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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."