On a trip to the United States to visit a friend in Washington, I decided to spend a couple of nights at the Monastery, in part because the guesthouse was somewhere I could afford to stay. I was not expecting anything in particular. Yet when I walked into the Chapel for the first time, for Evening Prayer, I was overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity, by a deep feeling that I had actually come home.
I remember thinking to myself, “How can this be? I’m three thousand miles from home.” But the distance was irrelevant. Something very real touched my heart in that moment, a sense of homecoming. And even then—although it took a long time for me to reflect on it and make a decision—I knew even then, that this was where God had been leading me. It was almost like falling in love. I had a deep sense, sudden and unexpected, of having arrived. I felt I had come home.
Most of my life I had had a sense of wanting to be a monk, but I had never found a place where I thought, “Yes, this is home.” I had visited many monasteries, mostly on the Continent, in France and Belgium, and I think I had a mental image of what the place would look like, but I honestly didn’t think it existed. I’d certainly never found it in the places I had visited.
And then I got here. I walked into the Chapel and knew: “This is the place I’ve been looking for. I didn’t think it existed, but here it is and, of all the places I least expected, it’s in the United States!” God is indeed a God of surprises, and those words of the prophet Isaiah came to mind, “Your thoughts are not my thoughts, says the Lord. Your ways are not my ways.” At that moment, I was surprised by the grace of God, who surprises us in the most unexpected ways. Here I was, filled with recognition for a place which I had never seen before, but which, deep within me, I recognized. This was the place where God had been leading me. I had arrived.
Below the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem there is a rather wonderful stone tablet on which are incised the form of a sail boat and the Latin inscription, ‘DOMINE IVIMUS’. It was left there by pilgrims, in probably the fourth century, who had doubtless made a long and dangerous journey, perhaps across the sea, to reach the holy city. They marked the end of their pilgrimage with these simple but moving words: ‘Domine ivimus: Lord we have arrived.’ Entering the Monastery Chapel, I too had a real sense of having arrived—like at the end of a pilgrimage. It was not just the architecture, but the worship which touched me. During worship this space can be transformed and become resonant with God’s Spirit. The words of the service of course were familiar to me, but it was the spiritual experience of praying them in this space and with this community which affected me so deeply.
When one is touched by God’s grace, there is often a real particularity to the experience. This is why buildings are so important. We can know that God is everywhere, but we like to revisit places where we were touched by God’s spirit in a particular way, at a particular time. So we go on pilgrimages. We visit the Holy Land and places where God has spoken to others. We seek out places where we feel more vulnerable to God’s grace. I think that is why this Chapel has such an attraction for many people. They come back here again and again, because they have experienced the grace of God in a particular way, at a particular time, in this particular building. I’m absolutely sure that the stone walls are impregnated with years and years of prayer. All that prayer creates a sacredness that is very real.
It is hard to define exactly why this Chapel is such a special place. You can look at all the different parts, the materials, the design; you can admire them for their beauty. But when they all come together, there’s something mysterious that happens and which is surely more than can have been calculated by the architect. I have lived here for eleven years, and I cannot walk into the chapel without being very aware of where I am. There is a powerful numinous quality about the space which means that you cannot just wander through unthinkingly. You know you are in the presence of God. It is a mystery, but a very tangible one, which many people experience; this is clearly a place ‘where God is pleased to dwell’.
When I have been away and I return to the Monastery, I always feel that God welcomes me back to my place in the choir stalls. But I also think that this is a Chapel into which everyone is welcomed, one in which everyone has a place. It is as if God is saying: “Come in. You’re welcome, whoever you are. Welcome home.”
This article is taken from a book about the Monastery Chapel, STONE & Light, available for purchase online here.