FOOLS FOR GOD
by Richard North
Published by Collins, 1987
ISBN 0 00 217407 3
1 The Cardinal's Room
2 The Making of Monks
3 The Wakeful
4 The Eccentrics
1 The Road to St Antony
2 The Religious Tradition
3 The First Monks
4 My First Dawn at St Antony's
5 The Movement Thrives
7 Modern Coptic Monks
THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
1 Very Civilized Vector
2 The Tradition
3 St Catherine's
4 The American Monk
5 Introducing Athos
8 Simonos Petra
1 The Virus Spreads
2 The Northern Isles
3 Beginnings of Integration
4 The European Heartlands
6 Thoroughly Established
THE MAJOR REFORMS
1 The Hermits
2 Parkminster 1
3 Parkminster 2
4 Parkminster 3
5 Introducing the Cistercians
6 The Cistercian Machine
THE HIGH BENEDICTINES
1 The Benedictine Scene
2 The Swiss
4 Santo Domingo de Silos
1 Wilderness and Vatican 11
2 The New Spirit
3 Orthodoxy Transplanted
4 Tom Cullinan
6 Merton and Knowles
7 Prayer and Purpose
Zones of Silence
In a civilization which is more and more mobile, noisy and talkative, zones of silence and of rest become vitally necessary. Monasteries - in their original format - have more than ever, therefore, a vocation to remain places of peace and inwardness. Don't let pressures, either internal or external, affect your traditions and your means of recuperation. Rather, make yourself educate your guests and retreatants to the virtue of silence. You will know that I had occasion to remind the participants in the plenary session of the Congregation of Religious, on 7 March last, of the rigorous observance of monastic enclosure. I remembered the very strong words on this subject of my predecessor Paul VI:
'Enclosure does not isolate contemplative souls from communion of the mystical Body. More than that, it puts them at the very heart of the Church.'
Love your separation from the world, which is totally comparable to the biblical desert. Paradoxically, this longing is not for emptiness. It is there that the Lord speaks to your heart and associates himself closely with his work of salvation.
John Paul II, 198o
The Cardinal's Room
The Cardinal's room was light, airy and bare. There was a wash basin, hospital-style armchair in tubular steel, wooden office armchair, a large table, a public school sort of bed, an incongruous great cupboard, of a seaside boarding house type, a crucifix over the bed with an unmemorable Christ, plastic curtains which rustled at every motion of the wind, swing windows.
A timetable was on the table, as though the landlady of a hotel were advising her guests to be prompt to high tea. Luckily, I had no idea then that I had been put anywhere quite so grand as the smartest set of rooms in the place, or I might have left there and then.
The view from the window, in the south side of the modern Nunraw Abbey, looked out to gently sloping hills: conifers, grazing land and ripening corn. Beyond, the Lammermuirs high moorlands, reservoirs, and winding narrow roads. It was a stunning evening. A butterfly wandered in, fluttered around hazardously and found its way out again.
This is a Cistercian monastery, home to thirty- plus Trappist monks - Cistercians of the Strict Observance - sworn to poverty, chastity, obédience, stabilité, conversio morum (the continual struggle for personal change). Famously, the Cistercian is devoted to silence. The quiet of the place was periodically disturbed by the ringing of a phone or the slamming of a door. Every sound could swell itself along the bare, wide, high corridors. It was a hospital kind of noisiness. I sat on the bed and then on a chair at the table. I lay down, stood up, unpacked my toothpaste, thought about writing a letter, opened a book. There was nothing whatever that I had to do.
I had arrived down the road at the Old Abbey, now used as a guesthouse, earlier that day. After tea, a phone call had summoned me to meet the Abbot, up at the purpose-built monastery on the hill. I had given him a shopping list, downstairs in a big meeting room, which appeared to be neutral ground where the monks could meet the outside world. A few meals in the refectory - would that be possible? A talk with some of the monks? Coming to the night offices? Perhaps an insight into the work that the monks do? Reading in the library?
He cut me short after these questions and said that naturally I would have to live at the monastery proper if I were to do any of these things easily. A large, pink man, Abbot Donald McGIyn made any sort of timidity impossible. When a man reminds one of a farmer going about practical business, and requiring not to,be slowed in it by deferential nonsense, it becomes easy to state what is required, and to accept what is offered without anxiety.
Faced with something so unknown and unlikely as living with monks, and Trappist monks at that, I went into underdrive. It may feel like that to be an overweight woman checking into a health clinic: a very pleasurable shedding of responsibility. There was no point wondering how to pass my tirne with these Trappists: I had, for once, given up directing or pretending to direct - my life.
Something rather like this may happen to cheerful old recidivists as the doors of Pentonville Prison clang shut behind them on yet another Christrnas Eve, with them safely on the inside, when otherwise they would have to face the perils of a festive season with nothing to celebrate.
When I had come back from the guesthouse, the Prior (second in command) took a hand in things. Red-faced, sharp-featured, with razored white hair stubbling his skull, he had a keen look to him. Rather severe, I thought. He was wearing the Cistercian uniform: creamy rough wool habit and black scapula. He took my hand in a solid grip, and gave me a broad, conspiratorial wink. It seemed almost to be saying that this was an exceedingly rum place, and that he and I were quite probably the only sane people in it. This was kindly done. We drove round to the garages behind the monastery: it was slightly odd to find that one could do this so easily. Where the great whispering gates? Where the grille with a lurking, half-seen face?
Nunraw is built like an open prison without the fences. It is long and low and penitential in its demeanour. Coming on it from the village, from the north side, it turns out to be in a softly beige stone, rough cut, and a rather good mixture of the airy and the monumental. In the west side, where the visitors park their cars, there is a scruffy wall where there ought to be a brand new church, and at each end an inconspicuous door. One leads to the 'temporary' church, and the other to the noman's-land room, and the enclosure beyond.
A drive swirls round from the western side of the building to the southern. A small 'Private' sign is all that separates the sacred from the profane. There is a workshop and garage area which might belong to an army camp or a school, and from which runs a path through a little municipal-style lawn and flower beds, to a door which leads into the nether regions of the monastery. The whole place is perched on the brow of a hill. It is a very exposed position.
'Up here, the wind fairly cuts through you in winter', said the Prior, Brother Stephen, as we walked from the car. He insisted on carrying my suitcase. His step was lively. He installed me in my room, and showed me the route to the loos, the church, and the refectory. The rest, he said, could wait. The Abbot came and brought me some things to read: well chosen, useful books, and a doctorate thesis devoted to an American Trappist monastery, which had been printed as a kind of brochure. As I went down to Compline, Brother Stephen found me, and told me he would come and call me at 3.15 the next morning to go to Vigils. I told him not to bother but he said he had to get everyone up anyway, so it was no trouble.
I was famished, but the monks had had their supper, and knew that I had had tea and cupcakes at the guesthouse. It was 7.30 p.m. and the end of their long day. My biological clock wanted to go for a walk or have a drink or eat, but these things were not on offer. I had jumped onto their roundabout, and it had its own pace.
Compline dismissed any small temptation to grouse. Nunraw's church is a long, wide room. It has no great majestic height. All the way down one side there are floor-to-ceiling windows. The floor is richly polished hardwood, the ceiling, fine, light, varnished pine. The walls are white. The choir stalls and organ are in some hardwood, perhaps walnut. The linen of the altar, and that draped over the sacraments - as though over a domed parrot cage - is gleaming white. The ivory of the candles is warm by contrast with the starkness of the walls.
It is one of the most beautiful modern places I have ever seen, and the monks are not at all sure that they will ever bother to build the proper abbey church the architects have designed for them.
Gathered in the church when I arrived for my first service was quite a gang of people I recognized from tea in the guesthouse. Sister Breda was there: a girl in a nun's coif, and an ordinary, civvy-street skirt. She was wearing a tennis-style aertex shirt with short sleeves, and looked rather sexy in a sports girl kind of way. She was a nursery teacher. An older nun was sitting in the same row: she had a more orthodox and grim outfit, and had said that she liked Nunraw because she could walk in the monastery's farmlands in safety. It seemed somehow improbable that she would be particularly at risk even in rather less sacerdotal countryside. This religious seemed to think that rape and pillage is absolutely normal outside the priest's house and the church. It is a failing amongst the devout, and especially the enclosed, to believe that the outside world is falling apart.
The robust man who had responded to her at tea with the remark that the hills, even out of sight of the monastery, were still God's bills and perfectly safe, was also there, with his wife. Their children had turned up at home one day and told them to take a holiday. A weekend at Nunraw's guesthouse had seemed the best way of taking the time out of time. They were blissfully cheerful and gave me lots of smiles: this was a funny kind of place to take a holiday, but they made it seem rather splendid and logical - a pontifical Pontins.
I had met a sad man at tea, the kind of man whose air of sadness seems rather beautiful and dreadful. He was welldressed in slacks and leisure shirt, with a neat buckle to his belt and pretty shoes. His teenage son and daughter were with him, and dwarfed him. He seemed to be bowed down. He might, one thought, have lost his wife or seen her committed to an asylum. He might have just received news that he or someone near to him was dying.
He had said that Nunraw helped him with the difficult times of life. With decisions, for instance? someone had asked. With difficulties, he had stressed, and one could go no further. His children had come to him and whispered their plans for the evening - wanting him to be free of concern for them, yet worried, it seemed, that they might be bothering him unnecessarily by interrupting his thoughts. He turned to them in acknowledgement and dismissed them.
They treated him with respect and care, as though he had become temporarily a child. They left his presence with no sign of relief: his dignity seemed to wash over them. The girl was punkish and pretty, and the boy had the air of a sixth former with a future. I found him later inspecting the tyres of the smart family car. He could not quite allow the family's tragedy - I was convinced something hideous had befallen them - to interfere with his pleasure in a brand new Japanese car.
The sad father was in a pew, flanked by his children.
But there were two stars of the congregation. One was a spike-shouldered old lady who walked in just before the off . She was very thin and small, but soldier-erect. She went down the aisle, sashaying slightly, and took a place on the outside of the left-hand side of the front row. There she lowered herself to her knees. It looked a very great distance to go for so old a person. And then she simply hooked herself over the rail in front of her, flopping both arms over the bar and holding her service book in her dangling hands. She wore a black veil over her head, a strangely Spanish, black cobweb over her fine little white head.
A big woman next entered the church. She was very tall and quite broad, and she walked with a rolling gait, as a cruel actress might mimic an ungainly schoolgirl. She wore a cape and a beret and a lot of badges of one kind or another. I had seen her in the kitchen of the guesthouse, rolling pastry and laughing cheerily with a helper. She had obviously cobbled her uniform together for her own purposes and according to her own notions of suitability. She looked pretty fine and very eccentric. She strode down the aisle and took up her place on the righthand side of the aisle. Her position exactly mirrored that of the old lady: front row, outside place.
They were the lay sentinels, guarding their boys. There were various lesser mortals in the room: I think I recognized some of the men as being from the guesthouse, in indeterminate positions in the kitchens or whatever. One, a man who looked as though he had been left in a warm damp place for so long that he was slightly warped - not positively bent or crippled or even arthritic, but just exhibiting a slight lean here, and a slight twist there-held his little order of service sheet in front of him and stared at it long and hard. A small man with a deaf aid came in. Various more or less plain girls in shorts took up their stations and looked incongruous, but not somehow impertinent: the Catholic faith expects a good deal of rough and tumble in its adherents and doesn't seem to demand quite the same standards of dress and decorum as the polite upstart Church of England.
The lay congregation, then, had pretty well filled up the room behind the bar. A bell tolled. And then the monks came into their stalls. Behind the altar and at each side of it there were two doors, and there was another in the wall at the congregation's end of the choir stalls. The community filed in, and took places in two rows of stalls on each side, facing each other. One pair of rows had their backs to the windows, and the other to the wall. A postulant was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.
The Abbot stood waiting for everyone to be in his place, and then leaned down into the stall in front of him and made a small tap with a device there. A monk at the organ began to play, and the toing and froing of the psalmody began. The old lady stayed on her knees throughout, whilst the monks' voices played against each other. The monks sat, stood, or faced the altar, moving together like a pair of sedate chorus lines, which they were. One monk was always, however, slightly ahead of the others as they stood up: just a touch too eager, I thought. The congregation mostly sat, but the woman in the cloak did exactly as the community did.
Sometimes the monks would bow low, and hang there, bent deeply from the waist, like pictures of Japanese geisha girls being super-polite. They looked very beautiful. And there was the lady in the cloak, standing or bowing, exactly as the monks did, and not minding at all that she was blocking the view of those seated behind: perhaps she did not know, or care, or thought that the rest of the crew could perfectly easily follow suit.
The light from the windows grew softer as the sun, which had been shining fiercely into the room, began to sink. Far away across fields and towns, the Firth of Forth seemed to be catching fire. The big, weird geological lumps which litter the landscape between Nunraw and the sea looked particularly stark.
Compline is one of the most lovely offices, thanking God for the day. I was paying some attention to it, but mostly allowed the prettiness of the music, and the thin, scratchy, weak singing of one of the monks whose job it was to sing the solo bits, to wash over me. I wanted to try to pin some of the faces in the choir stalls more firmly in my mind.
I can still hear the melodies, and still find singular resonance in the words sung each night: Keep us, Lord, as the apple of your eye; Hide us in the shelter of your wings.
When the service was over, the monks filed out, and I had to walk down the aisle from my place at the back to a door which was on the monks' side of the low, token barrier between the choir and the congregation. I opened it and wondered what to do next. I faced the altar and bowed my head for a moment. I found myself wiping my face with my hand, in a gesture which might just have had the makings of a fumbled crossing in it. I would have to sort out my entrances and exits better than that in future.
But I knew that I had found a place profoundly to my taste. And I understood something of why so many people felt drawn to it. I was often happy in the monasteries I visited, but that was a place where for the first time I very nearly tasted temptation of the monastic kind.
The Making of Monks
We do not know what makes people do quite ordinary things, but we do not have proportionately less chance of knowing what makes them become very extraordinary. It is no harder to understand why a soldier lays down his life in war than it is to make sense of the quiet endurance of the production line worker. In truth, both are incomprehensible. And both elude generalization. My pleasure in exploring the monastic enterprise has been the growing awareness that it is simply the most perfect exemplar of the inexplicability of man's actions and creations.
Monks themselves are not helpful in providing explanations. 'I was called by God': I have heard these simple, devastating words spoken by monks living in monasteries in the Egyptian desert, amongst the wooded slopes of northern Greece, or in the grasslands of eastern Scotland. It admits of no argument, sloughing off subsidiary lines of attack with a shrug. It is profoundly satisfactory to those most concerned. It is the necessary and sufficient explanation to the believer. It was used first so long ago that it seems to predate and upstage any sociological or psychological explanations, and will probably outlive them. It even embraces the prime purpose which a monk might think of himself achieving: obedience to the will of God for him. It provides sustenance at a logical altitude where there is no other food, and breathing where there is no oxygen. Believe it, and you - anyone of sufficient strength could stay in a monastery; the monk who doubts it for any length of time has been reclaimed by the world.
And of course, it won't do - at least, not for a sceptical nature and frame of mind which is determined to seek explanations, or the possibility of explanations, in the world.
And so one begins by assuming that a monk must b someone who is escaping from the world, with its unpleasantness, uncertainty and unnerving absence of rules. There must, we think, be such people: they join armies if they have a paradoxical taste for adventure but cannot bear to be autonomous, and they join monasteries in extreme cases of funk.
Immediately, one comes across a crucial divide, and it is as much mental as practical. A monastery is at one and the same time a place which is paradisical and penitential. This is crucial to monastic theology and possibilities. It poses dilemmas which are irreconcilable. Is a monk celebrating his Saviour's redemptive act for man? or is he imitating and mourning his Saviour's suffering? Perhaps, across an entire year, he can do both of these: he can begin with Christmas, in which the joy of hope is hardly tainted with the foreboding of suffering, and find in Eastertime the more densely complex strands of suffering and joy of the fall and redemption. Christian religious life would not have survived - inside or outside monasteries - if it did not mirror and match the depth and variety of personal experience and responses any of us is capable of across time, or the rather wide variety of sensibilities in the world.
A man may join a monastery with a nature seeking penance or one seeking joy, and find whichever he wants, or perhaps neither. He may be minded to expiate man's inherent sinfulness and the widespread indifference to the sufferings and redemptive power of Christ; or he may feel drawn to sing the praises of his maker. He may be an upbeat, or a downbeat, type.
More - suppose we meet a monk whom we believe to be escaping life. He might be aware of this failing in himself, and he might therefore be constantly pricked, in his monastic cell, with awareness that this is what he is doing and that he must be a superbly diligent monk in order to make up for the rather tarnished motives which made him one. But another man, also escaping life outside, might merely be delighted at his good fortune at being allowed to do so with the blessing and at the behest of his maker. A man might be a hard-working monk out of guilt, or out of gratitude that his lot was so perfect.
A man may conceive of himself as joining a monastery because of his personal need, or because the world needs monks; because his sins, or the world's, need expiation; because his, or the world's, good fortune in Jesus must be celebrated. He might join because he has conceived of monasticism as a grand human enterprise worth being attached to and promoting; or as satisfying the most intimate demands within his nature.
Actually, though, these will probably only be rationalizations, attempts at vocalizing what is inexpressible. What made this man a scientist and that an artist? What made this man become an explorer and that a librarian? This man a conservative and that a liberal? This a social worker and that an entrepreneur? Chance, self-deception, hope, fear, heredity, world-view all go into the motivational soup. The answers are no clearer in the case of vocations.
An Abbot receives an enquiry from a man and gets to know him as best he may. The Orders have a strict and quite tough routine of investigation and interrogation. In the end, barring extreme instability, obvious mental illness, some such knock-out blow, or the man himself scurrying away when things get serious, the Abbot will quite probably end up letting the man come forward and stay in the monastery for a while. A vocation is too mysterious a business to be tested on anything but this basis.
One Abbot I know says that the Abbot before him, on handing over, told him never to admit to the monastery a Pole or someone from a broken home: they were both likely to be disruptive. Of the latter, the statistician might also say that he has an increased chance of himself forming broken homes. So what? A woman would not likely refuse to marry the man on that probability account, nor the community refuse to admit him.
A man can no more be refused entry to a monastery because he is neurotic than he could be embraced solely for that reason. Monks say that they have their fair share of neurotics (taking neurosis' to be a name for persistent, unreasonable misery of one sort or another), and perhaps rather more than their fair share, amongst their number. Experienced monks say they can tell whether a man is neurotic in such a way that the monastery will make him worse: even so, they are inclined to let people try their vocation, in case the presupposition is wrong or can be made so by monastic life. But a monastic, just as an artistic or any other, vocation may feed on a neurosis, converting what might have been destructive, and maturing it into a force for devotion. The isolation and silence of the monastic life may, of course, drive the unstable to the brink of despair: monasteries see plenty of such cases.
If monasteries can create despair, so despair can produce monks. Wars make monks. Hardly surprisingly, a proportion of people who see great suffering offer themselves for monastic life. Perhaps it is the overwhelming evidence of the irrationality of war which brings men, exhausted, to monastic life in the hope of creating order. Monasteries are monuments to man's desire to make order. Perhaps it is a feeling that nothing can save a creature so absurd and self-destructive as man but prayer. Many of these war vocations - perhaps like war marriages - turn out to be short-lived. But amongst contemporary mature vocations, the monks who are now aged sixty or more, there are many who entered after the Second World War.
One elderly monk, now in his seventies, had as a child been put in a home when his mother died and his father wanted to remarry. 'That was a hard place', he said, with the kind of relish with which a soldier might recall a particular training barracks, or an old salt a difficult ship. He had had to break the ice of the communal trough in order to wash. He had gone on to be a monk, more or less placed in the monastery by his father: but it seems that the boy had hardly troubled to rebel against the placement. When the war came, it would have been easy enough to stay in the monastery, or to have used the opportunity to bolt. The youngster went off and fought, and then returned, with relief.
It is not pejorative to say that such a man has an old-fashioned peasant view of life: that it will be more less hard, but also that it will have fixed and reckonable points. It is the sort of mind which has produced many monks over the centuries. The life at home would have been hard enough, especially for the second and subsequent sons, with no hope
of the patrimony.
In the western world of the religious centuries, it would have been almost automatic that to devote oneself to Christ within a prosperous monastery would be satisfactory both as a matter of salvation and of sustenance. Thus, many monasteries - Cistercian particularly - were filled with Irish farmers' sons, striking a practical and profound bargain with their lot on heaven and earth. Deep faith was not in question; nor was
But practical necessities of inherent faith and poverty will not describe many modem vocations, which grow out of an age which does not implant in many a deep-grained faith, nor thrust debilitating poverty on them. With such people, one is dealing with vocations which dawned on men out of a clear blue sky, and which often struck - like Cupid's darts - with a peculiar whimsicality.
I came across an American who had first discovered monasticism whilst on holiday in France. It had been a drastic encounter. He had visited the monastery of St Pierre at Solesmes, at the casual invitation of a fellow traveller. He was then aged twenty-two. 'I was, rationally, an agnostic. Within a year I had been baptized as an Anglican in New York. After that, I just felt a need to progress, to make something more of it than going to church on Sunday. I came back here, and asked if they would take an American: I didn't even mention that I wasn't a catholic. It didn't occur to me.' The Abbot asked him to look at some other monasteries and to consider further.
He did, and was in the monastery within six months, having learned scratch Latin so as to make better sense of some of the liturgy. He describes the experience as wholly unexpected, and as being very much to do, at first, with the place itself. Solesmes had drawn him; he had known that the French style interested him: but beyond that he had found something in the spirit and presence of that monastery that he wanted.
That was twelve years ago. The man is now a priest, and organist in one of the most famous monasteries in the world. He has gone from the culture in the world most obsessed with freedom to one in which he must ask permission to walk outside the enclosure, and where every minute of his day and night is ordered by a rule fifteen centuries old as interpreted by his Abbot and community. He has gone home once, and was struck by how his previous acquaintances had seemed, somehow, not to have moved on. By his own account, his life now is incomprehensible outside of his monkhood. He had been tempted by the idea of moving to a stricter monastery, one where there were other Americans, and had finally been given permission to go. The permission had shocked him into staying where he was, and he had not since troubled himself or others with the thought. He gave me the name of another American, who was a monk in a Spanish monastery.
This second man, I discovered when I visited his monastery, Santo Domingo de Silos, near Burgos, had been a clerkly figure in a Madrid business for twenty years. He had been, and had enjoyed being, an exile, on a small private income which had dried up in the end. He had realized that when his boss of many years' standing left the business, the replacement would be a man of a very different stamp: the time had come to consider a change. He had visited Montserrat (a famous pilgrimage monastery) one Christmas holiday, and been intensely moved by the mass of the Immaculate Conception. He had entered the church as a sceptic, a tourist. Inside, 'I knew this is what I have to do.' He was forty-eight when the experience hit him, and forty-nine when he entered his present monastery.
He had had a long talk with the Abbot, in which he had said, 'I want to be a monk, and I want to be a monk here', and had 'told him everything'. The discussion had resulted in the Abbot letting the foreigner come for a few months, to try his vocation. The basis of the vocation seemed to be that God had become the most important thing in his life. As simple as that. Now he stands his turn as duty doorman and salesman of monastic nick-knacks, in a monastic house founded when the Moors ruled Spain, and he plays the organ in church.
He is an almost stately, rather patrician, man, elegant in monastic black, and - caught off duty - rather shockingly shabby in his battered trousers and threadbare jersey. If he was introduced as a professor of Art History it would be no surprise. He is not a fit man, and battles against low blood pressure, which spoils his winter months. Was he lonely? 'No. Some people might be lonely here, but not me. The hardest thing, I think, is to be loving enough. I am amongst many people here, and required to love them all: that means really love them, individually. But that is not always easy. One cannot just shut one's door here: one must respond to people if they need you.' He had a powerful neatness about him, a slender élan. Only when I got to know him a little better did I realize that he was old, and notice that he stooped.
I met a monk who had been a sailor for several years. He was large and round and cheerful. I wanted to try out on him a theory that I had been developing: that there was something rather similar between monks and deep-sea sailors. Part of the similarity is that both a ship and a monastery keep hours which are demanding upon their crew. A monastery does its most striking work in the small hours, when the rest of the world is asleep: the Matins and Lauds of the monastery is like the dogwatch, the dawn watch, at sea. Men are awake in both sorts of machine, both attending to the smooth running of ancient rhythms, both watchful and wakeful, 6oth likely to be engaged in some sort of contemplation and witness, more or less tainted with tiredness and ill-humour. Both are members of the 6lite of the wakeful, standing at the binnacle or the choir stall. The undertone murmuring of the night prayers can be like the distant beat of an engine. Bells are crucial to both, as summons and markers of the passing hours. I have felt the same longing for sleep amongst the green and orange flickerings of radar screens on a ship's bridge as amongst the dim lights in front of ikons during a night vigil in a monastery; and felt all around me the san-te presence of watchful men.
Anyway, the seaman monk, now sixty-two and youthful in the way that only monks can be, was one of the best cases of improbable callings one could hope for. He had been at sea for
five years, and seen time as a wireless operator in the war, when he came ashore, decided to work in electrical engineering and needed to do some swatting for an examination. A friendly priest ('He may have seen something, I don't know') suggested that he spend some time boning up in a monastery (as others still do). He simply noticed himself saying, 'This is it. I just found that I wanted to spend more and more time there', almost in spite of himself. 'My father kept asking, "What's he keep going off to that damn place for?"'
Well might he have enquired. The seaman monk says now, 'I never wanted to be a monk. But I knew that it was what God wanted for me, that's all. I wonder sometimes why God picked on me, though I know he does pick the oddest types. It's the last people you'd expect him to call. There are those types who rather fancy themselves walking in a cloister with their hands clasped: they haven't a hope. I think the artistic types have more difficulty: I'm a down-to-earth sort, and I think that helps.'
I have never enjoyed meeting people more than the monks I have come across in the past three years. Not that they could give me an enormous amount of time: they were for ever scurrying away to their prayers, or their meals, or their duties around the monastery. Nor that I could get close to them: visits to monasteries are expensive, since they are usually in far-flung, crazy, beautiful places, and I often had a hire car to take back to base, or a train or a bus-to catch.
Besides, sitting in a monastery guest room or a church or even strolling the grounds is not conducive to very discursive talks. A monk's monastery is his factory and his ancestral home and his waiting room for heaven. I did not visit the sort of monks who are notionally out of the world, but actually in it a good deal. With the contemplative monks I have been amongst, there is no slipping down to the pub. There is no time out of time, such as the rest of us have, in which we can try on different personae, and test the water of minor disloyalties. They do not have the limited carnival of a Friday night. Monks do not have time off. They are full time sandwichmen for God.
Men who wear the habit must be shy with their confidences: their doubts and dreads, whatever tedium and dissidence they feel, must be dealt with tactfully by them. They are, after all, voluntary prisoners in a system with which they must live harmoniously when the visitor's car has left for good.
I have seen Abbots frown their displeasure at the failings of a servant or one of their flock: seen it, and clung to it as a sign of fallibility in them. I have sometimes seen giggling fits.
Monks have always felt that hilarity might be a part of the calling (whilst some of their number have been powerfully cross with the others for their occasional gaiety). Otherwise: a monk wears his face as a sign of his dedication, his contentment.
It is part of the beauty of the profession of monasticism that it is unequivocal. A monk progresses with greater or lesser suffering, with more or less hard work, towards a way of life in which there is no requirement - indeed there is a requirement not - to thrash about in exploration of alternatives. A monk says to the world that in this one earthly life that he has, he has made a choice and will live it exclusively. The rest of us may live limited lives, but we seldom have to admit it so forcefully.
That is what a monk most seeks, this casting away of the muddled, multi-dimensional, vacillating, world of choice. A monk says that he will renounce choice in pursuit of his vision.
A monk will sometimes point out that choice is often over-advertised in the outside world. In the first place: choice, like the freedom of which it is the tangible representative, is seldom wide, or much exercised. Most people in the real world do not have much freedom, though their compliance in a way of life which demands much of them is supposed to be worthwhile, since they can choose between several brands of politicians and pet food. More: the freedom to choose is often little more than the freedom to rush headlong about the world, sniffing at mankind's many possibilities and exploring none. A monk does not throw away his freedom: instead he indulges in two of the great privileges afforded best by sound and liberal societies, that of eccentricity and extremism.
A monk is necessarily an eccentric, and not least in agreeing to conform to the rule of his Order so thoroughly. To some extent he will also be an extremist, but then so is any athlete, politician, actor. Come to that, so is anyone who achieves anything. To make progress in the world, one must be uni-dimensional. One must renounce. And then renunciation becomes its own intoxicant. Even indulgence becomes renunciation when it is more or less consciously taken so far that it is disabling. A monk is like a gambler, tossing his small freedoms, his wealth, into the equation, and expecting something bigger in exchange. A monk strikes a deal with life: going without freedom and forgoing choices, and expecting, more or less confidently, to gain in the process.
A monk's life is not merely limited, however. There is of course the refined hedonism of abstinence, which makes every moment of warmth, sleep food and alcohol delicious. There is the quality of a life filled with liturgy, itself beautiful. There is the aesthetic quality of a life amongst objects of talismanic power. The monk, who never leaves a cell or the precincts of a monastery, shares a good deal with the exotic traveller: both people have minds filled with sharp, exquisite images of paradise. Both are self-consciously on journeys involving discomfort and glamour. Both seem unable to live contently amongst their own, normal, familial, societies.
A monk has something in common with the actor: he dresses a part and speaks words written by other people, and is determined in a special kind of perpetual imitation, in his case of one small aspect of Christ, the Christ of the wilderness. Christ's perfection is unattainable by man, but Christ is God imitating man so that man might see what godliness in man would be like. A man can - a monk does - devote his life to going through the motions of being Christ-like, in the hopes that reverential mimicry may release the godliness in him.
There is something of the clerk or the accountant in the monk: both keep minute account of daily gains and losses. The liturgy is kept with the routine scruple that a ledger requires. His days and nights are spent tolling his way through scripts, and often in flicking through beads on a chain, which click like an abacus, marking prayers said and progress toward paradise made.
There is something soldierly in a monastic vocation. A monk chooses anonymity, and does it in the special way involved in wearing a uniform. People in uniforms merge with one another; but when they are out of each other's company, they stick out like sore thumbs. To become a monk is to merge into a vast army, historical and present, of men; yet it is the decision of a man who seeks extraordinariness.
It is a very singular and eccentric act. When you meet a monk, you stare into his eyes, hoping to get to the man inside the monk - perhaps to find the rebel, or the gossip, the weakling beyond the luminous blue or the limpid brown pupils - and you seldom do, because there is always the smile and the honest requirement to present his monkishness as complete, tattooed onto him, not water-transferred.
A monk may be large or small, ruddy or pale, but one is not sniffing for the scent of gin on the breath of a drunk; spotting the careful grooming of the vain; envying the smart suit of the
affluent: the man before you is just a monk, and you know a
lot about him without asking.
But you also can know rather little. He remains a mystery and very enigmatic. A monk's face is inscrutable. Its ruddiness does not betray a glutton, nor its pallor necessarily a great ascetic. It will usually merely be the face a genetic chance doled out. For however long that face has been in a monastery, it has been subject to very much the same exigencies and comforts that all the other monks endured. You cannot watch the face as it confronts things outside the monastery. You cannot travel with a monk and see how he responds to the troubles and delights outside the monastery. You cannot know whether or not the monk might have become a friend, because a friendship requires knocking about together, it requires the small tediums and irritations of life, and preferably travel or work, to be shared: with monks you may have long exhilarating discussions, but you will soon leave and they will stay.
And so you wonder about the real potentiality of the monk you have met and spoken to. You are taunted by wondering what might have become of a relationship with him. And wondering if he is representative of monks. A monastery is full of monks. You meet some of them, because they have asked the Abbot's permission to speak to this visitor,, or the Abbot has asked them to speak to the writer. But the others just mill about, in procession, or spotted at their benches or stools, or distant in their choirs, or stumbled across in a private meditation in the church, or bent over a furrow in a field, or - habit blowing in the wind - pruning a fruit tree. You see monks very often in archetypal, historic situations and locations: chanting from a lectern under a romanesque roof, perhaps. But you see them too at the wheels of cars, or tapping out words on a computer.
Many western monks have their heads shaved. They thus have the skull-presence which they think adds to their penitential lack of vanity and their anonymity. The people of the Gulag Archipelago have this zek-bleakness. So do people prepared for surgery, or the military. But we also live in the age of the skinhead, when to shave one's head is to show a theatrical or a dangerous dissidence, an affectation or assumption of that indifference which might make a man do anything.
A man with a shaved head is someone who has declared himself an outsider. He has a stigma. A skinhead is eschewing comforting symbols of conformity, he has said that he can save the asylum or prison barber the time to crop his hair: such a boy or man has declared himself already a prisoner, already in the Gulag, wherever he goes. If you want to think him mad, go ahead and do so. He has nothing to lose.
This is true of a monk as well as of a skinhead. There is a potential arrogance in his indifference to the world, in his determination to ignore it, and to define and develop other values than those of the street and market outside. The bluish-grey pates of a skinhead and a monk are interchangeable.
At Britain's only Carthusian monastery, a boy came to the gate at the summons of a big old-fashioned bell. He was the perfect punk-monk. He had a Visigoth coarseness, a farmyard ruggedness, the lowered eye and heavy brow of a bull about to charge, no hair at all on his head, which rolled in awkward bumps like a bruised farmscape. He did not smile: but why should a Carthusian, seeking escape from the vulgarities of the world, smile at a strange visitor? And what awkward youngster does smile at first meeting? This boy might have been fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years old. Over the vast hairy Carthusian habit he wore an even tougher looking apron. Poking out beneath, there were enormous boots, unlaced. For all I know, his heart and soul are more perfect repositories of the unsullied love of Christ than any I met anywhere. He spoke in an Irish accent: he wore a Visigothic exterior, but his interior spirit might have been full of Celtic enchantment and severity.
Besides, of course, there is sweetness in the punk and the monk alike. The punk turns out to be a confused youngster, ready enough to smile and laugh, and possessed of an adoring mother and an elder sister who taunts him and cuddles him. The monk, too, lets his skull break into a grin often enough, and is eager for company and an outsider's view of the monastery and monastic life, and for tales of the outside world, and for news of marriages and babies and advancement and bankruptcy.
Monks do not know the failures of the outside world. They do not know what it is to fail one's family, as a lover or as a father. But yet they have amongst them their fair share of faces which look well lived-in, witty, wry, sad, or glum, and it is the indoor recreation of the visitor to speculate how those expressions and impressions arrived on these cloistered brows. There you suspect self-pity, there self-opinionation; some faces you find attractive and welcoming, others alarming. And it becomes clear, of course, that human life is inevitably full of pitfalls, whether it is lived in monasteries or outside. This monk is aching to be Abbot, and this seeks to be moved from the laundry; this one is ill; this one longs for more time to pray. This one finds the loneliness of a crowded monastery, where idle chatter is discouraged, very hard to take; that one wonders if he is in love with the woman whom he meets sometimes on retreat. But which of these faces belongs to which of these aspirations? I know such longings are nurtured in monastic bosoms, but no monk has ever gossiped to me about another.
What a monk has set himself to do is not open to ordinary
analysis: his motives are impenetrable, finally. And his privacy seems very important. Normal investigation, ordinary interrogation, seemed out of place. There is such a deliberate privacy and quietness about a monk and his monastery that it seems impertinent to defy or diminish them. And sometimes the monks were shy and almost furtive: not in a way that made them less attractive, but in just such a way that one waited for them to offer conversation and friendliness before assuming that they ought to be on offer.
The monasteries of Egypt were seated in lonely and desolate places, on the summit of mountains or in the islands of the Nile; and the sacred horn or trumpet of Tabenne was the well-known signal which assembled several thousand robust and determined monks, who for the most part had been the peasants of the adjacent country. When their dark retreats were invaded by a military force which it was impossible to resist, they silently stretched out their necks to the executioner and supported their national character, that tortures could never wrest from an Egyptian the confession of a secret which he was resolved not to disclose. The Archbishop of Alexandria, for whose safety they eagerly devoted their lives, was lost among a uniform and well-disciplined multitude; and on the nearer approach of danger he was swiftly removed by their officious hands from one place of concealment to another, till he reached the formidable deserts, which the gloomy and credulous temper of superstition had peopled with demons and savage monsters.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
Edward Gibbon, Penguin Books
The Queen of Sheba steps onto the carpets and advances towards Saint Antony. Her gown of golden brocade, cut across at regular intervals by falbalas of pearl, jet and sapphire, pinches her waist in a tight bodice, enriched with coloured appliquc. to represent the twelve signs of the Zodiac. She wears very high pattens, one of them black with a sprinkling of silver stars, and a crescent moon - while the other, which is white, is covered in golden droplets with a sun in the middle.
Her wide sleeves, garnished with emeralds and birds' feathers, allow a bare view of her little round arm, ornamented at the wrist by an ebony bracelet, and her ring-laden hands are tipped with nails so sharp that her fingers finish almost like needles. A flat golden chain passing under her chin runs up along her cheeks, spirals around her blue-powdered hair, and then dropping down grazes past her shoulder and clinches over her chest on to a diamond scorpion, which sticks out its tongue between her breasts. Two large blonde pearls pull at her ears. The edges of her eyelids are painted black. On her left cheek-bone she has a natural brown fleck; and she breathes with her mouth open, as if her corset constricted her. In her progress she waves a green parasol with an ivory handle, hung round with silver-gilt bells; and twelve frizzy little negroes carry the long tail of her gown, held at very end by a monkey who lifts it up from time to time. She says: 'Ah! Fine hermit! Fine hermit! My heart swoons!'
The Temptation of Saint Antony, Gustave Flaubert, translated by Kitty Mrosovsky, Penguin Books
The Road to St Antony
The road to the premier shrine of St Antony, the Star of the desert who is credited with inventing monasticism, about two hundred years after the death of Christ, runs racketty and uneven out of Cairo, easterly and fast to Suez, and then on south down beside the Gulf of Suez, to Zafarana, a makeshift scrap of a town with a hand-cranked petrol pump and a shanty cafe called 'The Paradise of the Desert'. And then, right - westwards - into the desert proper, away from the sparkling sea and in the lee of the mountains. It was originally built by an oil company in the nineteen-thirties. Before it came, travellers arrived as did St Antony himself, to this his last home: on foot, or on a camel.
The Egyptians take no chances with the March weather, which was like an unblemished European summer day. At such a treacherous season, they prefer to wear long-johns under double jellabahs. The antique soldier at the obligatory road block at Zafarana was wearing a collection of warming jerkins and a balaclava as he came out to look at our papers and to mark down our destination, perhaps for our own safety as we proceeded into countryside littered with the relics of war, and into long stretches of empty roads. We took tea in the cafe, and chatted with a busload of air-conditioned Texan oilmen, on their insulated way from a Red Sea rig to Cairo and home. And then on, into the desert. A ribbon of perfect road, suddenly and often punctuated by stretches where you had to hurtle along the wrong side to avoid potholes. The occasional lorry or taxi (the latter always going at seventy, with figures at the window asleep in huddles of robes). Thirty kilometres on, and we missed the turning toward the hills and the Monastery of St Antony. Another hour before we turned back and discovered there wasn't one.
Eventually we found the point where motor tracks run fifteen kilometres across the hard-packed desert. We had by then become connoisseurs of the beige topographies. Often the Egyptian desert has the air of a building site: as though millions of bricks had been pummeled to dust and nuggets, and laid haphazardly about an uneven landscape.
It was like driving across tightly-packed corrugated iron. We saw gazelles, skipping in ones and twos away from the approaching car. It seemed incredible that they could get a living in such a bleak terrain, with only occasional stunted bushes - half stick, half cactus - for feed. No wonder they were lean.
The hills loomed larger as the kilometres rocked by. And with them, the dawning realization that we could see a wall far away in the distance. Was there the hint of greenery poking above it?
When we were perhaps a mile off, we stopped the car, swigged some water, changed into what we took to be respectful clothes, checked that we had our papers (precious ecclesiastical credentials), and set off on the very last lap. The sun would soon clip the top of the vast, featureless, treeless hills, and already there light beige was darkening.
There was no sign of life at the monastery. We were by no means confident that we would be allowed to stay overnight. We had been warned that, this being Lent, the monasteries might be on a rather strict regime.
There was a coach outside, and a large black Mercedes. Through the ancient gates, swung wide under an arch and a big ricketty, whited-wood veranda over the entrance, we could see a couple more, rather smaller, buses: but, peering in, we could see no people. There was some rubbish burning in a hollow just in front of the monastery, and two big wrecked water tanks.
For centuries men have lived and worshipped at this site, and - a few score kilometres across the hills, as the crow flies - St Paul's. St Antony's is commonly regarded as the birthplace of Christian monasticism. But actually it was definitely not the first monastery founded in Egypt, nor was Egypt necessarily the founding country of the movement.
The place has had a chequered history, and most of the structures date from the last few centuries, rather than from the early days. There may not have been anything like a real monastic community there until the fifth or sixth centuries.
Naturally, over the years it has grown a good deal, and there are some twentieth-century buildings. But you do not see them at first. This is a tiny fortified town whose sole business is prayer. The architecture is so simple and plain that it invites one to suspend ordinary, dull judgements about how old it is.
Inside the walls, there is an oasis garden, from which a cluster of tall palms rise up, waving in the slight breeze, surrounded by terraced walks: a wide square, then, built of terraces and houses on three sides, with the fourth being the eastern monastery wall, round a sunken irrigated garden. Ravens populate the trees, wheeling in the air as they settle for the evening.
To the left of the gate, a little shop: shut for the night. Stretching ahead, a small gravel and sand street, an adobe lane, with a church at the end. A woman in some sort of nun's clothes greeted us; and we told her that we would like to show someone our papers. We were shown into a refectory room, with one or two devotional pictures on bare walls. There were cushions on window seats, and metal window frames. One wanted to be out and wandering: but had no idea where a guest might venture.
Next door, we could hear children shouting and laughing. A cat came in through the open window. Out in the lane a dusty Arab boy beat a donkey. A crippled monk, not old, wearing black robes and a little, head-hugging cowl with white crosses embroidered on it, and a thin, single badger's stripe running for and aft, shuffled in and managed, in a series of jerks, to get himself onto the bench. Someone brought him something to eat. His eyes stared and darted around the room, barely controlled, but took a little notice of us. A light bulb in the ceiling flickered on and off, and his eyes latched on to it, fascinated. A child came in and climbed onto him for an embrace. Finally, a bearded monk arrived - a man with a slight cast in one eye, and whispy ginger hair. He looked at our papers with a little sigh and took them away. The Abbot was not available, he said when he returned, perhaps a quarter of an hour later. We said we wanted to stay, and had brought some food; was this possible? Yes. Could I go to the night liturgy? Yes.
He showed us to some guest dormitories which ran down the right-hand side of the street. There was no light in the rooms, and only some of them had small windows, formed of oil-drum cylinders set into the walls. The beds were concrete bunks with mattresses and blankets, occasionally with the remains of picnics littered upon them, being consumed by insects. Otherwise it was clean enough. Holdalls were scattered about some of the rooms, but after a while we were given a key to a dormitory of our own. There were rather smelly, but cleanish washrooms, with, I think no water. There was a lavatory and washroom along the lane beside the refectory: we should use those. We could see the church, if we liked.
