Beyond The Edge of Recollection

The more I study about the art and culture of the Middle Ages, the more I’m convinced that this was a world I knew well.

More specifically, I think any life I might have lived in the Angevin courts was a fluke; my strongest draw, by far, is to the trappings of monastic life.

I see the vaulted ceilings and cloisters of old abbeys and I feel strangely homesick.  I read of monks commenting on the aches in their back and hands, the strain on their eyes, or the poor quality of the parchment (one monk complained that his still had hair on it) and I feel like it’s all familiar to me, things I experienced regularly.

Also, there’s the places I tended to gravitate toward.  Certainly, the ruins of old abbeys held a strange fascination for me when I was in England in 2003-05.  But more than that, there was Mepkin Abbey, an active, thriving Cistercian abbey near Charleston, SC I used to go to as a child and once specifically requested a trip to on my 21st birthday.  I spent a good half hour talking monastic history with one of the brothers at the abbey and felt strangely at home, though I knew in my heart that this time around, monastic life wasn’t for me (most importantly because I’m involved in a very serious relationship).

I’ve written a few medieval monastic characters into my recent works and I have to say, it comes rather naturally.  I think it’s safe to say that this is a topic I will revisit in my work for many years to come.

It’s a shame that oak galls are so hard to come by in Oregon, and parchment is so terribly expensive, or I’d be tempted to try my hand at making my own ink and writing the old-fashioned way, with a candle for light, a quill, a blade, a stylus, and a copy of my work to be transcribed to elegant miniscule letters (or as elegant as my unsteady hands can manage).

Still, any clear recollection of having lived that life eludes me.  It’s only a vague feeling that I had to have lived- perhaps several lifetimes- as a Cistercian monk some time before or after Count William’s life.  Maybe that was the life I defaulted toward during that period, when I wasn’t born into some prior obligation or a life of privilege.  I feel strongly that I had multiple literate lives in an age when this was not common, though, which is odd.

Why I Don’t Believe in God (Yet).

There are several beliefs that I do not hold, but dearly wish I had a solid reason to believe them.

Sadly, a single and benevolent god was one of those casualties, and quite some time before I had past life memories or any sort of unusual experiences.  For a while I embraced a transcendental view in the trappings of eclectic Pagan worship and forged a fairly solid cosmology based on the model of mushroom mycelia (thank you, Terrance McKenna).  But as far as believing in a literal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving god, I didn’t see much in the world that I couldn’t distinguish from cosmic indifference if I thought about them logically.

The past life memories are one of those things.  The way I see it, if the collective soul of Buddhism could just as easily explain it without the need for a god, then Occam’s Razor shaves us toward the Buddhist hypothesis.

But every so often, it’s not so clear-cut.  There are some coincidences- or synchronicities if you like, and although they don’t tell me anything on their own, they’re pervasive, across lives like really solid memes.

Why do rice paddies, Cistercian Monasteries, and intense religious themes run through most of the lives I remember?  Why would I be conceived near a road called “Dorchester Road” in two separate lives?  Why would I remember the same abbey at two points in history, one as an active monastery and one as a ruin?  Why would I have a life as a monk, one as an animal held in veneration, and one as a modern-day scholar of religions that I can locate and approximately date (or in some cases, precisely date)?

And what’s with the initials?  I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this, but my birth initials are JAH.  Now compare that to my initials when I was John, which are JWH.  One is shorthand for the Judeo-Christian God, and the other is very close to the abbreviation YHWH if you consider that Y and J are often transliterated interchangably from Hebrew.

The initials I had don’t always add up that way; they didn’t in my most recent past life for instance; all you get when you type out the initials of my previous life is typewriter diarrhea.

That’s what really makes using Occam’s razor difficult here.  There’s enough going on to say that I’ve found the footprint of some influence, but I can’t say that calling that influence “God” is the best idea.  Also, the coincidences are kind of weak at times (like the initials), but at times they’re solid themes (like this overarching theme of asceticism or proximity to asceticism).

Then there’s the possibility too that this is grandiose self-deception.  That thought has been heavy on my mind since the themes started shaping up with my memories of being John and being that nobleman who became a monk.  It just sort of exploded from there, with the abbey that I saw at two points in history.  Did I just go off my rocker at about that point and launch myself into a fantasy world?  I look back and I read my own work and I wonder if I’m crazy.

What’s going on here, then?  That question hangs over everything I do nowadays.  I’m still waiting to find the answer for myself, since nobody seems to have an answer that works that I’ve found yet (though I’m still looking).  I’ve been hit with some really heavy questions about the nature of pretty much everything because of this.

It was the song “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison that inspired this post, incidentally.

Also…

One of the places I was fond of visiting when I lived in South Carolina, and one that often stirs memories that I equate with the song “Scarborough Faire” (along with the ruined abbey in Shropshire and the old plantations in Charleston) is Mepkin Abbey.

Mepkin Abbey, interestingly enough, is a Cistercian abbey just like the ones outside Shrewsbury were.  Only it’s active.

I remember once going there and having a very informative talk with a monk there about the breakup of the abbeys in England.  He mentioned something I hadn’t thought of before: the wool trade.  I do know that Henry VIII liberalized the wool trade by breaking the Cistercian monopoly on wool, but I had always considered that to be a secondary consequence of his decision to break with the Catholic Church and that his divorces and remarriages were the catalyst for all this.  But I digress…

Anyhow, it’s fascinating that two Cistercian abbeys figure into this, and that I had meaningful conversations in history with the monks at Mepkin Abbey.  This doesn’t prove anything but it does put it in the “weird when you think about it” category.

It seems that song may have been what caused me to remember that abbey from that earlier life in my previous one when I heard its faux-medieval lilt some time after moving to Hereford (it had only been popular in its current setting around Yorkshire since the 1890s and would have taken a while to get that far south, but I think it’s reasonable that I could have heard it).

I think this isn’t the first time I’ve remembered past lives.  I can’t remember a specific moment when I said “A Ha!  I remember now!” back then, but I have the general sense that I was in that abbey near Shrewsbury and that I knew damned well why I was there.  I think I may have decided that my decision to not become a soldier all those centuries ago was the wrong one.

I think that’s why I joined the Shropshires instead of going into a regiment out of Herefordshire or Somerset like I’d expect myself to.  I can’t prove it but really feel that’s the answer.