Nothing, I suppose, could be more alien to the spirit of this age than monasticism. Just for that reason, it has always had a particular fascination for me. The quiet, the order, the essential simplicity of a monk's way of life, all seemed alluring in a world increasingly given over to noise, violence and the avid pursuit of what passes for happiness. My own life, I should in honesty add, has been far from monkish, and it is only latterly that the positive aspects of monasticism, as distinct from just turning away from one's own vomit, have become comprehensible to me.
An opportunity to pursue this interest further arose when the B.B.C. asked me to take part in the filming of an enclosed religious order for a television programme. This involved spending three weeks in a Cistercian abbeyat Nunraw in Scotland. It might be supposed that it would be impossible for an outsider to get to know Cistercians, who follow the strict Trappist rule of silence. In fact the rule as now applied does not preclude necessary conversation. The monks no longer need to practise their weird sign-language, and anyway they were given a special dispensation to speak to me. I have rarely been thrown with such talkative and agreeable men. I grew very fond of them, and think of them still with the utmost affection.
My first acquaintance with them, however, was rather forbidding. I went up to Nunraw some months before the filming began, to explain the project, first to the Abbot, and then to the assembled community. They were gathered in an assembly hall which, as I subsequently discovered, they use for their chapters: their faces seemed very remote, almost forbidding, as I looked anxiously around at them. Their identical costume (nowadays priests and lay-brothers wear the same habit) and cropped heads added to the sombre effect.
I could not but recall prison audiences to whom I have occasionally given lectures. The difference was that, whereas prisoners' faces mostly look brutalised and angry, or just withdrawn into a sullen vacuity, the monks' faces, as I noted on closer examination, were serene; some of them, as it seemed to me, actually shining with inward sanctity. Goodness, of course, does shine, whereas evil casts a physical, as well as moral, shadow where it falls. At the Transfiguration the disciples present were positively dazzled by the shining ecstasy in Christ's face; when poor Judas picked up his thirty pieces of silver a cold and terrible gloom, I am sure, hung like a cloud over the scene.
I explained to the monks that I had always been interested in monasticism and hoped it would prove possible to show on the television screen what life in an enclosed order like theirs was really like: also to provide an explanation out of their own mouths of what induced them to forgo things like marriage, pleasure, success, money; all that in a materialist society like ours is considered to make life worth living.
The commonest judgment to be heard in the outside world, I said, was that they were fugitives from reality rather than seekers after a reality of their own. They were thought of as selfish, cowardly men who sought the attainment of their own serenity by cutting themselves off from the conflicts and dilemmas which amicted their fellows. Preoccupied exclusively with their own salvation, they left the world to its fate.
They listened to me, as I thought, stonily. Most of them, remember, had never seen television or read a secular newspaper (thereby incomparably blessed, as I continually pointed out to them) and knew nothing of me apart from chance references, by no means always complimentary, in the Catholic publications they were permitted. Their questions, when they came to put them, were sharp and to the point. How did they know that my presentation of them would be truthful and not slanted? Did it make sense for monks whose vocations had led them into an enclosed order to parade themselves before millions of viewers? What assurance had they that differing points of view among them about the role of monasticism in the twentieth century would find just expression? I should add that the voices of the older monks had a decided sepulchral timbre, no doubt due to the strict following over years of their rule of silence; the younger ones who joined the order when the rule had already been relaxed spoke more normally.
I did my best to answer their questions adequately, and would seem to have succeeded in satisfying them. The Abbot told me subsequently that doubts were set at rest and approval given to our project. I was interested to learn that the monks' approval, as distinct from the Abbot's, was required before we could proceed. Contrary to the commonly held view, a Cistercian community is a highly democratic organisation; the Abbot is elected, and important policy decisions are taken by a majority vote of all the monks.