All this was shown us with politeness, but also some weariness. I had the impression this was one monk who thought he had dealt with enough foreign visitors for one day. Our note had clearly made little impression. Whatever the treasures or charms of the library, the monks' refectory, or their cells, we were clearly not likely to see them.
The British conservationist Max Nicholson was visiting the monastery, on his way home from helping the Sudanese government with a proposed nature reserve. He was with an ornithologist. Our small group of pilgrims was invited to visit the church (though the bird authority astonished the monks by preferring to spot the monastic ravens). It was pitch dark inside the tiny rounded building, divided into various rooms, with carpet on the floor. Our guide's torch flashed up on murals and ikons. In one recess there was an ancient altar decorated with the figures from Revelation. 'A portrait of St Matthew, as Man; St Mark as the Lion; St Luke as the Ox; and St John as the Eagle. These are the Four Living Creatures. Each has six wings, two to cover the face, two to cover the legs, and two for flying. Each is named a cherubim "those who are full of eyes".' The guide books identify a mass of saints painted in the churches and its chapels: George, Theodorus, Menas, Victor, Claude, Thuon, Arsophonius, Bishoy, Samuel, Isaac, Mercurius. Christ Pantocrator is in one dome, and angels crowd other smaller domes.
'St Antony spent twenty years in his cave,' said the monk in the gloom, 'and established the monastery in 316. The first church dates from 316.' Only the monks believe it is quite that old, or that St Antony established the monastery. The thirteenth century is more likely the main period of building, though there was certainly a church there before that, and it is probably incorporated in the present building. The monk showed us a body in a shrine: it was a saint whose remains had been discovered last century, perfectly and miraculously preserved.
The original church of St Antony is now a part of a larger structure, whilst next door is the Church of the Apostles - the summer church - where services are held in the warmer months. Compared with the old church, it is roomy and airy, with a screen of wood and ivory inset crosses before the haykal, or altar.
And then a walk to the covered holy spring, with its enclosed stone basin, a few feet deep, on the mountain side of the oasis. 'Here', our guide said, 'there has been a flow of pure water, always the same unvarying amount: ten square metres, every day for thirteen centuries. The Lord brought St Antony to this place because of the water. We have had it analysed in Cairo: it is very pure, perfect mineral water.' We sipped some of the water. From the well flows an irrigation system, which we were later to see gardeners organizing: digging up little impromptu mud walls to direct the water from place to place.
The monk said that an angel had led St Antony to this water, and another had shown him the monastic habit (actually, it appears that some specialized monastic clothes preceded Antony).
Suddenly, our guiding monk was off. If there was no further service we needed, he said, he was off to bed. It was around eight o'clock. The sky became very dark. We Europeans joined the hubbub of Coptic faithful who were staying at the monastery. A limousine driver and his wife, from Cairo, were organizing strawberry-jam sandwiches in the room where we had heard the children calling. The place was in a state of subdued riot.
Outside the guest refectory - where everyone was gathered in their cardigans against the chill, sitting on the stone bench of the terrace, their backs to the garden - one monk was being greeted and asked to pose for photographs, embraced by the faithful. Flashbulbs popped around him. It was getting really quite cold. A moon hung over the waving palms. The children were in an ecstasy of expectation of supper.
A monk ticked off a mother for being cross with her child when he cried. Another seemed to be checking up on 'the Muslim', one of the visitors' bus drivers: I don't know whether it was a question of his being safely outside the gates for the night, or safely inside them. Setting up our beds, we heard Max and his friend debating whether pyjamas were worn in a monastery, and then they went to bed. We poured ourselves cocktails in the gloom: appalling Cairo gin ('Big Ben: The Heart of a Good Cocktail'), and the pulp of oranges and lemons. We dubbed it the 'St Antony Special', and were much cheered by it.
We slipped out of the gate and had a cigarette in the lea of the visiting Copts' bus. There were lights on in an army radio station near the monastery; it hummed in the night air. A transistor radio relayed a football game to a group of huddled soldiers from the radio station. When we came back in, things were quieter. The electric light, which had been fitfully flashing on in the guests' refectory, finally gave up altogether. A medical student and his wife and family, whom we'd met on the terrace, suggested that I have supper with them. We convened in a small, candle-lit room, where lovely messes of stew, and bread from the monastery, hard and dry, were on offer. I had read that in the nineteenth century, the monks made good white wine and gave it to distinguished visitors. Either they don't now make it, or we weren't distinguished enough.
None the less the party was convivial and jolly. The ladies were mildly flirtatious, and we discussed our families, and how many children we had between us. Finally, the ginger-haired monk came in and suggested that I be allowed to sleep. Perhaps it was that he wanted sleep for himself, perhaps it was that he thought I ought to want it, since he had arranged with me that I would go to the liturgy the next morning, at four a.m. Anyway, I crept off to my bed, with a torch he had given to me.
I set the alarm, and lay down on the bunk. Beyond the
partition walls, there were the male Egyptian lay Copts (their women and children were elsewhere in the monastery's guest quarters). And down the road, monks on their thin mattresses, up and praying. I listened to the dangerously intermittent buzzing of a mosquito for a while, and then covered my face in a big white scarf I had bought in the Kahn el Kahlil bazaar in Cairo, and crawled deeper into the blankets.
The Religious Tradition
To begin at the beginning. The Coptic tradition is that in 6I A. D. St Mark came to Alexandria, one of the great cities of the world and a turbulent meeting place of Greek, Jew and, of course, Egyptian, and he became its first Christian patriarch. But it is not much substantiated. Eusebius. (C260-C340), Bishop of Caesarea, and 'the father of church history', is the sole non-Egyptian source for this view, and it does not seem to be taken very seriously by modern scholars.
The Copts have it that on his arrival in this dynamic, argumentative and notoriously fun-loving city, St Mark converted a shoemaker to Christianity, and that there was thenceforth a Christian tradition and a separate Egyptian Christian church. Alexandria had many converts to the new faith.
The Copts believe that St Mark was threatened by the Alexandrian authorities, and left the country - having ordained the cobbler, Anianus, Bishop, thus starting what has been an unbroken succession of Patriarchs (or Popes) in Alexandria. (Later, the Byzantine Empire was to impose its own false patriarchs, but the Copts always adhered to a man of their own election.) Mark left him in charge of the flock, and joined Paul in Rome. When he returned, there was a thriving, more or less communist, Christian church, where people lived together in Christian villages, and shared possessions. The Copts believe that Mark wrote his gospel at their request, in Egypt.
The Coptic church- the name comes from the Greek word for
'Egyptian', and is redolent of an Egypt any time before the seventh-century Arab invasion of the country - is a proud backwater, sometimes clinging rather snobbishly to a nationalism in which the Pharaohs are more admired than anything quite so parvenu as an Arab.
It has always been an embattled church. In the earliest days, it endured waves of persecution from Roman emperors and from its disaffected neighbours at home. When Christianity became the Church of the Roman, and then the Creek, Empires it was usually enmired in controversies with Rome or Constantinople. When Alexandria became subject to the civil authority of Constantinople, there were debilitating rows with the emperors there. It has even been divided from the Greek Orthodox Church, with whose antiquity and preference for spiritual rather than intellectual life it has much in common, ever since the fifth century Council of Chalcedon declared its views at variance with those of Constantinople (home of Greek Orthodoxy), and, tacitly, with those of Rome (home of Roman Catholicism). In later times it lived under Arab rule, sometimes tolerated, sometimes under intense pressure.
Yet it cannot be dismissed as some quaint sect. Its early Fathers were major theologians, martyrs, church politicians and saints, and it can claim to have given Christian monasticism its form, or at least by far the most famous early pioneers, practitioners and propagandists of this most eccentric of enterprises. Historically and theologically, it has been consigned to something of a ghetto. But it can claim a powerful antiquity and integrity.
From the start, Christians were given to asceticism and communal life. Both by the nature of its faith and the scepticism with which it was greeted by outsiders, it was a religion which inspired personal devotion and good works, and, at least during persecutions, social cohesion. It was a religion which called the present world both bad and transient, and described paradise as being attainable through prayer and redemption. It called upon its followers to devote themselves to the imitation of a salvationist, Jesus. No wonder that, in common with some contemporary strands of Judaism, it inspired men and women to turn their backs on the world and take on the desert as ascetics.
It was a religion which extolled martyrdom, and which saw asceticism as a continuing, redeeming, martyrdom. Christ was, after all, the most constructive martyr of all. The Alexandrian church had been founded by a martyr: St Mark was killed by a pagan mob in 68 A. D., when Easter fell on the feast day of the cult figure Serapis.
It is a mark of the importance of monasticism to the Coptic Church, that all bishops, and therefore the Patriarch, or Pope, must be a monk of life-long celibacy (and the son of firstwedded parentage, and at least fifty years old). His title is 'Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark'.
Pope Shenouda the Third, the one hundred and seventeenth successor of St Mark, spent the months from September I98I until January I985 in monastic exile in Wadi el-Natrun, on the desert road between Alexandria and Cairo. No one would say much about why he had been banished. There was a hint or two that the Muslim fundamentalists demanded it, others that Shenouda had been accused of meddling in politics under President Sadat. It was certainly in the long tradition of Coptic dissidence.
The Alexandrian branch was central to the early Church, alongside Rome, Antioch, and, later, Constantinople. A school was founded, intended to take its place in the Alexandrian tradition of learning, in which Christian, Greek and Jewish thought were all to be addressed. By the late first century, it was a major source of Christian theology and philosophy, in which the Jewish prophetic tradition and the Greek understanding of the Logos - the divine purpose at work in the world and man - were to be reconciled in Christ.
One of its early luminaries was Clement, the theologian (c150-c215). He was a man of eclectic learning and tried to defend Christianity from the Gnostic tradition in Christian and pre-Christian thought, whilst reconciling them where he could. For most Christians, the Gnostic tradition depended too much on knowledge of secrets rather than on faith in the gospels. It was also inclined to intellectualize. Worse, it suggested that Christ was a sort of emanation from God, rather than a Son who was thoroughly human but thoroughly divine. It was also deeply gloomy about the state of matter and of the world. Clement was later declared unorthodox by Roman Catholics, who thought he had been led astray by his speculations.
Clement was no extremist. and argued that extremes of poverty, vegetarianism and abstinence from drink are not for everyone. But his theology made a strong argument - in line with the Greeks he enjoyed so much - for the Christian need to overcome the passions. Christianity in its early days, and as he saw it, was deeply ascetic and world-denying. No wonder so many took it to the extreme - an entirely logical extreme by becoming monks.
The Church's activity, in Alexandria as elsewhere, was curtailed by the persecutions of Emperor Severus, but early in the second century a young high-flyer, Origen (c185-254), the son of a martyr, was appointed dean of the school, which became in his time a source of many martyrdoms. He was stripped of his priesthood, having been ordained Bishop in Palestine (in breach of Alexandrian rules), and, moreover, having perhaps taken rather too literally the words of St Matthew (19:12): ' . . . and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.' He is said to have castrated himself, though this may be a myth. It certainly contradicts his own stated view that this text, and many others in the Bible, should not be taken literally.
In arguments which are reflected in much modem theology, Origen insisted that people should not try to imagine actual images of God when they prayed, nor try to imagine what the Incarnation is like: to do so would be to fail to respect the incomprehensible in these ideas. Within a couple of centuries, monks were rioting in defence of their right to be 'anthropomorphite', and a long row about the use of symbols, ornamentation and representations of the deity was begun.
In exile, Origen founded a school at Caesarea, and even when his own pupils were Patriarchs in Alexandria, refused to return in glory. In 250, the Roman emperor Decius instituted a further wave of persecutions, during which Origen was severely tortured.
Much of his writing came to be seen as unorthodox within the next few centuries. There was controversy about his views on the relation of Christ with God (he held Christ to be divine, but less divine than God). He was a powerful exponent of martyrdom as crucial to Christianity. This stress on the legitimacy of self-denial, even of the ultimate self-denial, underpins one view of the monastic ideal. The monk, by devoting himself wholly to God and Christ, rather than to himself or the world, is supposed to be able to partake in the Holy Spirit; but also, in a special way, to share in Christ's martyrdom.
Origen also put forward a further theology of a man's relationship to God and the Word, which fuels the monastic duty. His commentary on the Song of Songs suggests that the Church is the bride of Christ. That much is traditional. But Origen also suggests that a man may take the Word as his bride. This goes towards a belief that the essential Christian will be alone, and exclusively devoted to his faith.
This is a Greek idea: it is in thorough accord with the stoic's belief in the denial of passion.
These early theologians - and others in Christian parts of the Roman Empire - were asking questions about the natures of man, God and Christ whose answers are by definition wholly speculative. The brilliant bishop, theologian and popularizer of the monastic way of life, Athanasius (c296-373), conducted a campaign against the heresy, promoted by Arius (259-336?), which claimed that Christ was not truly divine. The heresy itself spawned many subdivisions and compromise positions. The essence of the problem was, that Arianism claimed that God, seeing Jesus Christ to be good, conferred divine powers on him.
The orthodox position was hardening around the far fuller view of Christ that he was the Logos, the Word: that his divinity was inherent in him. He was given to the world as God-in-Man. This was confirmed at the Council of Nicaea in 325, a triumph for Athanasius (though he attended only as secretary to his bishop). Against a political background which saw the Emperor Constantine, and the vacillating Constantius, dithering between Arianism and the emerging orthodoxy, the heresy was often in the ascendancy, until the Council of Constantinople in 381 finally crushed it.
Either of the two main early heretical tendencies has its good sense. The Arians found it hard to see how Christ could be God, alongside and equal to his 'Father', and yet Christianity be monotheistic; whilst others found the human nature of Christ - his birth, ignorance, temptations and suffering - too undignified to be comparable with his divinity, which they stressed.
A century later, the Council of Chalcedon's statement (45:L) was properly alert to the need to nail both extremes. Its definition of the faith was that of 'one ... Christ ... in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation'. It insisted on not allowing either heretical tendency room for manoeuvre. The Coptic church had been identified with the anti-Arian extreme, and besides, the other religious capitals wanted to put Alexandria in its place: the Egyptian church was declared unorthodox and cut off from the rest of the Christian Church.
In a paper written in 1959, a Coptic theologian, Abba Gregorios, put the Coptic case.
We people of the east are most fearful of using philosophical terms to define divine meanings. The non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches believe in the deity of the Christ as well as in His humanity. But the Christ is to us One Nature. This may seem contradictory. Whatever the rational contradictions may be, our Church does not see any contradiction in her profession concerning the Nature of the Christ.
There is always a mystical and spiritual solution that dissolves and overcomes all contradictions. Because of this mystical experience we do not always ask why and how.
The First Monks
Meanwhile, whilst theologians argued and raged, as if in another world altogether, there were Christians for whom philosophical or even theological disputations were of rather small importance. There seems to have been quite a tradition of Christian - and pre-Christian - hermits. These were men, and women, who escaped into the desert, or at least to the fringes of towns, alike in good times and bad. In the former, they were slipping away from the secularized church, with its rich and powerful adherents; in the latter, they were escaping persecution. There had for many years been groups of women who left the world, widows especially, and lived in communities. And there were ascetic Christians who lived near villages, but apart from them.
In at least one case, there was a quite considerable body of people, the Essenes, who were Jewish, but concerned with the imminent coming of a messiah (which some of them came to believe Jesus to be). They flourished between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D. They were dissident: they refused to have anything to do with the Jewish Temple; they were divided between pacifists (refusing to bear arms at all) and 'resistance' fighters against Roman imperial influence in their country. They seem to have been like monks in believing in celibacy for full members of the group; they had a novitiate; they lived communally; they insisted on high standards of obedience; they held all property in common. Interestingly, they took a common, religious meal together, and it is habits such as this, which presage the Last Supper and the cornmunion meal, which the later monks were to continue. Early Christians, whether monks or not, placed great store in eating a religious meal together once a week. The Essenes rose early for a dawn liturgy (but it was to the rising sun, not the risen Son).
There was something of a pagan ascetic and monastic tradition, long before Christ, in Egypt. There is evidence of a body of recluses, in Serapeum at Memphis, in the Ptolemaic period. Apparently they could come and go from the community, but when there they lived on alms from the local villagers and lived in cells. Porphyry (c232-303), the anti-Christian writer, quotes an account he came across of there being a quasi-monastic community at Heliopolis, who lived in poverty and spent their time in devotions. They had ceased by the first century.
Philostrates quotes an account of the Gymnosophists who lived on very little food and devoted themselves to a life of denial of the passions. They were dedicatedly intellectual and non-religious. Philo (c20 BC-c50 AD) notes the existence of the Therapeutac (healers) in first-century Egypt and perhaps before. They were Jews, and may have become some sort of Christians. They lived an ascetic life. They lived for six days of the week in seclusion, and came out of it for common devotions of some kind on the seventh. Their 'sabbath' day certainly included prayer and a common meal. They had choirs and sometimes sang in harmony and sometimes antiphonally (as did the Essenes).
More firmly in the Christian tradition, by perhaps 150 A. D. (or a little later), St Frontus, or Frontonius, is credited with leading seventy brethren into the desert of Nitria (where we will soon return) 'thoroughly abhorring the common and public life'. There was a miraculous story of the way in which their early and extreme privations were relieved: a rich man woke one day with a visionary realization that he must load seventy camels and set them free into the desert. After a short while, they fetched up with the Frontonian community, who took half the goods thus providentially offered, and sent the remainder back to their owner. A yearly supply caravan ensued.
There must have been many hermits who retired to the desert, and by the very nature of their determination to be alone, were never seen again. The early Fathers we do know about often hint at characters who had been living the anchoretic life for many years before them. But the most famous of all the early exemplars, and the one who would become world famous, was St Paul the Hermit, who at the age of twenty-two, probably in 251, the year of Antony's birth, set off into the desert to escape the persecutions of the Emperor Decius, which had already driven the Alexandrian Pope Dionysius into exile (from where the Pope wrote a letter on martyrdom to Origen, himself in gaol and undergoing torture).
St Jerome, the great story-teller and controversialist, says Paul was wealthy and well-educated in both Christian and Creek literature. His sister's husband denounced him to the authorities, and she entreated him to escape. He lived entirely alone for ninety years, 'unknown and unheard of by man, but in complete communion with God'. Many years later, tradition says, he was to meet St Antony, when the latter was well over ninety, and St Paul perhaps a hundred and thirteen or so (privations never seem to have been detrimental to longevity).
St Antony of Egypt (or, the Great, 251?-356) was the son of wealthy parents in Coma (modem Bush, just downstream on the Nile from Beni Sueo, in Upper Egypt. At twenty, he sold all his possessions, arranged for his sister to have some sort of an allowance, and went to live with other local ascetics, on the fringe of the town. Then he moved further afield, into the village tombs. From around 286 until 306, he went to live in a deserted fort near Pispir (on the eastern side of the Nile, in the area of the Fayoum).
St Antony began to use his desert fort as a base for travelling, and accepted his role as educator and formulator of the monastic life. This period, somewhere around 306, was briefly free of persecutions, and perhaps a good time for propagandizing. The peace was short-lived. In 311 he went to Alexandria to encourage the persecuted Christians there, and apparently to offer himself for martyrdom. His pleadings were almost too successful, if he really wanted the martyr's crown: the judges said that monks were to be left unscathed henceforth.
What happened next seems to be the fate of charismatic hermits anywhere, and the dilemma which led to the formalized monasticism one suspects was actually inimical to many of the early Fathers, and especially those of an eremetical (hermit) disposition. A later decline in persecutions by the State allowed a flow of distinguished people to seek out Antony: it looks as though once a few senior officials and military people had shown the way, the commonality soon followed. St Antony took to his heels.
'Monk' means 'alone' (from the Creek mores). The early tension is clear: a man goes into the desert (or lives alone) and becomes famous for his spirituality. His devoted followers, inspired by him, find they cannot leave him alone, and clamour for him to teach them, help them, and perhaps set up a system of life more suitable to their numbers and weaker temperaments. Or he is simply sought out as a spiritual adviser.
In later monastic life, the tension remained and remains. Should monks be hermits? Should monks live and worship in common, or be, essentially, loners? Does a man (or woman) have a right to assert his spiritual inclinations over the needs of the community around him? And then, of course, there is the perhaps yet greater tension of doing works of some sort in the world, as against turning one's back on it.
Anyway, St Antony, around 313, went into the deep desert, a good week's walk from Pispir, to an oasis at the foot of the South Calala Plateau, where there was a cave about three-quarters of an hour away up in the sandstone hills. It was to be his base for the remaining forty-three years of his life. By one account, the monks in the fort at Pispir kept in touch with him, and he visited them there sometimes; people would apparently wait for him there, sometimes for up to a month or so, until his next visit.
From the cave and the oasis he seems to have led a life in which seclusion was well mixed with a good deal of travel. He was to live until 356, by which time there were very considerable communities of monks in Egypt.
My First Dawn at St Antony's
The alarm's buzzer brought me to in a predawn blackness. The monastery bell tolled clear and admonitory in the dark. I pulled on jumpers and reset the alarm for the birdman, who needed it as his own chorus, so that he could record the ravens when their own more ordinary dawn approached. And then a stumble out into the little lane which led to the summer church.
The clutter of shoes at the door pointed the way. Inside, I could see nothing. It must have been a few minutes after four a. m. when I creaked open the door, and took up a station in the church. No chairs. Just carpets and gloom. There was already in progress a low-voiced, very male, chanting. The constant Kyrie Eleisons ('Lord have mercy'), very fast and rhythmic at times, at others built themselves up to a rumble, like distant bombers in an old war movie.
A few candles gleamed - sentinel more than illuminating set before the simple ikons on the walls. A curtain was drawn in front of the iconostasis, which divides the holy of holies from the rest, of the church. There were two lecterns, wooden boxes at chest height. Three monks stood at each, with their backs to the body of the church. Dim lights hung over each of the lecterns. The backs of the monks were slightly hunched, and their feet and ankles, with solid socks on, poked beneath their black robes. I wondered who was singing, and whether I had met any of the voices. One or two dark figures loomed through the gloom: I spotted a monk leaning heavily against a wall, his elbow in a niche for support. On the floor, another was kneeling, his back arched, his forehead on the ground.
The monks at the lecterns shifted from foot to foot as the first hour wore on. There was chanting and reading, in a humming undertone, from the books on the lecterns. The noise was never loud, and seldom interrupted. There were occasional luminous little songs to the accompaniment of small symbols and a triangle, both of which gleamed very bright and cheerful in so dark a place. Every patch of light and relief became something longed-for. The music itself was sharp and fast, and seemed - in the slightly hallucinatory atmosphere - to be physically colourful. The instruments, catching the candle-glow, looked jewel-bright. They were played at a clippetty-clop pace, a little like a syncopated Jingle Bells. At times, as the second hour proceeded, I found myself nodding off, but never completely, and with the monks seeming to chant my own daydreams: I'd come to with a start, and find I couldn't for a second or two separate their continued noise from my own thoughts. It was a rather delirious and pleasant state. The pre-dawn hours are primitive and raw anywhere. No wonder monks have always wanted to haul their vulnerability before their maker at such a time, when worship is such a triumph of improbable will over cold, sleepiness, anxiety and tedium.
We were joined by a couple of laymen, who sat themselves comfortably, on the carpet, with a back to a pillar. And went to sleep. Their snores made a low accompanying undertone to the chanting.
A cock crowed. A steely grey light was coming to the small windows, high in the walls, until little by little one realized that the candles were unnecessary. A monk came and snuffed them out. The lecterns were sometimes moved, at one point so that they were joined together, and all the monks were in a single row. Sometimes, also, the curtain was opened, and one would see the monks toiling over the altar, like surgeons at an operation.
Sometimes, there would be vast billowings of incense, suffused with a dark golden light. I understood none of it at all.. By the time the service came to an end there were quite a few lay people around, and the priest passed amongst us with his hand-held cross, which people kissed and with which they were tapped on the head.
Sitting on the terrace, we ate a picnic breakfast, adding to it some of the monastic hard rolls saved from the night before. But then a woman came up and insisted that we go in for cornflakes.
We had been told to stay away from the monks' quarters. On the 'main' street there were doors leading to their minute maisonettes, with close wire mesh over the windows to keep the flies out.
In one enclosure, where the cock was making a tremendous noise, we found the ginger-haired monk with the cast in his eye: he was at work amongst the hens, in an orchard garden which did not look particularly well cared for. He shooed us away, saying we were to stay in the public areas.
And so we left, out to the west of the monastery, to find a track which wound its way amongst bare sandstone hills, rounded but crumbly. The route to the cave, as it rose the scarp, was first conveniently stepped, and then, when it became steeper, rather hair-raisingly made easier with ricketty catwalks. Before the cave itself, with its ledge, there was a much steeper angle to the ladders. The cave commanded an enormous view, out over the plain lying at the foot of the mountains. It was small, with a rug and some devotional books at its floor. We wriggled in and felt claustrophobic. Lord alone knows how St Antony managed to get up and down to the spot - it took us half an hour or so to do the walk from the monastery, with the efficient if eccentric engineering to help us. He must have carried water up, at the very least; and even he must have eaten something.
We drove over to St Paul's Monastery, having been told it would be open, at least for day visitors. By road (along a three-sided box: east to Zafarana, south beside the Gulf of Suez, then west again into the hills) it is an hour's drive: the walk over the hills takes a couple of days, and we did not believe our survival skills, or orienteering, were up to anything quite of the order of the desert Fathers!
By Jerome's account, St Antony was guided from his own cave, over the mountains, to St Paul's hermitage. The ancient saint had been nourished, according to legend, by a palm tree, and by a visiting 'crow' (a raven, presumably), who brought bread. He asked St Antony to go back and fetch the cloak the famous bishop, theologian and friend of monks, Athanasius, had given Antony. It was a four-day round trip, and when Antony was returning he saw St Paul floating up through the air to his Maker: he had died. Arrived at the hermit's cave, Antony was helped by two lions as he dug the saint's grave. A sceptical person might think that presumably St Paul must have received rather more visitors in his solitude than the hagiographical account suggests, or that he moved about a good deal more than was supposed by his more devout biographer. Unless, of course, the bird was very diligent indeed.
The road from the coast winds amongst bleak, low hills and cliffs. The monastery was closed, with a polite notice telling people that it would remain so for Lent. We went 'home' to St Antony's.
The monks were always punctilious, and keen to do any service. But they seemed busy: rushing about their business, to confer with one of the Arab servants or small boys, or going to their little houses. At first, their beards and uniform militated against identifying individuals, and besides this they were all small, spry, and possessed of jutting pot bellies. But Father Zecharius, the ginger-haired monk who shooed us away from the chicken runs, stood out. He had been at the monastery for two years. He was a graduate of a university's faculty of agricultural engineering, specializing in soil fertilization for sixteen years, and he yearned to make the gardens of the monastery bloom: 'The garden is poor,' he said: 'the land wants more nutrient.' He declared himself perfectly happy with his choice in life. He had been called by God: it was an imperative. 'I choose to live here in the monastic life: that is, in poverty, chastity and obedience. This is a life bare of the ranks of the priesthood; one is single all one's life; one selects poverty, and one lives here always under obedience to the spirit of the father, or abbot.'
Father Cyrillos was a small, lively man with special responsibility for guests. It was he who showed us the churches and the holy well, brought me a copy of Athanasius's Life of St Antony, and other references. He was an ex-steel worker, and in charge of the stoves, the electrics, and the ancient British, very beautiful, Blackstone diesel generator, which on the first evening had been misbehaving itself, but which he finally coaxed Into utility. They had a new generator under wraps, waiting to be connected, but he liked the old Blackstone.
Father Cyrillos, who had been in the monastery for nearly five years, told me of the visitors using the place as a shrine, and asking questions: 'Of course it is a problem. It is not good for monastic life. It disturbs the silence. The more time you spend with people the less time you spend with God.' He gave me the impression that he would quite like it if the Abbot could see fit to find him a less public job.
Then there was a pock-marked novice who laboured in the kitchen of the guests' refectory, not so much cooking for them as maintaining a steady flow of washed cups and bowls, and supervising the little Arab boy who worked there. This latter was a competent, directed little fellow, who presumably lived in the Arab encampment on a scarp some way from the monastery itself. He might have been about eleven, and was bossed around with brusque affection by the monks. The novice was shy and almost furtive: somehow rather dignified and grand, nevertheless. Though he spoke perfect English, he would scurry off and fetch a more authoritative figure if ever we asked him a question. He wore a lightweight, white monastic gown.
The other monks were mostly shadowy figures, whom we might meet briefly on the terrace, or pass in the street, but with whom we did not speak.
Early on the second morning, I was at my station again in the big church. Its geography was becoming familiar, even friendly: the area at the back predominantly used by women and strangers, a middle area where the laymen seemed to congregate, and then the area nearest the haykal and the screen, where the more devout would go.
This morning, one of the laymen took me by the elbow and led me quite near the front: emboldened, I stayed. Cyrillos and Zecharius were at their prayers with the others from the start, but people seemed to come and go a good deal, rustling in through the church to their station at the front. There were little conferences amongst the prayers, and someone else would detach himself and leave, with the continuum of the liturgy carrying on with a new line-up.
At eight o'clock, when the monastic liturgy was over, a big mass was beginning in St Antony's church. The place was packed: whole families stood or reclined comfortably at the back. The service was informal, with little discussions amongst the monks, priests and lay people as to who would read the next lesson. It was easy to imagine that this is how the early Church managed its liturgies.
However, one should not overdo the antiquity, or the unbroken tradition, of St Antony's, and the habits of life and worship there. Firstly, the Copts were far from the only people to inhabit it. In the seventh century, the monks were Melkite (sometimes, 'Melchite': they were the Egyptians and Syrians who accepted the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon, and during Alexandria's Byzantine years became the official church, alongside and in competition with the dissident Copts).
In the next couple of centuries bedouin tribes raided it. It was reputedly razed in the eleventh century, and restored in the next, to be reinhabited by Copts. In the fifteenth century, the community's Arab servants revolted, massacred the monks and plundered the buildings (smoke damage in the ancient church is said to have been caused by their fires, themselves perhaps fuelled by the monastery's library books, which would have been priceless). Syrian monks were sent from other Egyptian monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century, and Copts, Syrians and Ethiopians inhabited it thereafter. It has often, however, been a powerfully influential place. A Coptic monk from St Antony's travelled to an early major international council; several of its monks became Popes - Patriarchs - of the whole Coptic Church.
It was not until the seventeenth century that European accounts of St Antony's were available. Vansleb visited in late 1672, and found the place in a state of virtual siege. There were two priests, one of them the Abbot, and seventeen aged and crippled monks. The bedouin exacted a tribute from the monks, and the Abbot wanted to leave the place with Vansleb. The monks were forced to wear a white and blue turban, in proof of the subjection of their religion to Is amic masters.
Coppin visited St Antony's in 1686, and found sixty-two monks living within ruinous walls, that he was told had once encircled three hundred monks. The monks he thought to be pious and hospitable: one of them was deputed to wash the visitors' feet on arrival. For music, the monks banged shaped stones together. The monastery fed them on lentils and linseed oil.
In 1711, the Jesuit, Sicard, finds fifteen monks and two novices at St Antony's. He speaks of the ignorance of the monks, and was less than thrilled when the acting Abbot would only discuss astrology and the theory of the transmutation of metals. The first Englishman to visit, Pococke, in 1743 found eight priests and twenty-three lay monks, and thought the two churches, 'small, dark and dirty'. By 1760, the great building works began, and went on under vigorous Abbots, some of them Patriarchs whose careers had began at St Antony's, for a hundred years. By lgol, there were forty-one monks, twenty of them priests.
In 1936, an Englishwoman, H. Rornilly Fedden, visited St Antony's, and wrote an elegant account of the place. She found ten priests and fifteen lay brothers. She had coffee in the modern guesthouse. There was a monthly corn supply from the monastery's eight hundred feddans over in the Nile valley. The monks earned some money from selling dates, and from stone quarries around them (there still are stone workings in these hills).
The monks ate alone at 3 pm: the old practice. On Sundays they ate communally, and the meal sometimes included meat. By her time the one hundred and fifty daily prostrations, with the sign of the cross between each, had died out: some monks still wore the hair shirt, though. The older monks still used sticks with a 'T'-shaped top for leaning on: this was the 'tau', which had in the medieval period of Coptic monasticism assumed an almost spiritual meaning, as well as being useful in church for the long liturgies. She dates the big new gates as having been installed in 1854, before which, rope and pulleys were the only means of access to the monastery.
The Movement Thrives
We begin with a movement in Upper Egypt, the Thebaid (the neighbourhood of Thebes, on the great bend in the Nile near Luxor), which has left no great monasteries still standing as testimony to its vigour, but which is really the birth place of the idea which would lead to the great monastic houses of the medieval world. its founder Pachomius (c290-346) had been a pagan conscript soldier, but became a Christian in 313, having come across those Christians who visited their co-religionists in an army camp at Luxor, in part of a pagan temple which had been pressed into service. The diligence with which early Christians visited one another, often with sacramental bread, always impressed the pagans.
Within seven years, he was founding monasteries. Within twenty-six years of his first monastery, he ruled over nine monasteries for men and two for women. All of these developments would have been well known to Athanasius.
Pachomius is credited with the traditional desire to be alone and anchoretic. He sought out an old ascetic loner, we are told in the Creek Vita Prima, as written by members of the Pachomian community within a generation or two of the great man. This mentor was Palamon, who told Pachomius that he would not be up to it, 'for this work of God is no simple matter', and outlined the routine of daily fasts in summer, food every other day in winter; nothing but bread and salt, no oil or wine, vigils for half the night, sometimes all night, in prayer and meditation. All this, he said, was as had been taught to him. Pachomius insisted, and was admitted by the
For reasons that are not clear, though perhaps it was just the soldier in him, Pachomius wanted to do something in the way of organizing a more social system of bringing people together for God's work. Wandering further afield than usual (these men were great wanderers: whatever their predilection for mortification, it did not seem to confine them to their cells), Pachomius came across an abandoned village called Tabennesis.
Whilst he prayed, a voice told him, 'Stay here and make a monastery: for many will come to thee to become monks.' It began as a trickle, but it must soon have become something of a flood. From the first, they were organized: disciples came, were clothed in the monastic habit, taught, and were set to work both material and spiritual. Antony was a visiting counsellor.
Pachomius was the nucleus, core, and motivator of community. The cenobetic (or communal) tradition is exemplified and pioneered. The Pachomian rule - a handbook setting out aims and laws has always been the sign of a great monastic founder - which may not have been coherent at first, has not been preserved. The orderly Pachomian rule we know about is a later synthesis.
Pachomius was not alone in perceiving the need for community life. Hilarion (291-371) was a Palestinian who learned about St Antony at school in Alexandria, and at fifteen settled near Gaza in Palestine; after twenty-two years he started a monastery some time around 330 - twenty-six years before the death of St Antony. Another Palestinian figure, St Epiphanus (c315-403), a follower of Hilarion, who also knew about Egyptian monks, set up at least one monastery at Eleuthropolis, between Gaza and Jerusalem (before being summoned to take up a bishopric). They were probably influenced by St Antony and Egyptian monasteries, and were certainly carrying on much the same conversion from strict anchoreticism to community life, though Palestine had its own local hero-loners, often in the caves of Calamon near the Dead Sea, imitating the tradition of Elijah, Elisha and John the Baptist.
Wholly independent of Egypt, and perhaps growing out of what may have been a powerful tradition in the Holy Land, there was also the founding work of Chariton, who may have been a Central Anatolian, from Iconium (modern Konya), and who is said to have come to Jerusalem, and, inspired by what he saw and thought about there, settled in the caves of the Jebel Fureidis. He is said to have settled monastic lavra in several Judean wildernesses. In the lavra system the monks lived in isolated caves, they had a common township where they would sell their produce, and then had the weekly communal meal and worship before returning to solitude.
If other dates marry up, it seems that Chariton was operating in the late third century: but the Chariton story comes to us from his own much later admirers, who may have liked to think he was an earlier figure than was the case. He would, by their account, predate Antony. The clearer evidence is at least that by the fourth century there were Charitonian monasteries, and that his original lavra were in use in the twelfth century.
Pachomius, however, was running enclosed communities. The best early account said that the Pachomian monastery had a wall, gate house, guesthouse, refectory, common-room for prayer, hospital, cells arranged in blocks (organized by the trade the monks within conducted). Within a generation or two, overcrowding led to monks living three to a cell. Farming was conducted outside the walls. It may have been the very fact that Pachomius settled his monasteries in the rich farmlands of the Nile that made the difference between this community life and the solitariness of the desert. It meant men could conduct their peasant, busy lives in a monastic setting.
The old soldier seems to have founded a monasticism suitable for men seeking an orderly life, both of the spirit and the body. He organized a system of chiefs and assistant chiefs in monasteries, and of links amongst neighbouring monasteries. He was setting out an administrative geography which served its time and would later be the model for vast Orders of monks. Pachomius himself would not allow himself to be set above the whole machinery: he seems to have delegated authority with real relief, and to have maintained his role as a preacher.
Remembering that monks have always often been poor peasants prepared to trade the luxury of freedom for the pleasantness of security, both on earth and in heaven - that is the story of the medieval and much later periods - the Pachomian system was to be thoroughly vindicated by history. The story and example of St Antony inspired the great idealism; it was the story, example and rule of Pachomius that made transcendent good sense to following generations of men in how to reconcile the heroic with the human.
Pachomius' first monastery set up a sister house at nearby Faou. Two monasteries which had been set up independently asked to be incorporated in the new, burgeoning system. A woman's convent and other establishments quickly followed, within sixty miles or so of the original settlement. At least one local landowner joined a community, and was to lead it.
There were perhaps three thousand members of the Pachomian community in his own lifetime, and Pailadius says it was seven thousand by his time. In 352, a famous visitor, Ammon, found six hundred people at Faou (Palladius gave it as one thousand three hundred when he wrote). The other monasteries seem to have had up to two or three hundred each. Did so many rather ordinary men want to join that the system had to relax to accommodate their weaker spirits, or did the easing of the rigours attract the new numbers? Or both?
Meanwhile, again some time around 313, yet another well-off parentless young Egyptian, Amoun, from the rich Lower Egypt country of the Delta, was moving towards a monastic pursuit of God. He had been bullied by his uncle into marrying that year, but spent his wedding night in hot persuasion of his wife that they should dedicate themselves to God, and not consummate their union. She at first- in fact for eighteen years - would only go so far as to agree that they would not make love, but should at least live together, as brother and sister.
Eventually, he went into the desert, at what was called the mountain of Nitria (though it is only a slightly elevated area).
He settled first at a place called El-Barnugi. This was the gateway to the desert: the place where caravan routes between the natron (a naturally-occurring impure carbonate of soda) trade of the desert proper and the Delta would pass. At that time, it was near a river, with valuable connections to Alexandria and the coast. It was a commercial centre, based on the natron deposits nearby (here, as elsewhere, they were
At this site near worldly civilization, Amoun soon found around 338 or so - that the numbers of men who had gathered around him required some sort of organization. They also needed a new site, with some extra space. The eighty-seven-year-old St Antony was on hand, presumably in one of his wanderings amongst the monastic communities.
They dined together in the mid-afternoon, and then walked until sunset, around twelve miles, by one account. Then they prayed and planted a cross. This was to be the site of Cellia, or the Cells. The idea seems to have been that here people from the first settlement could get deeper into that solitariness which the first site's proximity to villages threatened, without being inconveniently far away for the purpose of provisioning and counselling.
A church was established at the Cells settlement. 'Church' at that time meant the community's buildings in general, including refectories (this was especially the case since the idea of the common eating of religious meals was very powerful, and may not even in the early years of the Church have been formalized into the symbolic consumption of the sacrament).
The cells were initially so placed that they were out of earshot of each other, but pressure of numbers soon did away with that idea. From their cells, the monks would come together for a weekly meal and worship. They made rope and linen for a living.
Within fifty years of Amoun's leaving the world, the community he founded at Nitria had attracted perhaps three thousand people to what were probably monastic houses of one sort of another. Palladius, writing at the end of the fourth century, noted around five thousand. The community had priests and an administrative structure (in one of the meeting places, whips hung from trees for monastic recalcitrants). Within twenty years of its foundation, a Nitrian abbot was being called to a bishopric (as had been other monks before him), and was reproved by Athanasius himself for preferring to retire to the desert. The practice was probably that a new monk would do a spell at the Nitrian headquarters, in preparation for the rigours of the anchoretic life at the Cells. Thus, Amoun does not seem to have been organizing a community life for its own value alone, but as a training ground for the desert proper.
It seems as though Amoun was designing a monasticism of a kind which still exists in the Creek Orthodox Church, and which the great twentieth-century monk Thomas Merton was to hope would be allowed him in the USA: hermits with a more or less close connection with a more formal and communal 'mother' house.
Amoun's was not simply the 'enclosed' Pachomian system which would become the west European model over the next few centuries: rather, it offered an enclosed option for the new monk, and perhaps for the elderly one, too, whilst the more experienced or rigorous, and fit, man could go into the Cells.
By the end of the fourth century toing and froing amongst the monks of the Near East seems fairly common. Amoun's system attracted at least one foreigner who was already very well known and was to become extremely famous: Evagrius Ponticus (349-399), who became a monk in 382 following a love affair, and after a successful career as a preacher in Constantinople ended his days at Amoun's foundation. He spent some time at a monastic settlement founded by the historian Rufinius (c345-410) and a rich Roman widow, Melania (c342-C410), who ad been in Egypt and met many of the founding Fathers. Evagrius then went on to Amoun's settlements: classically, he went first to the coenobetic Nitria, and then on to the Cells, bringing with him a breath of the cosmopolitan, educated, Creek world.
His importance is that he wrote (probably before his Egyptian experience) books which combined patristic forcefulness with a literary style which was more elegant, and they therefore were to become widely read in the west. He wrote gnomic utterances for other ascetics to learn by heart, and he gave us a list of prohibitions which would emerge, somewhat amended by Gregory the Great (c540-604) and others, as The Seven Deadly Sins. Evagrius gave us eight: gluttony, fornication, avarice, dejection, anger, world-weariness, vain-glory and pride (the great Pope merged dejection and world-weariness and added envy: later they were tidied up to become pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth). When John Cassian (c360-435), a great western monastic founder, was drawing up his rule, he used Evagrius' catalogue.
Meanwhile, at about the time that Amoun was founding his monasteries, and at another, much more valuable natron trading area, Wadi el-Natrun (Scetis, or desert, as it would be called later), around forty miles deeper into the desert, there settled one Macarius (the Great, or the Egyptian, and sometimes 'of Scetis', and not to be confused with another Macarius, the Alexandrian, whom we will shortly meet).
It is thought that at some point he had been a camel-trader, and perhaps a smuggler: in later years it was said, in spite of his immense reputation as an ascetic, that he much preferred to be approached with interest about his shady past than with too much reverence for his holy fame.
