This is – or rather, was – Creake Abbey in Norfolk in the south-east of England, built in the thirteenth century and left to fall into ruins in the sixteenth. Just for once, it wasn’t Henry VIII’s fault: the small community of canons who lived in the abbey died of an outbreak of the Sweating Sickness, one after another, until the final survivor – the abbot – died in 1506.
At its peak, the Abbey church covered most of the area that is now a beautiful green lawn, but by the time the Sweating Sickness hit, most of it had been destroyed in a fire and never re-opened. The parts that remained are marked out on a map in terms that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a convent – cloister, refectory, dormitory, chapel – all of them open to the air and the rain for hundreds of years. It’s a study in contrasts, in a way. On the one hand, the first impression as you walk in through the gate is of tidiness and order, a well-maintained historical site; but as you walk around through the columns and archways, following the route from cloister to choir, you begin to feel a strange sense of sorrow for a way of life within these walls that quietly died along with the brothers who lived here.
Creake Abbey is within travelling distance of Walsingham, the holy pilgrimage site I had gone to England in September to see, so I bought a return bus ticket and headed out there for an afternoon on the second day of my stay. I had seen numerous shrines across England in honour of Our Lord, His Mother, and the saints; beautiful statues and reliquaries in churches and side-chapels for the faithful to visit, not least in Walsingham itself. At Creake Abbey, however, I found something different. In a corner of what was once the chapel, there was a small, spontaneous shrine, with no gold leaf, exquisite painting or racks of candles; just dozens of copper coins piled in a niche and pressed into cracks in the walls, and a small, weathered plaque with a crucifix.
It’s such a deep, ancient instinct, isn’t it? If you asked someone from anywhere in the world or any time in history what was going on here, each would say without hesitation that it is absolutely right to leave an offering of yourself in a holy place. If you asked a modern, secular tourist why he felt compelled to push a coin into the wall after he’d finished wandering around and taking photographs, he might not actually know. Lacking the language of faith that would describe it – an offering to God, a tribute to the men who had lived and died here, or even the pagan impulse to put money in a tomb to ensure the dead a safe trip to the afterlife – he might only be able to say something like, “I’m not sure, it just felt like the right thing to do” … but he would make an offering anyway.
Today is All Souls’ Day, a day on which we make an offering of prayer for the dead, and hope to gain for them a plenary indulgence through the merits of Christ. It’s also a day to remember those whose lives on earth have ended; those we have known and loved, of course, and also those whose names have been lost to history, like this little community of canons and their lonely abbot. And not least, it’s a day to reflect. In worldly terms, Creake Abbey was a failure, an abbey on the periphery of the more important shrine at Walsingham that attracted only a small number of vocations and fell into ruins within three hundred years. And yet, centuries later, the echo of their prayers in the chapel still has the power to turn sightseers into pilgrims: pilgrims who place coins in the wall as an because a small handful of men dedicated themselves to God here and made it a holy place.
We cannot see who we will be when our lives are complete, or what ripples our lives will have throughout the centuries after we have died – but God, in His mercy, does.