Inside Mount Melleray: 'The world as you know it is passing away'
John Waters gave a retreat to the monks of Mount Melleray in Waterford and observed the dying breaths of pure Irish Christianity
I can't seem to get the rhythm right. Counting doesn't quite do it. Instinct might be better, but it's a little risky. Maybe it's the earliness of the hour, but even some of the monks seem to be having similar trouble. One of them always hits the second line of the psalm responses too early, or a little late, as if unsure when or whether to commit himself.
"Will the evil doers not understand?" I count:… Chuka-chucka-chiii… "They eat up my people?" The line comes in raggedly again. It seems not to be a counting thing. I miss the beat by a millisecond, but luckily on the late side.
You would think that after five or six decades singing the same liturgy, the monks would have it down to pacemaker precision. It's like each of them is lost in his own rhythm, and joins with the others as though as an afterthought. "See how they tremble with fear"… Chuka-chucka-chiii... "Without cause for fear." I hit the line at the same instant as the abbot. Progress.
The Cistercians is an enclosed order of strict observance, which means they observe the Rule of St Benedict as laid down in a little red book of regulations concerning obedience, poverty, work, study, humility and silence. Sometimes called Trappists, they live together in community and have no outside pastoral responsibilities.
The monks pray together seven times a day, in addition to mass at 7.45am. These seven 'hours' are: vigils at 4am; lauds at 7am; terce at 9.30am; sext at 12.15pm; none at 2.15pm; vespers at 5.45pm; and compline at 8pm. The hours are intended as a support for the monks in their personal prayer life, rather than primarily existing as communal observances.
The life of a monk revolves around prayer, but as a different and deeper experience than our conventional word-centred concept. The point of the words is to go beyond into a formless, imageless, unspoken prayer, a form of watching, waiting, listening, more than an act of saying, asking or singing. In prayer, the monk watches for God, an act of service and love, internal to each monkish heart. It should involve no excesses of concentration or application, but be an effortless seeking for God's grace and face.
I'm here to give two half-hour talks a day for the duration of the monks' six-day annual retreat. Traditionally, a retreat is given by a priest, very occasionally a nun, but this is the first time the Mount Melleray retreat has been given by a layperson. My directions are vague: to address "some aspect of Christian spirituality in the modern world". Usually, the priest who gives the retreat sees the monks for confessions in the afternoons. In view of the unusual circumstances, some of the monks indicate that they would like to meet me for informal chats, which adds to my growing fright.
The abbot has informed me that the monks are a little cut off from the mainstream and, to some extent, cosseted from the challenges that ordinary Christians have to face in today's society. This is true, but only half the truth. The other half is that the monks are also far more exposed to the world than at any time in the past - most of them have radio sets and laptops, and several seem to read a newspaper almost every day. They also have guest pilgrims come to stay all year round, except for the week of the retreat. Up to a dozen guests will come for a few days at a time to contemplate, pray and, if they wish, take part in the communal prayers rituals of the monks. The monks make themselves available to meet and speak to the guests on request. On Sundays, the church outside has a steady flow of visitors, who come to pray for their hopes and intentions for themselves and their families. The world still comes to Mount Melleray and knocks on the door.
At one time, Mount Melleray had 150 monks; today there are 19. Two-thirds are over 80, and just four under what the world knows as retirement age. The youngest man, who has yet to take his final vows, is in his mid-40s. The monks are about evenly divided between brothers and priests, though no hierarchy is observed between ordained and others. A few men, some young, some less so, have expressed an interest in joining, but the novitiate at Mount Melleray is currently closed, pending the outcome of deliberations concerning the future of the order.
At first, I find myself a bit scared of the monks - of their aura of holiness and perhaps a little due to what I mistakenly anticipate as their suspiciousness of my qualifications to speak to them at all. But on Monday, Brother Edmund intercepts me in the refectory to assure me, as though reading my mind, that they are "ordinary people". I thank him, but remain unconvinced. There is something forbidding about the auras of isolationism which seem to enshroud the monks. They do not observe a total silence but their exchanges are, for the most part, perfunctory. There's an unexpected sense of individualism in the community, each man cast into himself.
As the week progresses, many of the impressions of the monks I have formed from a distance turn out to be wholly misplaced. A handful, while attending all my talks, otherwise continue to keep their distance. But over the week, about two-thirds of them come to talk, and I find them all extraordinarily warm men, utterly welcoming and appreciative of my presence here. They are, in a certain sense, 'ordinary' - in that, a very long time ago, they emerged from 'ordinary' families and backgrounds. Some were farmers, others had shops or jobs. Several of them told me of coming on a daytrip to Mount Melleray out of curiosity, and returning later on, having divested themselves of all their earthly belongings. Most of them have been here longer than I've been alive. Some had full lives before they came in - including love affairs they left behind. Some still have occasional contact with the women they left on the outside.
