The Broads are my local wilderness. I love the landscape, the wildlife and the slow waters. Under the wide skies I can be at one with nature; re-imagine Jesus’ lakeside ministry; slow down and escape from our 24/7 lifestyle; all that’s needed to catch up with a 3 mile an hour God.
Long ago, on an island where three rivers meet, hermits established a community. Following the example of Egyptian monks, the tidal marsh and reed beds was their green desert! In time the community became a Benedictine monastery and, until Henry VIII’s reforms, St. Benet’s Abbey was a powerful centre for the Christian faith. Still the abbey has a powerful attraction.
Wandering on foot or by boat, I find my eyes searching for the familiar outlines of its ruined gate-house and scanning higher ground to catch sight of church towers on the horizon. Higher than most is the one they call The Cathedral of the Broads – St. Helen’s, Ranworth
Visitors are invited to climb “89 spiral steps and two ladders” to see the view from the top.
If you know where to look, St. Benet’s is clear to the naked eye and above your head.
Depicted on the wind vane, is the figure of a monk. It is said that Pacificus and his little dog rowed from the monastery to oversee the installation of the church’s famous rood screen. Some believe his ghost still makes the journey and on misty, moonlit nights one could easily imagine such a thing!
Less spookily, the misericord seats in the chancel were most probably brought over from the abbey after its dissolution.
One day, returning from the top of the tower, I went to pray in one of those seats. The carving on the ledge had a demon in the middle, an opium poppy to one side and a rose on the other. The message still seemed just as clear and relevant as when it was first carved, “choose to be alert and attend in prayer: don’t drop off into numbed sleep, or fanciful dreams”.
In solidarity with the monks of old I said a psalm or two and pondered Jesus’ question, “ What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed blown by the wind? “