Life as a monk in London

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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

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    Old habits die hard: Michael Hodges in his cell

    3.30pm

    Arrive

    I 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.

    4.15pm

    Afternoon tea

    Carrot 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.


    5.15pm

    Enter cell

    My 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.

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    Food for thought

    6pm

    Meet the Father

    The 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.’

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    The 'groovy' '70s extension

    6.35pm

    Vespers

    My 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.

    7pm

    Supper

    Shepherd’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.

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    Definitely not called Mohammed

    7.30pm Recreation

    The monks and I gather in the calefactory, a lounge in the fairly groovy ’70s extension to the monastery and discuss the day. The Abbot offers me an espresso. The machine makes a lot of noise. ‘The coffee maker’s not taken a vow of silence, then,’ I say. The monks look at me balefully. This joke may have been made before. Moving on with what I can only describe as Christian charity, one of the older fathers mentions the difficulty of getting on and off a bicycle in your later years. I suggest a lady’s bicycle would be easier, then ask if they have any Benedictine, the liquor their order is renowned for producing. ‘No, no,’ says a father, ‘terrible stuff. Very sticky and sweet.’ Disappointing.

    8pm

    Compline

    More 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.

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    The Abbey graveyard

    8.15pm

    Magnum silence

    A period where everyone shuts up. As rare in London as a £2 pint.

    9pm Bed

    Go 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.

    9.02pm

    Try to read St Benedict’ rules.

    9.03pm

    He’s a bit strict.

    9.40pm

    Start to feel sleepy.

    4am

    Wake sweating from nightmare

    Don’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.

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    Book-reading monks

    5.30am

    Bell

    Literally a bell, being wielded by an unseen monk on the other side of the door.

    6am

    Matins

    Back 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.

    6.30am

    Meditation

    Back to the cell. With an hour and a half to go before breakfast, the need for tea is becoming overwhelming.

    7am

    Mass

    Quite 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.

    7.35am

    Lauds

    And another service.

    8am

    Breakfast

    Alpen, Bran Flakes. Silence

    9am

    Terce

    My 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).

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