When most of them came in, the monastery was, in effect, hermetically sealed. Now it is open to the winds of the culture, which I suggest to them must put increased pressure on their prayer life. There is a range of opinion, with some monks thinking this a necessary bracing circumstance, and others regretting the effects it may be having on resolve and morale. One of them laments that the other monks are far too interested in hurling matches and the like. The odd monk, I detect also, wrestles with something that could be taken for what is called depression. On Wednesday, as though pointedly, one of the readings at mass is from St Paul to the Corinthians: "For the world as you know it is passing away."
They are acutely aware of their diminishing numbers and ageing profile and what all this may come to mean. They sense, too, that the world's view of their way of life is nothing like it was. I feel, in most of them, a great hurt about the happenings within their church, for which they, above anyone, must be regarded as blameless.
In my closing talk, I suggest that they need to find a way of processing the stuff coming in from outside, lest it bottle up and fester in their private hearts. I tell them I believe they have a vital role to play in Ireland's future, for two reasons. First, because of the interventions they make in reality at the level of the fourth dimension, through their prayer life. Second, the witness they provide that the contemplative life is not a theory, but something that works and can be accessed by anyone needing it.
Delivering 10 half-hour talks is much harder than five hour-long talks. I have lots of ideas about topics, but I need to suss out what to tell them and what not. I don't want to deliver hard or dark messages without any balm of comfort.
In the first couple of days, I feel an intense sadness for the monks and the lives they have spent here and the way the world has turned its back on them and made no secret of its condescension. From a distance, I sense no outward joy from most of them, but this impression dissipates when I get up close and glimpse an interior joy through the windows of their eyes. They are innocent men, frozen in a moment long ago.
The monks eat their breakfasts and suppers at times to please themselves, but have one communal meal, dinner, which happens every day at 12.30pm. They have beautiful hot soup and main courses like shepherd's pie and fish and, on Sundays, a roast. For dessert, they might have apple pie and custard, or ice cream, or semolina pudding. They eat in silence, in the refectory built for 10 times their number, sitting about six feet apart along the tables that extend the length of the room. On Sundays, they have music while they eat - something not too solemn, like Shubert or Mozart.
The places are set by some of the monks, who serve their comrades on a rotating basis. Each setting seems to be customised for the monk who eats in that place. Sometimes there's a piece of fruit, a jar of honey, a special teabag. The lack of conversation is strange, although sometimes, as lunch is being served, the monks whisper to one another what appear to be administrative queries. The silence they observe is not quite total, and seems quite voluntary. If the music hadn't been playing at lunch, one of them told me on Sunday afternoon, none of them would have wanted to talk. Even on Christmas Day, he said, they prefer silence. Sometimes they have longer or deeper conversations - if two of them have to make a journey together, for example, but usually they don't.
On weekdays, there is no music at dinnertime. The monks eat their dinners and listen to Brother Seamus reading aloud to them for the 20 minutes or so it takes to finish their meal. At the moment, they are in the middle of This is Charlie Bird, the life story of the intrepid RTÉ reporter. On Monday, Seamus reads for us about Charlie's time covering the second Gulf war of 2003 and the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004. For the rest of the week, we hear about Charlie's valiant exposure of the wrongdoers at National Irish Bank.
I have been honoured with a place at the top table, in the abbot's chair. I'm not sure if this is a standard courtesy for the retreat preacher, or if it is because the former abbot, Father Augustine, has retired since inviting me, leaving the chair temporarily vacant. Brother Boniface is the acting abbot and sits on my immediate left, six feet away. The prior, Father Donal, sits on my right. Each of us has a bell, but Brother Boniface is the only one who gets to use it. When the monks have all finished eating, he rings to signal the end of the reading. He has a finely tuned sense of the cliffhanging moment, and waits until the optimum moment to ring his bell. "It was an act of theft," Brother Seamus intones. "The bank was stealing from its customers." With surgical precision, Brother Boniface jingles time. Find out in tomorrow's startling episode. The monks stand, Brother Seamus recites a prayer, and everyone disperses.
At mass on Thursday morning, Father Denis Luke leads a prayer for the progress of the meeting of the General Chapter of the Cistercians, which begins this morning in Assisi to consider the future of the order worldwide. There are five monasteries in Ireland and it may be that several of these will be amalgamated. I ask Brother Boniface what he thinks will happen. "God," he says, "will decide", but his own preference is for things to stay as they are. Amalgamation doesn't make sense, because then they'd just end up with more old men in one place. Far better to have several places bearing witness in different locations. "To continue until we all die off."
