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Trying on the abbey habit

by
01 November 2013

This summer, four young men joined Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight, as interns. Katy Hounsell-Robert visited them to see how they were finding monastic life

Family-friendly: Harry and Kate Benson with their children

Family-friendly: Harry and Kate Benson with their children

STANDING on the sea shore, in the early morning, on the Isle of Wight, with the water gently folding over the stones, there is such a magical stillness that even the small sailing boat, gliding out of port, seems an intrusion.

This is the peaceful environment that Dom Luke Bell and the Benedictine community at Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight, are offering young men, for a period of two months, in the hope that it will allow the development of an inner stillness, helping them to cope with the material world.

Many convents and monasteries offer retreats that last a week or two, but Fr Bell says that frequently people have asked if they could stay longer. They wanted more involvement in the community - rather like the early stage of a novitiate.

He hit on the idea of following common business practice, and developing an internship programme. With the community's approval, the internship, for men between the ages of 18 and 25, which includes free board and lodging, was launched in the summer of 2012. At present, it is open only to men, since this is an all male community.

The idea is to provide "a grounding in the Benedictine tradition", Fr Bell says, and to form "a foundation for their future lives". The fact that Quarr Abbey is desperately short of monks - especially young ones - is not directly connected, he says.

The scheme quickly attracted media attention. The BBC broadcast a TV documentary, and it was covered on Radio 4's Today programme. Only a small number applied, however, of which two were selected. One dropped out after a few weeks, saying that it was not reclusive enough for him. The other, Michael Edwards, who had left his job as a trainee solicitor to "find himself", completed the course last November.

Fr Bell is not discouraged. "Patience is one of the virtues we strive towards," he says.


THE seed had been sown, and, this year, 12 candidates applied. The internship is not limited to Roman Catholics, or even those with a specific religious commitment. Nevertheless, interns are expected to take part fully in the prayer and work of the community - learning to live in harmony with one another, and stay the course.

He is in a good position to mentor interns, owing to his experience outside the cloisters. A Cambridge graduate, he taught English at colleges, university, and secondary schools for some years, before joining the Roman Catholic Church, and then becoming ordained.

His early duties included acting as a chaplain at the Glastonbury Festival, working with prisoners, and in a prison drug-rehabilitation unit. He has also written a book on the Harry Potter series, Baptizing Harry Potter (2010).

 

Four interns were selected for this July and August - all of them students or recent graduates. Dominic Ballard is taking a gap year before embarking on his fourth year as a medical student at Oxford; Nathan Lenthall had just graduated in English from York; Laurie Venters had just completed his first year studying history at Royal Holloway; and Tommy Begley was about to start his first year studying politics at Keele.


I HAVE enjoyed retreats at the abbey, and, as I took the hovercraft over to the island, I experienced the familiar sensation of gradual detachment from the world. I wondered whether the interns were feeling the same.

The weather had been good; the interns had spent two hours gardening that morning, and were now starting their afternoon labours.

Although coming by different routes, and from different backgrounds, they had all been looking for something special to do in the summer break. Mr Ballard, a Roman Catholic, was looking for the opportunity be more prayerful, as there were too many distractions at university.

Mr Lenthall was attracted by the idea of working in the grounds of a beautiful abbey for two months. He had been raised as a Mormon, and had to convince his strictly religious mother that it would be good for him to make contact with other beliefs. "It is a Mormon tradition to have respect for other faiths," he says, "but you can have respect only if you're in proximity to them. In fact, Mormon ethics are very similar to Catholic ethics."

The mothers of the two younger interns had heard about the scheme, and thought it would be a good idea for their sons. "I think my mother meant it as a joke," Mr Venters says. "I had no notion of religion, and didn't believe in God. I didn't like Christ at all, entirely due to the fact I fell for the mass hysteria surrounding him. I really did not know what to expect."

Mr Begley, a Roman Catholic, just wanted some peace and quiet.


