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.