On what model, if any, Macarius the Great founded the settlements in the deep desert of Wadi el-Natrun, it is not clear. They did not at first have priests, and Macarius himself would trek forty miles to Nitria to hear mass. He visited St Antony in his 'inner mountain' to seek his advice on the problem, and was later ordained priest himself. It is thought he may first have settled at what is now the Monastery of Bararnus, but then moved east to what became the Monastery of St Macarius. It seems that the monks made rope, and that they hired themselves out as labourers at harvest time.
He attracted enough people to have to start further settle-
ments (of which four remain: the monasteries of St Bishoi, St Macarius, the Syrians, and Baramus). Macarius the Great found that the word had spread. Two Romans, Maximus and Domatius, said by the Copts to be the sons of Emperor Valentine, are supposed to have been attracted to his monastic way.
The day I drove to Baramus, the wind blew strongly from the west. It swirled up the sand, and scurried it across the road in serpent plumes.
There was a roadhouse at the side road to the monasteries. I stopped, and wended my way through a gang of Egyptian young to the vast coffee shop inside. But one youngster wanted to go on into the village, further up the track. 'My name is Anna', he said. One of his chums told me that Anna knew the way to Baramus and would show me. Visibility was down to a few hundred feet, and I was glad of some local savvy. We bounced along a track which is shown on no maps, took some turnings I tried to memorize for later, deeper and deeper into the unknown.
The monastery has the same more or less square, fortified appearance of St Antony's or St Paul's. Within the walls, however, it seemed neater, with a more domestic sort of gardening going on. It is the biggest of the Scetis monasteries. There was a trellised walk which seemed positively pretty, even in a wind which was keeling the palms over like yacht masts.
Anna and I were shown to a smart little reception room, and given tea. Anna did not look as though he was going to take a very active part in the proceedings.
A young, ardent German convert to the Coptic faith was there, with his Egyptian girlfriend. He said he had been into transcendental meditation, and had been a Roman Catholic. A fat priest, visiting the monastery with a thin lawyer friend, both of them Swiss, came in. A vigorous young Coptic monk, our host, settled himself into a chair amongst us. Had he converted the German, I asked? 'Not me, but the Holy Spirit, did it', he said, in a remark at once becomingly modest and grandly confident. There followed an occasionally rather heated discourse in which the monk, Gabriel, gave us a survey of the Coptic truths, and of the reasons why the other churches could not claim the Coptic authenticity of practice.
It began, as one might imagine it ought to, with the question of monophytism. 'We do believe that there are two natures in Christ', denying the ancient charge the rest of the world makes of the Copts.
'There are many heresies which appear. One heresy speaks about divine nature as dominant in Jesus Christ, and the human nature is somehow absorbed in it. Another heresy believes Jesus is a simple man with special gifts, and somehow intermediate between God and man. So the Alexandrian Church struggles against these two heresies. Copts believe that Jesus has two natures, divine and human, and that he is the incarnated God.
'Other groups of Christians misunderstand this union, thinking we believe that he has one nature. Monophysite we are not', he said firmly. 'Truly we are not monophysite, we believe in one nature of two natures. I will give you an example. It is like an iron rod put in the fire till it is red hot. The iron represents the human nature, and the fire the divine nature. A sort of union which happens. The red-hot rod cannot be called only iron. If I touch you with it, you will burn, and if I hammer it, the fire is not affected. Jesus was no longer simple man and no longer simple God.'
One of the Swiss asked what the consequence of this seemingly small distinction is (he asked it as though the Copts were being bolshie in their separateness, rather than having had it forced upon them). Gabriel said, 'I will tell you. If we believe in separate natures [I think he meant in the Catholic sense], what happened on the cross? When Christ is crucified, who is killed - the human or the divine? If the human is killed, then he who died is a simple man - this is of an utmost importance - who then can save?' The Swiss said something sensible about the Catholic theology encompassing that.
It looked as though the Copt no more understood the subtleties of the Catholic position than Catholics understand the Copts' own subtleties. So he went on: 'If I believe in separate natures, then who is there to save me? If it is the simple man who died we get nowhere. Saving humanity depends on the Incarnated God. The Incarnated God died, not just a man, nor God.
'We have been misunderstood. We believe in two natures united in one nature.' He was stating, by then, the exact Chalcedonian, Catholic Orthodoxy.
Then Gabriel launched into a Coptic anxiety that the Catholic church does not often give celebrants at mass anything other than the wafer, the bread or body of Christ, and that when on special occasions it does give both, the wafer is dipped into the wine. 'Jesus gave first bread and then wine. This is what is in the Bible. "Eat my broken body and drink my shed blood".'
'The Catholic may say that giving the blood to everyone is not possible, is not practical. But we do it, it is practical. Someone might say that to give everyone blood by a spoon is not hygienic. But if I believe that this is blood of Christ, no microbe can be transmitted. We do what Jesus practised, not with human modification,.'
He was not finished with us yet. Someone asked about the total immersion which the Copts practise at baptism. 'It is certain', said Cabriel, 'that baptism was of the whole body. It does not happen by putting some water on the head. Baptism is like dyeing with colour. You are colouring a new person. You cannot dye clothes by [he made an infinitely expressive, dismissive couple of baptismal flicks with his fingers] touf, touf. The other churches have lost the effect, the meaning . . .'
'Is that a question of quantity of baptismal water, then?' asked the Swiss priest. 'No', said Gabriel with finality. 'It is a question of procedure. We do as Jesus did. St Mark tells us how.'
He took us for a tour of the church. In the west end, on the north side, as far away from the altar as possible, there was a baptistry with a vast tank in the corner. Gabriel told us that its placing was symbolic of the catechumen's progress from outside the church towards the holy of holies, and to becoming part of the body of the Church.
The monastery brochure describes the layout of a Coptic
church, and its sections:
The first, just in front of the sanctuary, for Believers, those who would only take part in the whole worship and partake the Holy Communion. In this first section there are the relics of St Moses and his teacher St Isidore (though the Arabs who accompanied an eighteenth-century traveller told him that they were no more than camel bones collected in the desert).
The second: for hearers, or catechumen; those people who want to be Christians.
The third: for weepers or repentants who were prostrating themselves at the church doors, in mourning garments asking everyone to pray for them.
Gabriel took us to the refectory, built on to the church, with its massive stone table running the length of the room. And then to the roof of the church, from which ran a narrow drawbridge to the Kasr, the castle tower with its chapel of St Michael on the top floor, and floors below for storing provisions and living during raids on the monastery. All Coptic monasteries have such an arrangement, and all have St Michael's chapel on their top floor. From the parapets of this roof-top part of the monastery we watched out over the desert, and the deep, eerie pink patina which the glowering sun made of the continuing sandstorm.
Gabriel told me that he thought being a monk was more important than being a surgeon, his profession. God had called him, and that mattered more even than Egypt's need of good doctors. And what about the rather unintellectual life of the Coptic monk? 'It is like surgery', he said. 'You can learn so much from books, but books do not teach you how to make a good incision of the skin. That you must learn from experience. It is the same with being a monk'.
Modern Coptic Monks
Early on, some monks seemed to have been a kind of army for whatever orthodoxy they happened to favour. Rather in the manner of the later Dominicans, they were spiritual police~ men, but with a developed taste for rough-housing, and they were even accused of the occasional assassination. They knew the world did not like homosexuals, and would sometimes murder for sodomy men whose crime was actually heresy.
Bishops and theologians were inclined to arrive at councils with a gang of monks as bodyguards. And during the period of Julian the Apostate (332-363), an emperor who reinstated paganism, enraged monks smashed idols in their neighbourhood. By the early fifth century, the tough-minded Patriarch St Cyril (412-444) used a highly-organized monastic brotherhood, the phi ('those who disregard their own lives'), as a hit squad against schismatics and Jews alike.
In 451 the Council of Chalcedon had to include a Canon to deal with the problem:
Those who lead a true and genuine monastic life should be given the honour which is their due. There are some however who make the monastic state an excuse for causing trouble ... they wander aimlessly around the cities ... Monks everywhere . . . are to be under the authority of the bishop, devoting themselves to holy silence and giving all their attention to fasting and prayer in those places in which they renounced the world ...
Whilst there was widespread admiration for desert asceticism, especially perhaps amongst the ordinary people who might see it in almost pornographic terms, as a kind of peepshow, there were early voices warning against the more vulgar excess - and the way admiration of it might erode admiration of the episcopate.
The Coptic Church remains capable of dissidence, as is witnessed by Pope Shenouda's exile.
One dank November Saturday in 1984, I went down to the Coptic Church in Kensington. The Times had carried an announcement that there would be a service to mark the thirteenth anniversary of the enthronement of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. The brochure we were all presented with, 'A Tribute' to the Pope, described him as exiled under armed guard since September 1981'. He was in the Monastery of Bishoi, Wadi el-Natrun. In his place, a committee of bishops ran the church (one of them, Bishop Samuel, had been killed along with Sadat by Arab extremists).
From around nine in the morning there was chanting and praying, leading up to mass at eleven. Small boys dressed as deacons stood beside their robed fathers, in gold and white tunics, and occasionally wandered away for a biscuit. Various 'white' people were there, some from branches of the Anglican church, but mostly and increasingly the place was filled by Egyptians.
After mass, various ecumenical notables talked of the privilege of visiting Shenouda in his desert monastery. Finally, His Eminence Anba (the Coptic way of saying Abba, or Abbot) Antonios Marcos, Coptic Bishop for African Affairs, who had come for this occasion, told us tlhat, as usual at this time of year, there were rumours of the Pope's being returned to his Cairo freedom. He would believe it when he saw it.
By January 1985 the Egyptian government had released Shenouda.
The story of Shenouda's exile betokens some extraordinary features of modern Coptic life. Whether in response to the rise in Muslim fundamentalism, as part of the general religious revival worldwide, or simply a special resurgence of the Spirit locally, there has been a great revival of interest amongst traditional Copts in the faith of their fathers. The movement is very much grassroots; it began fifteen or twenty years ago with very active Sunday Schools. We have seen that the monasteries have been attracting bright young people to the fold.
Two of these appear to have become bitterly estranged. One is the spiritual father of Macarius Monastery, in Wadi elNatrun. It had become badly run down, and by 1969 was inhabited by only six old monks. The vigorous Father Matta el Meskin (Matthew the Poor), a one-time pharmacist, and twelve monks moved in.
Father Matta had thrown up his career and spent fifteen years as a hermit in a desert cave, 'where I used to pass the night, for ten hours, in praying without ceasing: hymns, prayer, prostration, and then reading the Bible with the words going straight to my heart with new meaning.' He would sleep from dawn till the early afternoon, and lived on boiled beans, dry vegetables, lentils and honey. He is reluctant to talk about his religious experiences, but has said that Therese of Lisieux and the Virgin Mary appeared to him.
These educated people began a programme of rebuilding and farming which has transformed the place. Their farming is amongst the most advanced in Egypt, and experiments there may have a bearing on all farming in Egypt's deserts. President Sadat, whose relations with the church were to become very contentious, favoured the work to the point where he gave the monastery a thousand feddans (about a thousand acres) of land, and capitalized a good deal of equipment. Now, so far from monks going out to work with peasants for a living, the monks of Macarius employ several hundred peasants part-time.
The new wave of monastic vitality has led to a staggering turn around in the fortunes of the desert monasteries. St Antony's has about forty monks, and St Paul's between twenty and twenty-five. Baramus has forty and the other Alexandrian monasteries (Bishoi, Sourian and Macarius) over two hundred between them. In four other monasteries in Upper Egypt, there are probably another one hundred and fifteen. But these figures must be seen against a picture in which, in 1972, Bishoi had only five monks and now has seventy.
The man who gave me these figures was a one-time doctor, and now lived in Einsiedeln Monastery in Switzerland, looking after the hundred Coptic Egyptian families in that country. Surely Egypt had huge need of its doctors? 'Yes', he said. 'But I was called by God. And anyway, in my monastery, we have need of doctors, and we have a small clinic. Here, I am needed for other. work. I shall stay here until we have established a church, and then a married priest can come.'
In the Egypt of the 1950s and 1960s, a young theologian and historian was rising through the ranks of the church, having spent the years 1956-1962 in a monastery at Wadi el-Natrun, and in 1971 was elected Pope. Shenouda appears at the very least to have blown apart the fairly tidy relationship between church and state, in which President Nasser had privately conceded a good deal of freedom to the Coptic minority in his Muslim state.
It looks as though Shenouda was vigorously inviting Copts to have a sense of themselves, at exactly the moment when the Muslims' old antagonism to Christianity was being fuelled by fundamentalism. There were riots and killings in 1980 and 1981, once when Copts took matters into their hands, on hearing that some Coptic churches were scheduled to be turned into mosques. 'The mind replaced inspiration, and planning replaced prayer', Abba Meskeen is reported to have said.
THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
Until I settled in the 'desert' I did not really know the life of the Holy Mountain as a whole. It was only when I became spiritual counsellor to four monasteries and a great number of hermitages and isolated hermits that the hidden kernel of this astonishing place was opened up to me. I encountered seven monks to whom the vision of uncreated light had been vouchsafed - and there were surely others whom I did not hear of. I am eternally thankful to Providence for allowing me the undeserved happiness of living among such ascetics for twenty-two years. But the most important event in my life was to meet with Staretz Silouan who, after Christ's appearance to him, never ceased imploring God to grant to all mankind to know Him through the Holy Spirit. His attitude to other confessions was both courteous and liberal. There was no disdain; people must be allowed to serve God in their own fashion, although, as is crystal clear from his writings, he himself was heart and soul devoted to the Orthodox Church, and totally integrated with Orthodoxy.
Wisdom From Mount Athos, The Writings of Staretz Silouan I866-I938; Archimandrite Sophrony, translated by Rosemary Edmonds,
St Vladimir's Seminary Press,
Crestwood, New York
Basil: A Very Civilized Vector
Monasticism is a powerful virus: it takes only a very few men to pass it on; it can travel across vast distances provided the vector has the stamina to support it and himself whilst he goes. It is also remarkably catching. Amongst people fresh to it, it cuts a dramatic swathe, before cynicism and veneration have taken their opposite tolls of its early vitality, crudeness and charm.
We have seen that Egypt was the place where enough leaders of varying temperaments found enough adherents of sufficient loyalty to found the three main sorts of monastic house: the hermitage (for loners), the coenobium (for community-minded men) and the lavra (for those who wanted to combine the two).
This was a movement of the book within the people of the Book. For all that the early hermits and protomonks were often illiterate, it was literate men writing books which others could lead who most spread this form of life amongst the unsuspecting Christian world. We have seen Athanasius, writing his Life of St Antony. Other leaders and writers from the Mediterranean world went to Egypt and Palestine and, dazzled by what they saw, took the word into the wider world. In the east, it is convenient to take the emergence of the intelligent, educated, patrician Basil (c330-379), the most celebrated monastic founder of Asia Minor, as providing a rationale, if not anything like the complete explanation, for the spread of organized monasticism into the Eastern Roman Empire.
Egypt's ascetics made a mark on the great man. 'I admired their continence in living, and their endurance in toil; I wondered at their persistence in prayer and their triumph over sleep; subdued by no natural necessity, ever keeping their soul's purpose high and free, in hunger, in thirst, in cold, in nakedness, they never yielded to the body; always as though living in a flesh which was not theirs, they showed in every deed what it is to sojourn for a while in this life and what it is to have one's citizenship and home in heaven.'
Basil was, even by the standards of so remarkable a time, very extraordinary. Bishop and hermit; preacher and contemplative; traveller; theologian and scholar; anti-heresiarch (his anti-Arianism was effective and confirmed by the Council of Constantinople); social worker (he founded homes for the poor and for prostitutes, and was generous in famine relies; mystic and intellectual (to the great comfort of those Orthodox who deprecate the anti-intellectualism of some of their spiritual colleagues). He was also a controversial figure in a period when no views were expressed to gain consensus, but only ascendency.
Born into a family which was rich and pious, his grandmother, mother and father, two younger brothers, and best friend were all declared saints. He was educated at Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens. From his mid-twenties to his mid-thirties he lived a monastic life, first of all in Egypt and Syria and latterly near neo-Caesarea. But his hermitage was enlivened by the presence of friends and by his constant preaching to vast crowds. He was the earliest of the very busy monks, the public hermits, whom we shall often meet.
But his role can be overstated. Basil was a writer, and thus in retrospect can be seen very clearly as the inspirational force he undoubtedly was; he wrote a rule of sorts, and thus, again retrospectively, is seen as one of the formulators; he was, like Athanasius, a bishop and in a position to be a powerful friend of monks.
However, as we shall see with Benedict (with whom he is very often compared), founding a monastery or two, and formularizing the basis for monastic life can come to seem more formative than they actually were. The cases of Basil and Benedict are not, however, entirely similar. Benedict had small influence in his lifetime and an enormous influence long after it, especially by having set out a structure and described an esprit de corps; Basil was powerful in his own time, and was revered after it as a patristic figure; but his stamp is more on the spirituality than on the structure of monastic life in the east. Nor was his Rule complete, in the way that Benedict's is.
Indeed it would require the later work as writer and founder of Theodore the Studite (759-826) to put in place the model Orthodox monastery. He had reformed the monastery of Studios, in Constantinople, and stressed the need for manual work in a monk's life. Most monks, the solid majority for whom asceticism is too demanding, have preferred a role in which ordinary peasant activity is as important as prayer. Theodore added this earthier element.
Very senior Orthodox monks pledge themselves to a way of life which is much more in the manner of Antony than of Basil. The modern Greek Orthodox monks get cross with westerners who say their monasticism is 'Basilian': it allows the idea - alien to them - of monastic orders, operating at the behest and invention of individuals to be set up in distinction to the monks' preferred view that they are in a direct apostolic tradition, and owe quite as much to Antony and Paul as to any other more modern figure.
Basil is credited with being very firmly in favour of the coenobium, not least because it allows a man properly to express his love of his neighbour, and provides more opportunity to imitate Christ:
The solitary life has one aim, the service of the needs of the individual. But this is plainly in conflict with the law of love. The Lord for the greatness of His love was not content with teaching the word only, but that accurately and clearly he might give us a pattern of humility in the perfection of love, He girded Himself and washed the feet of His disciples in person. Whose then wilt thou wash? Whom wilt thou care for.... How will that good and pleasant thing, the dwelling of brethren together, be accomplished by dwelling solitarily?
And then again,
All of us who have been received in one hope of our calling are one body having Christ as head, and we are severally members one of another. But if we are not joined together harmoniously in the close links of one body in the Holy Spirit, but each of us chooses solitude, not serving the common welfare, in a way well pleasing to God but fulfilling the private desires of self-pleasing, how, when we are thus separated and divided off, can we preserve the mutual relation and service of the limbs one to another, or their subjection to one head, which is Christ. For it is impossible to rejoice with him that is glorified or to suffer with the sufferer when our life is thus divided, since it is impossible for the individual monk to know the affairs of his neighbour. In the next place, no single man is sufficient to receive all spiritual gifts, but according to the proportion of the faith that is in each man the supply of the Spirit is given; consequently, in the common life the private gift of each man becomes the common property of his fellows.
Even this emphasis seems actually to have been overstated by later commentators: Basil's great companion, Gregory of Nazianzus, says of him that his great achievement was to reconcile the coenobium with the hermitage. Basil admired and founded hermitages within reach of his monasteries. And this arrangement has come to be the system which most characterizes the eastern Christian monastic arrangement. In Palestine and Syria, for instance, all sorts of houses were in evidence, but the lavra seems to have been most favoured. There were saints galore in these obviously Bible lands.
Basil is a crucial link between the exigents and the potentates: he knew the desert and the palace equally well. His imprimatur on monastic life must have much encouraged the vacillating. Not that the people of the east seem to have needed much persuading. Basil was at work:in a time when the Christians flocked to the monastic life rather naturally.
It was part of his importance that he instituted and popularized a survivable monasticism. He legitimizes a monasticism in which saintly asceticism is accepted as being neither necessary nor sufficient for most monks. For some it was unattainable because too demanding; for others - an even worse crew - it was only too satisfactorily extreme, and pandered to their dementia.
He himself did not survive to see his half-century and may have blamed his illnesses on early excess.
During his hermitage phase, his friend Gregory wrote to him after one visit in high hilarity about the appalling food ('I have remembrance of the bread and of the broth - so they were named') which were entirely worthwhile in view of the 'luxury of suffering hardship with you ... who shall restore me to those psalmodies, and vigils, and departures to God through prayer?' In his rule, liturgy is to be the prime work of monks: he establishes the idea of regular hours and a varied liturgy 'because where there is monotony the soul often gets weary and is a prey to distraction'.
A monk should be obedient, but his master must be gentle and not censorious. The confessional is a place where a man may seek solace and guidance. Agriculture is the best work for a monk, providing a better waiting-room for heaven since it involves little marketing, and so rather little contact with the world of hassle and hussle.
He is also important as organizing monasticism well north of the Bible country, deep in the heart of the eastern empire. He was planting the virus at the heart of what would become Byzantium.
The Byzantine Empire was a piece of the ancient Roman Empire which would not go away. Even after the fall of Rome in the fifth century, it lasted for a thousand years as a rather odd smattering of the classical world, as won over to the Christian faith, in what was a surprisingly solid anachronism. It survived in some form the barbarian hordes and the rise of the Muslim world, until finally it was overtaken by the Turks in the fifteenth century. In that time, it had seemed alien enough to be plundered in 1204 by men of the Fourth Crusade from the Christian west.
It had been separated from the rest of the western world by politics and religious dispute, and had to fight Christianity's battles with the forces of the further-east, often alone in the front line. It struck the medieval west as bizarre, and more recently has seemed primitive in its special desire to elevate authenticity over sophistication in its way of worshipping and thinking about God. As a thoroughly modern Americo-Greek monk from one of its premier monasteries expressed himself forcefully, and with some of the slighted animosity of old: 'The Byzantine world is the black hole of history, so far as the west is concerned.'
It has indeed remained a great mystery to westerners, for whom both its past and its peculiar presence in parts of Near Eastern life now are a closed book. The unsettled, quizzical, abstract western :mind, relatively orderly and rational, has never been able to cope with the antiquity and the fundamentally different spirituality of the eastern Christian. We can think, marvelling, about the oriental mind. We can sometimes imagine that we have an inkling of the Arab mind. But there is something in the Levantine merging of practicality and spirituality which mystifies us. Its capacity for internecine argument, for boiling, suppressed resentment, is a byword: it characterized the Orthodox Church more than might be supposed from the single most absorbing feature of orthodoxy for us today, its unchanging, rooted nature.
This is a patristic religion, profoundly doubtful of the value of the intellect and always aware that it often leads to heresy.
H. A. L. Fisher, the historian of Europe, called the church
obscurantist, influential, and umbrageous': it was all those, and more.
The Byzantine was a very religious sort of government. Emperor, Patriarch, monk seem to have been even more bound together than they were, theoretically, in medieval Europe. Perhaps this was because there was no Pope to seem threatening to the temporal power: the priests seem to have known their place rather better, and the Emperor - to do him credit - often knew that his place was on his knees. One Emperor - Nicephorus (d 969) - actually tried to enter a monastery, and was in 963 instrumental in setting up the first really big monastery - the Grand Lavra (it was very much not a lavra, but a coenobium) - on the most famous Byzantine monastic site, Mount Athos, where he had intended to retire. While it was being built, he married an able but fallen woman and was murdered by her before he could fulfil the latter saintly ambition.
Emperors were prey to forceful women here as anywhere else, but this none the less was a holy empire in a way which was only talked about in western Europe.
In 518 an 'elderly, illiterate soldier' (Fisher's description) took the imperial throne. He persecuted Arians very viciously, but groomed his nephew, Justinian, to be an educated and sophisticated ruler. Justinian had the good fortune to marry a Cypriot beer-hall keeper's daughter, a courtesan and actress of wit, confidence, courage and piety, Theodora. From 27, when he formally took over the throne, Justinian and Theodora (who at least once saved the crown for her husband by counselling courage) set out to reassert the Byzantine Empire's scope and style.
To the west in parts of Italy, and down into Carthage, they had at least limited success, despite a corrupt governmental system within and constant harassment from without. It was an exhausting and doomed enterprise for Empire and Emperor, but it left two tangible monuments well outside the confines of what we think of Byzantium, both of which prove its enormous energy and demonstrate its spirituality: the frescoes of Ravenna, amongst them those of the monastic church of San Apollinare in Classe near Ravenna, and St Catherine's monastery in Sinai.
The significance of San Apollinare in Classe (beyond its becoming much later a Cluniac house, and providing a training ground for Saint Romuald who went on to found the Camaldoli monastery and tradition) is that it marks the revival of the fortunes of the kind of Christianity we think of as Orthodox (by the standards of Rome or Constantinople): namely, it was built by Christians with a properly Trinitarian tradition in an area which had only a decade before been dominated by Germanic 'barbarians', whose Christianity, recently adopted, was Arian (in which Christ is denied his full
The frescoes are a triumph of the Byzantine. Christ is pantocrator, ruler of the universe: foursquare as ruler and dispenser of power; grand and peasant and triumphant. In the apse, he is described in Creek and Latin, proof that the old Roman Empire, split hundreds of years before, could still inspire: ICTHUS, the Creek word for fish, whose letters make
the initials of Jesus Christ Son of God the Saviour, and the Latin Salus Mundi (the salvation of mankind). It symbolizes the period, when, for the first and only time, the eastern strand of Christianity colonized the western world.
Apart from a toehold maintained in the far south of Italy, after this period, Byzantium and its Christianity were confined to the east.
In Sinai, justinian had founded a monastery on the site of Moses' forty years in the wilderness, his revelations at the burning bush, and his subsequent receipt of God's Law. Thirty-three centuries separate the occasions when the oasis a few kilometres to the north-west on the road to Mount Horeb was the scene of bloody conflict between Jews and Egyptians: Moses can hardly have guessed what he started.
Elijah, another great desert wanderer, and precursor of the desert call for people of the book, also came here. Tradition has it that there were monks here very early in the Christian period, partly as a function of its holiness, and partly of its value as a safe refuge.
The Emperor Constantine's mother, Helena, had a church built (it is still intact) in the fourth century. justinian ordered that a proper fortified monastic complex be built, and provided soldiers to guard it.
An elegant little plane flew a small party of us - some Italians and their wives, assorted tourists - from Cairo to St Catherine's, where there is an airstrip. Flew us to St Catherine's, but did not stop there as scheduled. It flew on to Sharm el Sheik, one of the funnier resort towns of the world, and a couple of hundred miles from where I needed to be. I hitched a ride in a coach, shared a taxi for a few score kilometres, enjoyed a handy bus ride, had a bottle of Fanta at a roadside hovel (a brick kennel and a man all but asleep beside it), hitched rides in a couple of government jeeps, and finally was dumped by a well and a small irrigation scheme in the desert, around four in the afternoon. A camel wandered about, unenergetically. I am not an intrepid traveller and yet I was not unduly concerned. The kindness of Egyptians is such that I did not bother to worry overmuch. I had noticed that these desert roads carry intermittent but definite traffic, and that people do not tend to leave strangers stranded for want of giving a ride. Besides, there was a hut nearby and signs of family life. I vaguely thought I could, if pressed, doss down in one of the abandoned cars in their
Eventually, a car came along. It did not stop at first, but slowed, and then halted a few hundred yards further on. I trotted down to it, to be greeted by an American voice, very doubtful. The woman said they didn't normally give rides ... And, why didn't I have a car? I told them what had happened. They were still doubtful. I told them to be on their
way, and not to trouble themselves: something would come along.
In the end, they said to hop in, and that they were Navigators, born again Christians from the States. This couple were employees, shedding the light and spreading the good news in the mid-east. It was OK about the lift, they decided, because, 'We had dedicated the car to the Lord anyway'.
The monastery was a little way up a bare and bleak valley, reached by a small road. There was a shanty town about a quarter of a mile from it, and a few cypress trees in its immediate vicinity. We pulled up in a yard near a low building which turned out to be a hostel. A notice directed us to assemble at a set time in front of the small door in the high monastery wall. Then and only then, Youth Hostel-like, would our accommodation be addressed.
Assorted pilgrims, including the Navigators and I, were
marshalled at the door of the monastery and then to the foot of some steps which led to the guest reception room. A tall, very dark, swift monk swept us up the steps, and briskly told us to sit down. Some of us were diffident about relaxing in such a place, and hovered about: rather impatiently, he commanded us, more headmasterly than hostly. We gathered there, round the walls of a wood-lined room: it had the look of a holiday chalet in a Swiss village. The cornices and the skirtings were painted in a little frieze of flowers.
Large portraits of large regal ladies of the Greek royal family smiled down at us, in their décolletages. A sailing ship in a bottle flew the Greek flag and plied the Red Sea, with Mount Sinai diagrammatically portrayed as a brownish lump between it and the Gulf of Akaba. There were some useful reminders of the mountain's biblical connections from scruffy corral. Thornas Nelson, the British publishers: prints depicting Moses receiving the Law; the burning bush, painted by R. Payton Reid in 1906; the worship of the Golden Calf; the parting of the Red Sea.
Presently the monk returned. He seemed quite forbidding
in his witty, wry, handsome smil ' es and strong welcome.
'Good evening', he said and the best of us responded heartily.
We were a long way from home and dusk was gathering. We wanted his hospitality, and were not yet guaranteed it. He and his robes managed to have the air of a presiding magistrate, combined with something of the dash of a maitre d'hôtel. The Navigators and another family were delighted to be told that they could have a family room, and less so when they realized that they would have to share it. Anyway, they were dispatched after a Muslim servant, who had been hovering in the doorway.
The rest of us approached the presence, one by one, and had the details of our passport taken. 'This is not for us', said the monk. 'The police require it.' He bestowed on each of us a small joke, which each received as though it were manna. A man from Limoges was complimented on the pottery of his birthplace, and responded with the delight of a man who had never before met such erudition. He got a bed. 'You know', said the monk, who had told us to general acclamation that his name was George, 'you are all welcome to use our hostel, but it is Lent and the monastery is closed completely for the time being.'
My heart sank. Someone asked for food. 'We are not a hotel, you know,' said George (before coming to St Catherine's he had taught ancient Greek at Alexandria, 'a nice town', he said), 'but we may be able to give you some olives and bread; I shall see.' I had brought some food with me, and felt suitably smug about it. These Levantines weren't catching me so easily. I approached the potentate, adopting an air which I hoped was supplicant whilst at the same time conveying seriousness of purpose.
'You have a problem', he said. I told him why I was late, and how I had a bus to catch on Monday, and a plane the next day. I told him how I had scoured both London and Cairo for advice as to how best to visit St Catherine's.
He sighed a little sigh; it was like the last breath leaving a small animal being crushed in a rough hand. But his briskness hardly left hirn, and he seemed as though he wanted to find solutions even to problems he did not want.
'What is it, exactly, that you want?'
I told him.
'I will try to find the monk who is responsible for such things. He is Father Makarios.' He left, and returning a few minutes later, told me to go to the hostel, and come back in half an hour for my talk with Makarios. Before I left, a young monk came in with a black bag, which was wriggling: he opened it and gave several tiny fluffy chicks had a pre-Easter romp in the palm of his hand.
I went down to the hostel, which was built as a brick bunkhouse. I claimed the lower of two bunks in a big room, and went to the little kitchen-cum-refectory where a Muslim guest master was showing us the facilities. Gathered in this improbable place were two priests (Roman Catholic), two German girls in voluminous shawls, and various others.
Outside, a US Army jeep pulled up. A chubby Captain jumped out, with a black lieutenant and two sergeants in tow. They were from the Multinational Force and Observers, a UN-inspired peace-keeping outfit, and had run up to the monastery because they admired it and liked to meet the monks and go to church there. 'This is the most important religious place in the world, apart from the Vatican', declared the Captain, who said he was from Arizona.
Worrying about the monks and their theological backing, the Captain said he and his little crew had been discussing, presumably as they bounced along the tracks on the way to the monastery, the way that Jesus Christ had commanded his followers to go forth and bear fruit. 'He said he would make them fishers of men. Not a lot fishing for men here', said one of the sergeants. But they loved the monks anyway.
I kept my appointment in the gatehouse office. Makarios was a handsome, dark man, in a smart woolly hat which might have been made for the Special Boat Service, a big mackintosh, and smokey-glass spectacles. He spoke with an American accent. His air was calm, reserved, capable. He had an openness about him which was almost challenging, except that it was somehow passive: it was a matter of service, offered by a man from whom one received the signal that he would have been just as happy, perhaps happier, to have been left alone. We sat opposite each other at the table, overlooked by King Konstantine and Queen Anna Maria. I took my notebook out, ready to remind myself of the conversation points I had jotted down, and to receive his pearls. He asked what he could do for me. How could he help? He was unsmiling, and incurious. He might have been a doctor. Worse, he might have been a psychologist. I told him first about the weeks of letter writing that had receded this visit, and the hopelessness of the information I had gathered and been offered. He laughed. 'That's important. You write down what happened. You think it's odd that there should be such chaos: actually, it's quite normal.'
Outside there were vast sandstone mountains and the gathering night, and beyond that an unseen desert and sea shore. Here, for some odd, monk-like reason, there was a young American, amused and periodically irritated by the eastern mentality. 'It's all part of the desert drama', he said. Could I attend the morning liturgy, I asked. Yes. 'No problem.' I said I would like to attend a meal in the refectory; was it in silence? Yes. Were there readings? Yes. Could I attend? No. I supposed it was impossible to visit the graveyard, the museum or the gardens? Yes, it was. But I had the liturgy to look forward to, and was to report at the small monastic door at a few minutes to four in the morning.
The American Monk
We settled to talk: about his own attachment to this extraordinary place, which he had first encountered in books as a magical picture whose reality he had no idea he would one day encounter so solidly; about the almost informal novitiate of two or three years a man must undergo to become an orthodox monk; about the way a personal crisis in any younger monk is managed by the older ones, who've seen most such upsets before.
We talked about the way a monk should in principle leave his monastery for only three reasons: 'If he's sick and cannot be given proper medical treatment in the monastery, or on business for the monastery, or if he's dead.' And not necessarily then, since several - St Catherine's very famously amongst them - have an ossiary within a charnel house, where skulls, and sometimes whole skeletons, remain on morbid display. At St Catherine's one of the most venerated is St Stephen the Porter, dressed in purple velvet and holding his staff, just as he used to do when, as a sixth-century guardian of the holy mountain, he checked that would-be communicants there had first confessed at the monastery.
We talked about the way a monk would be in touch with his parents, beyond the occasional letter, only if they came to his monastery.
I asked him what a monk did with whatever liveliness of mind he possessed. 'One must change one's perspective, and concentrate, rather than on many things, on few. Anything that doesn't pertain to God is meaningless here. One doesn't involve himself in reading science journals, for instance, or in computer wizardry, or anything not related to one's goal as a monk. One might be more concerned with learning as a monk in the west, but in the east it is devotion that matters. The way of life of the monk requires little reading outside the orthodox tradition: Holy Scripture and the history of Christianity. But we do read, but everything we do, we do as in prayer.'
I asked him to tell me why God, who made men diverse, intelligent, reproductive, should want creatures as narrow as monks. 'God doesn't need monks', he said. 'But God needs people who are able to remember and love him. Partly it's a matter of thanksgiving, and of having the presence of Christ in his flock in the eucharist: not superficially, or artificially, but the actual, real presence of Christ. Partly it's a matter of remembrance. Man was created by God for what purpose? The answer, so far as I understand it, is that men are the only creation of God endowed with speech. We are speechendowed sheep, whose real purpose, I think, is to praise him.
'The angels worship God continuously in heaven, and the monks try to do so here on earth. We are trying to obey Paul's injunction to pray unceasingly. There are some things a monk does which are natural, and some are unnatural, and many things which we ought to do which are supernatural. A monk is involved in the ascetical struggle, which is the attempt continuously to ascend to the supernatural, to transcend earthly things, to worship God who is unseen, unknown, and above nature. And yes, partly, it is proper that monks should do this all the time because others do it so little.'
We parted, and I went back to the hostel. A lively supper was being prepared, pooled from food provided by the monastery and various odds and ends which the pilgrims had brought in haversacks. The families had gone off to bed. The two Germans, the priests and I, overlooked by a kindly, rather worldly-looking old Muslim, settled down to eat. And then one of the Germans sang Stille Nacht, followed by the other who sang, beautifully and dramatically, a love song from Jacques Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse. We were rowdy, and I half expected a censorious monk to come out of the night at us.
Later, I had a nip of brandy on the terrace in the black of the night, and, wrapped in sleeping bags, talked a while with the Army Captain about the mountains (he said they were very like his own Arizona backyard), and his pleasure in his present posting, during which he had 'quadrupled my study time in terms of the Word'. He was a good man, I imagine, dreaming of his young family at home, and looking forward to getting back to his carpentry in his garage. He said that if the military should ever ask him to do something which was against the Lord's commandment, he would know which to obey, and hang the consequences. He thought that on the whole God has led him through the vale of tears rather well: 'I have been so well looked after', he said.
The next morning, I turned up at the door in the great wall, hanging around in the great darkness. Bells were ringing out over the valley. Dead on time, a monk came to the door, looking for me with a torch. We went in, through a courtyard to the great doors of the church. He let me in, and led me to a choir stall at the back. I could dimly see the gorgeous iconostasis, and, beside me, a big ikon full of figures: each of the church's twelve internal pillars marks a month, and on each is hung a calendar of holy people associated with that month. Mismanaging my hinged chair, it banged out through the silence. The next three and a half hours passed in an agreeable, sleepy blur of Kyrie eleisons, chanted at vanous speeds but always mesmerizing and lovely; the tinklings of little bells; processions of the great jewelled Bible, and of ikons; the lighting and snuffing of candles; billowing incense.
This was the Third Sunday of the Great Fast, just before Easter. It commemorates the Crucifixion, and encourages the faithful through the ardours of fasting. At five-thirty a table was ceremoniously placed in the centre of the church, and a crucifix in a garland of flowers was processed by it by a priest in blue vestments, and monks with candles and incense. Everyone - not me - queued to smell the flowers, kiss the priest's hand and make a metanoia (in which one crosses oneself, but with a bow to touch the floor).
The church is big and gorgeous, much more so than anything I had seen in Egypt (or would see on Mount Athos). The twelve pillars form two rows, dividing the church into a nave and two outer aisles. My place was at the most westerly of the southern row.
After the service we congregated in the reception room for coffee and liqueur with the Abbot, who addressed a few words in Creek to us. This was His Eminence Archbishop Damianos, Archbishop of Sinai, Faran and Raitho, Archbishop of the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Sinai. Afterwards, I went out to the scrappy little village which was built in the time of the Israeli occupation: it looks as though it is going to become a slightly odd tourist centre. I bought sardines and corned beef - staple fare in the wastes of Egypt and some bread from a bakery. Then I stuffed an anorak into a haversack for the climb up Gebel Musa, Moses' Mountain.
The scene of Moses' triumph testifies, at the very least, to his stamina. This is hard and frightening country: half moonscape, and half Bible illustration. The mountains are substantial, vertiginous deserts. The main path to the peak three thousand feet up - is smooth and wide. Luckily, I did not know then what later I read - that an American, overenthusiastic, died of a heart attack after an ascent to the top in I927. I was in any case sufficiently anxious on account of one man - I think he was a German - who was carrying a holdall and walking very fast, keeping me rough company. As we got higher, we got colder; and he got bluer and bluer. He heaved and puffed, and I wondered what I would do if he needed carrying home. We exchanged biblical pleasantries, and I nearly prayed for his survival.
At the small ugly church on the top of the mountain the two priests - they were on their way to missionary work in Africa were photographing each other. We marvelled at the audacity of someone called Macdonald, who must have been very brave to reach out far enough to inscribe his name on an awesomely precipitous rock in 1845, and who, nothing daunted, returned to do so again in 1849. Graffiti can be very classy, and comforting as well.
It had been agreeably warm in the valley. Here the wind was piercing, and on neighbouring peaks one could see snow. I was glad to wander back down to the monastery, this time not by the broad camel track, but by a succession of narrow passages. gorges, and steep steps. It was a walk enlivened by the priests and their enjoyment of time out of time. The German had sworn he was feeling fine and would come down in his own time. On the way down, the monastery suddenly appeared, tiny and neat, distantly viewed between the walls of a ravine: beige, homely, orderly in such a scene of natural devastation, in which a lone tree seen down in the valley looked curiously luxurious.
The sight of a camel or person was very comforting: it taught me how little demand I have for serious wilderness, at least as a personal experience. The monastery is such a muscular jewel: walled (the present nearly square structure being built on massive sixth-century foundations), with a multi-storey series of verandas and terraces backed up against one wall. and the great church dominating the huddled square.
The mosque - presumably the only one such in a Christian enclosure anywhere - testifies to the oddity of the place which has survived Muhammadan, Israeli and Romish domination in its time, and been respected by all of them. Though for many years in its history it has periodically been abandoned (notably in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) it always seemed to bounce back, better endowed than before. It had always been a cynosure of the western world, a position it maintained even when Christendom was increasingly divided: its fabulous collection of ikons and their art testifies to the wealth of its patronage, especially, latterly, that of the Russian royal family.
Often, at the height of its powers, holding four hundred monks, the present community numbers about eighteen. But the big change is that the car, bus and plane have robbed it of its rarity value. Curious backpacking young flock there, as well as pilgrims of a more obviously religious sort. The monks warily accept that this must be so, and have found the guesthouse outside the monastery's enclosure a tolerable compromise for their peace: they are expanding its facilities.
I was due for more talk with Father Makarios. Again we met
in the monastic no-man's-land of the reception room. I asked him if monastic life wasn't very irritating. 'Perhaps, sometimes. But if you are letting someone get you down the proper monastic way to think about it is to see the fault in yourself, and not in the other person. Of course it is difficult at times. One could only tell if it was the life for him by trying it. The core of monastic life is experience. That's why we have a novitiate for monks: it wouldn't be right to ask someone to devote himself without his having had practical experience of what it will be like. Many come, of course; and many find it too uncomfortable and leave. And that's as it should be.'
What was the real motive for being a monk, I asked. 'A monk from here visited Mount Athos, and an Abbot there asked him what he wanted from monasticism. "Not to go to Hell', was the reply. "That's not the right way to think about it", said the Abbot. "Better to want to be in Paradise".'
I went out and clambered up some rocks across the valley from the monastery, where I basked like a lizard, and let its very great beauty sink in.
The next day, a gaggle of us left the monastery in the darkness to catch the bus which left at dawn. It was very nearly full: people from the monastic town, and pilgrims going back to Cairo. I settled into a seat at the back, and was joined by a young American woman I had not seen around the monastery. 'Good morning', she said. 'In addition to being a biochemist I am also a psychic.'
I snuggled down into my anorak and listened to my personal stereo: Bob Marley - the psalmodist of this century, singing 'Exodus'.
Only the Byzantine world could have produced Mount Athos, where geography, government and godliness are bound together. Athos is a forty-kilometre-long monastic peninsula. It is one of three which form Chalkidiki's fingers pointing into the Aegean. Athos is wooded: there are no female herd animals to graze it. There had been late eleventh-century scandals involving shepherds, whose offerings to the monks included their womenfolk: when they were banished many of the monks left too.
