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Monastery stays: welcome to praying guests

10 May 2024

Monastery stays are increasingly popular. Huw Spanner asks the monks what it is like to be hosts

St Mary’s, Kinnoull, in Scotland

St Mary’s, Kinnoull, in Scotland

FOR anyone who longs to withdraw for a few days to somewhere serene in the British countryside, to seek an encounter with God — or merely to escape the pressures of everyday existence — a convent or monastery may represent an irresistible offer. For the Benedictines especially, hospitality is an essential part of their way of life.

Ampleforth Abbey, for example, in North Yorkshire, has very extensive grounds (including three lakes) and its recently refurbished guest rooms are large and comfortable. “Monks need space,” Abbot Robert explains. “We take a vow of stability, and so we need space where we can get lost and found again. I think our visitors appreciate that sense of space, because many are coming from crowded cities.”

One of the beauties of the abbey, he says, is that, “we are praying here, six times a day from morning to night, whether people come to visit or not. We don’t put it on specially for them.” Guests are welcome to join the 26-strong community at “any, or all, of the Divine Office, or none of it if they want to. We encourage them to participate — though simply listening is also a form of participating.”

Retreatants generally eat in the guests’ refectory, but a few of the men can eat with the monks inside the enclosure: “There’s a special table for them, and they’re served first.” Anyone can ask to speak to one of the Brothers.

“We’re not the Hilton,” Abbot Robert observes, “but we provide good, wholesome food, the sheets are clean, and the place is well kept.”

Buckfast Abbey, on the edge of the Dartmoor national park, has two separate guest houses for men and women, Fr Gregory, the sacristan and librarian, says. There is also a “shall we say, less basic” on-site hotel, where couples “can enjoy a bit of quality time together in very beautiful and peaceful surroundings”.

The ten monks meet five times a day, for formal prayer, and also to celebrate mass. Guests are invited to join them; they are asked, however, to refrain from speaking to the monks “unless a conversation has been prearranged”. Male guests eat in the monastery.

The abbey receives more than 300,000 visitors a year from all over the world, Fr Gregory says. “Some want to take advantage of our hospitality, in the best possible way, by staying here for a few days to experience it in a little more depth. We see our role very much as evangelisation, just by being here, being welcoming, answering questions.”

Fr Peter, the retreat director at Worth Abbey, in Turner’s Hill, West Sussex, on the Sussex High Weald, likewise sees the hospitality they offer in terms of their “strong sense of mission”.

The abbey’s “big thing”, he says, is “that people should join us in prayer. We try to provide as many opportunities for that as possible, and to make it as accessible as possible. Most people find it a very prayerful experience to be in a church with a community of monks chanting the Office. It’s a very helpful way into a retreat. I try to encourage them to join in, as long as they’re not too loud.”

Worth Abbey has a retreat centre, open to both men and women to book an individually guided retreat (IGR); a themed retreat from their programme; or a self-guided retreat stay.

Retreatants have contact only with the one or two monks who are hosting their retreat, but guests at the monastery, who must be male, share meals with the community of 11. “If somebody is new to us,” Fr Peter says, “the guest master would suggest that they come for a maximum of two nights in the first instance, particularly if they have never visited a monastery before. In the retreat centre, we’ll take anyone.”


DOUAI ABBEY, near Thatcham, in Berkshire, has 22 rooms in its guest house, some twin or double, although the 13-strong community aims to have no more than a dozen guests at a time. There is a correlation, Fr Oliver, the guest master, explains, “between the number of people you have, and the amount of peace and quiet”.

The guest house is separate from the enclosure, with its own refectory; but, if there are no more than four guests, he says, “male or female, they’ll come and eat in our refectory. We normally eat in silence, however, so there is not necessarily that much mixing.” Guests can ask to see a monk privately, and confessions can be heard (“most of us are priests as well as monks”).

Usually, the abbey’s guests join the community five times a day in the church for prayer. “It’s not compulsory, or even expected; it just happens to be what most people do,” Fr Oliver says. “Some will be invited to join us in our choir stalls. Others may prefer to sit in the nave and let the music wash over them.” The abbey has a second, separate church, which can be used by groups on retreat.

Pluscarden Abbey is situated in a glen in Moray, six miles from Elgin. It is the only medieval British monastery still being used for its original purpose, but its two guesthouses (St Benedict’s for men; St Scholastica’s Retreat for women) are, “relatively speaking, modern”, Fr Giles, the Prior and guest master, says. Their combined total of 22 rooms “have got washbasins and carpets and central heating”. But, he says, “I think people expect a level of simplicity — certainly we’re not offering five stars in any direction, even spiritually.” Male guests share lunch with the 16 monks.