When you are very young, you think old people must feel inside as old as they appear on the outside. But as you move towards agedness yourself, you realise that this is entirely wrong. People remain young on the inside, no matter how old they appear. The idea of 'old' people is therefore a misapprehension of our culture, which sees the split instant of a human lifetime as something elongated, divided into decades and years, persistently defined by a number. But there are no 'old people'. Everyone is young. The only clue you have about this is your own journey as a subjective intelligence looking out. You wait for a change to descend, some radical shift of thinking which will fit with your balding head or wrinkling face. But it doesn't come: you get giddier and more childish. I had this insight very strongly at Mount Melleray, when I realised that all these men, like myself, were teenagers, or maybe children, in their heads.
Thursday, the penultimate day of the retreat, I elect to get up at 4am for vigils. There's no compulsion, but I think I should show my face one morning anyway. I've done compline every evening, and am becoming familiar with the singing style, but things seem just that little more ragged before dawn. There is something slightly more bracing about the 4am experience: the church empty but for a dozen monks (the very older ones are excused the early session) and me, and the inescapable weight of night over everything. I look around the faces and calculate roughly how many mornings like this they will each have put in - roughly 25,000 in more than a couple of instances. For a moment I am staggered by the enormity of this commitment, and the wager with life it represents. I think of the description of Father Columban Heaney, one of the Mount Melleray monks, in his booklet Personal Prayer, on what the theologian Ronald Knox called the "prayer of stupidity": "Spending time in this kind of prayer appears to be so stupid. There is nothing to show for it, and it all seems to be a sheer waste of time. But it is not a waste of time."
These men, I find myself thinking, are at the opposite point of human possibility to everything we take for granted as true and real. They bear witness to the strangeness of being, reminding us of this structural peculiarity of reality without any hint of moralism or rancour. 'Look how odd the world really is!' they seem to exclaim. 'Don't become too distracted by anything, for then you will miss this strangeness!' Doggedly, they stand in silent contemplation as the world beckons them, mocks them, stares at them in puzzlement. They smile, or look away shyly. But they stay. They know why they are here.
More than once, I found myself wondering how it would feel to be here on, say, my 12,367th morning. It seems unconscionable. I cannot conceive of a degree of certitude that would enable me to do it. Even from the little I have learned about the lives of these men, I understand but vaguely how they see things. I know I am imposing my own ideas on a reality I but look into as into a passing canal barge.
There are aspects of the monkish life that recommend themselves to me: the predictability and weightlessness. But I am old enough to know that this is just a part of my psyche crying out for things no longer accessible in the great outdoors. I see through myself and know that I want these things in addition to the life I now have, which is not quite the deal the monk signs up to.
I look around the faces of these good men. I wonder if they ever have such thoughts. Does the trickle of news from the outside ever bring them to a point of doubt in themselves? Does their inevitable knowledge of the incomprehension of the external world cause them to feel even a hint of the restlessness I'm feeling now? Only the return of the Saviour, it strikes me, could adequately justify what these men have committed of themselves. And, what, I find myself briefly wondering, if He has no plans to come back? Where would that leave these great men and what they have made of their lives? I shudder at the implications of the question and delve back into the psalm to suppress the sense of absurdity that threatens to engulf me.
But then another thought overcomes the first: I am standing observing the dying breaths of pure Irish Christianity, and what the future holds for a world without men like this is infinitely more disturbing than any fleeting chill I may be feeling on their behalf.
The brief stab of absurdity I have experienced in this setting stands to become a chronic condition in a society in which there are no longer men and women prepared to live in this way. It strikes me forcibly that, even if we are barely aware of their existences - even if we scorn their sacrifices - the silent prayerful presence of these men here is somehow vital to our very human continuance. I don't mean just that they pray for us, but that the sense they give us of something to be believed in so unconditionally - that, even as we scoff, this somehow allows us to continue inhabiting what we think of as the 'real' world, in much the way that we once partied all night, knowing that our staid parents slept fitfully at home, hoping we would make it back safe with the dawn.
It hits me like a train that, in a future without these monks at our backs, everything will seem as absurd as the moment I have just experienced as a spasm of sadness and affection.
In Father Columban Heaney's booklet, there is the following startling passage: "The human person is really a metaphysical misfit in the world. He was not made for it and cannot find total fulfillment in it. Hence, he is a frustrated creature in this world; this can be taken as a definition of man. Monks and nuns are people who accept this definition of themselves and live accordingly. They know that they have no lasting city here on earth, so they turn to the desert where they hope to meet God and can begin to find part of that ultimate happiness for which they long."
This is the truth of us all, whether we can face it or not. Without this clue as to the ultimate nature of reality, we are headed nowhere rather than somewhere, no matter how determined our step. Without such as these monks to remind us, all sense of an ultimate meaningfulness would leech away, leaving us with our baubles and the debris of our emptied hopes, cold-sweating in the face of another pointless and pitiless dawn.