“Monks are just a joke,” sighs Father Stephen. “In the modern mind, it’s just fat friars in brown habits with white cords around their waists.” There’s some truth in the words of this slim Benedictine, who is sporting a white habit and brown leather belt. We don’t notice the jeans peeping out from underneath until he points them out, but they are the kind of trivial curiosity some secular visitors focus on when they come to the Subiaco Benedictine monastery of Prinknash Abbey, deep in the rolling green countryside of Gloucestershire. Yet in recent years, the comedy element has begun to subside and the outside world has started taking monasticism seriously again.
Organised religion has lost its central place in most European countries, but it has not necessarily been replaced by atheism. The confused majority is “spiritual but not religious”, hungry for alternatives to the perceived materialism of modern life. “The more we’re distracted by stuff,” suggests Father Stephen, “the more we’re also attracted by what we’re missing.”
We suspected that there might be aspects of monastic life that those who share this yearning can learn from, without having to take on board its religious commitments and beliefs. But we were also suspicious of the “salad mentality”, as the Orthodox hermit Father Silouan put it to us when we visited his isolated hilltop hermitage in Shropshire – namely taking “a little bit from here, a little bit from there”. So we visited a number of English monasteries of various orders to try to find out what the secular world can – and cannot – learn from the monks.
Monasticism might seem too far apart from modern life to be of any relevance to it. Its Christian roots are in the early centuries CE in Egypt, where the desert mothers and fathers aimed to conquer passions, appetites and human ambition to unite with God through prayer. In sixth-century Italy, Saint Benedict established his Rule, a more moderate model of community, the essence of which monks around the world still follow, living together in a life of silence and prayer.
Perhaps the most immediately appealing feature of a monastery for the jaded modern sensibility is that it provides the space to escape the normal hassles and routines and just “be”. People visit because “they are world-weary, they’re tired and they want a bit of space”, says Father Stephen. It’s an opportunity to focus inwards on the big existential questions, away from the world’s distractions and “phony answers”, as Father David of Downside Abbey in Somerset puts it.
But monastic silence is not the kind of chilled-out bliss offered by a health spa. You might eventually arrive at what Father Stephen compares to “an inner stillness like at the bottom of the ocean, where the force eight gale might be going on, but deep down you do come to a stability, an inner anchoring”. However, at first, most people find that in silence our “so-called demons actually become more active”.
This is what the former abbot of Worth Abbey in West Sussex, Father Christopher Jamison, calls “the start of a spiritual struggle”– the serious work of self-discovery. A sharp, convivial and lively man, he was behind the 2005 television series The Monastery, which followed five men as they spent 40 days and nights with the Benedictine monks of Worth. Millions of viewers saw sceptical people like themselves moved and changed by their encounter.
It is tempting to reply that it’s all very well undertaking what Father Stephen calls “the one journey that really matters, which is the journey inwards”, in the quiet and often beautiful grounds of monasteries, but most of us just don’t have the time or environment required. According to Jamison, however, this is a convenient excuse. Many of us have “chosen to be busy” and then claim to be “imprisoned by it”. Monks know that all serious work on the self requires time and effort.
In the secular world, going to the gym three times a week counts as a major commitment. But it is worth creating space for self-examination to see how much of what we do is unthinking action, on the basis of unquestioned desires. Some of the routines monks commit themselves to, such as only eating at certain times, can be adopted as a way of breaking the link between desire and action.
Monasticism also teaches us that true self-control is about developing what we could call conscience. This does not mean simply following our “gut feeling”, which Jamison laments has been “canonised”. As he points out, the word derives from the Latin roots con (with) and scire (to know), and so is a kind of knowing with others. Attending to how we interact in our own work, home and social communities can provide a lay route to developing conscience.
