did not know, but I said I had come here because of Wordsworth and Coleridge. He had never heard of them either.
“Literature is not one of my strong areas,” he said. He sold insurance for a living, but was not interested in making money anymore. He described himself as being “in the world, but not of the world.” Recently he had had a deep religious experience and had found the Lord, or the Lord had found him, he wasn’t sure which. “I don’t know how to talk about this with anyone,” he said. “I’ve always been a skeptical man, always lived for myself, you know.”
As he talked, and I realized he was going to go on for a while, I was tempted to walk away. I have no use for fundamentalist dogmas. You just had a deep religious experience? Take some Thorazine.
It requires effort to give complete attention to someone else, especially a religious fanatic. My mind started to wander. My preconception that he was spouting fundamentalism blocked my ears, dividing me from him. The fullness of being on the ridge left me. It seemed as if he were talking to me through glass. I could see his lips moving, but that was all. Another part of me said, “Listen to this guy, listen.”
He repeated that he was an insurance man who no longer cared about making money. I began to wake up to the beauty of that contradiction. How could such a thing happen? He was trying to tell me. Apparently I had invited this by showing concern about his health. His life was being turned upside down. We were standing alone in the middle of the forest.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“Dorset,” he said, his voice brightening suddenly. He was so happy. I wanted to laugh and hug him. He meant Dorset, England, of course. My attention was fully captured. The town where my meditation study group met was Dorset, Vermont.
He revealed that he had surrendered his will to a deep inner prompting, which he called the will of God. For the first time in his life, he was noticing how beautiful the world really is. He was letting go of what he wanted and discovering “what God wants.” “I’m still a baby at this,” he said. Ah, good. Babies are not missionaries.
“Well,” I said, looking for common ground between us, “when I let go of my small concerns, and keep my heart open, then I become more truly myself. I begin to flower. When I fixate on myself, then my heart closes, and I wither and fall asleep.” I was being a good Buddhist. He started with God. I wanted to start with ego and egolessness. But it was he who had what Suzuki called “the beginner’s mind.” I had lost this without realizing it. While he opened at the mere touch of concern, I had to struggle to keep from shutting down.
His face was transformed. When I first saw him, I saw a boyish, balding, vaguely silly man in glasses, with a bicycle in the woods. Now he was shining, smiling, his eyes resting on me, his brows knit in close attention, eager not to miss a single nuance of who I was, what I might be for him.
“Why, say, you seem to be a man of some insight. What religion are you?”
He asked what it was like to be a Buddhist, what it meant. I said being a Buddhist had enabled me to appreciate Christianity more. He said the whole world had changed for him. It was the same world, but he used to think about money and business all the time and now he got up every day and asked, “What do you want me to do today, Lord?” and he felt alive and happy.
I said, “Yes, that makes sense to me. Usually we’re caught up in grasping, aggression, and ignorance. Our minds are full of worrying about the past and the future. But if you can let go of yourself, then you begin to see what is actually there. You begin to wake up.”
He was listening intently. Every word mattered. I began to wake up now for real. If my words mattered to him, then they had better matter to me as well. His face was transformed. When I first saw him, I saw a boyish, balding, vaguely silly man in glasses, with a bicycle in the woods. Now he was shining, smiling, his eyes resting on me, his brows knit in close attention, eager not to miss a single nuance of who I was, what I might be for him.
He said, “I’m ready for a change in my job. I’m not happy with what I’m doing, but I don’t know what to do next.”
I said, “Keep your heart open, just the way it is now. When the right opportunity comes, and the right time, you’ll recognize it. Then act without fear.”
He said he was worried about his teenage children; they were seduced by the world. “They don’t care about the Lord. They’re all caught up in the world. I’m afraid for them.”
I thought of my agonies for my children, my wish that they would live as I thought best, my disappointments in them, the hopelessness of trying to control someone else’s life. I said, “Don’t worry so much about your children. Their path is different from yours.”
“But I don’t know what to do for them.”
“You don’t have to know. Just love them. And let go of them. That’s what they really need. If you have to be strict, don’t judge them, do it in a loving way.”
Suddenly he took my hand in both of his, clasping it firmly against his chest, and closed his eyes, the tears coursing down his cheeks. We stood like this for several minutes, silent, gripping hands. Both of us wept. I was weeping, in part, from sheer amazement and wonder at this moment, for all the “still, sad music of humanity,” and all the times I had not been able to follow my own advice.
As we parted, he squeezed my arms. His eyebrows were bushy and gray. His forehead contracted with intense emotion. His face was lined with a tough, radiant beauty. His lips whispered what I took to be a prayer. I could see now that he was going on sixty. He was the monk, the true monk. He was filled with the dignity and strength of his age. We prayed together.
“My true friend,” he said, “God bless you.”
Then he let go of me, and the meaning of the poem was clear. This man had finally brought me inside of it. Both of us had somehow been given what we came for. On the trail down to the bridge I broke out in goose flesh.
I never knew his name. I never saw him again.
There was a note on the windshield of my car. “For future reference,” it said, “you are parked on private property.”