Legend at least has it that no female of the human species had been allowed in the peninsular for much longer: maybe as early as the late fifth century the Empress Pulcheria (a virgin, though technically married to the Emperor, and later a saint) found it. She wanted to commemorate the spot where her father had come safely ashore after a shipwreck, but was halted by an ikon of the Virgin Mary, which is supposed to have impressed on her that she should go no further: Athos did not need two Queens.
Even earlier, so the legend goes, Mary had landed on Athos after a ship carrying her to an appointment with Lazarus in Cyprus fetched up there. 'This shall be my portion', she said.
Athos, the most famously extensive Christian territory in the world, has stoutly pagan origins, being named after the god Poseidon's son, by whom it is supposed to have been picked up and hurled into the sea. It has a big marble mountain, Mount Athos (2033 metres), at its tip, which is swathed in mists and shiny-tipped with snow even in April, when down below spring flowers and quick fine showers make the air sweet. It is a storm-ridden spot.
There are authorities to say that Athos had become a place favoured by hermits since the seventh century. In the ninth, Peter the Athonite lived for fusty years in a cave in the cliffs. Later in that century, St Euthymios arrived and is said to have inspired many followers to live near his hermitage, whence he eventually agreed to become their leader in a lavra-style development. In the middle of the tenth century St Athanasius set the mountain on its present course by setting up the Great Lavra as a cenobium.
Since then this extraordinary place has been not merely full of monasteries, it is devoted to them, and run by them. Athos is a monastic state in rather the way that the Vatican is a clerical one. It was established by ancient decree of the Byzantine emperors, whose world it still perpetuates.
It has no ambassadors, and it does have a vast number of visitors. It is not a museum or a fossil, but proof of the vast eccentricity of mankind, and of men who are very nearly European - EC members, for instance - at that.
Partly because of its very great beauty, partly because it is so famous architecturally, partly because it is a great centre of religion and religiosity, it is a place of pilgrimage for devout Orthodox, and others who often tell small lies about, their godliness in order to be allowed the ecclesiastical visa. Without that there is no getting even to Athos's lone point of entry, the monastic port of Daphne, which is sometimes very busy, despite the inconvenience non-orthodox are put to in ever seeing it.
Each morning, a handsome white-painted boat pushes off from Ouranoupolis, at the north-west end of the peninsular and in secular territory. It cleaves those clear green-blue waters, sometimes accompanied by dolphins and flights of sea birds, and cruises busily down the western coast of Athos.
The passengers watch a succession of monasteries go by. Typically, they are four or five kflometres apart, and stand either on the shoreline or in the hillside above it. Between Ouranoupolis and Daphne monasteries pass as though on parade.
First, Dochiariou. It was founded well before the eleventh century, was much prone to pirate attacks, as were all these shoreline houses, possessor of a fragment of the true cross, Serbian for much of its history. Next, Xenophontos, which for centuries was a bastion of the cenobitic way, though it has a smaller hermitage nearby. Then, Panteleimonos, also known as Roussikon since this is a major Russian bastion. It has a barracks-style building close to the shore, built in the nineteenth century to accommodate an invasion of Russian monks. Each appear in turn, as do the ports - usually a stone jetty and a fortified tower, always called a citadel, and built to repel pirates - of other monasteries further inland.
The monasteries are deeply eccentric places, and probably the most lovely and informal - though grand - buildings the human eye is ever likely to see. Symmetry, which is the gift of most religious architecture to an unruly world, has no place here.
The Athonite monasteries are like weird chateaux whose occupants have grown weary of living inside walls: draped from most of the buildings are ricketty, narrow verandas with a dizzy toehold on the stones of the walls which support them via diagonal struts. Some of these verandas are several storeys high. The monasteries often have exquisite onion-dome roofs, since many of the founding religious were Russian or Slavonic (whose style itself is a mark of their having Byzantine origins, both as nations and styles). The churches in the midst of the monastic campuses are usually painted rust brown and readily assert themselves as the focus of the complex. The woodwork of the buildings is almost always painted, sometimes a lovely blue or terracotta, and they therefore look a little like fairground buildings which have been given a serious turn.
And so, to picture Athos you have to try to see a blue sky with puffy white clouds, and deep-forested slopes, a snowy peak in the distance, a dazzling shoreline of white pebbles and sparkling clear Aegean water, and the fairground forts in which rows of windows will temper with thoughts of penitentiaries and barracks any little imaginings that one is already in paradise.
The monks one meets first are a tonic for anyone who over admires Athos: not that they are dissolute or dim, but rather, they are so resolutely masculine. These characters wrap a perhaps very profound spirituality in exteriors as solid, active, gruff, as anything you would meet in the outside world. Except for their robes and beards they might be returning to work on a drilling rig, or - more likely - a whaling ship or lumber camp: - this last possibility is very real in a community which does well out of its forested slopes, themselves rare survivors in these Macedonian highlands.
I sat beside a typically impressive monkish type on the bus from Thessalonika to Ouranoupolis: he was a big, sad, weary, rather distinguished looking sort of fellow, in a serge jacket and jeans poking out beneath his none-too-clean monastic habit. His beard was long and straggly in front, and his hair, grey, wispy and in a pony tail behind. We messily ate flakey cheesepie from newspaper (bought at the terminus). He would not have been out of place as an extra in Moby Dick.
Athos is a surprisingly young place: it is the scene of energetic strands of monasticism in which modernity and antiquity reside together. In fact, it is the young men who have shaken Athos back to its traditions, and to its roots, in the past few decades. Monasteries by definition do not create new generations; they have to attract, them, and Athos, which might have looked dead on its aged feet in the fifties and early sixties, and with a lousy prognostication for its future, did succeed in sending out some sort of message to the outside world that it needed vocations. The message was answered.
The monastic life of Athos has for a thousand years replicated in one concentrated spot all the monastic styles which flourished in the Egyptian deserts, and about every possible variation of themes established there. At its tip are the terrifying giddy caves and huts (perched on minute crevices) of the most extreme hermits, fed by baskets of food lowered by rope from their mother monastery: here are the ascetical ways of an Antony. There are sketes, which are monastic villages of cottages, each inhabited by between three and six monks, with a common church: in effect, the lavra of Ammoun. There are kellia, which are really tiny monasteries in which there are not fewer than three and not more than six monks.
Then there are the twenty 'ruling monasteries', proper, on the Pachomian model.
Until recently much of the communal life of Athos had lost some of its monastic ardour, under a system which allowed individual monks to keep their earned or unearned income and to live pretty much an individual life - cooking for themselves in their rooms, for instance - in which quite often attendance at the services in the church seemed lackadaisical. This was the idiorhythmic style of monastic life, and it is now very much frowned on. The new monks, coming to Athos, or moving from hermitages into the coenobia, insisted that the way of life revert to the coenobitic.
But even more important was their revival of the tradition of the Hesychast (roughly translatable as Quietist, though the word has a rather different meaning from that attached to it in western theology). This is the notion of continuous prayer of the heart, normally associated with the Jesus Prayer: 'Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me' (with 'a sinner' sometimes added). The prayer was and is usually said alone and silently, sometimes with breathing exercises working alongside it.
Its use goes back through a long line of Orthodox theology and mysticism, in which the ideas about God's ineffability, developed in the third century by Origen and Clem-ent, were orked up by later figures. These include Gregory of Nyssa (Basil's brother); Evagrius in the fourth; the anonymous fifthcentury writer (who was thought to be St Dionysius, and whose works are thus called Dionysian); and John Climacus in the sixth .
The doctrine of God's unknowability was crucial to Orthodox Christians. So too was the idea that a man might find a union with God, and Gregory of Nyssa set out to reconcile the unknowable God with the God who allows his grace to lift man into union with himself. There also developed a strand of thought which sought to reconcile man's soul with his body (which, as we have seen, was very unl the Origenist thinking of early Egypt): man's whole nature was seen to be created by God, and to be capable of worshipping him.
The Jesus Prayer of John Climacus is thus the prayer in which a man may ascend into union with the unknowable, God through the grace which can come from concentrating the whole being continuously on asking Jesus to have mercy upon him.
The Hesychast tradition was powerful in the tenth century when St Symeon the New Theologian (949-Io42) claimed that Hesychasm allowed certain people to see the divine light of God in as real a way as the three disciples had seen Our Lord's Transfiguration. This view was derided by many theologians, and it finally fell to the Athonite monk, Gregory Palamas (1269-1359) to develop a theology which satisfactorily (for religious, at any rate) reconciled the attributes of an unknowable and yet active and revealed God, and in particular man's experience of this unknowable God and his Divine Light by the use of the Hesychast tradition of worship. His defence depends on the divine within man being physical as well as mental: thus, with grace, our eyes can see Divine Light.
Visitors to Athos have a hefty rigmarole of paperwork to acquire before the monks will let them in. There is a moment - moments of this sort are never pleasant - when a sailor goes round the boat taking pilgrims to Daphne, collecting everyone's passport and other papers. He dumps them all in a plastic bag and hands them to a monk. The ship docks, rapidly, and we all gather at the stern, where a ramp has been lowered. The passports are whisked away, and we all climb aboard an oldish bus, knapsacks stowed in its bowels.
It is the last ride you take on Athos, unless you can hire a donkey or horse, and can also face riding it. The bus wends its way round hairpins, into the interior of the peninsular (always called 'the Mountain', though Mount Athos alone deserves the name). The bus curls its way down to Karyes, the administrative heart of the place, where there are meeting places, a big church, a kind of Town Hall (to which you are directed). There a queue, and, if you pass muster, a special passport, which you are to carry always.
Foreigners can stay four nights only. Everyone takes their chance as to whether the monastery he is headed for will take him for the night. It doesn't pay to arrive late in the day at the monastery of your choice; it may be full.
Before setting off to the first monastery, there was a treat to be had at Karyes. One wanders around the small town, with its tumbledown shops (one of them, a cobbler, had a fairytale dereliction, and one longed to go in: it was shut). There were stores whose aspect was more that of a ship's chandlers than anything else: faded shelves, wooden floors; maps (of Athos), supplies for a voyage, some of them in sacks. You could buy all the usual things, but I don't remember meat, and do seem to recall seeing a note somewhere saying that it should not be sold on the Holy Mountain.
And then to the hotel. It was not, actually, quite worth the name, if you care about things being bright and sprightly. But there it was, barely advertised and with no signs of any sort that I could see. Inside, like a party of youth hostellers with the stuffing and the heartiness taken out of them, there was gathered a party of men who were taking their last sustenance before tough events, as they might be, which lay ahead. We all ate, and there may have been nothing else on offer, soup and fish and salad and potatoes, and we drank - I certainly did quantities of wine. I aw no need to face the afternoon cold sober. I had smoked the last cigarette of my life, as I intended it to be, on the boat coming in, and was glowing with virtue from the knowledge that theie'd be no smoking here at least. It was a good lunch. And then I asked a monk to point me the way to the monastery of Stavronikita, which I had mapped out as being near enough to walk to in an afternoon and had seen from pictures to be good looking.
Also, I'd been tipped off in Saloniki that it was one of the places where Athos' revival was most evident. There was reason on the way to curse the new spirit in the place. The track, which scattered signs told one to follow, was all but impassable in places: the youngster-imonks had power-driven their jeeps and four-wheel drives along fragile earthen routes and turned them into a bland, beige quagmire, which tempted one in until there was no return. I rolled up my trousers and plodded on, feeling hot, wretched and pettish. Once I came across a monk on a donkey, and a couple of times I was overtaken by a Merc-load of youngsters. But it was a lovely day, and my shirt stuck agreeably to my sweaty back. I drank the half bottle of wine I had tucked away in my knapsack and ate some nuts I'd bought, and wondered whether I was greedy enough to eat the corned beef I had meant to save in case the food at the monastery was scarce, inedible or non-existent.
I liked Stavronikita from the first. And to say one likes a monastery is more than saying one likes a particular hotel (it includes a hotel-assessing quality, of course). People say that each monastery has its own spiritual quality which a visitor must find for himself.
Anyway: I liked Stavronikita. Founded in 1574 it is the youngest, the poorest and the most junior of the twenty ruling monasteries. It had the air of a fortress which had never seriously had to fight off anything unpleasant. Its bastion quality looked joyful. I came swinging down the lane towards it, round a corner, past a tethered horse and a tended garden, and saw a terrace and a great grey building beside it. The monk at the door looked at my papers, and did not at first seem best pleased to see me. He left to find me a little something, the same little something everyone is always offered: a small, helpful liqueur, a glass of water, turkish delight.
He sat me down in his little outer office and let me drink in peace. And then in through the gate, to a cool, beautiful small square courtyard, with a tap and stone lavabo, and the church entrance. And on, up some wooden stairs - several flights of them - and along a shiplike corridor to the loveliest room I ever expect to see. It was the reading room of the guest area. It was as bright as a room well might be with waist to ceiling windows on two of its sides, especially with the two sides looking out over the sea, as though they were set in a lighthouse tower, itself set on a crag above the shore. Lovely, simple woodwork in the room, in its windows and its panelled, painted walls.
Down below, from the windows, one could hear the sea's subdued roar. Approach them, open one and look out, and the thing was terrifying. The room's seaward walls and floor hung out over the walls, veranda-wise. It was a crow's nest, of a biblioteque. The house was full, and this was to be my home. I determined that I would, in spite of my body's nervous reluctance, make my camp on the sofa which was, so to speak, hung out over the sea.
The only lighting was by paraffin stove: no one warned me, or fretted over me, about its use: one false move and I could send the entire monastery up in flames, always the historic terror of the entire peninsular. Wandering around between the guest wing and the church, one was never aware of places which the monks regarded as their own, though there were doors one dearly did not open. The enclosure was not defined by notices or regions, and it wasn't until later that it occurred to one that the overall effect was rather inviting and relaxed.
The huddle of the place was attractive: a window would look out over the glamorously mediterranean roofing tiles of the domed church, their sags and leanings producing swift, interrupted contours, like the swirls of a finger print. The wood work - beams, lintels, banisters - was scrubbed white by the wind and salt; and the views were all of green fields, or stone terraces. The church itself was very beautiful, and I did not see a finer one while I was on the holy mountain. It was small, but it seemed sunny, and the colours of the paintings were bright and lively. On the floor, there was a scattering of laurel leaves, and they scented the air. Visiting it, I felt very strongly the strength of the observation of Robert Byron (the young pre-war English Byzantologist whose The Station is a lovely account of a young man's visit to Athos in I927). 'The Athonite churches,' he wrote, in mitigation of the tedium he felt during the afternoon service, 'however modern, are not, with the exception of the Russian, ugly ... the majority are covered, and wholly covered, as tradition demands, with scenes from the life of the Virgin and her son, each occasion being divided from its neighbours by narrow bands of red and white. From the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, artistically valuable or not, their effect is invariably decorative.'
The invitation to attend my first service on Athos was friendly and courteous. We stood, the new arrivals, at the back. The stalls were those of Greek Orthodoxy everywhere: comfortable arrangements in which one can sit, or hoist the bench of the seat up, to form a perch for discreet slumping, or stand in one's place instead, with convenient arm rests should things prove wearisome. I had arrived in time for Vespers, at 5.30 (occidental time; the monasteries mostly use another system: their own is called justinian, and it is a mark of the Byzantine attitude to the outside world that they call the normal western time Frankish).
It began with the outer and inner churches divided, but the curtain was swept aside almost immediately, amidst 'Kyrie eleisons', and we were off. The service lasted for half an hour or so, and then we were gathered together for supper.
It was my first meal in a monastic refectory, and I recommend them highly. The food itself is usually delicious. It is also always hotly disputed, along with the other delights of the place: Robert Byron reckoned that the ordinary tourists ('the globetrotters', he called them) 'will shrink from the difficulty of the language, the nauseating victuals, the inhabitants of the bed - vile insects - the indescribable sanitation [both much improved in the eighties] and the absence of wheeled accommodation. And from his wife, at least, usually the worst of him, Athos is safe.'
Robert Byron enjoyed the curious Byzantine differentness, loved the art, adored the antiquity of Athos; to avoid its food he simply - like Evelyn Waugh, at about the same time visiting monasteries in Egypt and Ethiopia - ensured that he carried his own supplies, preferably from Fortnums, whose manager would share his tours of the store.
Robert, however, was happy enough, after a long day on foot or mule visiting Abbots and haggling with them over manuscripts, to eat what he called a 'good meagre dinner' here. Stavronikita has kept the same atmosphere he witnessed in 1839:
The monastery is in very good order, clean and well kept; and I had a comfortable frugal dinner there with some of the old monks, who seemed a cheerful and a contented set.
Now, many of the monks are young.
There is something wonderful about being read to by a man in a pulpit whilst one sits eating in silence oneself. The Abbot had the light behind him as he sat alone: his click at the table began the meal, and he drew it to a close pretty snappily: half an hour all told, and perhaps less. The tables, with their bench seats, were beautifully laid: napkin, spoon, fork, knife. A piece of bread for each. A dish of olives, an onion in its skin, and a clove of garlic; a vegetable mess of okra; an exquisite garlic and potato mess; water; a lemon.
I had met a young monk who spoke English. He was an Australian, had popping eyes, and a slightly dotty look which conveyed perpetual surprise. 'The Orthodox has ikons, and candles, and murals so that he can learn from them: everything symbolizes some aspect of his faith. Our whole life here is praying, the mysteries of the church, the work, and a little reading, perhaps. We grow spiritually from these things,
there's a oneness through them all, a unity which helps one feel the peace and the love of God. Here, we begin our day at about midnight, an hour before the services begin.'
He told me about the Jesus Prayer which was the traditional watchword of eastern monasticism, and which has been the rallying cry of the new revival, of which this young Australian is a part. 'One collects one's whole being around these words, it's a link with God. We believe that we can understand ourselves, God, the world, through prayer, and in a very practical way. To an Orthodox, experience is everything: a theologian is one who knows how to pray.
'There have been periods in recent history when the Church
had become overly influenced by the west, and had perhaps lost some of its ancient confidence in its spirituality. It had begun to read a bit too much, and to pray too little".
This was the time, after supper, when everyone gathers on the terrace between the monastery and the garden, to discuss God, and gossip a spell.
There was a priggish sort of a young Greek, wearing awesomely smart casual clothes: sharp grey trousers, an immaculate blazer, a neatly draped scarf. He was a classic of what I think is a genre in religious circles (certainly I saw enough of them): what one uncharitably came to recognize as a monastic groupie. A Holy Joe. At least, so one could not help imagining. He would engage this or that monk in earnest conversation, or go wandering off with his books under his arm. A spiritual swot. Then there was the restaurant owner over from Athens, who had come here every year in Holy Week to get his soul into some sort of order. Two youngsters are chatting with the guestmaster. The monastic horse chomps away on a gentle incline.
The Australian was just the first to stress to me that the Athonite way was very particular. It had its own immense weight of tradition. It had spawned no runaway offshoots, as all the great western Orders had. Not that the peninsular's history has been all God and glory. Early on there were constant rows between the hermits and the community monks, as to which tradition was the trtier and which should dominate the government of Athos. The monasteries won, but have often had to accept that it is the hermits who drive the spirituality of the place.
The hermitage is a better forcing house of spiritual heroism than the inherently more comfortable coenobium.
There have been periods of oppression, notably from the Christian west in the wake of the Fourth Crusade's atrocity at Constantinople (when the crusaders, weary of waiting to tackle the infidel, plundered the capital of the Christian world instead) and the subsequent division of Byzantium's spoils. There was the Byzantine emperor who sought to unite west and east again and was prepared, as legend has it, to beat Athos into conformity with his views (he failed).
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the monks on Athos joined their Greek compatriots in rising against the Turkish master: but actually Turkey had treated Athos more kindly than anyone, and rather reluctantly imposed a Turkish army on the peninsular - to the crippling charge of the monks - as watchdogs. The monks themselves were of different nationalities, and spent a good deal of energy away from worship, in more or less squalid power politics. In particular, Russian and Greek Orthodox angled for superiority in the councils.
But monasticism here is just as subject to change as anywhere else in one sense: its numbers may rise and fall. Seven thousand all told looks to be about the highest population Athos ever held, in the late nineteenth century, when the Russians 'packed' the place to ensure the triumph of their national interest. Otherwise, nearer four thousand seems to have been the normal population for most of the previous centuries, apart from times of persecution, when it was lower.
In the early 1980s there were around three thousand monks, itself a significant rise over the figures for the post-war period, when the Holy Mountain's tradition must have seemed perilously close to extinction. In 19I3, there were about six and a half thousand monks, but that figure was halved by 1943, and the population was halved again to 1, 145 by 1971. In 1972 the total population increased by one for the first time since the ' war. And then at Stavronikita, where the situation looked desperate, there arrived a new Abbot, Father Vasileios, and four or five of his disciples.
The process was in the best traditions of the Fathers and the Holy Mountain. Vasileios had been a charismatic hermit, and now took command, with his geronda (elder, or spiritual adviser) settled nearby. But in one way he was a thoroughly modern Athonite: he had studied theology in Athens and Lyons. By 1979, there were twenty-two monks and three novices at Stavronikita: but it had come perilously close to going under before its recent and continuing renaissance.
Meanwhile, at Philotheou in 1968 there were seventeen older monks, and a revival was clearly very necessary. At hand, there was an illiterate senior monk, Joseph 'The Caveman': a dedicated man, he had been a strict adherent to the Jesus Prayer, and taught its method to his synodia of disciples, amongst whom was Ephraim (to become, 'The Senior'), who was his spiritual son (each orthodox monk seeks an older man as his spiritual adviser).
Joseph was a loner, and only late in his life settled in a skete and allowed a more formal monastic household to form around him. On his death, in 1959, all his disciples were themselves regarded as elders, and it is this group which became the motivators of a revival of both numbers and prayerfulness on much of the mountain. For a while they colonized a famous skete, the Provata, whence, when the call went out to revive the monastery of Philotheou, Ephraim Senior in 1973 set out and took the population there immediately to twenty-four.
By the late seventies there were eighty monks gathered round Ephraim Senior at Philotheou, and it was the most famously vibrant and busily prayerful place on the Holy Mountain. In 1979, thirteen monks were sent to Constamonitou; in 1980, twenty monks went to Xeropatamou (under the leadership of Ephraim Junior); and in 1983 twelve went to Karakalou.
One of the spiritual sons of Father Joseph was Father Haralambos, who became abbot of Dionysiou in 1978.
The problem seems to have been that until the reinvigoration by the present generation of youngsters - they are now in their mid-thirties, 'forties and 'fifties - the last remaining monks of Athos had become elderly and lax. Many of them had adopted the idiorhythmic form of monastic life, which seems to have become symptomatic of a certain laxity of observance which is whispered about now in regretful undertones, more hinted at than explained.
The conditions upon which the younger men agreed to rescue the old monasteries were absolute: yes, they would come, and take over the monasteries, but they insisted on a return to the old practices of strict monastic observance, fun communal life and property, and a new commitment to the Jesus Prayer. The new wave was composed mostly of educated men: there were engineers, lawyers, and so on, just as in Egypt. But in the midst of their secular education they had developed a taste for the paraduthis of their church.
Perhaps they had come to a realization of the ancient Athonite, Byzantine values by sensing the threat from the west - which may be final - to Greek culture and spirituality.
Anyway, these educated men have a great appetite for the patristic, the anecdotal, the miraculous way of life enshrined in the Jesus Prayer, and scorn - often with the knowledge of knowing it, unlike the illiterates of the past - the analytic and the intellectual.
At Stavronikita, I wandered down to the seashore. Stavronikita is on the east side of the peninsular. It is perched on its own crag of white volcanic rock, and at its feet there are cliffs and ledges which make wonderful scrambling terrain. Walking down there, and seeing the clear gently lapping water, and the notices saying that swimming was forbidden, made one want to shout out to the monks that they should shrug off their ridiculous robes, and swim. But they do not. I wonder if it isn't the tragedy of their way of life that it is so terrified of the trivial - which does not always corrupt.
I should have waited to see the Abbot, but there was promise of a late lunch at Karyes, if I hurried, and I found then and later that I never really did cultivate the attitude that having breakfast, lunch and supper, and a roof over one's head, were unimportant. This made me, I think, fail the crucial tests of monkhood: I could not be indifferent to material needs, present or future.
So the hotel gave me lunch for the second time, and then I walked on. Someone had told me that I should use the old monastic tracks, which visitors to Athos always used to say were one of its great joys. They are narrow pathways, just wide enough for a man or a donkey, and crudely cobbled. They used to be so much used that they were kept clear, and were worth repairing. Since the new spiritual ardents had come, though, they had brought with-it ideas about exploiting the forests of Athos and about getting around. They might get up in the middle of the night and pray their Jesus Prayer, as the Fathers had done; but they didn't think twice about first bulldozing and then wrecking new roads, whilst allowing the paths go to wrack and ruin. Anyway, there was this path in more or less good condition, was told. Weeks of rain had reduced northern Greece to a flood condition, and had brought on the spring flowers. The days I was there, Athos' skies blazed from dawn to dusk, and the bees and insects set-to making up for lost time. The path was soggy, but had held up pretty well.
And so to Xeropotamou, which struck one immediately as a vast, derelict army barracks, whose decay was so entrenched that it was practically defiant and deliberate. I didn't like the look of it, from the start, but got fonder of it when I began to understand the reasons for some of its unfriendliness.
Founded in the late ninth century, almost all the buildings of the vast pile date from within the last three centuries. Following various disasters, especially fires, its monks had had to travel through the kingdoms of the lower Danube raising money: emperors, sultans, kings and patriarchs all contributed to its upkeep, mostly because of its association with a fragment of the True Cross (which Robert Byron says.is thirteen inches long, and which the monks were so anxious to show him that they allowed him to enter the haykel beyond the iconostasis in their church, and be shown it by the officiating priest, who had found time whilst saying Vespers to bring it from the relicry). The fragment of the Cross was always the monastery's strongest fund-raising asset.
Arriving, I heard and then saw a monk on a tractor, catching up with some field work now it was dry. He was rotavating the rich, brown soil. Xeropotamou is inland, though it overlooks the sea. In one corner I found the door, and went through. A notice told me that one should not loiter in the monastery precincts, and not play any sort of game. Inside, there was a vast courtyard, with steps leading to various quarters, and a church, at whose doors was a sign telling visitors that only Orthodox could enter and worship. Another sign was rather ambiguous, but gave the impression that visitors would not be eating in the refectory either. I batteries down the emotional hatches. Clearly, I was not going to receive the vast dinners, almost riotous with wine, with which Robert Byron was regaled (admittedly at festival time, and before late twentieth-century austerities had taken hold). I was stuck with the place, unless I risked going on and arriving dangerously late somewhere else.
But actually, one was allowed in to supper. This place was somehow rather more perfunctory than Stavronikita - as though the soldiery must be fed, but there was less need for pomp - but it was here that I was given a fizzing glass of delicious, giddy-making retsina with supper.
Afterwards, a Greek who was on retreat - some sort of business man - and I smoked a cigarette on a derelict terrace. I seemed to be alone in my part of the guesthouse, and walking back there, I came across the Abbot, Father Ephraim (the junior) and a party of attendant monks. He was a rounded man, with close set blue eyes and a good smile. He carried a silver-topped cane, and seemed to be on some round of inspection of his vast, problematic property. The owner of a country house hotel might have the same sort of problems, and air about him, somehow. Or an occupying general, prioritizing his latest conquest. He smiled briefly and went on his way.
I did not see him again, but left a message that I would like to speak to him if ever he came to London. Six months later we met in the plush, subdued surroundings of an apartment block near the Edgware Road: there, beyond telling me the substance of the recent history of the Holy Mountain, he told me how important it was to recognize that Joseph had been 'a great spiritual Father. He managed to link the traditional mysticism of monasticism with modern monasticism. He led a very intense monastic life, and was able to leave the continuous prayer tradition behind him. He was of course completely illiterate: but very wise. Until Father Joseph, after the first thousand years of monastic life on the Holy Mountain there was a kind of hibernation. There had been a decline, there were no youngsters coming in.'
I asked him how it was that he, who had been brought up in this revived mystical tradition, had accommodated to becoming an Abbot, with the requirement to be a building manager, administrator, disciplinarian, accountant, as well as spiritual leader. When the translator told him this, he smiled enormously and nodded. He was extremely likable at this moment. 'You cannot always do exactly what you want. I did not want
to be in charge of people, didn't want to be elevated or have respect. I certainly didn't aim to be an Abbot. But monasticism is based on obedience; and my own elder told me to take over a monastery; I didn't want to, but I knew I must obey. But then one remembers that one's work is enclosed, enveloped in a spiritual world: that makes one's work easier than one would have thought; one's work becomes a pleasure because anything that is done is done for the love of our Lord.'
I asked him what his monastery lived on. He said that forestry was the major income; and hospitality. Some monasteries have property outside the mountain (though rather little is left after various secular predations). Most monasteries also have enough acreage of vineyard, olive groves and vegetable patch to manage well enough for those products; they buy wheat and rice, though. Those with fishing boats can manage well enough for sea food.
The time came for me to leave. I shook his hand in both of mine. With his free hand he rammed my forehead into the rough, musty cloth of his left shoulder. I took it as a mark of. affection and was delighted: it was a sign of his confidence. I heard that he's dead now, killed in a car accident (5 December 1984). Ephraim Senior is still alive, however.
After our first very brief encounter, I found my way in his barracks, up to a small dark complex of makeshift rooms where I had a bed in a room with several others, all unoccupied. Father Nikon, the guestmaster, came to my room, and we talked a bit. He gave me some things in English which he thought might help me. He told me that the injunction against worshippers who were not Orthodox being allowed into the church was regretted but necessary. The Byzantine Church does not formally allow the faithless to pray in their churches, and this monastery loved the church and wanted to obey its rules. 'When the rule changes,' he said, 'it will be with great gladness that we allow everyone to come and join us in prayer.' Until then, if other monasteries wanted to break the rules, that was their business.
I asked him if he ever doubted his vocation and the faith itself. 'The doubts are for younger monks one of the great weapons of the Evil One - but everyone very soon can see that the doubt has not a place in his life. When one finds he cannot be a monk, he can return to the world, but if he can stay, the doubts will vanish. There is a God who guides a man's steps here. It is not by chance that such a thing happens. But that does not mean that the demons give in easily.'
He was a student of chemistry who went on to economics, political science, theology. 'But here I started from the alphabet, so to speak. As does everyone.' And then - this was about eight o'clock - he said he must go because in four hours he would be getting up to pray for four hours before the service, which would itself last four hours.
That would get him to about eight in the morning, and still with twelve hours' work to do. This breed of youngsters do not take the business of God's work lightly.
I washed as best I could, bearing in mind the injunction on a piece of paper I had seen, which told me that I must not be completely naked, even in the bathroom. I was not sure whether this meant that I should not be naked, in the dark, alone in the enormous wing of a sleeping monastery, but I took no chances and washed my top bits first, before redressing and then taking on the lower regions.
Propped up in bed, I read the roneo-ed sheets which Nikon had given me. It was a 'Discourse' by Father Ephraim Junior, a rich testament to the continuing strength of the patristic mentality: it is an account of the father's bout with demons which happened 'last night', whilst he was visiting some monks away from his own monastery:
'Just as we read about them in books, that they are entities and assume some kind of form, I beheld them exactly like that: dark, with their tails, their horns, their glaring eyes thus wide-open, and we desperately went for each other tooth and claw, man to man.' Luckily, I had no such problems, and enjoyed a good sleep, as usual. And then, early next day, so as not to importune the monks with 'purposeless wandering inside their buildings',, specifically forbidden, I walked down to Daphne. It took around an hour and a quarter. There an old man, a burly vagrant, hovered around me expectantly, like the seagulls who flapped bossily at each other as they swooped down to take offal from a fishing boat. I opened a packet of cigarettes -,. lovely Greek ones, packed like old Du Maurier, in a lift-up lid pack - and he hovered a bit closer, establishing a proximity in which flight and plunder were rubbing shoulders. I gave myself a cigarette and, determined for the nth time that this would be my last, then gave him the rest of the packet. I drank a coffee, smoked my cigarette, felt at one with the world, and enjoyed the sun on my back and the small goings on at the cafe as it prepared itself for lunch and the day. Finding I wanted another cigarette, I surprised and disconcerted the old man by going back to him and begging my gift back from him. He thought I wanted the whole packet, and was probably mightily relieved when he found I did not.
Who were these laymen who ran the shops, hotel and cafe? A monk later told me some of them were ex-monks, peculiar men who could not bear to be monks and could not bear to leave Athos either. It was a comprehensible dilemma, and they surmounted it by serving the material needs of this place, in which worldly and unworldly seemed both to be very seriously encountered.
And then to my feet, for the road along to Simonos Petra. It was a delicious trek, high above the coastline, towards Mount Athos, and sometimes winding well inland to get around deeply engrained valleys with small thundering streams and cascades at their heart. At one point, a stream had done what all Athonite streams dream of doing: it had succeeded in bursting across the track. I slithered and hopped from stone to stone across the minor crisis, dreading dropping into the water and arriving with my notes, camera, clothes sopping.
At another spot, one went across using a makeshift bridge. But finally, after an hour and three-quarters, spent amongst wild flowers, I came in view of Simonos Petra. It required a quarter of an hour of solid staring to allow the place to exert itself properly on the mind's eye.
It is big, old and high. It rises out of the rocky pinnacle beneath it like a medieval castle which thinks it is a storm cloud. The path winds inland, away from the sea, before it can lead to the monastery itself. The crag turns out to be a kind of aerial peninsular. One passes an old house, a small chapel, and the outlying sketes which ascend the sio pes up and behind the monastery. And then along a kind of causeway with a beautiful derelict house on the right, its roof timbers exposed like the veins of a leaf, and an aqueduct on the left. A fire engine which used to work in Thessalonika stands, gleaming and sentinel, at the beginning of the
Now the monastery rises above one. A gantry with a gleaming hoist-gear hangs out over the entrance.
This is a fourteenth-century foundation: the hermit Simon is supposed to have had a vision in which building a monastery on this impossible crag was commanded him. His followers mostly wanted to help, but some lost heart and wanted to leave during the building. Simon sent his servant, Isaiah, to them with a tray of restorative drinks, but he stumbled and fell over the. side of the rock. A minute or so later, he floated back up, with the drinks intact, unspilled. The recalcitrant brothers laboured on.
The monastery suffered terribly in sixteenth- and nineteenth-century fires.
A door leads in to shallow stairs which ascend to a courtyard. I went in and found myself sitting on a stone bench amongst the berry-stained droppings, like spilled blackberry yoghurt, of a nesting bird above my head. In the church, there was the murmuring of a service. I wandered around a little, and came across a balcony on which I dare not step, for fear both of trespass and its seeming insecurity. A monk went by, humming, and nodded. It was close to noon. An old man in several baggy V-necked sweaters and exquisite, battered velveteen trousers, and a distinguished desperate old overcoat, arrived briefly in the courtyard and then, as abruptly, left. Eventually, I was shown to the guest rooms, inside the Monastery. In a dim, beautiful hall with windows which looked out over the sea, I sat amongst mostly religious pictures and was given my little snack of welcome by the guestmaster.
He lisped and whispered and smiled. He conveyed, I am sure wholly without contrivance, a joyfulness which was exquisite.
When the monks had finished their service we all hung about in the courtyard, waiting to go in to lunch room, and we trooped in together to eat our lentils and pepper stew, with olives and apples and water. Before lunch two elderly men had come puffing up the hill from the monastic port and citadel, towards the monastery. A boat must just have delivered them there. They were massively out of breath, and wore handkerchiefs knotted around their necks. They produced towels and mopped themselves down, trying to flatten and organize the stray wisps of hair which were scattered across their flushed pates. Now they reappeared, smartly dressed in tweed jackets.
I had been told there was an Englishman at Simonos Petra. and I asked if I could speak with him.
We met on the main balcony of the monastery. It was the topmost of the four storeys on this part of the building (others boast seven storeys). I never did learn to lean on the balcony's taffrail, but down below one could see monks working in the terraced gardens.
Father Isaiah was tall and whiskery. He did not seem, at first, particularly English. He spoke the language in a way which was slightly archaic, as though drenched in Greek idiom, in what seemed a self-conscious or at any rate deliberate, expatriate way. He had been a monk on Athos since 1972. 'I first came as a layman. I was already an Orthodox, and I wanted to find a deeper vision. It made me become yet more Orthodox! Before I set out, I had read all the literature. From being a Byzantinologist, I became a Byzantine.
'That which marks the whole strength of the Byzantine way is the rhythm of the liturgical life, and it was always so. Everyone, from the emperor down, was involved in it. But the Byzantine style is the superficial side of life on Athos. The Paradosis is very important. This is a matter of tradition.
'But tradition is not just lineal, from one generation to the next,, it is a style of life, that which gives the lifestyle a maturing of the Holy Spirit at each point in history. My life here has become bound up with the place, with this monastery, with this spiritual family; the people amongst whom I live have become much more my family even than the family of the flesh.
'This life takes many people from many conditions, people of many different types. It's a bit like making bread: it takes a lot of ingredients. And it takes perhaps even the kneading process, and sweat and toil and patience. But it's not hard, really. I fact it's extremely easy if that which you are looking for is the monastic life; it would be impossibly difficult if you came here looking for what isn't here.
'People make very few mistakes of vocation. It doesn't happen. Firstly, it's not a question of just turning up and, signing on the dotted line: there is quite a long process before a man must make up his mind finally. It had above all to be their disposition to be in a spiritual family, and this spiritual family. You can't have someone who has his own plans.
'Of course there may be periods when a man asks himself doubtfully why he's here. But these thoughts are the product of a spiritual malaise, of negligence: they are more likely to come if there is a lax regime, which might make him lose his sense of purpose. A man comes here to make a renunciation of himself, and to fill himself up with God. That's of what the tonsure - which a man may take here after three years of stable life - is a seal. A man is God's after that. There is a pact between a monk and God. God pays the price and we make on our side a contribution of one tenth of one per cent.'
'I suppose I have a philosophical disposition, and enjoy history. But having an intellectual faculty is not to be made much of. There are very simple people here, and they five extremely well our simple style of life. There is perhaps a difference in the spiritual geography of the world. Somebody who is of the east is very much more concerned with the next life: even in Islam and the other ancient religions of the east, for instance, there's a great stress on it.
'As for the Orthodox monk, one simply makes and receives a gift of pure love: you give yourself over to God. Yes, of course it's true that God has no need of monks, or of creation, come to that. In order to be known, he creates. The act of creating is an act of love, and particularly there is an act of love in the making of man, since man is made in the image of God. So worshipping God is something to do with all your life: worship should be a criterion of all things in life, then vou are putting the stress in the right place.
'And this is how a monk has his usefulness. What could be more useful to the community than the worship of God? The monk is a hidden force for the Church. The Orthodox Church, not directly perhaps, but indirectly, relies very much on Athos. Here you have the prototype, the maximal style of life. This place of pilgrimage, tranquillity and traditional worship which has not changed over the millennium - is a place where you become healthy so that society around one, which is not healthy, can become healthy through you.
'This brotherhood of monks is a cell of the church. Everyone here is vital. One man works in the woodmill, others garden, clean, cook. People undertake various functions. But every voice that has breath is concerned to praise the Lord. This year, I am the typist, but I've been the guestmaster, I've helped make bread and helped in the kitchen.
'This is a very vigorous generation of monks. The Abbot himself has an extraordinary talent for administration, and yet at the same time he lives intensely the life of silence. He has an enormously strong mystical life. He studied law before he studied theology. One is astonished by his acuity. He has a legal precision: sometimes he makes me do and redo the same document, until it's just right.
'The revival here really started around ten years ago, and I suppose the monks who began it are having to change. We're no longer children, we're a little more stable. It's more interesting now that the pioneer work has been done, and we're having to settle down rather more. We were taking over from a generation who did not really know the value of what they had. They had allowed a style of community life which was rather lax; the younger men wanted more tension about it. Perhaps the previous period had been as it was because there were no great spiritual leaders here.
'Once there were spiritual leaders on Athos again, vigorous young men were attracted to the life. Some of them are very practical indeed. When it was decided that we must have the fire engine, there was enormous excitement about it: people were rushing off in it, and finding out how it works, as of some wonderful new toy.'
We talked about the peculiar status of the Orthodox Church in western minds. 'I think that the Roman Catholics really were a bit snooty for a time. And there was Gibbon, really rather,,, tiresome, who did not do much to make the western world think highly of the east.' And about how the Church, which had been so much of the Empire, and which remained much loved by many people in the east, had its headquarters in Constantinople, now Istanbul, in a Muslim country, Turkey.
That, as Father Isaiah says, 'is where it was put, and there it stays. It is the church of Constantinople. It is full of meaning that the first amongst the church's bishops occupies his throne as a seat of spiritual judgement, not at all of domination and power - it isn't even in Greece, where many of his adherents are. It shows the poverty of the Cross, and it allows a stronger mission to the poor, and those who suffer, the halt, the blind and the deaf. The Church is not seeking advantage. The present Patriarch, I should say, is characterized by extreme openness and extreme cordiality; he is very dignified, in that dignity of the human.'
If the church was put in Constantinople and now stays there, amongst the alien corn, so does this English monk who has not so much lost his Englishness that he cannot do a wonderful imitation of the late Richard Crossman. 'I feel no reason really to chase around. A year has gone by, I think, and I haven't left the walls of this place. Oh, perhaps I've gone a couple of bends along the track - that's all. But I have no feeling of being isolated. Therei s an adequate vision here, especially for what is spiritually important. I'm not particularly interested in war and rumours of war.'
The footwear of monks becomes an obsessive interest, being the one part of them which displays their temperament most perfectly. That night I noticed one fat old monk with his feet in slippers which were themselves enclosed in slippers. He enjoyed cracking his knuckles very much, and sometimes in church his stomach would emit a vast subterranean growl. After the meal we all filed out, and the monks whose job it had been to serve us would make a sort of doorway of their bows, whilst the Abbot raised his hand in blessing at us as we passed him.
Before I went to bed, I came across the guestmaster fretting over a schoolmaster who wanted to fast, and he laughed a great laugh at the exquisite lengths his guests would go to worship, amuse and delight their maker: he did his inadequate best to suppress his own mirth with his hand. A young Asian boy was visiting; he was always busy in his room writing, and said that he was staying there for some time. I think he was trying to test his vocation. One man asked me to wake him that night in time for the service at four in the morning. We all went to bed, I in a dormitory with four young Greeks, without much gratitude for the company, though without much minding it either. They were a somnolent crew, and I had nothing better to do than go immediately into a deep sleep.
The next morning, I saw the tall Englishman in his stall, at four o'clock. As each monk came in to the service, through the main door at the back, past us outsiders, he would kiss an ikon, blowing goldfish pouts at it, and then make a cross which swept right down to the floor. The liturgy passes majestically and easily; even with nothing to do but listen, I seldom went to sleep, but often found myself in a dream state, which I enjoyed a good deal.
I found the guestmaster in a most tremendous state of pleasure after church: he had been with a group of visitors on the balcony: 'We were listening to the birdies', he said. I had to get down to the port to catch a fishing boat which would be coming round the point and would take me to Daphne and the homeward ferry. 'Oh, but I wanted to offer you a coffee,' said the guestmaster, 'you have time.'With this sweetness, and at considerable strain to their patience, the sixty monks at Simonos Petra receive between three and four thousand visitors each year.
