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A Stranger Amidst the Trappist Monks of Ireland



John Waters - published on 11/05/14

The author witnesses what could be the dying breaths of 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 4 a.m.; lauds at 7 a.m.; terce at 9.30 a.m.; sext at 12:15 p.m.; none at 2:15 p.m.; vespers at 5:45 p.m.; and compline at 8 p.m. 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 prayer 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.

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