An ordered existence
Why do men leave the world behind for monastery life? Conor Pope gets some honest answers when he spends two days with the monks in Glenstal
'Eat fast and don’t talk,' a man I’ve just met whispers urgently in my ear as we’re led into the refectory at Glenstal Abbey. Before I can say a word he has taken his place at the other end of the long table reserved for guests of the monks, and the room starts eating.
Minutes pass and I’m not feeling very Christian towards my fellow man. Well, one of them – the one sitting opposite me with tomato sauce all over his face. Not only did he wolf three slices of pizza to my solitary one, he’s now on his fourth hunk of bread and is shovelling it into himself at such speed that I’m concerned (more hopeful, to be honest) he’s going to choke.
He ignores my quiet rage so I turn away and listen to the book instead. Benedictine monks dine in silence, save for one who sits in the centre of the room mournfully reading whatever book of the day the congregation has voted for. Today it’s an account of the Council of Trent but it could be anything. Well, not quite. The brothers flirted with fiction once but it never fired up the collective imagination, so now only biographies and historical books are likely to get the white smoke.
Eating in total silence is feels peculiar, but at least we are spared idle chit-chat with strangers as we break bread. If there’s any bread left for me to break.
We’re at an exciting bit in the book, where two Council cardinals die unexpectedly leaving a paranoid Pope Pius convinced that the monarchs of Spain and France are plotting to topple him, when Brother Reader stops suddenly. Dinner ends abruptly and we all stand, say a little prayer, and leave the room in silence.
Glenstal monks – there are 39 in total – are a convivial bunch by day, but once the 6pm Vespers passes and darkness shrouds the abbey, silence reigns. Speaking is not absolutely forbidden from dusk to dawn, but it is frowned upon. Quietly.
After supper come night prayers and after night prayers there is nothing to do and nowhere to go but bed. It is just as well. Before 6.30am I am back in the cold, cavernous church for Matins, morning prayers.
Some of the monks look as bleary as I do as they chant softly on the altar. Afterwards, I ask Fr Columba, the choirmaster, sacristan, organist, religion teacher and vocations director – monks here wear many hats – who they are singing for: the congregation of three or themselves? He looks at me with a strange expression. “We are singing for God,” he says with the patience of a saint talking to a small, stupid child.
Ah, right. From Matins, I go straight to the communal kitchen where Fr Christopher, the abbey’s guest master, is making a magical breakfast. Every morning after prayers he takes the gravel path from the church to the guest house, built with a €9 million bequest from a Texan oil heiress, to make porridge which is as close to heaven as porridge will ever be. The raisins are soaked in whiskey and the pin oats are flecked with sunflower and pumpkin seeds before being served with a dusting of brown sugar and cinnamon. For 16 years he carried the weight of the abbey on his shoulders as abbot. “Now all I have to worry about is the texture of the porridge,” he says.
He joined the Benedictines in the early 1970s after spending a short spell as a history master in St Columba’s, a somewhat Protestant school in south Co Dublin.
How did a Northside Catholic with aspirations towards monastic life end up teaching in a great bastion of southside Protestantism?
“I think they made a mistake. I’m pretty sure they thought I was one of them,” he says with a laugh. “I’d just come from Cambridge, you see, and had a very posh accent, so they were easily confused.”
When he left the Protestants for the monks he took the name Christopher in memory of his older brother, who died of a congenital heart defect when just an infant. We talk of his parents’ enduring sadness at the death of their first child and the callous manner in which it was handled by 1940s medics.
Then he tells me of his mother’s disappointment when she heard of his calling. “The first thing she said to me was: ‘Do we not have enough bloody priests on your father’s side of the family?’ She wasn’t a very typical Irish mother.”
Her son isn’t a very typical Irish priest. As he stirs his magic porridge he shares his thoughts on the new Pope, the Archbishop of Dublin, the future of the Church and celibacy with a mixture of gravitas and humour that is hard to pull off before breakfast.
A wintry sun climbs over the abbey’s fake Norman turrets – the castle looks ancient but was actually built by the Barrington family in 1839 and settled by the monks 90 years later – and I wander down to the monastery’s farm where I am met by Fr James. We walk to the cow sheds and start shovelling the hundreds of litres of dung the 100 beasts under his care have deposited overnight. This is a monk who’s not afraid of getting his hands dirty. “Cows have just two big existential questions,” he tells me. “Will it eat me? Or can I eat it? Beyond that they don’t care.”