Life as a monk in London
The Benedictines of Ealing Abbey are Catholic monks who follow the monastic rules of Saint Benedict, written down over 1,500 years ago. Michael Hodges is editor-at-large of Time Out magazine and, apart from being asked to leave an ashram in County Durham in 1981, has had no experience of life in an enclosed religious comunity. Until now
Old habits die hard: Michael Hodges in his cell
ArriveI am met by Father Andrew. I arrive exactly a year to the day that the monastery lost two monks. They are, like all the dead monks, buried in a graveyard on the monastery grounds, which also features a pretty water garden, home to two giant carp. One of the carp was revived 25 years ago by a monk after he unwrapped it from the package a parishioner left for the monks’ dinner. Near enough a miracle, I’d say. A good start.
Afternoon teaCarrot cake and tea as Father Andrew explains life in the monastery. After a novicehood of three years, the monks take a vow of obedience and stability – that is, they won’t move around too much so they are forever connected with the monastery – as well as the usual vows of chastity. The oldest father is 76, the youngest 33.
Enter cellMy cell is functional, cosy and certainly not cold, as the heater is on high. Decoration amounts to a small crucifix above the writing desk, a large crucifix above the bed alongside which is a small oil painting of an Alpine scene. There are bookshelves, which contain, in no particular order, a tourist map of San Francisco with a voucher for $5 off Levi’s jeans, an incomplete set from 1906 of the complete works of Charles Dickens, and the 1987 ‘Official Catholic Directory’. There is a chest of drawers with a bedside light, a wardrobe, a sink and a single bed. The walls are plain white, the carpet plain brown. Apart from the directory and the map, nothing seems to have changed in here since 1940. I like it. ‘Relax,’ says Father Andrew, ‘take the chance to find some peace and contemplation. And lock your door.’ He adds, ‘We had a girl with a pierced nose wandering through the corridors last week.’ I don’t lock it.
Food for thought
Meet the FatherThe abbot – the boss, that is – Father Martin knocks on my door. Hopefully he doesn’t notice I am mixing a brandy and water behind the curtain. I ask the obvious question. ‘Celibacy?’ he replies, ‘it’s hard but it is one of those things you have to put up with. Just because you live in a partnership with a wife or girlfriend it doesn’t, of itself, make you happy or settled. What’s going on is deeper than that. Being able to live consistently and contemplatively is difficult.’ St Benedict’s is strong on lectio divina, or spiritual reading. ‘You don’t read the book,’ says the abbot. ‘It reads you. You’re the one that is always changing. It’s the same with the offices [services, of which there are six a day]. Depending on the mood you are in, it will be different: alive, bored, forgetful. Just like anything.’
The 'groovy' '70s extension
VespersMy first service, like most of the offices, takes place in the church attached to the abbey. It is sung in plainsong, a call and response over a slowish and generally featureless tune. The abbot has a pleasantly flutey voice. I sit in a stall with a lady who turns the pages of the relevant books for me. A certain amount of standing up, sitting down and making the sign of the cross goes on. It is restful and as close to spiritual as is possible in Ealing with police cars going by.
SupperShepherd’s pie, gravy, cauliflower, cabbage. Followed by apple pie and custard and then cheese. Throughout the meal, the monks say nothing apart from Grace. We are served by two monks while a third sits in a corner reading aloud. We hear of the martyrdom of a Catholic saint who was hung drawn and quartered by English Protestants in Launceston. In his original rules, St Benedict recommends half a pint of wine per monk per day. None appears.
Definitely not called Mohammed
ComplineMore chanting and praying; again very relaxing and palpably holy. Fans of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ would enjoy the end when the monks troop out in formation, genuflect to the altar then process to a side chapel to pray. The abbot dips what look like a large pastry brush in holy water and splashes the monks. They then retire, putting their hoods up as they go.
The Abbey graveyard
Magnum silenceA period where everyone shuts up. As rare in London as a £2 pint.
9pm BedGo to cell to be contemplative. Very relaxing; too relaxing actually as my thoughts wander on to matters non-religious. The abbot is right: being able to live consistently and contemplatively is difficult.
9.02pmTry to read St Benedict’ rules.
9.03pmHe’s a bit strict.
9.40pmStart to feel sleepy.
Wake sweating from nightmareDon’t know who or where I am at first; a large crucifix looms over my head. Dislodge the 1987 ‘Official Catholic Directory’ in my panic. It’s heavy.
BellLiterally a bell, being wielded by an unseen monk on the other side of the door.
MatinsBack to the stalls. Three psalms, two readings, two periods of silence. During the second period of silence I slip into contemplation until one of the monks sneezes.
MeditationBack to the cell. With an hour and a half to go before breakfast, the need for tea is becoming overwhelming.
MassQuite a crowd enters the church. Twelve nuns, two Spanish ladies in those quilted jackets that Spanish ladies wear and a score or so Londoners wanting to speak to God before work.
LaudsAnd another service.
BreakfastAlpen, Bran Flakes. Silence
TerceMy last office is the strangest of them all. ‘Humble before you in terror/I hear your decrees,’ goes one psalm, ‘I have done what is just and right/Let me not be oppressed.’ I’m not that good at hearing decrees but there aren’t many days in the week when ‘let me not be oppressed’ goes through my mind; generally about an hour before opening time. Drink is a secular comfort but, after just a few hours of sampling the religious approach to dealing with the fear and misery that is our lot, I’m wondering if God isn’t, perhaps, a better bet. ‘Are you sure you won’t stay?’ asks Father Andrew, ‘it’s breadmaking today.’ And despite the lack of Benedictine, I am tempted. St Benedict’s Ealing Abbey, Charlbury Grove, W5 (020 8862 2160/www.ealingabbey.org.uk).
- Add your comment to this feature