I walked down to the shore: a steep path, from which one could always turn and see the vast pile behind. The micro-port of Simonos Petra is perfect (a stone pier, citadel and a boathouse), and made one long to plunge into its clear waters. Right on time, a small boat with flush decks busied itself round the point, and paused beside the quay long enough to drop off a new visitor, and take me on board.
The various pilgrims stood or sat and caught up with each other's news. The Athos experience is a curious mixture of pilgrimage and ramble, and you feel a bogus familiarity with all those who arrived on the same boat, will probably leave together four days later, and whom you meet on the road Between monasteries, or in their guesthouses. One man seemed particularly Athonite, as far as a visitor Could. He was a tall man, and was clearly showing his much smaller companion around. He was an impressive type, in the Anthony Quayle mould. He wore a baseball cap embroidered with "USS Intrepid', Nike shoes, Casio watch, and the Komboskini - a beaded black cotton wrist band - which many Orthodox, monks or not, sport. (It is not to be confused with worry beads, which do not have religious significance.) The boat was as usual full, especially this day just before Easter, with people carrying things, especially candies, they had bought on Athos for their local church's festivities. It was a very Athonite boatload: heaped with talismans from the modem and ancient, Christian and lay worlds.
"One night one of the monks watched him creep out then followed him stealthily to see where he was going and what he was about. Down he went towards the beach beneath the monastery and out into the sea until he was up to his arms and neck in deep water. The splash of the waves accompanied his vigil throughout the dark hours of the night. At daybreak he came out, knelt down on the sand, and prayed. Then two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him on their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home. He was soon home and was in choir at the proper time with the rest of the monks. But the brother who had spied on him from the cliffs returned with faltering steps, fear-stricken and distressed. He prostrated himself before Cuthbert and, in tears, craved pardon for his stupidity and presumption, quite sure that Cuthbert knew the cause of his discomfort.
'Why, what is wrong, what have you done?' asked the saint. 'Have you been spying on my night's work? I will forgive you, but only if you promise not to tell anyone while I am still alive.'
The Age of Bede, edited by D. H. Farmer, translated by J. F. Webb, Penguin Books
Cannes is an implacable sort of place. The sun shines down hard there, and bronzes those who can keep paying to lie in it, and mocks very hard those who can't, but who only pretend to be able to. There are, naturally, most of the world's vanities there: some of them are very handsome, like the great yachts which are moored in the harbour being burnished by the paid hands; and some of them less so, like the old women who creak about the place, held together by hair lacquer and propelled forward by their horrid little poodles.
There is just the faintest remnant of an old Cannes, before it became a nineteenth-century mecca. In the castle, up above the town, there are old paintings of the place: palms and fishing boats and deserted hills around (where now there are heaped villas), and sailing boats with immensely tall masts, hovering in the foreground. An almost moorish scene, more Moroccan than French: marking the closeness of the place to North Africa.
There remains an old harbour, where there are a few working boats. Amongst them, ferries which take visitors out to the Isles des Lerins, which were famous when Cannes was unknown. On the smaller of the two islands, St Honorat, there was the second monastery in France (after that of Martin of Tours at Ligugd), and one of the earliest in all Europe. Yet, in its mingling of eastern and western traditions, it takes its place as a leading symbol of how complicated the progress of the monastic virus was.
The man at the quayside was surly and plump and sleek.
Yes, there might be a boat today. Yes, there was a timetable. No, the boat was not guaranteed. Come back at eleven and there might be a boat, he didn't know. And didn't care. The boat did go: and a monk, returning to the monastery which' has endured there for the most part of fifteen and a hall centuries, and a full load of tourists were gently tossed to and fro in surprisingly rough seas. The monk was large, solid and uninterested in his fellow travellers: he read some holy book throughout, whilst a young man - a potential novice? - Sat still at his side.
The Mistral was playing up. No one could say how hard it would blow, or when it would stop. It had been blowing for a few days now. If you had committed a crime in Provence on such a day, it is likely the judge would take a fight view of it. Anything can happen to people on the C6te d'Azur when that steady, hard wind comes to derange their lives.
The boat ploughed round the headland of St Marguerte the bigger of the two heath-and-pine islands - and settled itself beside a jetty in St Honorat. The skipper told everyone to be back in a couple of hours, since there would be no more boats that day.
He told me that there might be a boat tomorrow, or there might not. It was the nearest to uncertainty and tricky travelling I had come across in my monastic joumeyings.
The island historically attracted others than monks: raiders from Spain and elsewhere, as well as Corsican pirates, plagued the monks, and led them to build the extraordinary fortress monastery which still stands, perched on rocks which poke out into the south side of the island. Blinding beige stones, set to build a square tower, topped with creneflations. A path leads up to a small door. But inside, everything is radically different. More obviously a skeleton of a building: but the internal bones are clearly and wonderfully monastic. True, the cloister is tiny, but then it is constrained by having to cling to the inside of a fort.
The building has several floors. There is the cloister, with romanesque arches: it makes a square walkway inside, and a couple of storeys high. There are chapels, a refectory, a scriptorium, all of whose shapes are dictated by the fortress they all turn inward. But the monastery has had confines, and problems in the recent past, too. The French authorities suppressed most monasteries during and after the revolution,
Lerins amongst them.
Only in the last century were the monks invited back. This time, Lerins was colonized from one of the oldest monasteries in Provence, Senanque, which with Le Thoronet (which has become a Cistercian nunnery) makes up an important part of the Cistercian architectural tradition of the purpose-built, often small, prayer house.
A new monastery was built. It is a pretty place, somehow as I imagine a Roman palace might have been. The church is a little taller than is usual with Cistercian buildings, but it has the same simplicity. The guests in the retreat have their own cloister, set in three sides of a rectangle, the church in one corner, with six large palms providing shade for the stone garden furniture where one can sit and brood
One end of the cloister connects with a door into the church. The garden side of the cloister has romanesque arches. The overall effect is not exactly grand, but somehow statuesque and friendly. I was shown a room - gloomy and useful looking and the refectory for the guests. The other retreatants were an oddly assorted crew. A young couple who were absurdly handsome, and in love, used the place in the manner of prosperous youth hostellers; a devout-looking lady with many little prayer books, who looked as though she might just have lost a devoted and rich husband and had come here to regain her composure. A skinny youth with a thin neck which disappeared into a head which was no wider, and who had a dank air of sanctity about him. He had long legs, but somehow slid about, as though walking full stretch might be obscene.
People did not seem to hang about the monastery. It was so beautiful outside that they milled around the immediate clearing in the pine woods, or went for walks by the beach, where one or two tourists had found places sheltered from the wind, and out of the likely view of passing monks, and laid their profane brown bodies down amongst the pebbles.
A hundred yards away, members of this rather young community might be out in the fields, looking al lavender bushes which provide the bees with nectar for the famous monastic honey.
Father Giles, a man who had been studying philosophy when he felt drawn to the religious life, took me for a walk in the monastic fields one afternoon.
There was a distillery, with strange rusting equipment standing in the courtyard - ready enough, though, for its arcane work when the season came - and we came across a party of men, some in dungarees and some still in working habits, working amongst vines.
The place was very vigorous. Giles told me there were thirty-nine monks, seven of whom had arrived in the same year, during a period of revival. He himself had been a field-worker for four or five years, then in he guesthouse for four' years, and had then gone to Rome for three years to study theology.
The Cistercians here are called Cisterdans of the Common Observance: they are meat-eaters, were never quite as silent as the Strict Observance (Trappists, as they are usually called, though they hate the term). They rise a little later than ffle Strict Observers. Certainly, we ate rather well in their refectory, and I also found I had great difficulty with the red wine bottle which was left on the table for all-comers.
My memory of the liturgy at Lerins is affectionate. It began with the thrum and rumble of the bell-rope echoing in the vaults as latecomers were called. The singing in church was strong, amongst the many candles for Vespers; it seemed to carry something of the field work into the church with it. It seemed thoroughly of a piece with the wind-swept palm outside, and the lavender and honey. The seriousness of the Cistercian way of life - prayer, work, concentration, all vigilant and muscular - seemed strong here, even if they were monks of the 'common' observance.
It was not difficult to see how this place must have seemed in the year 400 (or maybe a little later) when Honoratus first came here. Then aged about thirty-five Honoratus was a Gaul (perhaps from Burgundy), and was - as almost all monastic founders were - of aristocratic background. He probably had met the monks of Egypt, and read Athanasius'Life of St Antony. His brother died in his arms, probably in Egypt, and ettle for the solitary life. He did so at Honoratus determined to
to settle for the solitary life. It was a time when the last vestiges of the Roman Empire's order were being swept away. The Goths sacked Rome (410) about this time. it was a good period for Christians - as Augustine reminded them in his The City of God - to bear in mind the transitoriness of earthly life and to concentrate on the one to come.
In accepting the Egyptian monasticism (rather than the monasticism which was emerging under Basil, with its n work, the wider community, and even good emphasis on work, the wider community, and even good works), Honoratus was bringing to the west the penitential, world-hating, alienated form of monastic life. One early visitor came away thinking these monks strange, scruffy and squalid. That may have been his prejudice, or inaccurate reporting: we can hardly know.
What is sure is that the eastern, ascetic, penitential monks of Lerins were immensely charismatic, and intelligent and educated men were soon visiting and staying amongst them. John Cassian, from Scythia, was a thoroughly desert monk, having immersed himself in the Egyptian and Palestinian traditions for years. But he was also a friend of the great: John Chrysostom and Pope Leo the Great, in Constantinople and Rome, had taught him. He was steeped in the theology of Origen and the prayerful discipline of Evagrius.
His Conferences and Institutes, accounts of the Egyptian monks and prescriptions for following their life, were delivered to the monks of Lerins and other monasteries in Provence, around 415 and in the following years. But Cassian's education shone through his fervour: he was a moderating influence, disliking superstition and what Henry Chadwick caus'miracle mongering'.
Not that this sort of moderation would do for another mysterious island territory to which monks and their fervour, would bring distinction and dissension.
The Northern isles
It used to be believed that the great St Patrick (c390-461?) himself had visited Lerins, and studied there: anywav, he seems to have learned about eastern monasticism somewhere in Gaul. He was a Briton who had been captured by Irish slave traders and made to work in Ireland: he had somehow escaped, or been freed, and then made his way to Gaul, perhaps to Auxerre or Lerins. Determined to bring Christianity to Ireland, he encouraged the budding of monasteries.
Early in the sixth century Christian monastery fever hit Ireland, in the same kind of way, and in much the same image, as it had taken Egypt by storm. There is no easy explanation for the way the religiosity of the desert so suited the people of the mists: perhaps there is something in the idea that both had been at the fringe of the glittering, proud Roman Empire.
Ireland was never part of it, and Egypt was never central to it. Both may have felt themselves somewhat the back of beyond: condemned to be outlandish, they might as well be extremist. Hugh Trevor Roper puts forward the view that fringe cultures may take on the religion of their powerful neighbours, but always in a dissident form.
There is also the possibility that the earlier pagan religions encouraged communities and groups, and that the pagan leaders had been great teachers. The earliest monastic settlements were centres of hugger-mugger erudition.
There was a good deal of toing and froing between the Ireland of the sixth century and the Mediterranean. Egyptian monks have told me that they believe some of the earliest Egyptian saints journeyed to Ireland in person. News doubtless filtered back to Ireland of the way real, authentic Christians lived, especially in their monasteries. Moreover, the Irish had trade contact with the valley of the Loire, itself a monastic centre under Martin of Tours and his followers and successors, and also, early on at least, prone to Egyptian severity.
In Ireland, the idea seemed to have caught on very powerfully, though with the interesting innovation that monasticism seems to have become tribal in that country. A chieftain would convert his entire family into some sort of monastic way of life. The Irish computed Easter's date as the Byzantines did, they wore Byzantine tonsures, and their ideas about what was beautiful to look at incorporated much that was Byzantine, and Coptic, too.
Elsewhere in mainland Europe, men were developing a more gentle sort of monasticism. Soon the two styles - one owing allegiance to what it believed to be its Gospel and patristic roots, the other beginning to be associated with the Roman Papacy - would be in bitter conflict.
These early Celtic monastic settlements were characteristically composed of a central church surrounded by 'beehive' stone huts or cells, all surrounded by a wall. They especially favoured small islands: islands on Loch Lome or in the sea proper at the Skerries. At Skellig Michael, on the coast of south-western Ireland, there are ruins of six stone beehive cells, and three small churches, all perched on a rock seven hundred feet tall, seven miles out in the Atlantic.
In the middle of the sixth century, St Brendan, not content with founding monasteries in Ireland, set off on a voyage to further shores. In the account of it which was written, or which at any rate surfaced, somewhat later, he describes volcanoes, making camp on a whale's back by mistake, and plenty of other adventures undertaken for the glory of God. In reality, it seems at least possible if not downright likely that he brought the Word to the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland and Newfoundland.
Amongst the greatest of the founders was St Columba (c521-597), who founded famous mainland Irish monasteries at Derry and Durrow.
It was entirely natural that when Columba (yet another princely figure) found Ireland uncongenial (he had had a row with his mentor, Finnian) he took himself off on a mission to the island Picts of Iona and Mull, and that the core of the enterprise would be, in 563, the setting up of a monastery on the island of Iona, which would be as famous as that on the Ile de St Honorat.
We have the basis of much of the monastic way already here: rows and controversy between these men of the cloth and the book; much travelling by men who set up monasteries. And a particularly Irish dimension, too: the way that setting up monasteries and evangelizing, proselytizing, politicking and occasional outright bullying and butchery all went together. These were not the sort of men who could keep the good news to themselves, nor easily accept the fact when pagans chose not to take the good news to their bosoms.
Columba crowned a convenient local king, and laid down concordats with another a little further away in Inverness.
He was famous for blessing everything in sight - the direction of the wind, the n-Wk from the cows on its way in buckets to his community - and for plunging into days of prayer and fasting. But holy man that he was, he is also believed to have led his monks into bloody hand-to-hand fighting against rival monks on at least three occasions. If Christianity was to make headway in Scotland, it needed men like this.
Doubtless, Iona was as peculiar a mixture as any of the others: great learning and great austerity, both conducted in places which were almost certainly desperately cold, draughty and wet, by men whose taste for fasting was probably well-matched with the difficulty of getting food. The men of the sand and sun in the Middle East would have understood something of these characters and institutions, though the wet and cold and granite might have struck them as very bizarre.
In such places men were learning to read and write the Latin language, and reading the patristic literature in it. Columba's row with Finnian was supposed to have been over which of them had the right to copy a manuscript of the Psalms. We already have glimmerings, amongst the vigour of mission, of the dedication to the Word which would summon forth the most extravagant and eccentric efforts of artistic and literary creation ever to come out of these northerly latitudes. Culture was being grafted on to courage.
The year that Columba died, St Augustine (died c604) was sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great. He had been sent to spread Roman Catholicism (not that it was called that yet) amongst the pagans. Just as importantly, he would be planting Roman monasteries wherever he could. The race was on, though no one would have accepted these terms, to decide whether Britain should be a frontier land with penitential religion, or become a part of Europe with the kind of monasticism which would grow with the institutions of the state and economy, rather than be perpetually opposed to the ways of the world. Was it to be a local and parochial affair, or imperial?
Augustine was very successful in the south of the country, though his mission faltered momentarily after his death. But shortly afterward, in the seemingly endless battles amongst small kingdoms and their royal families, much of the north of England fell under a family whose members were briefly persuaded to be not merely Christian, but Romish. However, their fortunes violently waned, and in 634 the second son of an earlier king emerged from the monastery of Iona, where he had been in exile, to reunite much of Northumbria. He was a northerner, and had fallen under the spell of Celtic Christianity.
When this new hero, Oswald, wanted to proceed with the unenviable task of weaning his subjects from paganism, it was natural that he should turn to Iona for missionaries.
The first man the Ionians sent was, apparently, too severe and grand to win people over to the new faith, whose milky kindness might be more calculated to attract the indifferent than the hell fire which backed up the resolve of potential backsliders.
The failed missionary went back to Iona, and Bede - a Romish historian, and not above a bit of hagiography for all that he is eulogized as the founding father of English history was delighted to be able to note that the next Iona monk to take on the Northumbrians was St Aidan.
Aidan chose as his base an island which was conveniently close to the chief citadel of the kingdom, at Bamborough, and to the royal villa at Yeavering. He even chose one which was, at least for twice a day, connected to the shore.
In his twice-daily island, Aidan established a school where many monastic founders and future bishops (including the invaluable St Chad, who founded Lichfield Cathedral) would be taught. Indeed there was a brief period when it looked as though Lindisfarne - especially after Aidan's death, and during the period of the aggressive Finan's abbacy and episcopacy of Lindisfarne - might make itself felt right through the British mainland with its Celtish ways.
Some of the monks were pretty tough with the royalty they came into contact with, and were generally highly regarded when they were so. One or two refused to eat with kings, and one made a king approach him on bended knee before he forgave his sins. The Celtic Abbots were extremely assertive: they alienated the rest of the Church by presuming their superiority over common or garden Bishops (this was one of the reasons for their downfall: they made too many enemies).
Not that the exclusivity of these monkly islands, or their deliberate unworldliness, made them despise the body politic. The early monks, as we have seen, were led by princely men, and whether in Egypt or here in the north, right from the start the monks were often in cahoots with the temporal rulers in their countries. In the end, it would have been impossible unless they were to live as guerrillas - for them to have been and done otherwise.
But the issue as to whether the Celtic or the Roman Easter date should be kept was coming to the surface. The Northern royal family was itself divided. One of Aidan's greatest protegées, the royal Princess and abbess, Hilda, at her monastery for men and women at Whitby, was particularly well placed to stage the debate that the king desired.
In 665, the issue was debated by the gentle old Abbot of Lindisfarne, Colman, and a one-time Lindisfarne monk, Wilfred, who had been travelling in Caul and Italy and was scornful of the primitive ways of the old Irish and Celts. He won the day for Rome in an almost unseemly triumph.
'Although your Fathers were holy men, do you imagine that they, a few men in a corner of a remote island, are to be preferred before the Universal Church of Christ throughout the world?' This was strong enough stuff to sink most opposition.
The argument which clinched it was that Wilfred was able to invoke the full weight of St Peter's having been given his mission by Jesus himself: 'Upon this rock I will build my church.' Before that kind of imprimatur, the Celtic tradition looked a little thin.
Lindisfarne represented the last bastion - it was bound to crumble - of the Celtic way of religious life, which simply could not hold out against Rome (though it managed to do so for a good while longer in Ireland than in Britain).
Rome - which would increasingly envy the stalwart asceticism of the east - could ill afford to denigrate the austere monkish tradition that it wanted to overwhelm and absorb.
The Celts were the awkward squad: awkward in their manners, and awkward in their authenticity. The gentler, more pragmatic amongst them knew that the strictness of their tradition was doomed. The world was moving too fast to allow these ghettoes of perfection.
The monks who could not stand the new dispensation went back to Iona, and then on to Ireland. St Colman eventually began his own island monastery at Inisbofin, off the west coast. Wilfred, for his part, went on to be a prince of the Church, and delighted in the pomp of his role, but overplayed his hand, it seems, and ended his life with a relatively minor northern bishopric.
The Celtic period of Lindisfarne had lasted thirty years. But luckily, there were Iona-orientated monks who, from practicality or principle, embraced the Roman ways, and it is from that cross-fertilization that we owe the great burst of monasticenergy which gave us the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels, and also the character of the British church.
At its best the new spirit was a distinct amalgam of the Roman and the Celtic. The Lindisfarne Gospels can stand as a symbol: Celtic in the intricate swirls and patterns of its letters, but Roman in its direct representation of saints. The spirit of Saint Cuthbert can be taken as the new accommodation in human form. He had been a thoroughly Celtic monk, and after much heart-searching adopted the ideas of the Council of Whitby. When Colman retired hurt to the West, Cuthbert was appointed prior of Lindisfarne. It was his job to bring the community round to the Romish rule. It would be a little premature to say that he was turning them all into Benedictines: but it was the ideas of men like St Benedict which were in the ascendant.
Cuthbert is eulogized by Bede for having achieved the task of reconciliation by dint of patience and not tyranny. But the man was not so much a manager and diplomat that he forgot that he most wanted to be a thorough-going ascetic. He wanted to be a hermit. At first, he satisfied himself by spending as much time as possible in a small sub-island of Lindisfarne. But he was tantalized by the idea of colonizing the Fame Islands, a couple of dozen real islands two miles off the Northumberland coast to the south-east of Lindisfarne. The largest of them, Farne Island, is less than twenty acres of bare rock and such tough grasses as can cling to the very few acres of soil the place boasts. Birds and hermits alone have thought much of the place, and many more of the former than the latter.
The island was inhabited by demons, but Cuthbert banished them. He had a certain rapprochement with the birds and the rest of nature, but he built himself the opposite of a bird-hide. It was a stone cell from which all he could see was a scrap of heaven directly above his head. A modern world, full of nature-worship and 'twitchers', could not comprehend such an ordinance of self-denial.
Bede records how God obligingly caused useful timber to be washed ashore, and how also the saint talked to the birds which threatened to eat his first crop of barley(his earlier crop of wheat had failed). They upped and left his crop intact. The view was held then that a saint earned his dominion over nature: it was his holiness that put him in tune with the rest of creation, whilst most post-lapsarians were stuck with being alienated from it.
At the very end of his life, Cuthbert was prevailed upon to be a bishop: he was not tremendously keen, but did his duty for a couple of years. And then he came home to his hermitage to die. His soul went, presumably to heaven, on 27th March 687, when he was aged about 53. His fellow churchmen and monks 'made immediate use of the rest of him. His incorrupted body was much celebrated throughout the north of England, and his relics were a major part of the immense appeal of Durham Cathedral.
In the solitude of his monastic life he set the kind of appallingly rigorous standard that people from every walk of life could respond to and admire. In his death he provided the kind of inspiration upon which an industry could be founded. Medieval faith was bolstered, and its administration funded, by the pilgrimage of the affluent to the shrines of the ascetic.
Beginnings of Integration
The thorough integration of the worlds of Lindisfarne and Britain with the rest of Europe, can be taken as symbolized by the emergence of Benedict Biscop (after whom a modem, and unwitting, hermit has named his hermitage).
Biscop was a Northumbrian nobleman and courtier who gave up the world when he was aged twenty-five. He established the important monasteries of Wearmouth (now known as Monkwearmouth) and jarrow. In so doing he made the two monastic homes of the monk-historian Bede. Bede joined Wearmouth, aged seven, in 680, and moved to jarrow when Biscop founded it, in 681.
Biscop knew Rome, and knew the Romish church and its grandees: on returning from one of his five sojourns there, he travelled back to England with the Creek Archbishop Theodore, on the way to the latter's new see of Canterbury. Biscop had learned his monasticism during two years at Lerins. It was hardly surprising that his foundations were going to sing the Roman liturgy, and be happily part of a Europe-wide aspiration for a monastic empire, owing allegiance to the Pope in Rome.
Under an extraordinary, Iona-educated, king, Aldfrith, the movement blossomed: lovely sculpture and carvings proliferated, including those on the oak coffm relicry made for St Cuthbert's remains in 698, many of them boasting classical, native and biblical scenes.
The Lindisfarne Gospels book is the product of this period. It is a copy of the four gospels, 258 pages of fine script amid lovely illuminations, made in Lindisfarne sometime in the late 69os, to celebrate the memory of Cuthbert. It was in part the work of the monk who would become Bishop Eadfrith, who commanded Bede to write his Life of Cuthbert.
The European Heartlands
No one has the smallest idea when monks first lived at the place now known as Santo Domingo de Silos, sixty kilometres southeast of Burgos, the great pilgrim city in northern Spain. But the present monastery - a perfect piece of eleventh- and twelfth century architecture and sculpture - is merely the latterday manifestation of a tradition planted in a place which must have appealed greatly to the daunting tastes of early Christians.
The monastery is at around three thousand feet, in a plateau of scrub and scree. In May, I could look out of my second-floor room in the guesthouse and watch a blizzard blot out the view over a magnificent pinetree out to what, on a clear day, are beautiful distant hills. I made a point that night of wandering out for a drink in a cafe in the tiny town, whose raison d'etre seems to be to supply the monastery with milk, monks (two of the Abbots of the last hundred years were local boys) and other necessaries.
I had a little killer of a liqueur at a table where local men were playing a rousing game of cards. Some of the most entertaining bars, perhaps excluding those in ports, are to be found at the gates of monasteries. Scuffing my way through the dusting of snow, with the glow of alcohol in my belly, on my way back to my comfortable, plain room for an early night before an early liturgy, seemed peculiarly easeful.
One afternoon, when the sun had warmed away the snow, I walked north, up what must have been another thousand feet or so, to the crest of the next sierra: there was a small town in the next shallow valley, more mountains, and that alternation could be repeated for a hundred miles in most directions.
Spain is a hard, high country, with thin soils: just the place where Christians would find a toehold for their dissident, difficult religion. Near the very lovely 'modern' monastery a sprightly nine hundred years old - there is a steep, deep gully in an enormous tumbling outcrop of rock. An eagle kept its eye on me as I walked to the spot. A busload of nuns, on a daytrip from Madrid, came giggling along the road. We were headed for La Yecla. A stream hurtles its way deep in a cleft. Set in a very dramatic kind of way in the cliff face, there is a walkway. The nuns and I - they louder and more confident than I - pursued this vertiginous concrete path for the quarter of a mile or so it winds above the cataract.
This was the site of Christian hermits, hiding, so the legend goes, from the Visigothic invasions that followed the period of Spain's inclusion in the Roman Empire.
Doubtless, the pictures could be repeated all over Europe. The steep highlands along the French mediterranean coast were certainly host to scattered groups of monks, as were the Appenines in Italy.
Such events go largely unrecorded. They may have been set in train by events such as Athanasius' exile in Triers (335-337), in the mid-fourth century a capital of the Roman Empire, where the bustling, controversial Bishop from Egypt would doubtless have been irrespressible in talking about his heroes, and his Life of St Antony, by then becoming one of the most famous texts in the newly-fashionable doctrine.
He may have planted monasteries: more likely he merely encouraged what seemed to be the natural tendency of early Christians to take to the hills.
The first homegrown continental European cult figures and monastic founders were Martin of Tours (c316-397), a protegé. of Hilary of Poitiers, the latter himself dubbed the Athanasius of the West for his attacks on the Arian heresy. A soldier who had become a pacifist, Martin lived as a hermit at Ligugé for about twelve years beginning in 360, and, partly in response to the popularity of his hermitage, and partly because he was made a bishop, started a monastery at Marmoutier.
At first, at least, he and his eighty companions lived in cells in the caves in the riverside. There have been troglodytes in the caves of the Loire valley right up to the present, where the bisexual and thoroughly unmonastic-sounding communities are regarded with wary tolerance by the local authorities.
Martin was in the classic abbatial mould: hermit, missionary, and monastic founder. He is credited with taking a very tough line with pagans, especially in uprooting their sacred trees. His monastic foundation - and his own cult - were firmly established. The basilica and monastery which bore his name, at Tours, developed into an immense shrine to his name and relics, was a noted stopping-off place on the great pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in the Middle Ages, and a very famous scriptorium, producing exquisite books. It was largely destroyed during the French Revolution.
About the time when Martin became a hermit, John Cassian was born in Scythia. Because he knew Egypt well, having been a monk there, and because he wrote so clearly about what he saw there, he was well placed, when visiting Lerins, and later, starting a pair of monasteries near Marseffies, to formulate a set of rules by which monks might progress. They are still read in modern monasteries: they are the surest link between the Egyptian founders and everything that happened in a more established, institutionalized, European way in later years.
St Benedict (c480-c550), the ur-monk of the west, insisted that Cassian's Conferences on monastic life 'be read before Compline, and the occasion evolved into a kind of suppertime for monks. The Conferences were Collationes in Latin, hence a collation: a meal taken at an odd time of day (we still had such things at my public school in the early sixties, though Cassian was not read to us). Basil - the great easterner - and Cassian were the most important daily reading for the monk, according to Benedict.
The very mention of the name of Benedict makes one feel that the story has arrived at the moment of maturity: we see candlelit processions in vast cloisters, armies of disciplined monks commanding vast stretches of countryside, taking their complicated place beside kings, whilst commuting back to the cloister. But most of these facets of monastic life are two or three hundred years away from Benedict's day. Most importantly, he wrote a Rule that most clearly marks a kind of monasticism which could flourish amongst less than heroic, ordinary men in the west. He was, in this way, a kind of Pachomian figure. His Rule is famously a model of moderation: epitomized by his remark that monks probably should not drink wine, but since they all seem to like doing it and seem set in the way of drinking, let them at least agree not to drink more than a pint of wine a day.
Benedict was exactly the kind of character we have become used to seeing as a founder. He was reputed to have been a well-off and well-educated young man from Nursia, who had studied at Rome. But he felt the call of the hermitage, and left his studies to live alone at Subiaco. Inevitably - and in large numbers - young men clustered around his example and soon he was organizing them into small groups, perhaps twelve of them, each of them composed of ten people. He seems to have been well enough off to be able largely to fund the monastery from his own family property. When he wrote his Rule he was to some extent the man who paid the piper: no wonder he was free to call the tune.
There is every probability that Benedict was running fairly ordinary Italian monasteries of the day. His Rule incorporates the work of an earlier founder ('The Master'). The pattern seems to have been unremarkable: a smallish one-storey house, with dormitory, refectory and small church with simple benches. A small farm nearby. A workroom, and somewhere to read. There is nothing of the cloister, or the great monastic style which would develop later. The accommodation would be all that was needed for a simple community of perhaps a dozen men, living in obedience to their abbot.
Most historians seem to agree that the real success of the development which Benedict's Rule tacitly embodies is that it moved rnonasticism away from the particular and into the general: from this Italian system a monastery could develop into a school, a farm, a manuscript copying shop, or a centre of dedication to the liturgy. It was not penitential: there was no thought that a man would go to one of these monasteries in order to inflict suffering on himself. This was to be survivable monasticism. A man went there to be a monk, not a martyr.
But it is far from clear whether Benedict saw all this. He did not stress learning as necessary, though he did not rule it out. He did stress that monks should do manual work. Even agricultural self-sufficiency did not seem important in itself, but 'If local conditions or poverty require them to get in the crops themselves, let them not be distressed, for then they are truly monks if they live by the labour of their hands, as did our fathers and the Apostles. Let all be done with due moderation for the sake of the fainthearted.'
This small passage carries with it some of the keys to Benedict. He knew, for instance, of the ancient injunction to work for one's living: but there seems to have been no great compulsion in his monks to do so (unless local conditions or poverty required it). He accepts that he is writing for men who may think farm-work beneath them: perhaps because his monasteries were attracting some rather classy types.
More than this, he had already asserted the absolute importance of the liturgy. From now on in monastic history, it is very clear what a monk should be doing with the majority of his waking hours: he will be in choir singing and speaking the praise of his Lord, or quietly mulling over devotional literature, or engaged in private prayer.
The greatest historian of monastic life was David Knowles, the Benedictine monk. He reckoned that in such a monastery, the monks would begin the Night Office at two a.m., with Lauds at daybreak; Prime at five a.m., and Terce, Sext and None at three-hourly intervals thereafter. Vespers, Compline, and a reading from Cassian follow, beginning with the last hour of daylight. In summer there were two meals daily (noon and six p.m.), and in winter just one, though with a snack at dusk. Benedict legislated for a working spell in the morning, and a rest after lunch. But above all, the monastery is to be a school of the Lord's service. There was to be plenty of psalmody and Scripture, prayer and contemplation and reading: all of it directed at making sure that the individual monk got to heaven. He does not seem to have been enjoined to pray for all mankind, or because of all mankind's sin. He was not praying on commission' for others too busy or idle to pray, but rich enough to have someone else perform the task, as medieval monks would spend endless hours doing. He was not in training for a different sort of life, even in a hermitage; the Rule calls the cenobite 'the strongest kind of all' monks.
A monk under this regime was learning humility and obedience and prayerfulness: in a word, holiness. That way he could get to heaven. Maybe other men could too: but a monk's entry seems to have been more certain, simply by that dedication to the life of the gospels, as refined by those acknowledged saints and heroes, the Fathers in Egypt and the wider Middle East.
There are one or two peculiar clues in the Rule. One is that some of the advice is so detailed on the kinds of predicament which arise in monasteries that there is no question but that this was a mature institution by then: Benedict notes that /quite often it has happened that through the appointment of a Prior serious scandals arise in monasteries'. This implies a wide experience and plenty of disasters to learn from.
There are already children in monasteries: parents perhaps were bringing their sons to the monks to be educated, or simply to have them off their hands, or to obtain that measure of spiritual protection that might flow from having helped provide the next generation.
Even granted that this was Italy and not the wastelands of the north, a community which could afford a pint of wine per head per day must be assumed to have been at least mildly affluent. And we have already noted that monks there did not necessarily expect to pick their own crops: the monk as manager of outside labour is in view. Actually, this was a thoroughly Benedictine quality in later centuries.
Benedict was no twentieth century liberal: the children are to be thrashed if they make mistakes in choir and try to hide them, rather than honestly make retribution there and then.
Adults too stupid or bad to listen to reason should be whipped
into obedience if need be. On the other hand, the Abbot was to rule by example and exhortation rather than dictate.
Thirty years after Benedict's death in 547, his monks had to, leave Monte Cassino, where his final monastery was established, in the face of the advance of Lombardian invaders, They took themselves, and the Rule of their master, to Pope Gregory I (The Great, c540-604). Gregory (who coined the expression, of the Pope's job, 'The servant of the servants of God') was an ex-monk himself. Indeed, at first he had been a reluctant Pope, a keen monastic founder (like Benedict, using his own funds), and saw the value of the Rule immediately, He wrote a life of Benedict and sung the praises of the Rule whenever opportunity arose. Since his writings were to, become hugely popular all over Europe, it is hardly surprising that Benedict's reputation should grow with beds own.
Gregory was particularly keen that England should be evangelized, and it was he who sent St Augustine - with whom he had been a monk in the Monastery of St Andrew, on the Celian Hill in Rome - and a party of thirty monks to Kent in 597. It was the beginning of the movement which would ultimately overwhelm the Celtic tradition which had been planted in the north. But Augustine did not feel bound to promulgate the Rule of St Benedict: he was free to develop his own Rule for monasteries he founded.
Benedict himself did not start an Order (the very word 'Benedictine' as applied to a kind of monk is a tenth-century one). The notion of a disciplined, coherent ]body of monks living in community is, we have seen, much older than Benedict's Rule; it would be many years before the idea of a disciplined, coherent body of monasteries would take hold.
Worlds away, into an Irish tribal chieftain's family had been born a child who would grow up in the thorough-going, strict, educated Irish family-monastery milieu. He was educated in part by Comghall of Bangor, who is said to have had three thousand students at one time.
Columbanus was born in around 540, about the same time as Gregory the Great. Twenty years before Augustine arrived in England to win Britain for Rome, in 575, Columbanus, himself now a tribal leader and abbot, noted for his handsomeness and for having only narrowly escaped the charms of women, landed in Brittany to extend the Celtic religious sway. They were offering competing images of Christianity and its relation to the wider world, and monasticism.
We know that in the end, Columbanus' monastic tendency did not survive. But he was a very much more successful founder of monasteries than Augustine or Benedict.
Columbanus had read his Virgil, Pliny and Horace, and some Creek, as well as the church Fathers. Columbanus took his monastic invasion - it was little else - right across what we think of as France. He was Celtic in everything, including the timing of Easter. But what the local church authorities could not bear was that this man would allow no local bishop especially, any Romish bishop - to interfere with his abbots. He claimed that the Council of Constantinople in 381 had allowed to churches in pagan countries a certain degree of freedom in following their own tradition: an argument which might have worked for the church in Ireland, but which could hardly be exported to France.
Meanwhile, he was upsetting the local royal family by condemning the king for keeping concubines, and refused to bless the ruler's bastards. The king was minded to execute him for this impertinence, but declared that though he was angry, he was not so mad as to make a martyr of this impudent monk. Eventually, in 603, Columbanus was expelled from France. However, the ship which was supposed to be carrying him from Nantes back to Ireland was blown back to France. He merely compounded his errors against Rome by moving on to Switzerland, and ultimately to Italy, and expounding them there.
In 613, he settled at Bobbio, in the Italian Appenines, and founded a monastery there: two years later, he was dead. He had often written to Popes, including Gregory the Great, trying to persuade them that he was thoroughly loyal to St Peter, and asking only for tolerance toward his Celtic brand of faith and monasticism, which had its own long and decent tradition and roots. He had of course led a controversial life and had many narrow scrapes. He is famous for having
written a Rule of quite unparalleled severity, which his many monastic foundations did not manage to maintain for long.
They slipped little by little into Benedictine ways.
But what a collection of monasteries he had started! Around
forty have been traced to Columbanus and his comrades.
Beginning at Luxeuil, and ending with Bobbio, there was the
immensely important St Gall (St Callen), jumieges, St Omer. Several of these would grow with the changes of style and emphasis of the forthcoming centuries. They would become vast institutions.
In the north of Europe, around the Tyne and in Northumb-
rian offshore islands especially, we have seen the work of Benedict Biscop and the founding of an empire of monasteries which, following the Council of Whitby, were, reluctantly or not (almost certainly, after the first ructions, delightedly part of the comparatively easy-going, integrationist monastic way which men like Benedict, backed increasingly by Rome, and promoted by Gregory the Great, were keen to introduce.
Monasticism could be as tough as its individual abbots and monks wanted, and that would wax and wane according to fashion, spiritual vitality and social circumstances. But monks would no longer be religious dissidents. What was sure was that monasticism was now comfortably part of Mother Church. Monks were learning not to think themselves superior to bishops. They were not to see themselves as an alternative, prouder spiritual empire. It looks as though, instead of being the model any Christian might aspire to, they were becoming instead the professional prayer people. The Church and the World needed such men, but not everyone need aspire to the task, nor need the task be insurmountable.
In the winter of 1821-1822 some children were playing in the attic of a house on a corner of the main square of Délémont, an important city in Jura, Switzerland. The children found a book full of pretty pictures, whose places they marked with seedpods and bits of straw.
They had found - and delighted in - one of the most precious books in the world, a Bible made in the monastery of St Martin at Tours in about 835. It had been commissioned by or for the monks of the monastery at Moutier, a monastery which had been founded by the monks of the monastery of Luxeuil, which had been founded by Columbanus, and which about ten years after his death so needed to expand that Moutier had been established in the Great Vale of the Jura. The monastery had become Benedictine: but finally, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, protestantism and anticlericalism forced the religious community to dissolve.
Most of their relics were given to a parish church. The great Bible was forgotten in its attic.
It had been made at the national shrine of France, but its brilliance may be said to be due to the work of an Englishman, Alcuin (c735-804), who was the right-hand man - the minister for culture and religion in effect - of Charlemagne. Together they hoped, but failed, to institute a new Holy Empire, in which State and Church would be co-terminous across all Europe, and be jewelled with a network of monasteries.
Charlemagne had given the monastery at Tours to Alcuin in 796. The great York-educated monk, one of the most powerful figures of his period, was by then about sixty-six, and had only eight years to live. But he worked valiantly to improve the craftsmanship at Tours, complaining of the rusticity of monks there all the while. Future abbots had more success: another Englishman, Fridugisus, and his successors, brought the enterprise to its richest fruition.
In the first half of the ninth century, Tours turned out about
two big Bibles every year, and a copy or two of the Gospels in smaller format, amongst other manuscripts. A big Bible is big indeed: 840-900 pages, each one perhaps fifty cms by thirty-seven cms. There were around two hundred and twenty monks at tours in 820: in the Moutier-Grandval Bible, at least two dozen individual hands can be discerned.
It has been reckoned that the skins of perhaps two hundred and twenty fully-grown sheep were needed for each big Bible, to provide the parchment. But the skins had to be in perfect condition. Goodness knows how many had to be discarded on grounds of quality. The sheep had to be fully grown in order to provide pages so large. (M. L. Ryder, in his Sheep and Man, says he thinks quarto folios, the standard size for early books, developed as the size resulting from folding four pages from such a skin.)
Producing these Bibles and the torrent of other books which was pouring out of monasteries, must have required, and certainly demonstrates, that societies - or at least their decision-makers - were prepared to invest very heavily in monastic life.
And it had been so for hundreds of years. Martin of Tours in the fourth century and, even more importantly, Cassiodorus in Italy in the sixth, had shown how to marshal the scriptoria, the only organized means of disseminating the Word in written form. In Wearmouth and Jarrow, Benedict Biscop was succeeded by Ceolfrid, whose protegé, Bede, was at work in his library and cell. Ceolfrid commissioned the copying, illustrating and making of three great Bibles, one of which is famous now as the Codex Amiatinus. It takes two men to carry it. It has over two thousand pages. It must have required over fifteen hundred calves to make the parchment. Thus, Ceolfrid's commission demanded the skin of four thousand five hundred calves, which must have represented an enormous investment for a rural society at that time. The skinning and curing of the parchment alone must have involved tremendous labour.
A library in the seventh or eighth centuries was large if it contained fifty volumes. One of the biggest in Europe in the ninth century had six hundred. There was an explosion of demand for the Christian classics in this period of consolidation of Christianity. But, as Paul Johnson stresses, and he seems to be following Knowles in saying so, it was not a questioning, but a studious, interest. Monks, he notes, were 'carriers, not creators'. Bede was learned only in spiritual and religious reading, and his history's merit is in being an account of the past, not a vast intellectual synthesizing or theorising on its meaning,
Johnson goes further, and points out that because monks sometimes copied pagan works, we owe our knowledge of some classical writing to copies made by monks from original books now lost.
Tenth-century Vikings - before their transmogrification into Normans - were more interested in the temporal than the spiritual treasures held by monks as they swept into Britain and the continent. They plundered many monasteries. But nothing could permanently dent the monastic movement now. Faith in Jesus, that shadowy salvationist who inspired it all, converted those who came to conquer it. And monks were just too powerfully useful. A rich man could get his children educated amongst them; he could reserve a place for himself in heaven by endowing their homes; he could use them to ensure the occupation and cultivation of some new piece of land in which he had an interest.
The last is enormously important. The tenth century saw the 'German' plough, which was required in heavy Northern soils, become general, along with other improvements in agricultural techniques. Farming improvement is a long-terfn business. Agriculture is an up and down business, in which bad years must be survived by a reserved surplus from good years. If virgin land is involved, it requires massive investment. Monasteries - like aristocratic families, but, at first at least, less greedily - last and last. An Abbot had as his first requirement the prospering of his institution, which never died. The monasteries, with their enormous demand for sheep and calves, for books and bellies, for corn and other grains, and for oil and wine, were also the means of fostering the great taming of the European wildernesses.
Monks were internal colonists: they did not go where people had never gone before; they went where no one had succeeded in making much of a living. They increased the carrying capacity of the wilder parts of Europe.
The marks of monastic life and farming are everywhere. At Clonmacnoise, on the banks of the river Shannon in the Irish midland plain, there are meadows, rich in wild flowers in spring and summer, which owe their genesis, and their continuance down the centuries, to monastic grazing. In the mid-sixth century the abbey of Clonmacnoise was founded by Kieran, a monk who had learned his discipline on the islands of Arran and Scattery. He was a holy man, but not unusually - an aristocratic founder. Appropriately, since he is now remembered not least because of those grazing meadows which are now desperately rare in our over-tamed countryside, he had taken a cow with him to his first monastery, to provide himself with milk.
