12th Century Monks in Leeds: a spirituality for today?

JBThe Visitors’ Centre at Kirkstall Abbey was the ideal location for a talk on the relevance today of 12th century monastic ideals, and the Right Honourable John Battle was the ideal person to give it. John is a former MP who was responsible for interfaith matters in Tony Blair’s government. He has a keen interest in community relationships in Leeds and a longstanding fascination also with the history of Leeds and particularly its spirituality.

Kirkstall Abbey, John explained, was founded in the late 12th century by Cistercian monks, who were reformers intent upon stripping back the monastic life to the first principles of simplicity which they believed had been lost. Many monasteries had become rich and lax. The Cistercians would not accept wealth from patrons. They believed in the virtue of a life of worship and work, supporting themselves by their own efforts. They built in country locations, focusing on husbandry, preferring plain dress, basic food and a strict observance of the Rule of St Benedict. Community, hospitality and stability were their key watchwords.

Kirkstall was a daughter of Fountains Abbey, built in a plain Norman style using stone from a quarry in Bramley on land given to De Lacy by William the Conqueror. John Battle outlined the economic and social conditions in its early days. It was a time of global warming when sheep farming expanded. Leeds had a population of about 1000 and two fairs a year on Leeds Bridge. Later it got colder and harder for peasants, who often faced hunger and plague. The monasteries allowed the peasantry to flourish. Lay people drained marshes, cut back trees and developed a range of small industries, such as smelting, forging and pottery. They were major employers, medical health centres and places of learning. Many kept back 10% of the profits on sales of wool to spend on the poor and needy. Kirkstall wool was well-known and appreciated in places as far away as Antwerp and Italy. At its height Kirkstall had 500 lay brothers and 140 in the choir (i.e. religious monks under vows).

The Rule of St Benedict governed the life of the monastery. It required monks to be obedient and to practise love in community, peace and reconciliation. Life was lived in a daily routine involving worship seven times a day based particularly on the biblical psalms. Monks owned no personal possessions: they borrowed books, tools and clothing, all of which had to kept in good condition. They lived a humble and thankful life, responsibly including the poor and the sick. Their spirituality was expressed both in the way they lived their life in community and in their worship, collectively and individually, in prayer, meditation and contemplation.

JB&DRHHow is such a life relevant now? John pointed up or implied throughout his talk the ways in which the values that inspired that monastic life are ones we desperately need in our world still: a responsible attitude towards the environment; a radical inclusiveness and equal sharing of resources; a practical concern for and care of those whose need is greatest; the opportunity for all to fulfil their potential and make a contribution, and so on. And all this is motivated, inspired, supported and sustained by worship, prayer and reflection at every moment of life.

It was a superbly structured, informative, illuminating and thoroughly researched talk, delivered with John Battle’s characteristic vivaciousness, humour and eloquence—a joy to listen to. It was challenging too, for John brought out so clearly the need for everyone to contribute to community life, not leave the responsibilities to others to carry. We were greatly privileged to receive it. A recording was made, and I hope that it and/or a transcript can be made available. It certainly deserves publication to a wider audience.