Having agreed to co-operate, the monks could not have been more helpful, and took a suprisingly realistic view of the exigencies of filming. For instance, it was necessary to ask them when they were being filmed working in the fields, to wear their habits instead of denims as they normally do, because otherwise viewers might think they were farm-workers employed by the monks. They got the point at once, and agreed to a mild deception which in the ordinary way would have been unpalatable. I found in them a curious combination of realism and other-worldliness. On reflection I decided that it is only the other-worldly who know how to cope with this world; St Francis, I'm sure, was much more practical than, say, Lord Beeching, as Simone Weil (to me the one true saint and mystic of our time) much preferred Machiavelli to Franklin D. Roosevelt. So, by the way, do I.
I stayed in the abbey and tried as far as possible to share the monks' way of life. Perhaps I hoped thereby to experience some marvellous illumination; in any case, it seemed the best way to catch the spirit of the place. I was called at 4 a.m. for Mass at 4.30; the monks had risen an hour before for their first prayers and meditations. The very early morning has always appealed to me greatly; even after a debauch, or a night of being blitzed (individual and collective versions of the same folly), I remember the enchantment of the half-light and stillness before the noise of day begins again.
In the chapela converted army hut of I9I4-I8 vintagethe monks were already praying; immobile, white, shadowy figures, until the lights were put up and Mass began, jointly celebrated by all the priests in the community. To me it meant nothing, apart from the pleasant sound of plainsong and my efforts to follow the Latin. The essential notion of eating Christ's flesh and drinking his blood is something I neither understand nor appreciate.
After Mass I went for a walk on the moors above the abbey. It was the lambing season, and as I looked at the young lambs frisking about, words I had just heardagnus Deiechoed in my mind. What a terrific moment in history that was, I reflected, when men first saw their God in the likeness of the weakest, mildest and most defenceless of all living creatures!
Nearby was the new abbey, which the monks set about building soon after they came to Nunraw from their parent house in Roscrea, Tipperary, in 1946. It is nearly finished now; an elegant; well-constructed building whose design is based on the abbey at Citeaux in Burgundy, where their order was founded in 1098. The monks hope to move into it before long from their present temporary quarters in a rather ugly, inconvenient NeoGothic mansion supplemented by army hutments. In planning their new abbey a community of a hundred was anticipated; as things have turned out, they are barely half that number.
Vocations are scarce today, especially in the enclosed orders, and present indications are that they will get scarcer. Some of the monks, too, take the view that the new abbey is too lavishly designed, and consider that the money spent on it might have been better devoted to feeding the hungry. I was glad, I told them, that such a view had not prevailed when Chartres Cathedral was being built.
The monks, including the Abbot, all live in dormitories without even the privacy of a cell. I should find this a hard deprivation. Father Benedict, the guest-master, provided me with the luxury of a guest-room to myself, and looked after me with loving care. When I thanked him he said that St Benedict had laid it down that all guests should be treated as though they were Christ. This rule, as I had every reason to know, he punctiliously observed. I had my meals by myself, but with approximately the same diet as the monks; they subsist on cheese, vegetables, fruit, bread, butter and milk, but I had an occasional egg as well. Cheese is a fairly recent addition to their diet, and in the old days their food was carefully measured out Now they take as much as they want. They eat in their refectory in total silence, with one of the monks reading aloud to them from a devotional work.
After breakfast and an office most of the monks went off to the fields to work. Their farming, as far as I could judge, is fairly up-to-date, but they decided (rightly, I'm sure) to eschew. broiler-house and factory-farm methods. How is it possible to look for God and sing his praises while insulting and degrading his creatures? If, as I had thought, all lambs are the Agnus Dei, then to deprive them of light and the fields and their joyous frisking and the sky is the worst kind of blasphemy. The monks, at any rate, find such practices repellent. Some of them, however, are doubtful about farming as a means of supporting themselves, and wonder whether it might not be more satisfactory to work in some outside industrial enterprise. Here, too, I pointed out, they would run into difficulties, as the worker-priests had found.