In a high small plateau twenty miles from Lucerne, at three thousand three hundred feet, there is the monastery of Engelberg. It was an eleventh-century foundation, set down on wilderness land by a local knight (he was of so modest a disposition that at first he refused to be other than an ordinary brother in his own foundation and he donated the land to the monks in perpetuity). Even now, there is meadow there, in this land of cows and sheep, Herrenruti: the land uprooted by the gentlemen - the land cleared by the monks.
Swiss monks made a speciality of clearing forest land. St Meinrad (d 861) entered what was called the Finstere Wald (the Gloomy Forest) some time around 835, at a place we know now as the extraordinary Baroque monastery of Einsiedeln, at two thousand seven hundred feet, between Zurich and LakeLucerne. He cleared simply the patch needed for his hermitage. But he was a charismatic hermit, and soon attracted followers. There remains in the nearby village Benno's Meadow: a piece of ground cleared by one of these early men.
Early in the eleventh century Emperor Henry II made this monastery a gift of two hundred and thirty square kilometres of land: it did not all stay with the monks, and they could never cultivate all of it, but even now the monastery owns large tracts of land - some of it still forest - and has the job of trying to make it pay. That is far less easy now than it used to
Early on, monks would have to develop ways of dealing with the wealth - land in particular - that accreted around them. The earliest monks probably looked after a patch of land near them. But as the gifts increased, it seems they mostly accepted a tithe in money or goods, or actually rented out land to tenants of their own.
They were, overall, very successful. But the fact that Europe's mass would increasingly be dotted with monasteries should not disguise the truer picture: the monastic 'germ' thrived and withered in different places and different times. Its progress was sporadic, patchy, intermittent.
For instance, in much of Europe from the mid-ninth to the mid-tenth centuries, the monastic venture seemed to have run out of steam. Many monasteries were closed. After Charlemagne's death, individual kingdoms were being squabbled over and formed. His dream of a unified monastic structure, engineered by Alcuin, never did work, but after the great men's deaths, the entire monastic enterprise seemed to falter.
The means of establishing it on a new and powerful footing, had, however, been laid down. Oddly enough, it depended on asserting that the monk was not to be seen as an agricultural or educational pioneer. Reformers like Benedict of Aniane (c75o-821) had called for the monk to be a man who attended to liturgy, not manual work or the teaching of children. Benedict of Aniane's cry for the spiritual, not the practical, life was codified as an extension of the Rule of the other Benedict. In time, it would be this revisionist set of rules which would be the bedrock of a monastic order and legislative machine.
In Germany, France, Spain and England, there were sympathetic kings or dukes (though in France the new abbeys and spirit were fiercely independent) who, once they had established a grip on their fiefdoms, looked to the salvation of their souls. Out of the chaos, order was emerging.
But it is not enough that there should be powerful secular figures to fund monasteries. The monks themselves must match the money and power with men of spirit and determination to make these odd institutions work.
Part of the paradox of the monastic life is that success is failure, but breeds a new triumph. The worldly success of a monastery will breed laxity; out of the laxity will come ferocity: a prosperous monastery will produce penitentially-minded men who will go out and seek simplicity and authenticity. Monasteries do not flourish only, or even particularly, in what are good times for the outside community. Just as a monastic movement seems enfeebled beyond survival, it will throw out a new, energetic seed - just as some mosses which live in the most nutrient-starved peat bogs will only throw out spoor when no other survival trick can win the day.
Anyway, in gio, a monk called Bemo started a monastery at Cluny, in the Burgundian plain. He was sponsored by William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine. Now nothing much remains of the church there: once it was the biggest in Christendom, as befitted the absolute centrality of its role, even after it had itself spawned reaction. Many of the stones of the church were re-used in building the national stud of France.
Its first fifty years gave no evidence of how vastly important it would become, except that it was a monastery dedicated to prayer, and to the papacy, and that its abbots - it had very few in the early days, but these long-lived men were of exceptional vigour - were often asked to visit other monasteries and discipline them. Within three hundred years there would be twelve hundred monasteries owing allegiance to Cluny: and Cluny instituted the first 'Order' of monks. To be a Cluniac monk was, technically at least, to be a monk of Cluny itself, even though one might not speak French, or ever have visited France. From Poland to Portugal, Cluny had its monks.
Within a hundred years of its formation, Cluny had the papacy firmly in its grip: a fiery, uncorrupt, severe and proud papacy, which asserted the Church's power over any secular ruler. The Cluniacs were an awkward set.
At Gorze and Brogne there were also monasteries devoted to a new austerity, whilst the mood of vigour was brought to England by Dunstan, and is betokend by his refounding of Glastonbury in 940. He and his followers founded within the next fifty years about fifty abbeys: they , included such places as St Albans, Peterborough, Abingdon, Malmesbury, Winchester, Worcester, Evesham; they would be, for six hundred years, a constant strand, the dominant institution, of the nation.
In northern France, the movement was taken up by men such as Lanfranc and Anselm: their monastery, at Bec, became for many years the apogee of the Benedictine way of life. Such men became archbishops. Their monks began to run the great cathedrals. They dominated learning. The Rule of St Benedict, as interpreted by Benedict of Aniane, was taken down to revivify Subiaco and Monte Cassino: the changes had come full circle.
And yet, typically, in the heart of this success, and bom of it, came a further series of reforms, or variations. They went in opposite directions, but were born of the same instinct. Out of the new relative orderliness of society in the eleventh century there grew a new breed of hermit. And the Benedictine Cluniacs, themselves reformers, spawned a further reform.
THE MAJOR REFORMS
The opus dei of the monks, therefore, was work of a very practical kind: its wages were eternal life, and this was earned for their founders and benefactors as well as for the monks themselves. A personal vocation was no more necessary for this work than for any other work. The monks existed to perform a necessary task like other men and we do not ask of a good workman that he shall like his work, but only that he shall do it well for a just reward. It was no more offensive to the conscience of the age to offer a child for training as a monk than for training as a king or craftsman. The one function was as necessary as the other.
Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages,
R. W.Southern, Penguin Books
Sant' Apollinare in Classe, outside Ravenna, is perhaps the Most glorious church in the whole of Christendom. It is surely an enormously joyous place.
It was also the Cluniac monastery in which one of the most famously penitential western monks learned his love of solitude. Romuald of Ravenna (c950-1027) is listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints as a Benedictine abbot. It is as wen to remember that he was, in founding the famous hermitage monastery at Camaldoli, in his own mind merely establishing a place where men could be true to St Benedict.
Indeed, a Benedictine monastery - and a thoroughly cenobite one - is the first building one meets in the village of Camaldoli, as the bus finishes its long winding road through the vast forested slopes on the great Apennine spine east of Arezzo and Bibbiano. This is the Riserva Naturale Biogenetica di Camaldoli. Down the road from the monastery is a -natural history interpretation centre: not a bad juxtaposition, since monasteries at their best make very good supernatural history interpretation centres.
The monks put you up in a guest room, from which a
mountain stream can be heard busying its way to the sea.
I had gone in search of tough hermits living their lives in utter seclusion. I did not expect to meet any of them: to get close, to catch a glimpse, to speak to some intermediary would be enough. I knew that this was the toughest Order anywhere. I knew that the Benedictine monastery was a prelude to a really secluded enclave of micro-houses, within a wall, which constituted the Camaldoli spirit proper.
It was not particularly surprising to find that the place was bursting with noisy pilgrims: monks and hermits always attract crowds. There was a young American who joined me at supper: he was fretting over where he might get a silk suit cleaned. He had bought it in the Far East, from the best tailor in Hong Kong. It was exquisite. He loved it. He was hoping to join the monastery and this might be the last chance he would have to get the thing in perfect condition. I wondered what possible use a man might have for a lovely suit as he prepared himself for the ultimate retirement.
In the cafe at the monastery gates, men and women in walking boots were buying maps and postcards of this, some of the best walking country in Italy. There was a good herbal liqueur to be had at the monastery's own cafe; and good coffee, too. I chatted briefly to two women who had set up their own tiny community near the monastery, so as to be close to it. And heard that several people of religious inclination were living in various houses belonging to it in and around the valley. The place was, in short, very bustling.
Romuald's idea had been to form a monastery which could be a breeding ground for the eremitic life, as had often been the practice in the Middle East.
It has known vicissitudes, in which the hermitage up the hill was suppressed (in the mid-nineteenth century) and its church used for horse stabling, while its cells were the homes of sheep. 'This was just after the Unification of Italy', says one of the monks. 'It was decided that the hermitage had no social purpose. We were allowed to keep the cenobium because it was also a hospital, and therefore useful.'
Today, the pharmacy of the cenobium - a fine medieval series of rooms - serves as a busy selling point for various herbal remedies, and concoctions such as Lacrima d'abeto and Elixir dell'Eremita. People without money bring big plastic bottles and jerry cans, and fill up with holy and healthy water from a well in the street outside the church.
By nightfall, the huge party of pilgrims on retreat had eaten their hearty and riotous supper. They were marshalled into a seminar room, and given elevating instruction by a monk who entertained them with amusing stories and ardent spirituality.
In recent years, the monastery of Camaldoli seems to have fallen under the same sort of regime as is in the ascendancy in the Greek monasteries: highly intelligent young monks with a vigour which must quite alarm those older hands, for whom a quiet life must often have seemed and sometimes been a sufficient condition and evidence of sanctity. The talk now is of dialogue and ecumenism.
Because the clergy of Italy are habitually centralist or frankly right-wing in their politics, many parishioners - whilst, it is stressed, betraying no disloyalty to their diocese - like to forge links with the Camaldolesi, where their left-wingery is not frowned upon .
Part of the advantage of there being two monasteries at Camaldoli is that the cenobium can take the strain of the pilgrims and tourists and the retreatants, leaving the hermitage at the top of the hill to its immemorial tranquillity. Not that it is entirely as reclusive as old St Romuald might have intended (though the monks claim the new regime is in accordance with his spirit, even if at variance with later habits).
The hermitage - Sacro Erimo - is a perfect picture of bungaloid domesticity, with undergarments drying peacefully in the morning sun, and lizards nipping about in the pathways. It has the air of a quiet and blissful holiday camp: a brick wall - high and solid - ambles round the neat houses twenty-two of them - with their roman-style tiles. It is easy to see over the wall: the lay of the land exposes the village to view from many vantage points.
At the hermitage, after church, the men from the hermitage congregate for a brief breakfast - taken casually in the refectory. One evening, after a service to welcome a couple of new novices to the community, I met one or two of the hermitage community on the road, as they walked home from the church at the cenobium. They would once have lived separately from each other and the community down the hill.
But it turned out that there are no true hermits at Camaldoli. 'We let the young monks go and live as hermits as soon as they arrive', says my guide, himself a capable soul. This is in a conscious reversal of the old practice, in which the hermitage was reserved for men who had demonstrated stability at the cenobium. 'They arrive full of very high ideals. It is best that they try them out for themselves, so as to see what reality is like.' Most of the new men soon ask to be released from the hermitage and to descend to the cenobium.
Much later in their monastic career, after training for the priesthood in Rome in many cases, the men may choose to go back up the hffi, but usually it is for a relatively relaxed regime and for spells of months rather than years. 'We must keep the door open for the evangelicals, for the enthusiasts', says Father Allessandro. 'But the spirit of the hermit is very rare. There is a true recluse at our sister house in Rome: a woman who has been so for thirty-seven years. A very, very exceptional woman. We have a recluse in our Californian monastery. I knew one man here who had been a recluse for nine years, until he died: he was a very holy man. And there was a man here who was a recluse for twenty-five years but he died in 1957.'
If the decline in the full-blown eremitical spirit seems somehow regrettable, as though these youngsters were letting a mighty tradition go, it is worth noting the kind of men they are. Innocenzo, for instance, is a Professor at the Benedictine University in Rome. He is forty-one, and has been living the life of the religious - in a seminary or monastery - for the past thirty-two years.
At the age of nine, he would spend twenty days a year at home. When he was fourteen, he ceased to go home at all. When he was twenty, he went home for two days. He became a priest at twenty-four. 'Such a history is hard for the Anglo-Saxon mind to understand', he says modestly. 'For us, it was normal. But when we became seniors, and after Vatican ll, we closed the Junior Seminary!'
Other eleventh-century men were drawn to the century's rediscovery of desert purity in the mountains of north Europe. Peter Damian (1007-1072) had been a monk of Ravenna and was associated with the fabulously powerful Abbey of Pomposa, in the Valley of the Po, where Italy produces its own Ely in the midst of its own soggy fenlands. He was a disciple of Romuald's, and a fierce administrator and writer. He became Prior of the Romualdian monastery of Fonte Avellana, whose strict regime - some of the men lived as total solitaries - led to a temporary breakdown in his health. His life, typically of other Carthusians such as Thomas More - the most touching monk-manqué of them all - and Hugh of Lincoln in England, was a tension between his longing for solitude and penitence, and the constant demands made on his time and energy by the statesmen of the day, who used him on delicate and sometimes dangerous diplomatic missions.
Peter Damian's own life, and his biography of St Romuald, did much to popularize the hardest monastic career: that of the lifelong solitary. It was something few of the great promulgators of the ideal achieved for themselves. Damian seems to have been nearly consumed with fieriness: Christopher Brooke says that 'on the whole, he disliked his fellow men, hated and despised their foibles and temptations, but just sufficiently remembered that they were God's creatures and that Jesus had died to save them, to wish them all monks.' In mitigation, he seems to have been a wise administrator of the troubled and troublesome men who were drawn to his way of life.
Perhaps the most successful founder of the western hermitage-monastery was St Bruno (1032-1101), a north European educated at Rheims and Cologne. He was a high-flyer, a man who, as head of the Cathedral School at Rheims - whose head he was by his mid-twenties - taught future popes and was in demand for ecclesiastical diplomacy. But he wanted to be a monk. At first he achieved this under the direction of Robert of Molesme, the progenitor of the most communal brand of hermit life. Then he moved to Grenoble, whose bishop gave him land on which he and a few companions in 1084 founded what we know now as The Grande Chartreuse. This was the original Charterhouse, where the Egyptian tradition of the lavra, or laura, was brought to its highest pitch of penitential severity.
Few men have wanted to be Carthusians: but those that do, want the life with a fierce devotion. St Bruno certainly wanted it, and with a passion: even so, he was often called from his mountain fastness to Rome, where the Pope would seek his opinion on the highest affairs of the Church.
Whatever the austerities of the Charterhouses, there is evidence that there was from the beginning a system of lay monks looking after the physical needs of the hermit-monks and that it was well established. When Hugh of Lincoln (c 1140-1200), sometimes known as Hugh of Avalon - a locally born man - was appointed a sort of religious squire to a Cistercian archbishop who used to go on retreat to the Chartreuse at Grenoble, he noted the practice.
Hugh was the typical Carthusian leader of the time. He was summoned from La Grande Chartreuse to England to reform the first Charterhouse here. It was at Whitham in Essex, and had been founded in reparation for the murder of St Thomas A Becket. St Hugh was called by Ruskin, 'the most beautiful sacerdotal figure known to me in history'. He was the confidant of kings, and prone to such a vast impertinence in his dealings with them that they were stunned into compliance with his wishes. He worked with his own hands on the earthquake-damaged Lincoln Cathedral, whose bishop he reluctantly agreed to become in 1186. He was the most educated monk in Britain, according to contemporaries. He loved animals and peasants.
Especially likable in such a man is his robust defence of the
normal human values. Whilst many of his contemporaries would see the monastery as the only foothold on earth of the only ladder to heaven, Hugh tells people that the layman who has charity in his heart, chastity in his body and truth on his lips is assured a place in heaven quite as well as any monk. This is not a uniquely late medieval view: there were Egyptian
monks who said the same sort of thing. But it is a comforting opinion whenever we hear it.
Of course, what draws us to men such as Hugh is that though they were successes in the world, they longed for the cloister. It is immensely reassuring to those of us who achieve rather little that those who achieve the most long for obscurity. Besides, we respond to the heroism and glamour of people who recognize that the human enterprise is a peculiar tension between glamour and attainment on the one hand, and the awful stillness of the great verities - and especially death - on the other. A monk is a man who wears death in the cloth of his uniform. They on the whole think, most of the time, that they hold the prescription that beats or cheats death; the rest of us, more sceptically, admire them for at least facing up to its inevitability in some form or other.
Charterhouses are especially places where death is in men's minds. For all that in the past great Carthusians were much in the world, nowadays they tend to keep and guard their privacy. One Carthusian Prior was chastised by the present Pope for emerging from his monastery to make obeisance to the successor of St Peter. A Charterhouse such as Parkminster, in Sussex, is no place of temporary or convenient retreat. It is a way station to paradise where a very refined kind of religious specialist is in training, without the luxury of distraction.
It was the first proper monastic grille I had encountered, set in the left-hand of two vast doors in a huge stone wall, with a Latin inscription above. As the taxi drove away, the driver gave a wave, and a man who had a chimney sweep's blackness of face and working clothes, walked away from the scene, with a smiling 'cheerio'. In the fine Sussex drizzle, there was something a little surreal about the scene. The building before me would have been more at home in Normandy, perhaps as the stable block of a noble chateau.
It had been built as a part of the nineteenth-century revival of the monastic spirit, but especially to provide a potential safe haven in face of a contrary wave of anti-clericalism on the Continent. It was completed in I883, and at the turn of this century did fulfil its sanctuary purposes, receiving exiles from France (the monks from Grande Chartreuse went to Italy for some years).
I wandered off for a moment. Then I heard the wooden hatchdoor open, and a face appeared behind it. It belonged to a shaven, young, head. The boy spoke, in a thick Irish accent, asking me if I was a retreatant. I told him I was there to see the Prior. He turned to seek further advice. He was wearing huge black boots which had given in to their age. From them emerged great dirty white socks, which lost themselves in his white robe.
After a while he returned and beckoned me to follow him. We passed some sort of cloister and then went into a vast passageway. We passed several doors and then came to one which the boy opened.
The room was big and cold. There was a kind of cut-down four-poster bed in one corner. It had musty-looking curtains and a built-in light which hung down from the canopy. It looked cold and cheerless, like a nineteenth-century altar, and more inspired with notions of dank awe than with commodious rest. I was glad that I had brought my own sleeping bag. Before the big windows there stood a table, laid with a plastic gingham tablecloth and one place. Outside the window, the shrubs dripped rain onto the sodden grass.
The Prior's invitation had suggested that his Order was more interested in exigences than luxuries. I had bought three Mars bars at a shop.
There was a gas heater burning before the grate: it was of the kind aristocrats in draughty mansions and the hapless in bedsitters now boast equally, with its own gas bottle. There was a prison-style piss-pot bucket behind the washstand. I took it that the emptiness of the washing jug and bowl was a sign that somewhere near there was running water. There were two huge armchairs of the kind no junk shop could shift, there being no one poor enough to need them who would have the space to keep them. On the wall above a dressing table a plump boy Jesus, reclining against a rock, stared up at his adoring mother, with his prehensile hands flopped across his great stomach. A disapproving face, done in charcoal, stares down at me. He might have been St Bruno himself. He was dispeptic and discouraging.
I was left alone for a while, and then the Prior came.
He had a shaven head gone bristly, but was very tall and, I suppose, elderly: but spry and fit looking. He spoke in an accent which might have been American or Irish. He sat himself in one of the two chairs set before the fire, like a big-winged bird settling onto a branch, and enquired whether the room was warm enough. I perched on the edge of my chair: it was so low-slung that it could not be sat in without a slumped informality I didn't feel up to.
'Please, relax', said the Prioir, either setting me at my ease, or practising authority, or both. He talked a little in the manner of a doctor, delaying the start of a consultation for a moment or two, whilst catching breath. It turned out that he had indeed been a doctor.
He had been discouraging by letter, saying that it was contrary to the spirit of the Order to have visitors. I had not taken no for an answer, and got a friend who had been on retreat in the monastery to write in my favour. It did the trick. But, said the Prior, I had better come soon, since he was shortly off to a chapter meeting of the Order at Grande Chartreuse, where it would likely be decided to be far stricter about visitors. There had been a time when visitors would come and make retreats at Parkminster, but that was an irregularity. 'An abuse, really', said the Prior. So I might be one of the last outsiders to come to this place. Only doctors, bishops or workmen would come inside, quite probably. That and the shifting, small population of people who apply to join the Order.
Before someone is invited to come and make a trial as a potential Carthusian, he fills in a questionnaire. Amongst others, it poses three trick questions, designed to exclude the men who believe that not liking the world is good reason for supposing that they could stand leaving it.
And so the applicant finds these questions:
7. For how long have you been more serious about the spiritual life - daily mass, prayer, spiritual reading? Do these come easily, or are they something of an effort?
8. Do you mix easily with others? Have you problems meeting people for the first time, and tend to withdraw from people? Have you had any intimate friendships?
9. Would you find it a strain to have just a quarterly contact with your family by mail, and a visit of a few days once a year?
About half the applicants don't get past this first hurdle. Then letters are written to priests and others who know the man. If things go well, the man comes to live amongst the monks of Parkminster.
This is the period when most people are weeded out. 'A man will come, perhaps after a fortnight, or month, and say he can't stick it. Or he'll go home, and we hear no more from him', says the Prior. But this period of trial is just the beginning. A Carthusian undergoes a novitiate of at least five years before becoming a professed monk. One man recently was at Parkminster for eight years, and on the brink of taking solemn vows, when it was agreed all round that he should not. It was a very painful episode for everyone. But, says the Prior roundly, 'I never worry about the ones I send away; I'd rather worry about those I keep. I've seen tragedies in the past.'
He also seems to be on the receiving end of a good deal of unrequited longing from men who would like to be Carthusians but cannot, for one reason or another. He cites the case of a young man in a big job who knows he could not settle to monastic life, and yet has a constant yearning to be a Carthusian.
The Prior talks of some people having a romantic yearning for the life. 'It must be hard: a bit like having married a woman one liked well enough, but always knowing that she was not the woman one had loved the most, who had herself perhaps married another man.' He kept the analogy going, to describe the position of a man's not being suitable for the life. 'You can tell, after a while, at least an experienced man can tell. It's like watching an unsatisfactory marriage: something you can't perhaps put your finger on, but there none the less. The spirit just isn't there, and you can tell.'
Some people, said another monk later, 'fancy themselves wandering in a cloister: that sort never make it.' He believed that you can rather quickly tell whether a man can take the Solitude. The difficulty sometimes is that it is only fair to give the man a chance, even if his fellows know it's going to be no good.
One tough rule of thumb a Prior or a novice master can apply is cruelly simple. If a man who proposes to become a Carthusian keeps coining to his superiors for advice and help, he's simply not making it as a solitary. If a man over forty-five applies, a Prior must seek permission from the head of the Order (always the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse). This is usually refused: there had been a tendency for monastic Orders to be used as a kind of home for retired priests, and it had become frowned on.
But more than that, there is a strong feeling that one cannot 'form' an older man: one cannot 'make a Carthusian of him'. Not that this stops the Order accepting men who have had a vocation elsewhere. The present Prior of Parkminster was a Cistercian before he became a Carthusian, and another man, a brother, had been a Benedictine, having served in the merchant navy during the war, and been an electrical engineer after that. The ex-Benedictine had found that he wanted something stricter, he says, and was finally allowed to move.
The Prior himself had believed that he was too old, should he become a Carthusian, ever to be called on to take senior office: that suited him fine, since he was determined not to be 'busy'. But it was not to be: no sooner had he professed than he was made novice master. 'It was a bombshell', he says. Now sixty-eight, he has charge of the running of the place: it involves him in a great deal of correspondence, for which he has a dictating machine and some secretarial help from
He also has a powerful interest in combatting cold, and 'I'm quite an expert on the minimum quantities required by hosiery firms before they will make a consignment of woollen underwear. He asked with real interest about what ski-wear people were adopting on mountain slopes these days: he has an elderly community, and it is taxing to know how to keep old men warm in a freezing church as they intone the night office for three hours at midnight. And then, politely, but quickly, he would consult his digital wafer watch and be off to his letters, promising to return for another talk.
His charges are a mixed bunch. There are nineteen all told: eight lay brothers and eleven priests. Of the latter, there are three Irish, one Indian, one Polish, one Swiss, and one Spanish. Only two are English.
The next Carthusian I met was straight out of Breughel. A beaming, rounded man in enormously long and battered baseball boots. He told me we shared a Christian name, and that his uncle had done the wonderful decoration of Unique Cottage in Chichester (it's one of those pottery-decorated follies). He was a Sussex man, the only one in the monastery, he said. He had been put into an orphanage when he was young: motherless, he stood between his father and a new marriage. 'That was a rough place', he said: as though this monastery of his was soft by comparison. 'We slept in huge dormitories, and had to break the ice in the trough to wash in the morning.'
We were walking along one of the sides of the cloistered square at the heart of Parkminster. 'The longest glazed cloister in the world', he said, 'five hundred and ninety-nine feet. It took seven hundred men six years to build this place: you wouldn't get it done so quickly, now.' This kindly, smiling man looked after the monastery's one hundred and fifty chickens. He seemed to like his collection of clocks above all things: six or seven of the cheapest and loudest kind adorned one of his work-rooms. 'I have all sorts of friends', he said obliquely, explaining their provenance.
Each brother had a room, he said, and ate alone, and went out of it most days only to the night office at 2.30 a. m. (if they were up to it: the Prior was not keen on the over-eighties persisting with the rigours of the routine) and at 8.15 a. m. for the conventual mass. The night office lasted two or three hours and the mass less than an hour. The fathers, the choir monks, had their own little houses. He would show me one. But first the church. It was tall and long and desperately cold. Half way down its length there was a stone screen, where, before Vatican II, there had been doors. The brothers would be in the western end of the church, and never venture beyond. For mass. they had their own church. But now, with the modern attitude to class divisions, the brothers were free to sit in choir with the priest-monks. Some did, but most preferred the old ways, as he himself did.
The same divisions had applied in the white-painted refectory, where the entire community now comes together on Sunday for their one communal meal. Previously, the brothers had sat in their own adjoining but quite separate room. There was a double-handed cup on one of the tables. It represented, said my guide, the double-handed grab that one of the medieval monks had made at his cup when it was suggested that wine might be denied the Order in future. He himself, he said, preferred tea, and never tasted the wine, which he thought, however, to be very strong. 'We never ask for what we want. We never look round at the next person. if you want something, you might tap your cup.'
We went into the roof space above the church: the arches, concave below, and tiled, were rough cast cement, and convex, up here. 'The slates cost Ł250 when they were put on; now they're Ł2.50 each.' Vast tree-trunks metal-strapped together held the great bells. Dim plankways took us along the length of the aisle, past great heaps of straw beneath air vents in the roofs where, said the old lay brother, jackdaws year after year and fruitlessly, attempted to make nests, not realizing that their home-building material always fell uselessly inside the roof. It seemed a sad waste.
And then out through a little door, and up some steps, with one unsupported railing to hang on to, and nothing else between the giddy roof and the distant grey-green of the winter quadrangle lawns below. All the lines, as straight now as the day they were put down, he said, as we looked across the roofs. French-designed, he said admiringly, perhaps marvelling at the exotic quality of the place a Sussex man had found himself in all these years.
He had been in the war - driving petrol tankers in Palestine -fuelling engines of death in the Holy Land. He had been the only monk to go to war from Parkminster: glad to go, and glad to come back. He had spent a few years in the States in the 1950s, helping to set up a Charterhouse there. He had once gone to a dentist in Hove. He had over-nighted once away from the monastery. Now seventy-six, he had been fifty-three years a Carthusian. 'Not a bad record, eh?'
I asked him if he was happy. 'Oh yes', he said. 'You'd go mad if you weren't.' Perhaps he already was. Perhaps he was merely nearly in heaven already. I could not say.
The Prior himself told me that monks are at a very joyful business. 'The martyrs went singing to their deaths', he said, of the eleven London Carthusians Henry VIII first tortured with uncertainty, then actually, and then hanged, and drew, and quartered. But should a monk not be trying to enter into the sufferings of Christ, holding the sins of man in his mind, rather than bothering to be happy? 'No monk, of course, comes here in order to be happy: the happiness comes from giving oneself to God as fully as possible. The rest follows from that. In that way, again, it's rather like marriage: a successful marriage is based on people giving themselves generously, and gaining happiness as a result of that. And of course, we know that the victory has been achieved. God in his mercy entered into creation.'
And how can it be right for some men to abstract themselves from God's world and the human framework God himself invented, of procreation and the struggle to improve the material and intellectual life of the species? 'Partly it's a matter of specialization. God is worthy of being loved completely: it is right that some people should bear witness to that. But we aren't just praying for our own souls: the selfish idea of working for one's own salvation would not keep you going. It might do to start with, perhaps. But people soon mature to giving unselfish love. A young man, bright, came to me and asked whether he should work in India or become a monk: that is a question of finding out what God wants for you. It's not easy to advise someone.'
And so they come, young men and old, and ask to leave the world behind and enter what must strike anyone as a life of unparalleled hardship. Perhaps one in forty survive their first few weeks of trial (though people who want to be lay brothers do rather better).
I was served my food by a man dressed in a couple of anoraks and a faded navy duffel coat, like a refugee from a Noel Coward marine war film. He had slightly poppy eyes, and was diffident. Would Mr North like his lunch now? Yes. 'Yes? Thank you.' He always said thank you with a rising, slightly squeaky inflexion to the 'you'.
The man returned, with a square wooden structure, a bit like a rabbit hutch. It was painted with thick, battered brown paint and had a wooden handle on top. 'Here is your box', said the Prior, the first time I saw one. 'You will be eating as a Carthusian eats. I am afraid you will think us primitive: you eat the food from the dishes it arrives in.' There was a sliding door to the front of the thing, and the man slid it up.revealing two decks inside. On the lower was a little tower made up of three interlocking stainless steel dishes. I saw bread, dishes of jam and butter, a bottle of pale yellow liquid. The little shelves were covered with peeling sticky plastic lining paper.
'The stacking billycans are called "gamelles": I think they are used to take food to the men in the fields in France. They seem very sensible', said the Prior. 'They keep food piping hot for quite a while, which is important, because it can take half an hour for us to get all the boxes to the monks in their cells.' He left me to my lunch.
It was good. I began with a great portion of soup, in the bottom layer. And then moved up to the next pot, which contained two large pieces of fried fish, done in thyme and, batter, and then on to the third dish, which contained chips that had gone soggy from being trapped in their own steamy heat, and chopped leeks. There was brown bread and white.
As I settled to the cheese, I drank the apple juice, as I thought it, and found that it was powerful apple wine - not even cider which was slightly effervescent to the tongue. I had not touched a drink for four or five months, and this stuff ran through me like a poker's heat in herbed wine. Robin Bruce Lockhart in his book Halfway to Heaven, a detailed account of the order, says that Carthusians eat their solitary lunch slowly. I am not at all surprised, it is good. It is their only indulgence; supper at five p.m.is, by comparison, a lighter affair (though it includes another invaluable half pint of the apple stingo).
And then nothing throughout the long night; and the interrupted sleep. Though I hear, and am pleased to note, that monks do get a good tin jug of tea or coffee, which they can keep hot on their stove.
The Prior had arranged an appointment for me. I was introduced to a brother who had been a Benedictine for twelve years. A stripling of sixty-two, he called himself, compared to some of the older men. He had felt himself called to be Carthusian for nine of the twelve years he had been a black monk.
'I think I needed something stricter', there was something very nearly apologetic in the way he said it, as though he had half a thought that a tougher man could manage perfectly well on a weaker regime.
He was a smiling, kindly character, with a robust cheerfulness which may have taken more effort to achieve than met the eye. He had not known, before he embarked on it, whether he was right in his feeling about the strict life. How could one be? 'It is so hard to know whether what you want is God's will or just Joe Smith's. I suppose you just have to wait until someone else tells you. It takes enormous will to give up one's will. And I was very fond of people at Prinknash' (that is the Benedictine monastery he had been in).
This is the crucial test for a monk, and the one that so troubled Thomas Merton: to be strong and whole as a person, and at the same time to lay down one's will and to obey. A monk has to obey his Superior, and the will of the community, and hope those obediences to be obeying God. But he cannot be weak or he will go under.
Why had he entered? 'One merely does it because God wants it. And I can only say God wants it because I just know that he does, that's all. That's the whole thing about it.' What about doubts? 'Of course one has doubts, at least I do. Father Prior has told me he does not doubt, ever. But it seems to me obvious one must have doubts at times, otherwise, where's the exercise of faith?' We talked about the cool Anglo-Saxon mind and its rationalizing, and the Celtic mind. Perhaps that was where the difference lay between this brother and his community's leader.
He had been a wireless operator in the merchant navy during the war. 'There's something monastic about the life of a sailor', I said. (There is: those clear, piercing, seagoing blue, eyes are the product of innocence and loneliness and tedium and fear, not of legendary brothels. I never met such shy a childlike people as men who live with the sea.) 'Hardly', he said. 'Not as I remember it, anyway.'
He seemed to flash into momentary recollection of those giddy times, gawdy or not, guilty or not, which he had left behind him. He claims to have gone into a monastery to sober up and swot for some electrical engineering exams. His priest had suggested it, 'may have noticed something perhaps', said the brother. He had kept going back. 'Going to that damned place?' his father had demanded. 'I didn't ever want to be a monk: 'God called me.' It has been, he insists, no great sacrifice. 'You just realize you're gaining a life. The material side of life seems quite worthless. The whole thing about this life is love. Not for yourself, but for God and for humanity. Yes, humanity. I have a local boy, a young I working with me. He says he doesn't want monks to be praying for him; but I say to him, "You can't stop me praying for you if I want to'.'
The first summer he was a monk, he kept thinking, 'I'd anything for a beer'. He would have had, if allowed it, lots and lots of beer. But the place was beautiful and he loved it.
Had he ever wonder about his vocation? 'For the first ten years or so, you may perhaps sometimes think like that. But not for long.' And what about wondering what lies on the other side of the enclosure? 'Oh, I used to daydream, but not any more. I do sometimes think that I left the sea at just the last moment. I had five years of it, and I got away before it got too badly into my blood. If I had been away any longer I could not have torn myself away. I came ashore just in time.'
And now, he still misses feminine company. 'Not the sex, of course. But the femininity of life. Men living alone together, there's something disgusting about them. Something rough, like the lower deck.
'It's too rugged. I need to remind myself of refinement.' Why not the priesthood? 'I'm an anti-clerical', he laughed. 'The priesthood is a quite separate vocation. Normally, monks weren't priests, traditionally.' In the wake of the Vatican II reforms, he has taken to sitting with the fathers in the fathers' choir.
Not everyone chooses to. 'Especially the older ones, who often don't really want to. People get conservative, I suppose.' He said that one became a monk from 'a desire to go the whole hog'. It was a business, he said, full of joy. 'You couldn't live this life without joy. You know, when someone dies here it's like we're having a party. People outside would be scandalized, I think.
'Joyfulness in Christianity was rather lost after the eighteenth century, I think, when something jansenistic came into its spirit. The medievals saw it as a joyful business. But then, even mortification can be joyful. No, we don't have the "discipline" (self-flagellation) now: and we're well off without it, in my opinion: but even when it was practised people didn't think, "Oh dear, I've got to do this". They did it full of joy. Even when I clear out a drain, I do it full of joy. And there is joy in the oddest places: you know how people with the most frightful disabilities can be full of joy?'
Does the work he does distract from his monastic life? 'Well, I am an empire builder, and when I was given the job, given, in effect a little empire, I said, "here I am, a bossy little man come here to reform his ways, and you're giving me a bossy job". But they wanted me to do it, and you find that as you go on in the religious life you are guided. And God helps you.'
As a brother, he gets rather less time for recreation or walking with his confreres. The fathers walk in the country once a week, and they meet for recreation once a week. For the brothers, this is reduced to once a month. But not all the brothers bother with the recreation or the walk. They have, they say, enough of both in their ordinary working days, and feel no need of the distraction otherwise. A brother spends between five in the evening and eight the next morning alone in his room, and is there alone for his meals. Only the doorkeeper has different hours, since he must be at his post almost all the time.
The life of the Carthusian priest is hard to imagine, and the Carthusians do little to help. Perhaps the best way is to begin with the architecture of the hermitage to which he has been called, or has perversely chosen to live. It is, after all, in an important way the limit of his world. A man who cares to live in so limited a place probably would not mind being defined by it.
The cloister encloses a great square, which is laid out with apple trees, Its glass is mostly opaque, and its floor made of Belgian slate.
At intervals, here as elsewhere in the monastery, tiny night-lights glow beside the light switches. And there are doors with roman numerals above them. Beside each door there is a hatch, through which the monks receive their food boxes, with no communication except notes left inside if the man wants more or less bread each day.
My Brueghel brother took me to a hermitage he knew to be empty. Number 2 -'double "I"', as he called it. He rattled his great bunch of keys and let us in. A small corridor led from the door to the foot of the stairs. To the right, a door leading to a pretty little garden, wholly enclosed by stone walls, and run wild. Watering buckets, spade and fork. Flower beds still delineated against the intruding weed-cover. It looked like the sort of pleasant little place a maiden aunt might aspire to in a cathedral city somewhere, or a grace and favour apartment tucked away from prying eyes, waiting for an ancient brigadier to spend his last days in.
Still downstairs, a workshop containing tools of some woodworking craft that had once been practised here. A pedal driven lathe ('hard to work', said my guide, 'much better to have a motor'). On the wall, a saw attachment. In racks, lovely chisels and planes, their hand-rubbed, gleaming, worn surfaces still seeming to carry the impress of a man's attention. Tools whose use must have constituted a kind of prayer.
This was turning into a kind of William Morris fantasy place, except that the monk would have had precious little time to devote himself to his handiwork: an hour a day for this and his garden, thought my guide. Bruce Lockhart has done the sums: a Carthusian father will be doing his real work of: prayer, lectio divina and religious study for fourteen hours of his day, six hours of them in church and the rest alone in his cell.
We went upstairs. First, bare outer room serving, so far as I could see, no purpose. Who to entertain in this small reception room? And then through to the cell itself. A freestanding wood stove, over which a monk could keep his water or tea warm. A pathetic little heap of wood beside it. A table with a new-looking book about Carthusian monasteries in Spain. One of them was Montalegre, near Barcelona, whose retired prior came to Parkminster as an ordinary monk.
A fine old array of shelves with various devotional works, brought probably in answer to a slip in the man's box, or - if this had been the novice's wing - if the novice master had permitted it. Against one wall, a bed in a kind of box, as you see in old Ships, with a curtain which can be drawn across on cold nights. It had bed clothes still on it, after a fashion: as though the man had just got up and gone.
It altogether looked rather a shipwrecked sort of a room, quite spacious though. 'Oh, it probably seems small enough, at times', said my guide, who vouchsafed that he admires but does not envy the fathers. The hermitage seemed to have the qualities of order and tradition about it which might well comfort a man: one could imagine Robinson Crusoe self-sufficiency developing in such a place. But it also reinforces the awareness one has about the Carthusian fife,: it is intended to be without comfort.
Yet, says the Prior, 'There is a very warm family spirit. The fact that we are cut off from the world means that we have only each other, humanly speaking. There is the weekly walk of three-and-a-half hours. We change partners about every half hour, so there is opportunity for an intimate conversation every week with each one. This goes on year after year, so we -and-a-half of recreation get very close. Then there is the hour each week when we sit talking in a group. There is always much talking and laughter. Then each one has a confessor to whom he can go at any time for advice and help. All can come to me at any time; and I visit all from time to time in their cells. The sick and old are very well looked after. Our Rule gives as the first duty to the Prior to manifest God's love for all the community. And the Rule insists very strongly on the need for warm, fraternal love: 'It is the Prior's task to mirror the love of our heavenly Father, uniting the community in Christ to form one family".'
I had the luxury, as few of the fathers would have, of lazing in the library. Looking at a monastery library you see the way the world of leaming, and even the mind itself, is divided up. The section labels, written neatly on the gleaming shelves in the richly panelled room, tell the story:
theol.; ascet; paraenesis; liturgia; christologia; mariologia; hagiographa; biographica; scriptura; canonic; theol.; dogmat. theol.; monastica; cartusiana
But between the last two, in section 35, the Waverley Novels, and rather little else of a trivial nature.
Lying by themselves, some of them under lock and key, there are some very precious books. One of the finest is the psalterium cum antiphonis in fol. vellum buxheim xvi: a lovely psalter from the 1500s, with the reds of the illuminations glistening still, as though pale vivid blood had been trapped timelessly there. The cherubs have apple-bright cheeks and buoyant golden curls. The red of one of the illuminations enlivens the robe of Christ, at the scourging at the pillar, which makes the 'I' of Inclina, domine, aurem tuam, exaudi me, quia miser et pauper sum ego (Psalm 86: Bow down thine ear, 0 Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy). The fabulous golden 'I' was in a golden box. How it must have enlivened a midnight ritual, catching a candle flicker.
'But what could that have meant to you?' I asked the Brueghel-brother, who did not know Latin and yet regretted the passing of the old liturgy in that language. 'We could come and look it up in English the night before', he said, a little doubtfully. He added, 'It's all in God's hands.' God knew what it meant, and doubtless anyone could tell that it was beautiful. Why this dreary hunt for meaning and precision? He looked at the library and its vast collection with some scepticism: knowing better, I think. He was a man you could grow very fond of.
The greatest treasure is a Carthusian gradual (the scriptures designed for chanting) which comes from the founding days of the Order. It is gradual cartusiensi vellum ddio, xii, and one hardly dared to touch it.
We went down to the cloister again, and to the graveyard. Here lie eighty-odd fathers - I didn't count them, but the Brueghel-brother had. Each grave was a mound of earth. The plain, unnamed wooden crosses were mostly straight enough, but there was every degree of freshness, from one which had not been painted at all, through those whose creosote was deep and dark, to those which were grown over with green lichens.
Less than ninety souls sent to heaven by this place; a batting average of less than one a year since its inception. It might seem a curious gain to put against the 4,200 man-years of labour that went into building the thirty-six little houses - gateways to heaven - and church involved. But then monks seem to live for ever, and God, when calling them to their cell-life, must know that he is taking men from dissolute ways, which kill quite quickly, into that spiritual purity of heart and prayer which keeps them going, when the sheer cold of the place ought to wipe them out in most winters.
The freshest grave was that of a highly educated French father who had died that winter. He was ninety-seven and his sharp brain had only weakened toward the end. He had gone to hospital - to some nuns nearby - and seemed to vegetate.
Towards the very end, they had brought him back. From not recognizing even the voice of his Prior, he seemed to brighten even as they drove him towards Parkminster. 'I think he sort of recognized Cowfold', says the Prior. 'His whole face lit up when we brought him home. And when we were singing around his bed, he seemed to be trying to join in.'
I saw no priest monks close up. It is the success of the system that they are not troubled by any sort of enquiry, leaving all that to the Prior. The nearest I came to it was tanding for assorted hours in the high, west gallery of the great freezing church and seeing the men below in the gloom. They would file in from a door near the altar, and each give a long thin bell pull a tug, affirming the celebratory, thin clamour it made above our heads, out over an indifferent Sussex landscape.
