Thomas Davis was traveling to a new assignment at a monastery in Vina, Calif.,in 1955. There, he would begin work as a Cistercian monk and study for the priesthood. As the car he was riding in passed Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, someone pointed to stones scattered throughout the park and told the young cleric that they’d once been part of the chapter house of a Cistercian abbey in Spain. With that comment, his life’s mission was written; Tom Davis would rebuild the sacred stones of the ancient Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila at the monastery to which he was headed.
Fifty-seven years later, the interior of the old chapter house is nearing completion and Fr. Davis, now the retired abbot of California’s Abbey of New Clairvaux, can see his dream nearly realized. Visitors to the Abbey of New Clairvaux now marvel at the soaring interior of the rebuilt chapter house, considered to be the finest example of original Cistercian architecture in the Western Hemisphere.
Cistercian architecture has been called the “architecture of silence” in dual reference to its austere simplicity and its service to an order of monks who, for many centuries, lived in complete silence. It is spare of color, sculpture and ornamentation, instead emphasizing the play of light, space, harmony and proportion.
The buttery limestone walls of the reconstructed chapter house virtually glow. Shadows play across them, revealing guild marks carved by 12th-century stone masons. Gothic vaulted ceilings soar in breathtaking lightness, just as they did when first erected in Spain over 820 years ago. To enter the stillness of the chapter house is to feel the energy of eight centuries within it.
Fr. Thomas could only have imagined how inspirational the finished structure would be. His first task was to join with his brother monks in making the abbey self-sufficient. They planted walnut and prune trees on Vina’s fertile loam soil and prayed.
One day, the monks received word that their prayers had been heard. The old abbey’s “sacred stones” would be reconstructed in Vina. The stones’ journey had been begun in 1932, when newspaperman William Randolph Hearst purchased them from the Spanish government for use in a family home in the Shasta Cascade. Thereafter, Hearst lost them in order to pay taxes.
Referring to the chapter house, Fr. Davis told the National Catholic Reporter, “It’s our heritage. We couldn’t just let it sit out there in the field,” and those who see the building will get an impression “of how beautiful God must be.” He said the simple beauty of Cistercian architecture, its emphasis on proportion and the subtle play of light, are meant to center people to be more introspective and discover God within their hearts.
By restoring to life a building first erected eight centuries ago, Fr. Davis and his brother monks in Vina are putting Cistercian principles into practice, the Record concluded, “by restoring to life a building they believe has the power to transform those who see it.”