Everyone “can come to all the services and participate in whatever way works for them and for us. Some guests may want to sing, and, if they can, that’s fine. If an organist wants to play the organ, that’s fine. If a guest has the skills and we have suitable slots, they can get involved in our work — it might be anything from pushing the Hoover around, to working with the bees, or doing something in the garden.”

St Mary’s Monastery, in Kinnoull, on the banks of the River Tay, has been conducting retreats for both men and women for the past 54 years. It offers guests the opportunity to pray with the community of eight Redemptorist Brothers in the morning, at midday at mass, and in the evening, or simply to “relax with nature”, Fr Ronnie, the monastery’s administrator, says.

Guests can have as much or as little contact with the Brothers as they wish. “If they want accompaniment, one of us will offer them accompaniment; if they want to be on their own, we respect their space and their silence.” Everyone eats in the monastery’s refectory — “we make no distinction between men and women” — although the Brothers have their own table, “because meeting new people every day would be exhausting”. If guests want to eat in silence, the community will eat in silence as well.

St Mary’s has 30 guest rooms, all en suite, with “a very good level of comfort” after “a major refurb” six years ago. Every room has WiFi, and the public rooms have televisions. There are also public oratories, libraries, and lecture rooms. The monastery stands on a hill, and from the top there are stunning views.


OPENING itself up to outsiders can, of course, place a strain on a monastic community. “If you read the Rule of the Master” (on which Benedict partly based his own Rule), Fr Giles observes, “he regarded guests as very dodgy people. He locked them in at night, and counted the sheets in the morning.

“We don’t do that. But, if you want to do a job seriously, you really have to concentrate on it. If you’re an athlete, you keep to your training; and it’s the same if you’re a monk. Talking to people all the time — sometimes just chit-chat — can be quite dissipating. Also, you’re likely to think you’re a guru; in which case, you’ve had it!”

“We do ask people to speak less while they’re here, and perhaps to walk a little more slowly,” Fr Gregory says. “We ask people not to bring their mobile phones into the refectory or the church.”

“There’s a much greater sense of entitlement in society,” Fr Ronnie observes, “and we see it in some of the groups that come here. We have had challenging individuals or groups staying with us. We try to respect them, and to be flexible, but we also remind them that this is our home, and it’s our only home, and we ask them to be flexible, too, and to respect us.”

Fr Peter reminds guests of the rules when they arrive, but says that generally they are very respectful. “They realise that we are Benedictine monks, and part of what we offer is our lifestyle, which we try to live out authentically. They say: ‘As I’m here, I’ll live by your code of life, not mine, and see if it makes any difference.’ And, happily, it seems to.”

Sometimes, there are “little things”, Fr Oliver says. “Like, people have clippety-cloppety hard shoes on the stone floor of the church, whereas we tend to glide around on soft shoes.” Occasionally, mobile phones go off in church, he says, but, “luckily, even though we’re only ten miles away from Vodafone’s global headquarters, reception here is lousy.”

Guests may talk a bit louder than is normal in the community, Abbot Robert says, or talk at times when the monks are in silence. “People are fussier about what they eat today, because they’ve travelled widely. Guests also eat more slowly than monks, and probably eat more than we do. That can be a source of tension, but it’s not a serious one.”


ALL insist that the benefits to their community from being hospitable greatly exceed the drawbacks. “Benedict speaks about welcoming every guest as Christ, and Christ challenges us, as well as comforts us,” Fr Gregory says. “It’s easy for a community to become inward-looking.”

“In some ways, our life is very ordered and everything’s provided,” Fr Oliver says. “There are deprivations as well, but, basically, it’s a lifelong deal, and there is always a danger of us becoming institutionalised. Sometimes, when we have people to stay who have a much harder life than us, physically or economically, it can be quite humbling.

“We meet some very interesting people. For a while, at Douai, we had some Zen Buddhists who came regularly, and I found their commitment to complete silence really inspiring.”

“The Rule teaches that we see each guest as Christ,” Abbot Robert says, “and therefore we listen to them as another Christ. I think it enriches us, absolutely. What people bring and share, the variety of guests, feeds our prayer and our mission of evangelisation.

“The beginning of the Rule is about listening, and listening means trying to understand somebody, trying to see the world through their eyes. So, I see each guest as a treasure. The diversity of where people are coming from, and where they are on their journey in life, is fascinating.

“More and more people who come here have no faith background whatsoever, in the traditional sense, and they ask difficult questions — and that’s great, because it puts you on the spot.”








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