And then their bent shuffles - occasionally there would be a brisker step, but not many of the men are young - would cease and the service would begin with a knock from the Prior, whom I could not see. Their singing was willing, but it was not lively. There was no organ. There was a certain warbly vibrato from some of the voices. Sometimes a lone voice would fill the church. I could not say I thought the noise beautiful, and the grey, unlovely building seemed to me rather frightening. You would, I think, have to love God a lot not to notice a chill in the place that did not come from the absence of heat. If you could survive that chill, probably you could survive the lack of heating.
On my second and last night, I went to bed after supper and a visit from the Prior. I was a little scared, and aware for the first time of the size and loneliness of the guesthouse (it predates the monastery, which had been tacked on to, and dwarfs, it). I crossed the corridor to the lavatory, like a child which is trying to ward off demons and ghosts, wishing I had eyes in the back of my head, and a brighter torch to flash into all the icy comers. I climbed into my sleeping bag, glad I did not have to commit myself to the narrow, tapestried fourposter bed completely, but could lie on top of it, nicely insulated in my Scandinavian nylon with its bright colours.
I woke before the alarm, in plenty of time to get to the church for a quarter-past midnight. My small torch made a dim impression in the wide corridors. The gallery of the church was if possible more bitter than ever, and I was glad of anorak, jumpers, scarf (worn draped over the head), gloves, and my sleeping bag worn as a travelling rug. Down below, I could just make out some brothers in their end of the church directly beneath me, and something shadowy of the priest monks in their stall in the choir nearer the altar.
Occasionally nodding off, sometimes following the service from the rail of the gallery, enjoying the moments when someone in the church put some light on in order to read (but it was the merest glow, and nothing more) my two or three hours passed. Every sound was magnified time and time over by the vaulted aisles.
The next day, I was leaving. The Prior came to see me one last time. I think by then we were talking in familiar terms: I was certainly glad of his solid, deeply Irish intuitions about monasticism, and for his hospitality, which was all the more genuine for its having been unwilling at first, and perhaps against his better judgement throughout. He told me about the time he got lost in Paris trying to make his way across town to the general chapter at Grande Chartreuse. About how hilarious the style of a French seminarist seemed to the rather more impassive Irish: the gallic spirit lent itself to rather more dreamy looks cast at images, and exquisite sighs.
I was still trying to muddle out some thoughts about the Irish and Celtic spirit. 'Yes', he said. 'I think it's true that your Irishman is not really happy unless you can give him plenty of fasting and all-night vigils.' I could no more be a Carthusian than fly, and I left that place with little regret. The kind of love which is evident there is too wonderfully understated for me. But that very strong, very agreeable, very fine characters are drawn to it had been amply proved.
Introducing the Cistercians
The monastery of Citeaux stands alone and proud in a vast flat expanse of green plainland. The neighbouring farmland was once what the Cistercians most favoured, wilderness. But now it has been tarned to a billiard table dullness which has its own stark quality. This is the site of the founding monastery of the strictest Order of cenobitic monks in the western world. But there is no sign of its early life: nothing of the eleventh century remains.
In this respect, Citeaux is like the Benedictine abbey at Caen (William the Conqueror's L'Abbaye aux Hommes) or Lanfranc's great Bec: the monastic quarters one can see are very beautiful, but they date from the eighteenth century, built in a brief spell of vitality before the Revolution brought dissolution. At Citeaux, true, there is a pretty little scriptorium - it looks like a small warehouse in brick - but even that is only fourteenth century.
The first view is of a terrace of houses beyond which one could see something grand and foursquare and light looking. A low church could also be seen. In through large plate glass doors, to a cool hall with a porter-monk sitting at his window. He is an ancient, smiles and is friendly, and calls on the phone for the brother hotelier who is expecting me.
The brother hotelier is one of those smiling, busy monks who rushes and smiles everywhere, and whose cheerfulness is either a very convincing charade, conscious or not, or a sign that people can achieve a remarkable state of joyfulness in monasteries. He shows me my room: large, airy, plain, with broad rough floorboards, big windows looking out onto the church, and a tantalizing glimpse of the monastery proper.
There is a washbasin and a radiator, which is still giving out expensive heat, even though it is sunny outside and warm in.
Vespers was like coming home. I had already found that the liturgical style of the Cistercians - actually almost everything about them - gave me enormous pleasure.
The church is a stubby cross in shape. In the late seventies the monks decided to shift themselves out of their previous choir fastness in the east of the blunted cruciform wing of the church, and instead to take up station in the west end. The congregation now has the east end. Thus the monks and the lay people are on either side of the altar, which is some sort of millstone, set in the junction of the cross.
In the booklets for visitors you can see the changes creeping up on the monkish mind. It begins between the early fifties and the early sixties as you see the altar moving a couple of metres down from its far east wall. In the fifties booklet there is a picture of a man taking solemn vows, whilst through formidable ironwork lay people, presumably his relatives, stand and watch, as though at a zoo. They are pressed against the unrelenting wrought iron.
Even now, there is a token separation, with the monks' area of the church being beyond a symbolic but definite wall, about a metre high and less than a metre wide, between them and the congregation.
Actually, the new arrangement has its own formidable moments. As the community faces east for particularly pointed periods during the offices, they seem to confront the congregation, so far from retreating have the gone. The church is painted white, and the wood of the choir stalls is a glowing pine. The organ is slat-fronted and pine. The floor is beige jute matting for the congregation, and marble or tiles for the monks. The walls are not high, but bright with light pouring in through plain stained glass, the ceilings being low, shallow arches. The overall effect is wonderfully light and giddy and serious.
And the monks' singing is also sweetly and properly masculine: a little rough in places. It is electrically amplified, so that every wheeze and shuffle of the monks comes over as an express steam train giving vent; should a monk blow his nose, half Burgundy knows about it. One or two of the monks have lovely voices, but that doesn't stop those with not a tune in their head being given the job of taking the solos in the responses.
My first evening, the sun was bright, and filled the church to bursting point. One felt one could breathe deeply and freely in that place.
The late eleventh-century Cistercian movement had begun in an atmosphere of muddle. recrimination and politics, both high and low, but it was driven on by the desire of a few dozen pioneers to invent a monasticism which could escape the accretion of worldliness that its secular usefulness had heaped up around it elsewhere.
The first Cistercian was Robert (of Molesme; 1027-1117). He had been a monk in a Cluniac monastery, and grown disenchanted with the vast army of secular and near-secular people who hung around it. He sought what we would now call a fundamentalist monasticism, in which the Egyptian fathers, and the desert, were to be given primacy. He founded a monastery at Molesme, which was almost immediately so successful that it fell into the very habits he had set it up to avoid. He left Molesme and planted the small hermitage community at Citeaux ('a place of horror and vast solitude' said the early chroniclers, borrowing from Deuteronomy, and exaggerating somewhat). He did not stay with the new community, but was prevailed upon to return to Molesme by the community there.
The Citeaux hermits moved a mile or so to where there was water, and fell under the sway of an Englishman, Stephen Harding, an aristocrat who had been a monk in a Benedictine abbey in Dorset. He had been with the new monastery from the start and became the third Abbot of Citeaux. He knew of Camaldoli and was probably influenced by the thinking of Peter Damian, the great enemy of clerical and monastic abuse.
The problem for the movement was to reconcile the desire for monks to live in a community, with providing a way of life lonely and austere enough to deserve the name 'monachism'. The early Cistercians sought to achieve the effect by imposing a good deal of silence on themselves, and by being very poor. The first aim, until very recently, they were largely able to maintain (though even that went in fits and starts, and with varying strictness, according to region); the latter they very quickly lost any claim to.
However, modern Cistercian scholars are a little doubtful that the early monks showed either of the properties most usually claimed for them: outlandish dedication to the literal interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict, and obsessive silence. Moreover, the leaders of the new community seemed not to try very hard to leave the world. It is, goodness knows, odd enough that men should want to become monks. It is even odder the way in which the most strictly eremitical or austere amongst monks seemed also to make the best politicians.
St Bemard (c1190-1153), the most famous Cistercian, was a Burgundian aristocrat whose forcefulness of personality was such that when he decided he should be a monk, he took a small army of relatives with him.
Citeaux was already famous in the region when he asked for permission to join. Stephen Harding was immediately keen on his young acolyte and soon sent him - aged twenty-five - to start a monastery at Clairvaux, which, after initial difficulties, prospered. By the age of forty he was being called upon by leading French clerics to pronounce on the weightiest matters of national and European religious and political affairs. By 1145, a former pupil of his at Clairvaux was Pope.
Bernard's was a character which probably no modern mind can penetrate. Though he was not keen on the violent suppression of heretics, he was a bitter opponent of Abelard (the theologian and lover who became a Benedictine abbot); and he preached the Second Crusade. (it was a disaster, and some of the blame fell to Bernard) with what seems now a terrible vehemence. He was a powerful polemicist, firing off letters like thunderbolts. Here he is railing against the heaped monsters and architectural extravagance of the more elaborate churches then being built by Cluny:
So many and so marvellous are the varieties of diverse shapes on every hand, that we are more tempted to read in the marble than in our books, and spend the whole day in wondering at these things rather than in meditating the law of God. For God's sake, if men are not ashamed of these follies, why at least do they not shrink from the expense?
If he was pining for the fundamental in Christianity, he was also in the forefront of the new awareness, a rather clear-eyed and humanist awareness, that Christ was a human being as well as God: a man's relationship with Christ should be personal, direct, and uncluttered.
His dislike of ornamentalism is architecture and sculpture of the great apocalyptic visions in stone which towered over the soul in many an abbey tympanum, for instance (and which make a centre piece in Umberto Eco's structuralist whodunnit, The Name of the Rose) - is not merely the dislike of extravagance. He also seems to have seen a similarity between that overbearing encrustation of imagery and the over-lengthy, hugely convoluted, dense hours of liturgy a Cluniac monk of the day was engrossed in.
A stripped-down, leaner, tougher - but also more personal, direct and airy - brand of spirituality is what he claimed for his monks.
The debate between Cluniacs and Cistercians raged for years: the arrogance of the Cistercians, smug in their abstemiousness and asceticism, standing between them and the thorough-going admiration of the other Orders, which seemed largely prepared to accept the Cistercians as certainly remarkable and possibly even superior in a stroppy and not necessarily imitable kind of way. Cluny was actually slipping towards some Cistercian reforms.
To keep his monks pure, Bernard told them they could not accept tithes, nor the rents and income for villages, nor keep parishes, nor have land near secular people, nor run schools, nor spend money on extravagant ornamentation, nor eat meat. Perhaps so as to avoid the monks having servants, but also so that they would not be involved with worldly affairs, he built on the existing idea of lay-brothers (conversi), and these men were now offered a regular monastic life, and entry to heaven, within a routine which did not include their learning to read more than they had to.
The early Cistercians also designed a system of visitation of each monastery by senior abbots - and regular meetings of the Order at Citeaux - that kept everyone thoroughly on his toes. In all this, he and his followers had, they presumably believed, thought of everything that might be designed to keep Cistercian monks as he thought they ought to be: poor and concentrated on Christ.
He had in fact designed the perfect wealth-creating machine. In a world where the Benedictines had already taken advantage of the obvious land, the Cistercians were pushed to the margins of European civilization, into hitherto untamed wilderness. They went to the high valleys, where there was good or at least hugely extensive grazing, and the low valleys, where they could reclaim wetlands by draining them.
Their management of land was not weakened by its being in other hands. In the lay-brotherhood, they had a ready-made army to put to work. If anyone was lax, he would soon be discovered and disciplined. With their superlative ruthlessness, Cistercian abbeys must have made people around them quake. They bought out bankrupt neighbours, and uprooted whole villages that got in their way.
The aristocratic Bernard had also designed a system which was highly suitable for the aristocracy of the day and for many following. He may have wanted to make his monks poor in Christ. He had arrived, in fact, at a system which had the Clan and vigour, the elegance and esprit de corps which deeply appealed to the aristocratic young. It also suited their parents, who sought a dignified, but inexpensive, station in life for their second and third sons. They could become - and many did - Benedictines. But the Cistercians for a time at least must have seemed superbly glamorous.
Such houses were also ideal for the aristocrats who had sufficient land in large, whole parcels - be it of no great value with which to bestow monasteries. The first king of Portugal, for instance, turned to Bernard at Clairvaux to plant the Order in his burgeoning kingdom. Begun in 1152 it was thus the last foundation direct from the mother house within Bernard's own life. Even so, it is surely remarkable that a new king should seek to cement his hold on his kingdom, assure its place in the Roman Catholic world, gain international respectability, by calling in Cistercians. and after all, monks sworn overtly to poverty and They were, austerity; who had renounced and rejected what at the time seemed the most utterly impregnable institution of their world, Cluny; who belonged to an order whose name had been invented only fifty years before; and whose expansionist period had only been under way for a quarter of a century.
The Cistercian Machine
Alcobaca is a very precious building. Partly, it is of quite breathtaking beauty. The church is the biggest in Portugal (nearly 350 feet long, 69 feet wide, and 66 feet high). The monastery fa*qade - seventeenth century because of reconstruction work then - is 725 feet long.
But it is not size alone that brings this place such majesty. The church is of devastating simplicity: it obeys at least that part of the Cisterdan ideal. Thus lurking behind a wedding cake excrescence of a baroque façade there is a structure (it was begun a quarter of a century after the original foundation of the monastery) whose plainness is a miracle in such a country: if the Portuguese have a fault, it is that their talent for decoration sometimes leads them into a riot of tracery, patternry, a touch here, a touch there, until there is no room for a single addition.
None of that afflicts Alcobaca's church, whose massive grace is as airy and bright as one would think could only be achieved in a building made of modem materials. The rest of the monastery was designed to add up to a square, with the cloister at the heart of it. The totality makes an architectural prayer machine of enviable perfection.
Some of this we owe to St Bernard's cultural imperialism. His Order was to be as uniform as possible wherever it found itself. In Alcobaca we have a church which is closely modelled on the abbey at Clairvaux which no longer exists.
In the cool of one wing of the cloister, there is a lavabo, a more obviously Gothic structure, with a hexagonal pool - waist high and carved - and a fountain, in whose top there now grows a great trailing plant, from whose fronds there trickles always a small light rain of water. Pigeons race through the open arches, darting down to the pond's edge for a drink whenever they think tourists are not around. It is a spot in which sun, stone, and water make an atmosphere which seems to subdue allcomers into smiling contentment.
Cistercians especially favoured sites with running water: they directed streams through their buildings, so that they had lavatorial flushing and easy washing. At Alcobaca there is a wonderful kitchen, beautifully preserved, with a stream running through for washing-up.
But Alcobaca is not just a place of simplicity, or rather, it has a regal simplicity. Kings and princes are buried there. We are firmly in the period - it would last until the secular confidence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in much of Europe when no one was so grand that he or she did not feel the need to be laid to rest amongst the prayers of monks. Indeed, the grander and more worldly a person, the more likely that he or she could afford to make it the case. and feel their life's work made it necessary, that their tomb lie in such patently decent surroundings. Monks were the most reliable men to have around you when you needed constant prayer on your behalf.
In the end, it was this demand by the world for the services of monks which ensured that monks would be worldly - that and the natural cupidity of men. More: where an abbot's greed did not dictate the aggrandisement of his monastery and its fortunes, his pride in his Order, his longing for the stability and future well-being of his house, would take him in exactly the same direction. The process was off to a racing start with. the early Cistercian foundations.
At Fountains and Rievaulx (i.e. Rye Valley) - river valley foundations in high country in Yorkshire - there was every expectation that the going would be hard. Fountains was founded by a monk who had tried to reform his original abbey and failed. He persuaded Bishop Thurstan of York (who also had a hand at Rievaulx) to back him in setting up a Cistercian abbey. In due course, and after early difficulties, the right kind
of patronage ensured sufficient success for Clairvaux to send out architectural advisers.
What we see now in those Yorkshire Dales are the massive ruins - they are like dinosaur skeletons - of monasteries belonging to a worldwide corporation whose growth makes IBM or Ford look makeshift and lackadaisical. Even in succeeding centuries, the audacity of the venture is clear: the ruined structures were so vast, and so distant from effective demand, that no one could be bothered to pull them down for re-use. They remain for us to marvel over: in their way because they have open land around them, and because they do not bear the scars of architectural improvement and reconstruction - rather perfect images of their twelfth- and thirteenth-century reality.
A. L. Ryder amasses the evidence: in 1315, Fountains Abbey probably owned around twenty thousand sheep, and putting all the Yorkshire monasteries together, the monks there probably ran around 250,000 sheep, about half the sheep of the county. A modem farmer can have little idea of how much land this must have required: by one reckoning the medieval farmer needed eight acres for every sheep, whilst the modern farmer needs only two or less. The idea that Fountains controlled 160,000 acres just for sheep farming gives a sense of the scale of the monkish operations. Of course, Bernard's original seventies were soon relaxed. Fountains commissioned wool from other fanners on a large scale; it employed servants. But there were seldom more than fifty choir monks at the heart of this enterprise. They were outnumbered four or five to one by the worker-bees of the system: the lay brothers.
This was always the way. The idea that there were armies of monks in Europe can be overstated. Their buildings were numerous, and vast, but they were filled - when they were filled, and grandeur rather than need often dictated the size of the edifices - with rather humble souls whose dedication to monastic life may not have extended much further than their basic, profound faith, and a preparedness to live the celibate life in exchange for salvation and security. As to the choir monks themselves, we can surely believe that many of them were deeply monastic, deeply inspired by the Bernardian ideal. And there would have been not a few who were there out of convenience or necessity, being affluent enough to live well as monks, but not to support the chivalric ideal which would have been required of their aristocratic station in the outside world.
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were periods of massive economic expansion in Europe. Inflation was raging. Respectable men were supposed to be capable of putting on a good show, not least by acts of expensive derring-do against the infidel in the Holy Land. For many, the Cistercian monastery must have seemed an entirely satisfactory bolthole.
Citeaux is not the headquarters of the Cistercian movement, but it is the mother house, from which all the others sense themselves to have flowed (though each has much greater direct allegiance to the house from which it was originally founded).
Citeaux is not even the first place novices think of going to: actually, whilst other Cistercian houses in France have had plenty of new vocations, Citeaux has not. It is an ageing community, with a handful of its brothers in the infirmary.
The father who looks after the retreatants took me for a walk through some of the monastery. The main building would make a splendid town hall: it has a discreet majesty which would not shame the most ambitious burghers of some proud ville, but it utterly lacks ostentation: the townspeople would feel proud, but not feel that their governors were allowing themselves anything of overweening grandeur. Unlike the classic monastic scheme of things, the building does not connect with the church, which stands alone. The main building houses the cells, refectory, library, and a long cloister which runs conservatory-style along the north side. Its shutters were up, and a monk was patrolling it slowly as we visited.
Outside, there is the farm and the herd of cows which produce three or four tonnes of cheese a month, to be sold in hotels in Dijon, and in the monastery's own small shop and exhibition centre. The monks drink a little wine, but they no longer make it. There is a handful of outside workers to come and do some of the work. Cheerful lads, they seemed, when I mistakenly sat down amongst them for my supper in a small
I was hauled out and put in my proper place, away from the ouvriers. The retreatants were an intriguing crew: a man with one arm and a bad eye; a chubby man with a voice which betrayed the cigarettes he furtively took between the church and the guest wing; a tall, bird-like woman; and another. There was a nun who seemed rather severe, but did smile sometimes. And there was a nun who had the virgin skin of many of these untouched ancients, who go on for ever, bewhiskered and somehow transparent, and with a frailty built to last. She wore canvas shoes slipperwise. She had a green petticoat which hung beneath her stained black dress. She had innumerable rough socks on, the outer pair of which were patched under the heel with fresh denim ('Do you repair your garment with new cloth?', demands the scriptures). She had a cheap medallion of the Virgin on a safety pin, and on another hung her watch.
She had, for church, cloaks and anoraks and mackintoshes. She had a way of averting her face when she was being spoken to, perhaps from modesty. Anyway, she would turn down and away from an inquiry, and turn up her eyes in supplication. She ate a diet of some peculiarity: a few scraps of bread from her last meal would be brought out from a paper napkin she had tucked into her belt. She would take the vegetables, and great bowls of milk, but nothing else. She ate like some forest creature, with a squirrelish rapidity of movement which suggested that someone might be about to snatch her food from her.
She and the other nun refused all wine during the main part of the meal, but took a little with the monastery's cheese. The chain-smoker and I, on the other hand, tucked in as best we might, and I always wondered at the end of the meal whether I n-tight risk another glass.
As supper came to a close, however, there bounded in a tall and handsome young man with a great chest which threatened to burst through his imitation American university sweatshirt. He wore ankle warmers and sneakers and a bi smile; one could see that a gold chain hung under his sweater.
He sat down with the air of a man who knows the place well. When the brother hotelier came in, it was to make sure the newcomer had everything he wanted, and to salute him with the smile of an uncle to a favourite nephew who has done well but does not forget the old place and folks. Jean de la Croix, who had shown me much of the monastery, came in too, full of pleasure at the visitor, and they embraced and laughed. With a quick check round to offer to share his benison with the rest of us, the young man began his meal. He took no wine, but enormous helpings of everything else (the meal included green beans and flagelots, mixed with herbs, and an omelet - this being Friday).
When he had eaten, he told me that he could take me to Dijon next day. He came once a week to stay the night in the monastery. Married, with children, he lived in Paris but had to spend all the week in Dijon, as an executive in a chemical plant. He seemed somehow admirably suited to his microvocation: an ideal Cistercian, if he had not preferred a life of credit cards, international travel, and a family with its apartment in the centre of Paris.
I cannot suppress an admiration for the Cistercian style. A tourist is always a purist: he searches for the scenes and the style which proves there are different, older, quainter, tougher ways of life than his own. The Cistercians provide this wonderfully: intelligent men set to do menial jobs and pray and read a little. Marx said that some such balance constituted a rounded life; and so did the monastic founders. The Cistercian is not a great compromiser: formerly this was taken as arrogance; now, in its present form, it can be taken as wholeheartedness.
So I have not the faintest idea what the bow-legged brother
with the huge wheelbarrow thought as he trundled his load of logs along the lane, down by the drainage ditch at Citeaux, with his giant boots (not sabots, as shown in early brochures), but his silence, early rising, prayer and hard work seem very excellent to an observer.
The young executive fitted in so well because he looked honed and well-designed and muscular and devout. A useful rnan to have on your side. Later I came across him in church: he was kneeling at the side of one of the middle pews, but looked more like someone who had paused for a while in an exercise regime rather than someone crumpled in humility.
Actually, he stayed there quite a while, settled comfortably at his knees, sitting back on his haunches, with his head continuing a graceful bowed curve which began low down in his strong back. I thought how the Cistercians might regret his not being on the right side of the enclosure, but draw almost as much pleasure from knowing that someone of the world, so obviously somehow healthy, and vigorous, should seek them out. No wonder he was, if not a favoured guest, since everyone is always beautifully received, at least one in whom the monks could not disguise their real pleasure, and felt no need to.
The next day, Vigils, Matins and Lauds, followed by mass. By eight we were in his souped-up Peugeot hatchback. In the glove compartment there were those little fingers-and-palm gloves which golfers and suburban racers favour.
He told me that being a monk was altogether too difficult a proposition for him to contemplate, even if he were free. We talked a bit about how Citeaux was not attracting vocations, and he said that it was odd how unpredictable were the factors which went toward a place attracting them or not. Nothing to do with inherent worth: just a matter of whether a man happened to have had links, or liked the landscapes, or the style of a place. 'Often, I think, it is nothing more than fashion: a monastery becomes famous for attracting vocations, and then attracts more', he said. He knew of a Cistercian monastery quite near which was bursting with novices.
It may be that the Cistercian monastery of Sancta Maria, at Nunraw, near Edinburgh, has the power to touch me simply at least partly - because the Abbot there was the first monk I came across who understood that writing this book would entail my getting properly under the skin of a monastery. There have been others since who let me behind the scenes, but Abbot Donald McClynn did so more comprehensively - and with less evidence of my seriousness - than I had any reason to expect.
From the first, he struck me as a shrewd operator. On my first evening, he asked me to give a talk to his monks about my monastic travels so far. He was letting the troops get a look at me, and letting each man make up his own mind whether he would speak to me.
Nunraw is a new monastery. It looks a very severe place: pinky-beige stone; regularly-placed windows; low slung. The monks built much of the place with their own hands. Early film and photographs of the enterprise show present community members, callow-faced and energetic, at work on the structure.
There is a battered lorry in the monastic garage: the vehicle which trundled the lanes of the neighbourhood, fetching stone from the nearby quarry. Less glamorous perhaps than the canal which twelfth-century Cistercians carved in order to bring the stones which built Rievaulx in Yorkshire. But it has the look of a fine old retainer.
Brother Kentigern Heenan, one of the many Glaswegians who have been drawn to Nunraw's community of thirty-two, used to drive the lorry and oversee the quarry work. He is a big, capable, quiet man; an ex-Para of the toughest Second World War vintage, for much of his time in the Far East. After the war he 'knocked about a bit for a couple of years', he says. He looks the kind of man whose knocking would shake mountains.
As they built the monastery, he became very expert in quarrying and stone masonry. They worked deeper and deeper into the quarry, pumping away surplus water, and finding the stone improving the deeper they went. Wandering round the quarry - he had not for years gone back to the scene of his triumph - he was nostalgic for the enterprise. 'We never did build the church for the new monastery', he says. 'The building looks incomplete without it, do you not think?' He would like to get his hands on some stone again.
The monks who founded Nunraw from Mount St loseph's, Roscrea, in County Tipperary in 1946, began by living in a Victorian pile which had been a Red Cross depot. They lived in the pre-Vatican II Cistercian way: silent, working often in gangs, sleeping in dormitories in their habits. 'I don't think you can have any idea what it was like in those days', says Father Martin, a ruddy, large, laughing man (English) who is the community's organist, choirmaster and chief cook.
He joined in 1960. 'Everything was far stricter than it is today. But the strictness was imposed on us from without and was accepted as part of the Cistercian thing. Now we are asked to be more personally responsible. There never was a vow of silence, as people think. But we kept silence, using hand signs to communicate. Actually, we wasted a lot of energy on communicating by hand, and people often got things wrong. Then, in the wake of Vatican II, we were allowed what they called "brief oral communications". In fact, of course, some of us talked non-stop for six months. We talked so much we got fed up with it, and went back to being quiet. Certainly, when we started talking, one of the good things was that we got to know one another better.
'Now each man has to find his own way of silence. It is much better this way. Silence as a matter of discipline is useless: silence without reference to God is useless. Our silence is an instrument to make us more aware of God's presence, and majesty.'
I never discovered what sort of a rule it was, but one somehow knew not to talk to people without appointment or agreement, or unless you were in one or two places in the monastery in which conversation was normal.
Martin recalls also that there was a good deal of anxiety in the old days about friendships, especially those characterized as 'particular', and the homosexuality which might possibly result from them. Now, it is accepted that people are bound to find congenial company and keep it; on the other hand, in a claustrophobic or at least close-knit community everyone has a powerful obligation to learn to get along with one another, without distinction.
'I was more or less destined for the navy. I went to a prep. school from which boys usually pursued that path. But I decided I wouldn't stick the navy so I went into shipbuilding, intending to be a naval architect. This was in the fifties, for about seven years. I was at a yard on the Tyne, amongst Geordies, of course, who were marvellous fun. I found it odd that the men in the yard had an inferiority complex, especially when they heard my accent.
'In the drawing office where I worked, there were three or four Geordies I got to know quite well and they knew about Nunraw and used to come to the work camp based in an old Prisoner of War camp to help build this monastery. I wasn't then thinking about the religious life. I came with them for a fortnight's stay.
'I put my suitcase in a hut which had been used 'by the PoW's and we trundled up the hill. Almost immediately I came into the grounds of the monks' house I knew this is where the Lord wanted me to be. This place was all go, go, go. I wanted to be a part of it.'
Nunraw has less need of builders now. Indeed, it is a less dramatic place altogether than it was when the monastery was being constructed, and the gales of change surrounding Vatican II were throwing everything into question.
There has been an agricultural revolution, too. Gangs of Nunraw monks would once stride out in double file to the fields. 'I have seen thirty monks out in the field, picking spuds', says the Abbot. The bursar, Father Andrew, recalls the days when a thousand pounds of jam was made from the monastic fruit. (A gentle man, now eighty, from what he calls 'a religious mafia of a family', he has a brother who is a bishop, and was off to the ordination of his nephew when I visited.)
The Abbot had been working on the farm before his election in 1969. In the early seventies he pushed through a radical change in the way the farm was run. 'We used to have sheep, but they lamb at the very worst time for us: Easter, of course. We had pigs, dairy cows, and poultry, at one time: but the building work meant we had to stop some of those activities. Then the economics of farming changed and it made sense for us to concentrate on beef fattening. We have between six and seven hundred head of cattle grazing the hills, and a mill to make our own feed. Only by becoming that specialized could we stay profitable: most other monasteries have had to stop farming and switch to something else like perfume or beer. In the States, one of our monasteries runs a very famous bakery, but even they franchise out the name and process.'
In any agricultural community there is the farmer who tries something new, and ends up creating the fashions. Father McGlynn would have been such a character had he stayed in the world: as it is, he has laid the basis of the monastery's moderately comfortable finances.
After the years of dynamic expansion and construction, the community has had to adjust to the harder problem of consolidation. Not that there is room for idleness. The liturgical hours are kept vigorously: no sloppy observance here. There is food to be cooked, music to be rehearsed, laundry to be done, the shop to be run, the sick and elderly to care for. The guesthouse takes the energies of two monks. The monastic farm needs three or four monks. One of them has the very demanding farm manager's job, held by Brother Aidan, a man determined that the brother's vocation be respected for what it is, one of service to the choir and liturgy, even if the brothers' work keeps him in the barn or field whilst others are on their knees.
Three of the community were in hospital when I was there. 'The problem is not finding jobs for men, but men for jobs', says the Abbot. There was a sprinkling of young men at the monastery, though: two postulants, and one newly professed full choir monk.
Yet, at first blush, the 'waste' of energy and talent is the hardest thing to understand and accept: this community bursts with men who could be leaders, and they have instead devoted themselves to a routine which keeps them busy from 3.15 in the morning, when they rise for meditation and Lauds, right through till Compline and bed at very soon after 8 in the evening. The modern Cistercian is not encouraged to go out and tame wildernesses: his job is to live in the wilderness within.
Only slowly does a lay sceptic come to a full appreciation of the work monks do, and become grateful for it.
Yet one meets rather little doubt in Nunraw: men there will say that things have been more or less difficult at different times. Most are too modest to claim to be doing anything more difficult or glorious than the rest of humanity. Father Martin says simply that 'I think man is naturally religious. Up till now, God has always seemed very present. I haven't always lived as though I knew that, but I've got to grow to do so. People have real roots in Christ, even if they don't suspect or appreciate it. It gives people a dimension.
'If I ask myself why I must be gentle, or live in a moral framework, I believe it is simply that we belong to Jesus Christ. My love of Christ has deepened over the years: my own suffering, people's troubles, or brothers who've been sick - they've all shown me that we either open our hearts more and more or we close them little by little. And I've learned from all sorts of people that the intellect by itself is a cold instrument. To be a lover, the heart is needed. For me at this moment, my problem is the question of getting the heart on fire in prayer.'
I didn't quite like to bother Father Ambrose, the oldest man in the community. But he came to the Cardinal's sitting room, where I would receive my visitors. He had a bad leg. 'The doctors are at it', he said stoutly, as he lowered himself into an armchair, leaning on a fine stick.
Born in County Clare in 1906, he became a monk when he was nineteen. He says he has 'never, never doubted my faith. And, no frustrations either. And this is not unusual, though of course every individual has his own course to follow. My family very much approved of the step I was taking when I became a monk. My father's brother was a priest, and his sisters - several of them - we re nuns. I have done very varied jobs in the monastery: whatever was needed whilst we were building, for instance.
'I do not think the deep happiness of this life can be understood by anyone who has not lived it. Of course there is a rule to follow, which lays down what has become well-tried practice and been proved. And then there is the individual's relationship to God. We do trust that God is drawing us to himself, whilst he also respects our free will. A man may resist the call to grace, but he cannot be fully developed unless he realizes that God is calling him to himself. Some of us are called to direct service to God. He calls some of us to work in groups, and some to be more individual. This is something you find out when you are alone with God, when no one can come between you and God. We have rules, and are happy to live by rules, only because they help us with our individual call.
'Each man will come to God and can come to God if he makes the effort of will. This may be smothered for a while, but it will come.'
If Ambrose's religious connections are impeccable, they are nothing compared to those of my Lord Abbot's ('the community is not keen on the "Lord" Abbot part, he says). His family have been small farmers in Donegal. His childhood in the countryside was, he says, 'Idyllic. I was as happy as the day is long'. Now, he has a brother who is a monk in Africa, and five sisters who are all in a missionary Order. Left a widower in I959, his father, aged sixty, became a monk at Mount St Bernard, a Cistercian monastery in Leicestershire
'There was at that time a novice master of great strictness there, and he would not allow the old man to become a fully professed monk, so he went back to Ireland where he lives on his own.
'He came to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination here. But he says that he finds there isn't enough time for prayer here: he can do more at home.'
Knowing Father McGlynn it is easy to imagine the days when whole families came over to monasticism: he is a ruddy, practical man. If you saw him at a county agricultural show, or standing in some Irish bar - in mufti, of course - you would take him for a composed, perhaps affluent, farmer.
'I was born in Glasgow, though I spent five happy years in Ireland during the war as an evacuee. I came here from boarding school in England in 1952. It was made very clear to us that we would be digging foundations for the new monastery. We do sometimes wonder why this site was chosen. The then Abbot said on a television film that he wanted the monastery to be seen, standing on its hill, by the world all around. There were two architects and the Superior: they made the decision. Nowadays the community would expect a very much bigger say in such a thing, but that was the way it was then.
'It was planned that there should be a guesthouse integral to the monastery: but instead we have the Old Abbey down the road for guests. It sometimes gets very noisy there and I think people use the place almost for holidays: I am sure it does them at least as much good as coming on a formal retreat would.'
Even now, visitors stay in the guesthouse, and contact with the community is at the church liturgies or in one of the parlours where they may speak privately with a monk. In Cistercian monasteries, it is exceptional to be invited to eat in refectory with the monks. And so I was very conscious of privilege as I was shown to my place.
The refectory at Nunraw is large, airy, and plain: good panelling, with a carved wood sculpture at one end, and the abbot on a low dais under a stone sculpture at the other. A Cistercian washes his knife, fork and spoon in his water cup and leaves them wrapped in a napkin by his place. It was a small ritual, but a very pleasurable one in which economy was elegantly expressed. I came to enjoy enormously the small empire of my place setting: as familiar after a day or two as though it had been mine for a lifetime.
Monks listen, at lunchtime, to readings. During my stay a biography of Dr Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury: much nodding and smiling would greet any waspishness. One tea, on Sunday, Brother Martin was quite carried away during the playing of a record of The Nutcracker. Of course, there was no talking, though someone might whisper very quietly some if I hadn't hint or other to me, to spare embarrassment understood some part of the etiquette.
After tea, the evening services, and so to bed, which only at first seemed a peculiar place to be whilst the sun was still warm on the fields outside. And the interrupted sleep brought wonderful dreams, full of exotic and unaccustomed religious symbolism. The hours, the meals, the dreams, the visits to the library, the conversations with monks, the rising of the sun nd its falling away again, looking out of the church windows a
towards Bass Rock, out across the sea: they became very rapidly my entire preoccupation. It all seemed extraordinarily luxurious. I cannot say that I was sad to leave: my other, 'real', life is very attractive and imperative. But my time at Nunraw seemed and seems quite luminous.
THE HIGH BENEDICTINES
Cromwell's visitors Of 1535 succeeded in offering evidence (not all of which satisfied the impartial observer) that the monasteries were corrupt and decadent and the monks lecherous. The evidence was rarely manufactured out of nothing. The monasteries always contained their proportion of men with no vocation to the religious or the celibate life, of monks who had been proposed by their parents in childhood and had long been chafing under their bondage, of secularity and bickering and laxity. Cromwell's visitors afforded the opportunity of release for the discontented: they allowed every grumbler or gossipmonger to state his complaint, and they usually believed it or professed to believe it. The evidence which the visitors collected, in so far as it was true (and a proportion of it was true), would have justified reform of many of the houses. It could be no more than a barefaced excuse for the destruction of all the houses. Whatever credit is attached to the reports of the commissioners it is certain that the argument from expediency could not justify so wholesale a destruction. Equity was sacrificed to the needs of the royal treasury.
The Pelican History of the Church, Vol. 3,
Owen Chadwick, Penguin Books
The Benedictine Scene
All over the world, there is a small army of Benedictine monks. Not as formally ordered as the Cistercians or the Carthusians (being more loosely grouped in congregations of houses, rather than internationally coordinated), the Benedictines have a luxuriant, cosmopolitan sort of a corporate persona. Historically, this probably grew out of reaction to the oppressive, but not effective, organizational form of the Cluniac, and other similar, reforms.
A Benedictine monastery is freer to be an expression of its abbot, its community, its nationality or its family grouping than the Orders which sprang as reformed versions of it. But there seems to be a pattern discernible, none the less.
A monk in black, wherever he is, is likely to be well-spoken; a son of the establishment in his country become a son o Go in his monastery (though a Spanish monk points out that there, at least, many Benedictines are from village families). The Benedictine atmosphere is urbane, moderate, civilized. Not given to excesses of austerity or of mysticism. A practical, useful sort of servant of God.
The Almighty's very civil servants, whose days are too filled with activities to make it practicable that they should be praying much before 5.30 most mornings. The midnight two or three hours of prayer of the Carthusian, or the 3.15 rising of the Cistercian choir monk would not do for these schoolteachers, lecturers, parish priests, writers and gardeners.
There have been Benedictine martyrs in many countries and centuries. There have been saintly Benedictines. But I think of members of the Order as rather more inclined to run their monasteries as agreeable, single-sex, quiet clubs, or perhaps university colleges, than as penitentiaries. Honourable, decent, prayerful, but somehow not above a certain wry awareness that God's sense of humour is at least as important to him and his creatures as is high seriousness.
There have been relatively few monastic satirists, at least that the outside world ever heard of. But a twelfth-century monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, the leading house of England (founded by St Augustine, fresh from Pope Gregory's own monastery in Rome) - a prime Benedictine, therefore - was just such a character.
The Speculum Stultorum was written sometime before 1180, by Nigel Wireker (sometimes known as Longchamps), a monk who had travelled and done responsible monasto-diplomatic work (monks then and for the next couple of hundred years were hugely involved in petitioning Rome - as Nigel did - in defence of this right or that which other monks or seculars were impinging upon).
The Speculum Stultorum casts the monks as asses, and satirizes the ambition of a monk who, called to be a humble servant of the Lord, cannot help but seek Abbatial office, with its attendant grandeur.
He mocks the Cluniacs for their generous diet, with its meat eaten on Fridays; for their fur-lined clothes; and for their private possessions. But he also criticizes them for the vices which the Cistercians found so objectionable: their rising at midnight for the night office, and for the endless chanting and liturgies which the entire monastic community - able to understand it all or not - were forced to engage in.
Not that his criticism of some Benedictines made him blind to the faults of the Cistercians: he profoundly disliked them for making a profession of extremism.
Quite early on, there were Benedictines who were often out of their monasteries, writing, studying, helping the royal governmental machine. Often the work went on in their monasteries. It was a trait which continued.
The Benedictines run very good public schools, indeed that seems to many in and out of the Order to be their main function, to the considerable concern of many Benedictine monks. At Downside, Ampleforth and the others, in England, something very particularly Benedictine seems to be going on: the sons of mildly affluent Christians are being moulded by monks.
This is no appalling travesty of religious purpose: God made the rich quite as much as he made the sons of toil and the heads of state. And it is peculiarly fitting to the Benedictine Order to inculcate in their pupils the moderately decent, moderately religious, moderately worldly, moderately altruistic, moderately literary and numerate, virtues that the Order very particularly possesses.
A Benedictine is characterized - more than any of the other contemplatives - by an urge to do something useful in the world. Many of them, are so busy as to make impossible obedience to the demand of St Benedict that their lives be primarily dedicated to prayer.
A Benedictine can sometimes seem a hustling, bustling, busy kind of a place, operating with something of the preoccupation of a great corporate headquarters: serious, a little manipulative. There can be something gorgeous and dramatic and weighty about such a place. But one wonders what on earth St Benedict himself would have made of it.
The small railway that takes you to Engelberg is narrow gauge, and at one point it latches itself on to some sort of mechanical staircase and simply crawls its way up the mountain side, amongst fir trees. The town itself was once little more than a monastic dependence, and the monks were called 'the gentlemen'.
In the tenth century, when these places were first settled, the monks operated in a way which would later become entirely recognizable to Cistercians: they were pioneers, going into wilderness areas and making them productive. Later, as things grew easier, the monks were more country gentlemen than tillers of the soil. And then, later again, the old spirit of ardour and of application returned, not least because aristocrats were not coming forward.
The monks at Engelberg have been schoolmasters for centuries: it was always the Benedictine way. Originally, the monastic school was set up so as to provide suitably literate vocations, but more flourished as a useful independent school, from which sometimes the monastery would gain the double benefit of vocations as well as income.
Engelberg's church is very splendid but almost Nordic in its tone compared to the baroque extravagances of Einsiedeln, the vast institution sixty kilometres away. It is not a place of pilgrimage, though its situation, ringed about with mountains, is utterly spectacular.
One of the schoolmasters, Father Urban, showed me round. He was somehow the typical unmarried pedagogue: affectionate, full of slightly obscure jokes, utterly in love with his school and monastery, talkative. He is the monastery's archivist, and divided the morning between showing me round and talking with some scholars who had come to look at the monastic deeds. He told me that the relationship of the monastery to the land and the people around it was complicated. Sometimes land was taken from the monastery by governments, and at other times it simply drifted away as tenant farmers had found over generations that their title to their farms had imperceptibly increased, almost by osmosis, and blossomed into ownership.
This is Switzerland's most Catholic region, and local people came to the church for many of the liturgies. The monastery was in effect the school for the locality, as well as catering for well-heeled boarders from further afield (even though it is very famous as a school, its fees are much lower than many others). The pupils have a school of absolutely Swiss modernity. There are carpets on many of the floors, and furniture is scattered throughout which might have come straight from Habitat.
The schoolmaster-monk, a classicist himself, was proud that the school had strong scientific leanings. He showed me the language lab with the air of a man astonished that such a thing had come into his life. A man, impressed by the new building but not a local, had come to the monks one day and offered them a three-part gift: a piece of the tip of Mount Everest, a book about the first ascent, and three flags which had gone to the top of the world's highest mountain. These were in a glass case in the school, and Father Urban was delighted with them and the act of spontaneous generosity they represented.
