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

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 Glenstaal Abbey. Full feature in this weekend's Irish Times magazine.


'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.”

He has had quite a few more existential questions over the course of his 49 years. He was 33 – an auspicious age for Christians – when he came to the monastery in 1997. He had left jobless Ireland in the mid-1980s and found himself in Manchester with a science degree.

“I bought a house there at the height of a boom and sold it at the bottom once I decided what I was going to do. Then I cleared all my debts and came here.”

But why? What motivates a bright, personable, science graduate with a big future in a tech start-up to leave it all behind and become a monk? “I believe in the resurrection,” he says simply. “I think it is true. I don’t think neo-liberal capitalism is true and I don’t think it will serve our long-term interests. If nothing else, choosing this life helps show others that there is something else out there, a different path to take.

“I think it is nice that there are people like us who are perceived to be so out of step with modern life.” Then he takes out his smart-phone to check his Twitter account. “I don’t tweet, I just lurk,” he tells me. Not so out of step, then.

At 40 Fr Cuthbert is the youngest monk in Glenstal. What, in the name of God, is a man of this relatively young age – one with an iPad in one hand and an iPhone in the other – doing covering his hipster jeans and pointy boots with a habit? And why on earth has he called himself Fr Cuthbert? Who would do that to themselves?

“It was a name that seemed to follow me around,” he explains none too clearly. Okay, but what about the whole monk business? Fr Cuthbert is a good-looking, smart man who was the general manager of the five star Dunloe Castle Hotel in Killarney at just 30. But he walked away from it all to live with a bunch of silver-haired men in a draughty fake Norman castle in Limerick.

“I did it because I am . . . ” he pauses – as if fighting to get the next word out – “religious”. He winces.

Why the wince? “Because I’m not right wing and unfortunately that word has been hijacked by the hard right. And that makes me very uncomfortable.”

We walk past the monks’ gym. The treadmill is broken but there are still free weights, a bike and a cross-trainer. A monk’s robes could get badly snagged on a cross-trainer, I say. Fr Cuthbert tells me they have gym gear like the rest of us. It is disappointing news.

There is just one television in the monastery but it’s rarely watched. “We gathered around it when the papal election announcement was due but unfortunately the bell rang for supper just before Francis came onto the balcony so we had to leave,” he says. I mention this strict adherence to the rhythm of the day to Fr Christopher and he laughs. “It’s just a Pavlovian response. You ring the bell and we come looking for food. We’re simple like that.”

Becoming a monk for Fr Cuthbert – or indeed anyone – is anything but simple. You can’t just rock up to reception with a calling and collect your robes. You have to be Catholic, male and single, obviously, but you also have to be capable of earning a living and you can’t be in debt. You should have “robust physical and mental health and be able to live with others in a community”. And you need the calling. Even with all those boxes ticked it is just the start of a process which can take many years.

The first Glenstal monk who many with a potential calling meet is Fr Columba. “The average age now is between 25 and 45 and that’s a good age. By then people have experienced a little of life and faced some of its challenges,” he says. Perhaps the most difficult challenge is celibacy. Fr Columba says older men are more likely to know exactly what they are giving up and so make more informed decisions.

Brother Colmán is an accomplished historian whose Glenstal story started nearly 20 years ago when he was 26. He had finished an arts degree in Galway and was close to completing a post-grad when he took that road less travelled. “The monastery thing had been at the back of my mind for a long time,” he says as we walk to the library that is home to 80,000 books. Many look spirit-crushingly dull. It’s “strong on theology and spirituality and not so strong on science”, Brother Colmán says.

There is also a DVD library where box sets of Only Fools and Horses and Inspector Morse sit alongside the Russian arthouse movies beloved of the Abbot, Patrick Hederman. The Godfather trilogy is there as is Little Miss Sunshine and The Last Temptation of Christ. Brother Colmán sees me looking at the Scorsese film. “God, it’s very boring isn’t it?” he says. Yes, it really is.

He takes me to a secure room and shows me a leather-bound, 15th-century prayer book in Coptic script. It is priceless, and elsewhere it would be behind glass, but the monks believe the books gifted to them should be used, not treated as museum pieces.

There’s another signed by Winston Churchill and one with an inscription in the hand of Daniel O’Connell. Then there is the 1934 edition of Mein Kampf. Colmán doesn’t know how that got here.

Fr William has responsibility for the 200 or so Glenstal boarders. He gave up a life as a solicitor just as the Celtic Tiger started to roar in 1997.

“I joined because I wanted more from my life. I’d no idea I was going to end up looking after the middle-class children of Ireland. They are privileged beyond all reason. No child is sent here for any other reason than because their parents are trying to do their very best for them and as an educator it is very easy to build on that.”

There is no uniform in Glenstal save for the informal one. “They are all revolutionaries wearing Hollister,” Fr William says with a wry smile. “If they really wanted to rebel they’d wear suits and ties.”

Glenstal is famous for its Gregorian chanting and each day the monks make five trips to the church to pray and sing. The chant makes it easier to pray collectively and community is everything here. The monks pray together and eat together and sing and even read as one unit. But nobody joins the order to be with the people here already. “There are days when the community helps you and carries you and there are days when it drives you bonkers,” Fr William says.

He can’t sing – one of the few here who can’t. “To be honest it is more of a challenge for the rest of them than for me, because I can get really into it and they have to listen.”

The school is peppered with posters outlining the Abbey’s policy on child abuse. They are signs of our times.

“The whole country has been through such a trauma because of the horrific child abuse stories which have been exposed over the last 20 years,” Fr William says. “On the one hand the Church is dreadfully compromised and on the other we have had to learn more and faster. It would be a terrible mistake to think that once we sort out the Catholic Church, child abuse will be done with because it won’t be. We will never be done working to fight it and to safeguard our young people.”

He joined the monastery when the Brendan Smyth trial was making headlines and one of the first times he went out in his habit “these children started shouting at me. They were screaming that I was a child abuser. I thought I was going to start crying and I thought to myself, ‘what am I doing getting into this game?’” He struggled to find answers.

And in this climate he struggles to find positives. Among the few he can find is the greater awareness and protection of children than in darker times. There is also some solace “at a theological level”. The order – and the Church at large – “can’t take refuge in nostalgia now that it is in precipitous decline. We have to be rooted in the present and looking towards the future.”

Fr William is a smart, funny and engaging man. But is he a happy one?

“Monastery life sounds like an escape but you remain who you are and deal with the same stuff – the same pride and the same selfishness that everyone else deals with,” he says.

“I am very grateful for all that monastery life has given me. In Latin happy and blessed are the same thing. I think I am blessed. This life is not just about being happy. It is about living.” And so endeth the lesson.

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