All this requires discipline, something which sounds harsh to the modern secular ear but which Peter Gruffydd, a sceptical poet and the most unconvinced participant in The Monastery, found himself most admiring in the monks. The monastic life is structured around a daily framework of singing the psalms together, individual study of the scriptures, and work. Meals are conducted in silence, apart from the reading aloud of an educational text. Monks also refrain from speaking during “the great silence” between the last office of the day and the first. At the Cistercian monastery of Mount St Bernard, this is at 3.30am. In Buddhist monasteries the day is likewise divided into set times for work and meditation. For instance, at Cittaviveka in West Sussex, which belongs to the Thai Forest tradition, the last meal of the day is eaten before midday and the first meditation is held at 4.30am.
Of course, it would be impossible and bizarre to try to replicate these routines as a lay person. As Abbot David of Buckfast Abbey in Devon points out, rules that we make up for ourselves, without a community, are all too easy to break. However, rules and routines are simply a means to the more important end of what Jamison describes as “some kind of interior discipline of life without which humanity can’t actually function to its full capacity”. He says that western secular society is the first experiment to see if we can manage without that.
According to Jamison, all the world’s religions share the insight that this inner dimension is “as real as your physical dimension”, but Buddhism offers the evidence that the same insight can be grasped without needing to “resort to eschatological hope or to a transcendent God”. The main difficulty with trying to follow this path outside a monastery is that in a materialistic world, it requires swimming against the current.
That does not mean we need to go to extremes of asceticism. The monastic fare we sampled did include much of the soup, bread and cheese you would expect – but although simple, it wasn’t bland. The Rule of St Benedict was noted for its moderation compared with some more austere rules that were around at the time. For instance, while the Benedictine Rule says that, ideally, wine is not for monks, it allows them to have half a bottle a day (although, admittedly, it dates back to a time when wine was much weaker and most water wasn’t potable). Nowadays most monasteries only allow alcohol on certain feast days, although at Buckfast Abbey beer and cider are available at every meal.
Another lesson from the Rule is the importance of manual work, which in the Benedictine routine sits alongside prayer and the divine offices as one of the core activities of the day. It matters because it combats idleness and promotes humility – the word itself derives from the Latin humus, the earth that is toiled. Even if we don’t feel in awe of God, a sense of wonder for the natural world – and our limited power to shape it – can help keep our egos in check.
Nowadays we are rediscovering this and other benefits of working with our hands, yet manual work is no longer a part of all monks’ lives; according to the historian James Clark, it has not really been central since the Norman conquest. In most Benedictine monasteries it is a requirement only for novices, while for the monks it has generally been replaced by other kinds of labour and has survived largely only as optional craft work. Downside and Worth, for example, both have independent schools attached, in which some monks teach. At Prinknash Abbey, Father Stephen paints watercolours, while the Abbot makes incense, which is sold to churches and ecclesiastical suppliers.
Some orders still endeavour to live more by the letter of the Rule. The Cistercians at Mount St Bernard spend four to six hours a day on manual labour such as farm work, maintenance of the building and grounds, beekeeping and pottery. Other traditions also maintain their own work ethic. Father Silouan has plenty on his hands looking after 20 acres, three ponies, 24 chickens, three cats, eight doves and five ducks.
Useful and important though some of the monastic practices may be, don’t we need some kind of belief to sustain them? Although there is an appealing side to monasticism, with its emphasis on community, balance and rhythm, it is also a harsh and demanding life. It requires many sacrifices, including giving up one’s will, freedom and the possibility of a one-to-one relationship and children, living instead with others one hasn’t chosen.
As Jamison remarks, monasticism is not just a way of life, it is a praxis – a practice rooted in a specific set of beliefs. Monastic life has God or a higher purpose at its heart, and this is very different from the self-centred stance of much personal development. The renunciations seem to make sense only within the context of belief in some kind of transcendence.
Most of the monks and nuns said that without faith they probably couldn’t do it, although one of the Poor Clares of Arundel recalls a former abbess who said, “You know, even if God didn’t exist, I think I would have liked this way of life.”
