A few years ago I attended a charity ball to raise money for our hospital’s A&E service. One female guest got drunk early and insisted on showing off her thong to everyone, generally being in your face and irritating. It wasn’t as much fun as it might sound. We all sat down to eat, she buttonholed me and loudly demanded to know “if you hadn’t done medicine, what would you have done?”
An interesting question, not least because I fluked my way in to medical school, really. Everyone at the table was waiting for the answer, so after a moment’s thought I said “a monk”. Which kind of killed it dead really. At the mention of religion a lot of people tend to get a bit shifty and move on, at least in a public settting. The thing is, notwithstanding the fact that I had already acquired a beautiful wife, it was kind of true.
Monks and monasteries do fascinate me, a phrase which even as I write it seems unbearably superficial, considering the subject matter. There is a certain interest in the Buddhist version, but it’s the real deal Catholic orders that I’m talking about. I’m not the only one. One of the finest short books you could read is the now deceased (at 96) Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful A Time to Keep Silence. PLF was neither religious nor Catholic, but in his postwar European wanderings he ended up staying at various monasteries for long periods. He beautifully describes the invisible transition between the initial aridity and boredom to peace, insight and happiness. It’s a magnificent book.
More recently, there have been two films, both highly acclaimed, about the austere contemplative orders. Of Gods and Men is the dramatisation of the true events of 1996 when French Cistercian Trappists in Algeria were murdered, possibly by Islamic militants. It got extraordinarily good reviews and narrowly missed the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Why would a Catholic monastery even exist high in the mountains of a Muslim North African country? The unique Into Great Silence is a documentary, without narration, about life at the Carthusian monastery in the Grenoble Alps, La Grande Chartreuse. Not a promising description, you might think, but its hypnotic patient rhythm draws you in. The monastery and its setting are stunning, and it’s off limits to visitors, making the film even more compelling. Read the reviews. These monks are serious, impressive people. It’s not untypical that after requesting the opportunity to make the film, the director Philip Groning got his answer – 16 years later.
Cistercian austerity commingles with vogueish minimalist architecture in the hands of the very gifted and successful John Pawson, one of the great European architects. Pawson rightly lauds the simple magnificence of Cistercian monasteries over hundreds of years. His work on a new monastery in Bohemia, the Abbey of Our Lady of Novy Dvur, is breathtaking. These monks do not live in the past. Their world is in fact, timeless.
These films, articles and visible signs of monastic life and activity are one thing, but how to sum up the essence of being a monk, to understand their reasons, their essence, is very difficult, and almost impossible if you cannot empathise with their religious belief. The Irish journalist John Waters, in a superb piece last month from the Trappist monastery of Mount Melleray put it as well as anyone can. I quote extensively from his very moving work below.
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.
** from Matthew Arnold’s striking poem Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, 1855