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 12.30 p.m. 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 customized 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 honored 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."