Ajahn Sucitto, Abbot of Cittaviveka, certainly thinks Buddhism makes sense without the doctrines of rebirth and karma, since it would still manifest the virtues of “morality, harmlessness, harmony, simplicity”. He argues that if someone practises meditation in order to be more conventionally successful, that would still be good because, by and large, “If someone has been a bit more mindful and aware, they will automatically be less abusive to other people.” If a shallow acquaintance with Buddhism in the form of meditation or retreat lessens suffering, increases wisdom or makes people more tranquil, that’s fine.
And even if something essential is lost when faith is removed, non-believers still have plenty to gain. Many of the monks we spoke to were sanguine about the use of monastic wisdom for secular ends – an open-mindedness that even extends to business. Not only are there books such as Doing Business with Benedict: The Rule of Saint Benedict and Business Management and St. Benedict’s Rule for Business Success, but Ampleforth, Douai Abbey and Worth have all run retreats or courses for corporate customers.
One person who has learnt from the monks and applied the lessons to corporate life is business consultant Jon Treanor, who spent eight days taking part in The Big Silence, a sequel to The Monastery focusing on meditation. Treanor says the experience “quite simply changed me and therefore my life significantly”. Currently in the fourth year of his second degree in transpersonal psychotherapy, he now offers training courses “introducing the art of mindfulness practice – a non-religious approach to meditation and silence – into business practice”. Indeed, mindfulness, a central part of Buddhist practice in which we learn to observe the stream of impulses arising and passing, has been widely adopted and adapted in secular contexts, such as in cognitive behaviour therapy.
In this and other applications to secular life, the risks of perverting the essence of monasticism were widely acknowledged by the monks. But several used the metaphor of “planting seeds” to suggest that as long as some of what they offer bears fruit, they are not too worried about people misusing their gift.
Ajahn Sucitto points out that the Buddha himself just offered what he had – “whether people picked it up or not and what they did with it was up to them”. Father Silouan uses the example of the dilemma faced at the famous Greek Orthodox monastic community of Mount Athos: you could restrict access to genuine pilgrims, but first, how can you distinguish them, and second, what would that mean for “the chap who arrived a tourist and a day later he’s a pilgrim”?
Whether we adopt their practices or not, are monasteries important in the secular world? For non-believers, it is hard to accept that monks and nuns help us by their prayers – a foundational belief for all the Christian communities. However, we can value monasteries as a kind of symbol, “an example of people living not just according to materialism and greed”, as Ajahn Karuniko of Cittaviveka puts it; a “luminous influence”, in Father Silouan’s evocative phrase. In that sense they hold important countercultural values and provide a much-needed challenge to what he calls “egocentric consciousness”.
Monastic life also offers a political message. Clark points out that monasticism emerged in late antiquity as an alternative model for a more reliable society, able to withstand the collapse of urban economies and the ravages of barbarian invasions. The intention was not to remain on the margins, but to be at the vanguard of a new kind of society. Like Father Alexander at Worth, Father Silouan describes this alternative as a kind of communism: “Monasticism has the tradition of holding all things in common and production for need, not profit.” At the heart of this is “the ancient culture of gift. Monasteries do not charge but give, and in turn do not receive a wage but live from donation.”
Whether monasteries will survive is another question. The most numerous Christian monasteries belong to Catholic Benedictine orders, but there are only a couple of dozen in the UK. Ampleforth has more than 70 monks, but Prinknash with 13 is more typical. The UK also has around 600 Anglican monks and nuns and half-a-dozen Buddhist monasteries. Worldwide there are fewer than 8,000 Benedictine monks and about 16,000 nuns.
However, many of the monks believe that monasticism responds to a universal human need. “Monasteries like ours may well come to an end,” says Father David, “but I think the monastic impulse is part of the human spirit and I think there’d still be monks if Christianity was extinguished. How that instinct is expressed will change, but it will be there.”
Antonia Macaro is a psychotherapist, Julian Baggini is a philosopher.