THE monastery of Our Lady of the Quarry was founded by Baldwin de Redvers in 1132, and he invited Solesmes monks from France to people it. After the dissolution of the monasteries, they returned quietly to France, and the abbey was sold for farmland.

In the early 1900s, however, French state law put religious communities under pressure to apply for authorisation. Consequently, a group of Solesmes monks came to the Isle of Wight, and built a new abbey, of warm rose-pink Belgian bricks, close to the site of the old one.

The day at Quarr Abbey begins with vigils at 5.30 a.m., followed by lauds at 7 a.m. After breakfast, there is time for prayer and private meditave reading, known as lectio divina, then mass, and two hours' manual work.

Once a week, each intern has a private conference with Fr Bell before lunch, and on other mornings there are classes, taught by other monks. Subjects include the rule of St Benedict, the Bible, and monastic history. After the short service of sext, and lunch, they do another two hours' work, followed by tea, vespers at 5 p.m., and supper.

The last service of the day is compline at 8 p.m, after which no one talks until after mass the next day. There is time off on Thursday afternoon, and on Sunday. Mealtimes are silent.


THE intern who left last November, Michael Edwards, says that he felt quite self-conscious about eating in silence, in case he made munching noises, and that, once, he and his fellow intern had had a fit of giggles. Now, a year later, he says that the internship was invaluable, and that he is now certain he wants to be a solicitor. He is giving voluntary legal help until he finds a suitable post.

This year's interns needed a few weeks to adjust to the different tempo. Mr Begley says that he occasionally failed to attend vigils. "It is better, though, to attend all the services. They're so peaceful. You feel they're recharging all your spiritual batteries." His friends always talk so much, he says, and he loves being in a place where it is a virtue not to talk.

Mr Ballard finds the physical work boring, and time passes slowly - but not in a bad way: the silence and slow pace are doing him good in ways he cannot put his finger on. He is impressed by the Benedictine teaching on keeping silent, and listening to others in order to consider "what the person is actually saying, rather than what do I think he or she is saying. I think this will be really helpful to me as a doctor."

 

At first, Mr Lenthall wanted to be more active, and to play sport, but then dropped into the rhythm of life at the abbey. "Here, life is pared down to the bare essentials, which leaves a lot of excess energy which is not necessary," he says. "What is here is focus, and patience, which brings you back to core virtues and qualities. You have time for your thoughts rather than the thoughts of others, provided by the media." He does not miss TV or radio, and neither do the others.

Mr Venters did not enjoy the first week, but says, ruefully: "It is terribly wasteful to stay in your own pool of regret, and I wanted to make the best of the experience." He found the Bible class interesting, is reading the New Testament daily, finds his understanding of Christ increased, and wants to explore the Christian tradition further.


ONE of the most important elements of the internship is for them to learn to live together in their own house, attached to the abbey. Each has his own room, but shares other facilities and household chores.

The two younger interns seem to have few problems, while the more mature Mr Lenthal says that, when they discussed various points of Christian doctrine, they were "constantly challenged by the other person's perception of events. . . It's good to be challenged, because it makes you assess your own values."

Mr Ballard says: "In this rather enclosed atmosphere, small things can easily get very irritating, but you've made a commitment, and you can't escape, and it's good to have to deal with this."

They greatly enjoy being with the monks, and discussing important matters, and all of them feel that it is working as a good foundation course for their lives and careers.

Mr Venters feels that he is even more confused than when he first arrived, but in a positive way. "The thing is to seek without expecting to find anything, except perhaps a shift in perception," he says. None is prepared to consider a monastic vocation, although Mr Begley says that he might think about it when he is older.

As for the monks, they enjoy having cheerful young people around to help with the manual work, and who are eager to learn from their wisdom. Fr Bell says that, if enough people apply, he would be happy to run the internship throughout the year.

"It is very rewarding, helping people on their spiritual journey, and humbling to see their sincerity. I'm happy to see them finding liberation in life and perhaps the deep and subtle joy we find here," he says. "I'd like Quarr to be known as a monastery where young people will be really welcome."

www.quarrabbey.co.uk

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