Beautiful ruins — stronger by weakness, wiser we can become

Walsingham Abbey Ruins

A short “thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 

(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)


Of the Last Verses in the Book
Edmund Waller (1606–1687)

When we for age could neither read nor write,
The subject made us able to indite.
The soul, with nobler resolutions deckt,
The body stooping, does herself erect:
No mortal parts are requisite to raise
Her, that unbodied can her Maker praise.

The seas are quiet, when the winds give o’er,
So calm are we, when passions are no more:
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness, which age descries.

The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home:
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new.


There is something about certain ruins that I am minded to call “perfect”, “perfect” in the sense that they are beautiful and “just right” in their state of decay, even though they are clearly not fully what they once were, nor are they yet fully subsumed back into the primordial, mysterious earth from and upon which they, and all things, arise. The ruined medieval abbeys and priories scattered across the British landscape are for me, and perhaps for many of you, too, archetypal examples of this phenomenon.  

One of the many uncanny things about these ruins is how they cannot be built anew; try to build yourself a new ruin and you quickly find you have made a mere folly, an obvious simulacrum that fools no one. The truth is that ruins can only emerge in their own time from what once was. Unexpectedly, from out of their ruination there has also emerged a sense of a final achievement of that which could only dimly be intuited in their earlier, apparently complete, state.

For although it is true that abbeys and priories were built with the intention of focusing, nurturing and then spreading abroad the light of the Gospel, in time, they became centres of religious, economic and political power and control within which the free and freeing light was emprisoned, suppressed and distorted for ends wholly alien to the good news proclaimed by Jesus.

But then came the dissolution of the monasteries and these once great buildings quickly began to fall into disrepair. As their roofs and walls weakened and collapsed they became quarries for the surrounding population and, though increasingly battered and decayed, new light flooded into their once dark precincts. Miracle of miracles, as beautiful ruins, they seemed finally to have begun to fulfil their latent promise of being temples of a universal light, open to all people and to all things.

In his poem, Edmund Waller reveals he thought something similar could happen to us, too, and that stronger by weakness, wiser we could become. He saw how our battered and decaying individual selves and communities might not be a cause of regret but, instead, might serve to open us up to new light and bring us to the threshold of the eternally new.