The young student-monks, or 'scholastics' as they are called, spend their mornings in study. Their chief instructor is Father Ambrose (the Father Zossima of the community, I decided) who takes them through Thomas Aquinas with great verve and, I am sure, erudition. He is one of the shining ones; after talking with him, one finds oneself uplifted, walking on air, not so much for anything he has said, but just from his presence
Father Ambrose's instruction, though regarded with the utmost respect, does not satisfy the scholastics. They have somehow imbibed many of the nonsensical notions of the age; Honest to God has, as it were, got into the woodwork. Their seclusion at least gives them a bit of leeway; ten years hence, I expect, they will have got round to Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan, Jagger and Laing, God help them. We had many disputes in the course of which I found myself ardently denouncing the world to young monks as ardently concerned to uphold ita decidedly bizarre reversal of roles, which, as far as I was concerned, only endeared them to me the more.
Among the monks, the old guard who came over with the Abbot from Roscrea stood out as Irish to the backbone, priests and lay-brothers alike. The Abbot himself is a remarkable man; tiny in stature, full of energy, shrewdness, humour and a true sanctity. I had many conversations with him and learnt much from him about monasticism as seen through the eyes, not of an exalte', but of one of God's henchmen. Then there are the lay-brothers like Brother Oliver, who directs the farming. White haired, sharp eyed and ruddy-complexioned, his piety is of the earthy kind, but none the poorer for that. His family circumstances in Tipperary, he told me, required him to choose between marriage and religion, and he chose the latter. He has never regretted his choice. As he nears his end he looks forward with a simple, cheerful expectation to going to heaven; the just reward for the ardours of his Cistercian life.
Among those who have joined the community since the migration to Nunraw there are several Anglican converts in whose eyes one may still occasionally catch a glint of the Thirtynine Articles; also numerous local artisans like Brother Andrew, a skilled electrician from John Brown's shipyard, who worked on the Queen Mary. One notices him at once; a little bent man with a white Walt Disneyish beard. He told me that he had started by trying to preach to his shipyard mates, and then he decided it would be more satisfactory to pray for them. This is what he has been doing ever since. When he had finished speaking with me before the cameras I thanked him for the perfect simplicity and shining truthfulness of what he had said. He replied that it had not been him speaking at all.
As I got to know the monks, they soon belied my original impression of uniformity. Each of them, young and old, I found, had his own distinctive persona within a corporate existence, dedicated, equally, to study and meditation, manual labour and worship. What good are they doing? What future have they got? Prayers don't show in the Gross National Product, and so cannot be said to lighten the Chancellor of the Exchequer's burdens. Nor do they, like napalm and hot air, serve the cause of freedom in any perceptible way. They cannot be projected like guided missiles, or sent like sputniks to explore the physical universe. Telly-deprived, denied access to the treasures of the daily and periodical press, how can the monks be expected to have meaningful views on the birth pill, LSD, the Stones and other burning issues of the day?
As for their futurethe Zeitgeist is against them; in an increasingly materialist world they are non-productive citizens. Their prayers and anthems so ardently intoned are only for God, and he, as various eminent theologians have learnedly explained, is either dead or has tiptoed away from our world, leaving it to us. Yet somehow I remain unconvinced. By all the laws of Freud and the psycho-prophets, the monks are depriving themselves of the sensual satisfactions which alone make a whole life possible; they ought to be up the wall and screaming. Actually, I found in Nunraw a quite exceptional peace; it is the children of affluence, not deprived monks, who howl and fret in psychiatric wards.
The day ends for the monks with Compline at 7.30. As they leave their chapel after singing it, the Abbot shakes holy water over them. Then they retire to bed. I usually sat up for an extra hour or so, reading, thinking, or just looking out of my window. No heavenly visitation befell me, there was no Damascus Road grace; and yet, I know, life will never be quite the same after my three weeks with the Cistercians at Nunraw.
Observer 24 August 1967
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