We ate lunch in the guests' refectory: it had an exquisite floor of large-scale parquet work. It creaked as one walked across it, making a sound like fragile ice over a pond just before it lowers an incautious walker into the depths. One of my fellow guests was an English Benedictine schoolmaster, on holiday for the walking: the schoolmasters looking after their own, clearly.
Ranged round the walls were portraits of the abbots, including the present man, who was elected in the seventies. Beside the large room, there is a smaller one, connected by double doors. This is panelled exquisitely, and was the work of a monk who died in the late seventies. It is the room reserved for dignitaries of the church who visit - a Cardinal, or an Abbot. 'This is the Abbot's Pub, we say', laughed my guide. 'It is just a little joke, you understand.'
Engelberg, lying in the lee of the mighty Titlis mountain, staring out over magnificent scenes of snow and cloud, which came breathing down from the peaks like awesome rage, is a rather modest, likeable place. They tell you there with something like awe that they are not as old or extraordinary as Einsiedeln. I was taught almost to dread the prospect of visiting it, as a provincial might fear the capital and its sophistication.
Each morning of my stay at Einsiedein, I would wake in my huge room in the Pfaun Hotel - amongst the inevitable parquet - and through the open windows hear the high, clear monastery bell ring out across the town. Across the sloping area of gravel and tarmac, with its fountains and sweep of colonnade, a few people would be slipping into the early morning liturgy. The monastery's front is like that of a barracks, with an enormous twin-towered church set in the middle, full of curves.
It is a baroque monastery church, built on a scale one would have to travel to Portugal (to Mafra, say, or Alcobaca) to match.
But the monastic tradition here is much older than the eighteenth-century church, and the fabulously organized and harmonious monastery buildings. Since the High Middle Ages, men and women from all over Europe, but especially from Germany and Switzerland, have trekked to a monastery which nowadays is hardly known outside the German-speaking world. However, the Pope went there in I984, and the town, which is used to a flow of pilgrims and to making money out of them, was clearly in ecstasies.
The object of veneration - there needs to be a spiritual focal point for a pilgrimage centre - is a black-painted madonna dating from the sixteenth century, Our Lady of the Hermits. She is about three-quarters life size, and carries a small black, podgy, baby Jesus at her left shoulder.
Both of these figures are dressed in matching clothes. They are gorgeous, and judging from the range of postcards of the Virgin and Child available from kiosks and shops in the town, she has at least six different costumes, almost all of them featuring gold embroidery in varying degrees of lusciousness, many of them with roses, and one an incredible green which looks like illuminated seaweed. The robes are always of the same style, stiffly flowing downward and outward from the shoulders. The Virgin carries a spear.
The effigies are housed as the altarpieces of a large square black marble chapel, The Chapel of Grace, which stands, self-contained, at the west end of an immense, and - to the non-German mind - faintly hilarious, super-Baroque abbey church.
That high Baroque, a preposterous style to the English mind, should have flourished amongst the Swiss - democrats and protestants in our stereotype of them - seems incredible. Actually, the idea beds itself down easily enough: a landscape so massive, and a people so hardy, were perhaps bound to harbour the most delicious, almost hysterical, fantasies.
The choir has been restored exquisitely: the soft pink of its walls glows as though bathed in perpetual sunset, and the figures of the sculptures cavort like real angels. Everything which stood still long enough was drenched in gold leaf, which looks molten in its brightness. It is a mark of the size of this building that up behind the altar, and hidden from everyone's view by a screen, there is a second large choir which was used for Vespers until an earthquake a few years ago loosened its stucco work and threatened to bring the whole building tumbling down.
Even this is being restored to perfection, though it may not be used again as a choir.
I was taken to a high gallery: wonderful to see the choir as a whole from up there. From the church itself, the view is spoiled by the enclosure grille - lattice work gates, as though in a stage-set or at the foot of a country estate's driveway which the community uses to keep its decent distance between its workplace and the congregation.
But here, in the choir itself, the full, wild glory of Einsiedeln blazes through. It has just been repainted. The pink of the main walls is pearly bright. The prancing statues around the altar - more Pan than angel, I thought - are in blazing white. And the gold leaf simply drips from every nook and cranny and architectural twirl and filigree.
Light streamed in from high windows, and the whole was further bathed in electric lighting. Down below, the community was at its noon prayers: plain, quiet tones echoing almost reproachfully in this palace.
The religious style of the German-speaking Swiss seems quite odd to an English spiritual tourist. The monks like to process about their church a good deal, and are inclined to get the priest who is reading the next lesson to and from his lectern with an accompanying guard of honour of two youngsters in surplices, carrying large candle sticks with candles ablaze.
There is a great deal of hand-clasping, and often men will be seen wandering about in procession, or standing in choir, with their hands pressed palms-together like children about to say their prayers. The monks are, like all Swiss, extremely keen on linen, which must be immaculately pressed and should if possible be searing white. This is a country, after all. where they dress their horses in white linen forehead- and ear-caps. Their monks they like to see in gleaming surplices, with delicate lacework like refined macramé at the bottom.
I find this a more likely style on young boys than on grown men. It looked wonderfully funny and rather undignified on a grossly corpulent youngster I saw, who seemed a cross between a fairy and a dirigible.
Often, especially on a Sunday in the summer, people from miles around, and especially from nearby Lucerne, come out to show off the brightness of their cars and clothes, and to buy souvenirs from the shops, and then they go into the Cathedral for the penultimate office of the day, Vespers. This draws also the bulk of the community, those that are at home at least: so perhaps sixty monks process into the choir. The body of the church is full to bursting with the congregation. The especially devout, and the local people particularly, seem to prefer to kneel or sit or stand in the extreme west end of the church. praying at the Virgin's shrine.
The gnarled and elderly local characters look curious amongst the tacky affluence of much of the scene: like walk-ons imported from some much more southerly country. A child chatted sweetly and animatedly to its parents before the service: an officious verger came bearing down on her with an imperious finger to his meanly-puckered lips. Hardly a hiss escaped this terrible man as he tried to spoil the little girl's day. So much for any really southerly spirit of easeful spirituality.
After Vespers, the community process down the body of the church, the Abbot in the rear, and form up in a space which has been cleared before the Virgin, and there they sing the Salve Regina, and process choir-wards again. The congregation is witness to the kind of splendour - of purpose and seriousness an tradition, if not of jewels - that must have characterized many of the goings on at Cluny. Most monastic theatre is of a lower key than this.
After the service, we all stream out to the cafes.
It is hard to imagine how such a place could ever have seemed appropriate to a monastic Order with its roots in an heremitical past, and one which in particular was started here by St Meinrad, a man who deliberately came to the place as a hermit. But if the church is over-gorgeous, distractingly exuberant, the monastery complex is a wonderful piece of humanist architectural legislation. It is a place whose whole orderliness seems to proclaim that here many people will live a life of pattern.
A good philanthropic block of flats, school, stables or monastery is cheap but grand, commodious but austere, and redounds beautifully and for ever to the credit of the founder as well as to the dignity of its occupants, without giving any of the latter a sense of individual importance. Esprit de corps, not hubris, is to be aimed at.
Einsiedeln is on the grand side to fulfil some of these requirements. Since Einsiedeln is enormously famous for educating children and for breeding horses, and has a stableblock almost as beautiful as the monks' own quarters, these parallels are very much brought home here. The Abbey gives a hundred and forty boarders and two hundred and forty-five day children (some local and attending free, others paying mightily for the privilege) a highly modern education. It can claim a lineage beginning in the tenth century.
The stables still produce fine horses, in the tradition of those which used to delight the Italians, who dubbed them cavalli delta Madonna.
The monastery's corridors are wide and exquisitely, if simply, tiled in patterns of beige and off-white. Its walls are all white plaster, and it possesses a great wealth of uniform arches and slate stairways (now expensive, but then the cheapest consistent with quality).
Each monk inhabits a cell which is wood-panelled and painted a delicate pale green. He has a window, a built-in series of bookcases, a phone, a washstand. It is a cross between a ship's cabin and a well-appointed university set.
Many of the rooms are empty much of the time: Einsiedeln shares the Benedictine predilection for activities in the world. Monks from here are often away in the parishes around.
One Coptic monk lives at the monastery and ministers to the Egyptian foreign workers of the region. A man of sand comes to the people of snow; a man from the least organized people in the world, for whom a clock - should it be working is an object of absurd regularity, come to a nation of wonderful efficiency, famous for making the best timepieces in the world.
A young monk had been detailed to show me around. I was directed to a small side door of the vast pile, and there an elderly door-keeping monk, muttering to himself, shuffled and sang his way up and down the corridor whilst we waited for the youngster to appear. A well-dressed, businesslike man came in with some flowers, left them with the visibly respectful ancient, and left.
My guide came at last to the porter's lodge - A tall, nervous man, wafer-thin and slightly stooped, though young. He was very slightly spotty, as though adolescent. But he had been ten years a monk, Eduard said; had been at the school itself and not liked it or thought over-much about religion. He had gone on to university for a time, and studied agriculture and viniculture.
When he was twenty he began to think seriously about religion, and by twenty-one he was in the monastery and on his way to becoming a monk. He never faltered, though there had been difficulties and still were. He would stay a brother, he said, because 'in these times anyone who is a priest must go out and tell the people about the faith. That is very important just now, and any priest who does not do it is a problem. It is something I do not want to do.'
And so, though he is clearly intelligent and stable, he will not be a priest. He might like to work in agriculture, and he loves photography. But -the monastery needs someone to run the money side of things, to keep the books: or, more precisely, to see the accounts go over to a computer. He is being trained in accountancy, whether he likes it or not.
The Abbey has men scattered halfway round the world in foundations: Eduard took me in the house's big Volvo estate to the airport to pick up one venerable soul who had been working in South America. Eduard drove the big car fast, gunning it into traffic with vigorous aplomb. At the airport, an enormous family gathering was formed around the arrival of the great man. He had been away two or three years, and there was an airport cafeteria supper for everyone, paid for by some scion of his tribe, before we three piled into the car and drove back to the abbey.
It was the elderly monk's birthday. After it, back at the monastery, he was looking forward to a small celebration of return, and then to getting back to the liturgy and finding his way around his old home for a time, before his return to South America.
The next day we went on a tour of the monastery: along wide tile-floored corridors and cloisters, with white painted walls and doors of a country house grandness.
The tables in the refectory were being laid as we wandered in: two brothers, far from young, were doing the work. This was going to be one of the problems, said Eduard: the brotherhood has had a different role since Vatican II, and there were no longer men coming forward to take up the underling role in monasteries. Increasingly, it would have to be a voluntary and self-imposed burden of servitude and domesticity, and it would fall to all.
Vatican II gave brothers voting rights for the first time, and insisted that they should have a role alongside and equal to the choir monk-priests. But it was only asserting what would have become obvious anyway: that there would either have to be a reformed and fundamentally equal status for the brothers, or there would be no brothers at all. There simply is no longer a class in society whose members, if religiously inclined, would come to monasteries to fulfil a servile or at least a thoroughly subordinate role.
Eduard himself, a well educated man, had been the first to come forward as a brother since Vatican II's reforms, and there are even now rather few younger brothers of his generation. The young men coming in tend to want to be priests. Some of the men who came in and who became or will become priests, will discover that they have to start to do manual work alongside their lay brethren. If the tables are to get laid and the food get cooked, the hands that were waved over the communion wine and bread may have to set themselves to rather more substantial fare.
Einsiedeln is credited with first helping to breed the Swiss
brown cattle - a velvet, purple brown creature which doesn't mind high altitude and poor grass (which is all it gets in these parts). But one of its chief glories, its estates, for which Einsiedeln is famous, have ceased to be a great source of income, as in the past. Instead, they have become a burden.
The monastery's lands, bequeathed to it from the earliest days, have been whittled away by later generations of monks in need of cash, and by governments over several centuries which have sought to undermine so aristocratic and Catholic an institution.
Now, with wages high and farm yields low, the monastery
loses money on its landholdings, but does not like the idea of
selling them and having to sack workers.
Eduard took me to the monastery's high forest country, where loggers had rigged up great wire-ways to get the trees down to the road. And then we went on a walk through the quiet of the Sunday afternoon lanes, and had a drink in a restaurant in an old pilgrim inn, still owned by the monastery, and now very smart, grand, and busy.
There was every evidence that this is the most extraordinary Order: capable of thriving commercially and culturally, but with great burdens and calls on its resources, too.
As for Eduard, he seemed so much to love the outdoors, was so strong and healthy, and given - in his holiday times to long, often night-time hikes, that I found myself wondering how he could have accepted a life with such petty constraints upon him that he had to ask permission to come a walk with a visitor.
He showed me his cell: a stereo deck whose music he could not play too loud for fear of upsetting his neighbour; a bottle of wine on the window ledge, ready for some celebratory day: pictures of his holidays and his relatives. God seems to pick his devotees in a most peculiar way. This choice seemed to me to have been unfair. But what business was it of mine?
If Einsiedeln represents the full glory of Benedictine bustle, then Solesmes, by the lovely, rambling, low-banked river Sarthe in north-western France, represents something almost Cluniac in its solemnity, its grandeur, its hauteur, but also in its generosity to guests.
It is devoted to the fullest life of the choir and liturgy, and to a rather strictly enclosed life of prayer. Solesmes can also claim to demonstrate the vitality of the Benedictine spirit: it is an enormous pile, but in monastic terms, a very recent one.
It demonstrates the extraordinary power of recovery of the monastic movement, which should never be written off as outdated or extinguished. In most northern countries in Europe, the Reformation either stamped out or severely restricted monastic life. But there and in the rest of Europe, there may have been about a thousand Cistercian and Benedictine monasteries by around 1750. In the early nineteenth century, this figure was down perhaps forty.
It was an age of rationality and science: yet it saw a great monastic resurgence. Solesmes alone would send out shoots to nine countries on four continents. Rather few of the monasteries born or reborn in the nineteenth century have since closed.
Before the French Revolution, there had been a monastery here, founded in l0l0. It was disbanded in the wake of the Revolution, but recolonized in 1833 by a very remarkable abbot, Dom Guéranger, a man devoted to the full medieval tradition, which was then exciting cultured people all over northern Europe. In 1901, during a wave of anti-clericalism, it was disbanded again. Its monks went to Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight, which had been a Cistercian monastery until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-1530s: the French resettled it, and some of them remained there when Solesmes was recolonized from Quarr in 1922. Both were dedicated to a revitalization of the music and liturgy of the tradition of Black monks.
The hospitality I had at Solesmes seemed to be perfectly Benedictine. The guest was accorded a part of the life there which I found nowhere else.
Benedict himself said that guests are never scarce in a monastery. It was a tradition and a problem which especially involved monasteries when the pilgrim centuries - say, the tenth to the fifteenth centuries - saw great armies of people marching from saintly relic to saintly relic, in search of spiritual well-being, and - once Rome realized what a milch-cow was before them - indulgences (time-off from purgatory offered in exchange for such journeys). The great abbeys tended to contain both monks and relics, and were powerfully attractive.
From the tenth century, one of the most powerful of these pilgrim centres (it would be matched by Einsiedeln and Canterbury) surrounded the cult of St James, the Apostle, and was concentrated on Santiago de Campostella, in northwestern Spain. This attracted an enormous army of pilgrims, whose routes from France and England began to sprout monastic hostelries and monasteries - most of them initiated from Cluny - in response. At Cinques, Moissac, Toulouse, Vezelay, Burgos and elsewhere, there were monasteries whose life was largely predicated on, or at least heavily influenced by, the vast and continuous influx of pilgrims.
If kings often sought to be buried amongst Cistercians, they seemed to enjoy living amongst Benedictines. At Mafra, in the seventeenth century, the entire Portuguese royal family was won to spend Christmas amongst them, in the palace monastery which was also the biggest building in the country. Its royal chambers are as grand as anything to be found at Hampton Court (though it has rather a dingy air nowadays).
Two hundred years before, Philip of Spain had built The Escurial, and planted it - to his own design and under his own supervision - in a desert. It is another enormous pile, but yet more gloomy: unmatched in its expression of the intense Spanish spirit (in which Visigoth coflides with Celt in a potent cocktail) by any other building except the rock-hewn cave cathedral of the Valley of the Dead, which itself has behind the mountain and hidden from vulgar view - a strange modern Benedictine Abbey, whose air is that of a military barracks, as it guards this curious monument to the Spanish Civil War and the world of Franco.
The French and English did not go in for royal palace monasteries. They had no need to. They simply descended on the aristocratic monks just as they would upon any aristocrat: in force.
In 1423, three hundred members of the royal family and their retainers, but not the king himself, were ensconced in St Albans Abbey for Christmas. In 1459, King Henry VI was at St Albans three times: his retinue generally included upward of two hundred people and he sometimes stayed six weeks.
No wonder that abbots were inclined - in obedience of the letter but not the spirit of St Benedict's Rule - to build themselves very substantial separate houses where they could entertain their guests (before one royal visit, one St Albans Abbot employed eighty men for a month in renovation work).
For the Cistercians, with a stricter requirement on the abbot to live in the common dormitory, the separation and aggrandisement of the abbot from and over the community was delayed a couple of centuries; but by the fourteenth century the abbatial position of a Cistercian or a Benedictine were indistinguishable.
There was no pretence in the Middle Ages that monasteries were democratic places. They were the preserve of the aristocracy: in good times, they could easily afford to be, and in bad, they could not afford not to be. In good times they could be choosy, and in bad times, the monastery's dwindling wealth would support only a small elite.
Benedictines made no pretence to work their own lands, or produce their own goods. They happily lived as any aristocratic family would, with no more goods and services being produced within the household than usual. Such work as they did, would be manual only in the sense that their stylus - the means of writing on parchment - was held in the hand. Monasteries were the seat of learning, management, prayer - and hospitality.
There was perhaps more praying and caring going on than might be supposed: men drenched in religion - as medievals were - can be presumed to have been on their knees very frequently; and the stories of miscreants and abuse are bound to be the stories which get remembered, treasured and handed on, where accounts of ordinary prayerfulness would hardly be worth the writing down.
Every reformer, from St Benedict of Aniane to Lanfranc, would try to ensure that monks and abbots and visitors ate in the common refectory. This was not in the exact spirit of the Rule - which legislated for the abbot and guests to eat separately, to preserve monastic calm elsewhere in the house but much more in line with its spirit.
But the real world always imposed its way, and abbots no more ate than they slept amongst their monks.
In modern times, monasteries have had to accommodate visitors, just as in any other. At Solesmes Abbey, it is done with considerable aplomb.
I arrived in time for Easter midnight mass. A fire was burning - logs, boy scout-style, in the midst of the outer courtyard - and a big gaggle of men and women forming a queue at the small gate.
At about a quarter to ten, the small gate opened and a monk appeared. His head had been shaved, but not recently. He surveyed the queue with an indulgent, kindly but worried eye, and hovered at the door blocking passage inside his monastery. Then, in groups of six or seven, he allowed us across the gravel courtyard to the entrance, one discovered, of the church.
It is not a lovely church: its walls are black and grey, and somehow more concrete block than stone. A few bare lightbulbs high in the arched roof threw down an uninviting glare. But the place was soon jammed and humming. Each of us was handed a slender candle, with its top neatly enclosed in a kind of inverted cup - they looked rather like the decorations for saddle of lamb.
We all stood, or sat or knelt, whilst staring forward at the choir, the stalls of which are so far eastwards that one feels scant contact with them. The banks of choir stalls are high and steep on the left and right of the church.
Suddenly, we were plunged into darkness. We all craned round towards the west door, where we could see the community in their black robes gathering round the brazier burning there. Using the fire, a monk lit an incense burner until sparks and belching fumes engulfed him and filled the night air, and percolated strongly into the church.
The ceremony is repeated all over the Catholic world: I had last seen it when a slightly squalid party of friends and I, rowing a boat from Fort William to Inverness, fetched up at Fort Augustus one blustery late March, camped in an irate Catholic woman's garden, and attended the Easter mass at St Benedict's Abbey, Fort Augustus: a Catholic public school with a naval tradition.
At Solesmes, some of the monks kissed the Abbot's ring. And then they began to light candies, and came into the church in procession. As they approached the middle of the church, they began to distribute their flames amongst the congregation, and then the congregation began to do the same, until all of us could stand holding our candles before us, as a symbol of the resurrection.
The monks processed on to their stalls, all of them identically dressed except for the Abbot, with his small red skull-cap. He perched himself at the eastern-most stall, on the highest of three tiers.
They began singing. I should like to tell you that I was immediately transported into the upper altitudes of exultation by the sounds heard, in this the premier centre of Gregorian chant in the world. It was not to be: I was so tired, and the singing was so measured, perfect, controlled and fluting, that I found myself barely responding at all.
But the monks were not giving a concert. Gradually, I found I could no longer fight off sleep: nodding, jerking back into wakefulness, drifting away again: and so passed the hour or so before I had to leave to pick up the lift I'd arranged back to my hotel.
The monastery was strictly closed over Easter itself, so it was a couple of days before I went back to it. This time it was with a suitcase, and to stay. A lovely day, and the first two kilometres didn't feel like it, even with the bags to carry, walking by the river, swollen and fast, that spilled into the surrounding field.
A battered Citroen stopped, and a young man - younger than me, but of the lift-taking generation who has now grown into a lift-giver - drove me the last few hundred metres. Now I noticed beside the gate there was a modem entryphone: an electronic grille.
The porter's lodge was classically smart and elegant, with well-made wooden fittings, and a cabin for the porter with a modern phone exchange. The father hotelier was called by phone, and my name given. He came to escort me to the guesthouse. We were in the lea of an immense chateau of a building of handsome, rough-cut stone, its windows uniform and painted light grey, except for one huge pair which had their own balcony (for princes of the Church, I presumed). They were all painted light grey.
The effect was daunting and impressive and severe, but magnificent rather than intimidating. I was shown to the kind of monastic guest room which is everywhere, and always equally comforting. It was clean, bare, with a wash basin: it had an oak table and a view of a shrubbery and garden. A magnolia was in early bloom just outside. There was a notice about the hours, and about how the retreatants would be taken by the guest master from the lunchtime liturgy into lunch in the refectory.
Before the services there might be monks littered about the church, making their devotions at sculptures, in the pews. Some were in the stalls, praying. Gradually, and in a rush towards the moment when the office began, the others would take their places. There were getting on for ninety men in the monastery all told, but many of them were busy elsewhere. Still, they could field an impressive number for the offices.
Their singing continued to perplex me: it was sweet (too sweet), and very often alleluias would float in the air tremulously, with the 'oo' coming out as a wobbly confection which hung about like soap-bubbles.
But it was undoubtedly excellent singing, and as the offices
wore on, for those couple of days and nights that I attended them, they began to take me over. Besides, one recognized that these things are a matter of taste. Indeed all monastic life, even its deepest spiritual content, seems to be.
The Benedictine style is to make things polite and perfect and acceptable, and therefore almost exterior, as though to go further is to intrude, both on a man's privacy and on his right and duty to form something for himself in an interior way.
Here, the Benedictines are charged by the Pope himself to be the repository and purveyors of all that is perfect, pure and true in the tradition of Gregorian chant.
They even have a computer which can spew forth the ancient texts and scores in modern form at the touch of a button; people come from all over the world to talk to the Solesmes specialists. One such was there whilst I visited: after services or meals, he would be hanging around, waiting for his monkish colleagues, and then one would find them wandering around the garden in roused conversation about some technicality.
It is a glory of Solesmes that they take the visitor into the monks' refectory for lunch and supper. It sounds mundane and routine enough: it is extremely rare. Only in Creek monasteries are visitors usually allowed and expected to eat with the monks.
It is an impressive business, involving the first-timer in being led with all the other retreatants through a side door in the church and into a white-stone, cloistered courtyard, which has a typically French garden of low hedges laid out in a formal pattern and gravel; at one end there is a massive balcony. And then into another cloister, past a board on which name tags, in a style which looks distinctly medieval, are pinned to a board, mapping out choir responsibilities for the monks (exactly such a board - the only other I ever saw - is in the secularized Abbaye Aux Hommes, in Caen).
There the newcomers are syphoned out of the herd of ten or so other diners and gathered together in a side courtyard. In a flurry, the Abbot comes. He is tall and smiling and urbane. He has a beautiful purple ring, and wears gold-rimmed glasses. His eyes are shrewd and slitted. His hair is white and very short. He has had twenty-five years in which to learn to wear the mantle of authority so easily. A young monk comes and stands beside him with a bowl, whilst yet another holds a spotless towel.
We are ushered before the Abbot one by one, and he pours a little water from a silver jug down over our waiting fingers. I never saw it done anywhere else, though it used to be amongst the courtesies offered visitors to the desert monasteries of Egypt, though there it was the weary feet of travellers which were washed.
And then in to lunch. We all stand, then the Abbot sings some part of the grace and the whole community takes it up. The monks are for the first time seen at close quarters: young and old, tall, thin, bald, paunchy, lively. This one furtively looking at a letter which has been handed to him, that one fidgeting, another in an attitude in which he is very still, his head bowed; I find myself admiring the one whose head is held defiantly up, eyes open, challenging.
We sit down. There is an enormous amount of 'after-youing' going on amongst the guests. The monks are ranged -each at arm's length from the next - around the walls of the vast room. The guests occupy tables in the middle of the room, enclosed by the community, and especially under the eye of the Abbot.
The Abbot is in tremendous dignity, on a dais. He sits under
a beautiful and, I should have thought, eccentric painting of Dinner at the House of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7: 36-50) at which Jesus Christ is surrounded by some fairly bibulous goings-on. It looked a rather lively affair, this account, seen to be edifying in a French monastery. The Abbot reaches for his bottle of wine and pops the cork.
He poured himself the best part of a tumbler of wine, carefully, unquickly, and put the bottle back. I never saw him take another glass. He had a jar of coffee beside his elbow at the table: decaffeinated, I imagine.
He was a man one liked to watch, and yet, with his slitted eyes, one could not be sure that he was not staring equally in one's own direction. He was not a man I should like to try to out-stare, nor whose disapproval I should like to incur. The other monks were served a glass of wine each, those that wanted it.
Those that did not hovered a hand, palm down, over their glass. The servers moved around with easy speed: mechanically, silently, politely, they proffered this and that, making every offering a small supplication, which became quite forceful when it came to seconds and getting rid of the last portions. All part of the Benedictine injunction to think of the other person, not oneself; not to ask, but wait until someone offers. And therefore to offer promptly, and properly, or everyone would starve to death.
Quite a lot of the monks had variations on the ordinary menu, and were brought little dishes that suited them in some way or other. Monks, no less - and perhaps a touch more than most are given to worrying about their diet.
The guests were brought, first, a serving bowl of soup, which we passed one to another, never wanting to be the first to grab the ladle. Then one of us ventured to take some wine, but under the cover of first offering the bottle around.
A monk, mounted on a pulpit set on the wall, began reading immediately the meal began. It was a peculiar style of utterance, using a microphone hung round the neck. He would speak a sentence, and then say nothing for a while, before beginning on the next. He read from the scriptures first, and only later, on a signal from the Abbot, moved to the lighter works of biography or autobiography.
The food was simply exquisite. One lunch, after an excellent vegetable soup had dulled the first vulgar pangs of hunger, wonderful slices of the most perfectly tender steak were presented to us, heaped on a dish.
There was mustard at our elbow, and salad in bowls before us, and bread to mop up the tiny flows of gravy-blood which oozed from the delicacies.
Another time, perfectly firm pieces of the thigh and breast of chicken, done in a sauce of tomatoes and mushrooms, were brought. But this was the week after Easter, and the three laymen who did the cooking were allowed a post-Lenten luxuriousness of budget. 'The food', said a monk, 'is always good: but it is a little special just now.'
Little puddings were brought, and scalding coffee. And then, very differently from in Greece or in a Cistercian refectory, we seemed to linger. Places were cleared. One monk, during my first lunch, did long-drawn-out battle with a belch which had reduced him to ponderous writhing on his seat, whilst his neighbours grinned concern, amusement and telepathic massage at him.
Tongues were sent scurrying into the awkward crevices of hollow teeth. Mouths were explored for their last drop of lunch. And slowly the pace slowed until we were all quietly listening to the reader in his pulpit, and the Abbot busied himself with cleaning his glasses and then slipping his ring off his finger and cleaning it too, with his napkin. And then he also sat quietly for a moment, with his hands in his lap, before lifting the handle only of his gavel. He tapped it sharply on the gleaming table and we stood for grace.
We were ushered into church for a short liturgy. The abstemious monks - who had only taken one glass of wine were singing in their choir stalls with every appearance of alertness. I was more done-in and found myself, after the service, wandering back to my room and its narrow firm bed, where I lay down in the afternoon warmth and read Thomas Merton till I drifted into the perfect sleep, which comes to tourists in monasteries who have no cares in the early afternoon balm.
Santo Domingo de Silos
The ups and downs of monastic life were well illustrated by the Cistercian monastery of San Pedro de Cardena, in the gentle hills east of Burgos. It was a tafl, ramshackle sort of place, rather inviting in spite of the military crest in stone high above the entrance. Its severity was in any case softened by the way wild flowers had found sanctuary in every crevice and weather-worn crack.
An enormous old English Humber was being tuned to perfection outside. Inside, I waited in a little porter's lodge, under a picture, not of the King (Juan Carlos: the great white hope of modem Spain's democracy), but of Franco himself. This is the heartland of the old nationalism, and these friendly old monks seem to find nothing odd about having that fading photograph. Their admiration for the old fascist did nothing to dent their vague but definite kindness.
A jeweller's son was ensconced in the guest wing, banished from the bright lights of Madrid to study for his gemology exams, and showed me the baby owl he had rescued a couple of days before. He was feeding it milk. It was a birdish sort of place. Enormous flocks of pigeons plagued the front steps. At the rear, the monks have a brisk business breeding grouse for the hunters of half Spain.
This had been a Benedictine monastery; but when it was revived after a hundred years of closure during Spain's anticlerical period, when it had served, amongst other things, as a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, it was as a Cistercian Abbey.
Its chief glory is that El Cid and half his family are buried here. He had left his children- in the care of the monks when banished by the powers-that-were.
Nowadays, the community seemed rather elderly, though it had recently received an injection of younger blood from another monastery. The owl-crammer and I were shown - he for the nth time - the church. He took me, when no one was looking, up the most wonderful little tower, with an exquisitely curved staircase built in blocks of stone that it seemed impossible should stay up. The young man was full of pleasure, and wholly undaunted by the old men and the antiquity of the monastery. He raced around it in his trainers as though it were a high school.
I went to Compline that night, in the small private chapel which the monks were using, it being so cold in the big church. On the wall over the altar there was an enormous mural: the community and its activities, as captured perhaps two decades before. One could see how the characters had aged. It was a refreshing, jolly, bright kind of a painting, with something in it of the posters British Rail used to commission: 'Come to happy Margate', transposed to 'The up-line to Paradise.'
The next morning I would have bought postcards and a little history of the monastery. But though the boy and I drank lots of lovely hot milk and chocolate together, and shooed away the pigeons at the front of the monastery, and saw the fishman deliver his and the community's lunch, the monk who should have arrived with the keys to the shop did not come, and I drove on to Santo Domingo de Silos.
This is quite simply one of the most beautiful places on earth It is a large monastery, in glowing reddish brick, with a fine stone church, not old. The guests are given agreeable rooms overlooking the front of the building. We ate in a guest refectory.
We had the run of a twelfth-century cloister which is one of the chief glories of romanesque architecture and art. On the key-ring we had for our rooms, there hung another, which let us into what is the innermost sanctum of a monastery's communal life. There is the church, of course; and each monk has a cell. But the cloister is the definitor of a monastery.
It has four sides, in two storeys (the monks kept the upper for themselves, and gave the rest of us the lower). There are sixtyfour pillars, or capitals, all told on the ground floor. One of the capitals has four pillars, which are arranged as though twisted: as though the top had been turned through forty-five degrees: a sort of cock-eyed joke.
But how to describe the carvings at the top of each capital? Joyous, serious, figures telling many of the Bible stories; others simply densely-patterned gryphons or other fantastic creatures or shapes. They are as simple as characters from York mystery plays; definitely pre-Renaissance: there is no cockiness and not a lot of boisterous humanism in them; only a lozenge-shaped humility stares out from the sightless eyes of the characters. They mark a moment in the human enterprise when religion drenched our spirit, and a certain realization of man's glory under God; but it remained a glory sufficiently subordinate to God to seem terribly attractive to our age, when we have lost confidence without discovering humility.
At any time of day, on the way to service before dawn, or after lunch, or wandering along to Vespers, or to Compline (by torchlight), these utterly wonderful pieces of work were available to me. No one ever mentioned that they were important. No one ever made a fuss. They were simply there, and simply the most beautiful things I ever saw.
In this courtyard, there is a cypress tree, very tall and narrow, like a furled umbrella. It had scaffolding up much of its length when I was there (May 1985), and a crane, very tall, towered over the cloister from the outside world. The tree was diseased and no one was very sure it could be saved.
One night, I was told to be at the cloister a little earlier than usual before Compline. This month was dedicated to the Virgin, and there would be a special ritual for her that night. There is in the comer of the cloister a wonderfully solid Virgin and Child: she sits with her knees apart, in the way of Byzantine Christs. A bold, clear, honest face looks down the cloister.
The entire community, thirty-three monks in all (average age, the high forties, and that because they have one eighty-five-year-old, whilst there are several in their thirties) and two or three of us visitors - gathered before the statue but it felt more that we were assembling before a person, and more, before an angel. There had been lights on in the cloister, just a few bulbs. They were extinguished, so that just the candles on the altar before the Virgin were showing, and we sang a simple song in praise of the Virgin.
The Abbot has been in office, for twenty-five years (as had the Abbot at Solesmes), and was born in the village which lies at the monastery's gates. This is a poor region, with most villages having dirt roads, deeply rutted, running through them. The monks have a prized metal workshop, and they rear chicks: 15,000 hens laying eggs, and future generations, for the battery cages of Spain, with the advantage to the community that only two monks are required for the enterprise. In Britain, they would receive the attentions of the Animal Liberation Front for their pains, and be allowed no sense of virtue in their work.
One evening, the monastery church was in great turmoil.
After service, the young monk who was operating as parish
priest tried to conduct a rehearsal for some event or other. It involved a lot of the village young, and they ran him ragged: sending him up; singing into the microphone and public address system, romping through the monks' choir staffs (though in the midst of the bedlam, in front of the choir someone was decorating two enormous candles very beautifully).
The monk was having little luck controlling his flock. Someone told me he was rather an expensive kind of parish priest: he kept writing off the monastery's cars as he toured his parish. But he was an enjoyable sort of a man, and I liked him immediately, though I never spoke to him.
The next day, Sunday, the reasons for the activity were clear. The church was full. Old men who looked as though they lived in caves. Spruce old dames in black. Lively, high-breasted teenage girls in freezing cotton frocks and fluffy cardigans. And a family in pride of place at the front, with an eleven-year-old boy in a smart, home-embroidered, waistcoat. It was his first communion.
He was introduced to the congregation during the service (though clearly everyone knew him perfectly well, and beamed their support), and the monk-parish priest seemed to be fit to burst with pleasure in the way things went, as were the boy's mother and father.
After the service, the entire village seemed to be crowding into the cafe across the square from the monastery: the boy was the owner's son. Crotchety old biddies were being bidden to take an unaccustomed drink. I saw the monk-parish priest being swallowed up in the crowd, sucked into the vortex of the cafe.
For a young man of eighteen, the prayerful community was full of hope and learning. To me it was all new; and I found that most of the community I had known so long and scrutinized without comprehension was involved in it. There were high seas to cross and I went about it with zest. Nobody who has been through that discipline and had that inspiration will ever forget it.
Strangely, this perfectionist society had been very largely developed by a man who for ten years remained a ghost in our midst. When at last I met him, he turned out to be the Professor of Medieval History at Cambridge. At Downside even the skeletons in the cupboard turn out to be intellectuals. The name, Dom David Knowles, the king over the water Cam, was never mentioned in the novitiate; yet Father Alban had been his right-hand man, and the new Abbot, Dom Christopher Butler, his close associate during the 'Usque Movement'of the I930s. This movement had looked to bring about a monasticism really apart from the world: a monastery leading a truly simple prayer life and having time for truly scholarly work; or, on the negative side, no parishes, no public school. Father Alban taught the desirability of such a wonderful life and tried to make us regret the necessity of an active life. Two of my contemporaries left and joined the Cistercians; both became novice masters in their turn, and I too paddled in Cistercian waters, visiting Caldey Island where Father Alban himself had gone when the Usque Movement lost momentum in the 1930s. I did not read the actual words of Dom David until in I980 Dom David Knowles, A Memoir by Dom Adrian Morey, came to hand. In the 'Project for a Contemplative Foundation, 1933', under 'Poverty', come these suave sentences: 'We would aim at simplicity in everything. Individual poverty would be as extreme as possible; community possession not such as to give the impression of a "comfortable" life.' I find myself almost speechless in face of this, because these words about poverty show me the limits of my courage and perhaps that of my whole generation. I, for one, have been dishonest about poverty all my monastic life, unable, for all my love of discipline, to bring myself to fulfil my aspiration and my vow. I entered the monastery seeking honesty and duty and they were shown to me; but somehow as with most studies that required concentration and real spirituality, I failed to go on seeking.
Dom Fabian Glencross in A Touch of God, Eight Monastic Journeys, edited by Maria Boulding, SPCK
Wilderness and Vatican II
The first monks went into the desert to fight demons, whose province and territory the wasteland was. St Antony did battle in his fastness, amongst terrible temptations - as had Jesus before him - alone.
Within a very few hundred years, and at its most dramatic peak in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the monastic life was dedicated to taming the wilderness, to civilizing it, to making it productive. The Benedictines took their place amongst the improving landlords; and then the Cistercians made a military cause of colonizing the wilderness in order to sustain their prayer-stations. Even the new wave of hermit foundations depended on the worker-bee lay brothers and on the agricultural affluence which backed their patrons.
Now, in the twentieth century, the monks are the custodians of some of the most wonderful wilderness on earth, in which they find retreat from the world of overweening, God-forgetting civilization. The absence of grazing on Athos has made it a botanical paradise. St Catherine's makes a perfect base for seeing the great Sinai wilderness. The Cistercians still maintain a precarious hold on Caldey Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast. From Burgos to Iona, from Engelberg to Alexandria, monasteries stare out over wild beauty, in places people seek for solace and sanctuary. They do not expect to find demons there, but only delight.
The monks, in these shifting relationships to wilderness, are expressing the needs of human beings of their time. They are symptoms of the worldly societies of which they are a self-conscious inversion. The wilderness without - the wilderness of land - has seemed frightening, and then convertible, and now precious, by turns. But there has been a parallel shift in our internal, interior, needs.
The earliest monks were retreating from the established religion they saw growing in the cities, and which threatened the dissidence they wanted to maintain. By the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries the monk was a thoroughly integrated part of a religious civilization, in which to attempt dissidence would have seemed preposterous as well as being punishable by excommunication by the Church, followed by execution by the state. The great houses were of course much involved with the powers-that-were; but even the reformers, Sts Bernard, Hugh or Romuald, for instance, enjoyed the patronage of the great.
Only in the twentieth century has the issue of dissidence seriously emerged again. The Church has had to discover a new relationship with the state, whose religious front looks increasingly formal and hypocritical, and has often become the rallying ground for the 'right-minded', propagandizing moralists of the 'peace' campaigners (I put the word in inverted commas only because the state and the military also believe they are involved in preserving peace). The indifference of much of the rich world to the plight of poor countries has provoked a response amongst Christians who invite their clerical establishment to perform or at least utter better on the subject than the secular one seems to.
And much else in this century has become questioned. The idea of hierarchy has been threatened fundamentally: authority is questioned everywhere. Discipline in schools, for instance, is increasingly considered to be a means by which powerful elites maintain dominance over the majority, though it is actually much more than that. In Britain in particular, we took the old grammar schools (which were primarily academic) and secondary schools (which were primarily vocational) and merged them, perhaps to the detriment of pupils but certainly to the enshrinement of principle. To make hierarchical distinctions has become 'discriminatory', a word which has become, pejoratively, synonymous with 'unfair'.
It was a period in which there was a strong sense that we should overthrow outmoded notions of sexual roles and morality. We should break free of class restrictions and assumptions. We should provide equality of opportunity to all, even at the risk of making sure we treated people as though they were identical, sooner than risk appearing to favour this or that individual. It was an age in which the enfranchisement of the masses required people to try to learn to respect the individuality and value of each person. It was an age of humanism: practical, confident, ungodly, egalitarian, arrogant.
It was the age of Vatican II, the Second Vatican Council, in which the Catholic Church sought to accommodate itself to the new context in which it found itself. First, it would throw out some of the and Puritanism which had overtaken it especially in the nineteenth century (in which it had mirrored the confused prurience of the great age of humbug). Second, it would try to understand the new humanism by at least ceasing to assert its absolute supremacy over any other belief: it would insist that its belief was holy and correct, but that God's love shone on all his creatures, not merely those wise, lucky or obedient enough to have been catachumen and confirmed in the Church. Perhaps it was merely a club which knew that its rules had to change if it was to keep its membership roll.
Third, it would try to be relevant. Relevance was a particular curse of the 'sixties: it amounted to a tremendous desire to be seen to have kept up with what was going on in the world. It bad profoundly to do with utility: in this practical age, it was felt, one could only be judged by function, not by intention. But function has its fashions, and seeking relevance looked to traditionalists to risk ignoring the human need for continuity. Besides, glorifying God, and praying for his grace, did not seem fashionable; allying oneself with the poor did.
Fourth, it would reassess the pomp and authority with which it enforced its apostolic, holy purpose. The Bishop would be one amongst his flock again, and not assertively, remotely at its head. Discipline would be a contract between consenting parties, not an imposed requirement. Democracy, the cause and motive force of the new spirit, would have to sweep away hierarchy.
Each of these tendencies was acutely trying for the monastic tradition which was celibate, salvationist, spiritual and authoritarian.
Vatican II expressed its purposes in somewhat different terms. It spoke of a renewal. Its purpose was to achieve modernization in the only way available to an institution whose whole authority depends on its history. It would seek to be modern in the only way open to it: by insisting that it was seeking a renewed vitality (which any elderly organization could justly claim to wax and wane. and need periodic replenishment) within a quest for authenticity. The Church was to make the greatest move forward since the Counter Reformation, when it had last been stung into attempting major change, but had actually sunk into being not merely conservative, but too dangerously only-conservative.
This at least the monastic Orders were used to. Their histories have throughout been a cycle of turmoil and tranquility; of construction and consolidation; of laxity followed by austerity. In each period the monasteries have had to find their feet and ensure their survival - have sought to be in tune with the world around them and their original mission.
Above all, one monk personified these changes. He was an American who had lived with mild licence and come to want to be a religious. He became a Cistercian at Gethsemani Monastery, near St Louis. As a pre-Vatican II monk, he had lived the penitential, silent, communal life of the Cistercian. For years, he had lain himself down at dusk, and been woken at three a. m. for the night liturgy, and had done so fully clothed in a dormitory surrounded by others.
He was enormously eloquent on the religious life, with a language which is profound and at the same time racily American, as though Teilhard de Chardin had been merged with Dashiel Hammett. He was living the life of an obedient, but constantly chafed against the dictate of his superiors. He was in a silent Order, but became a powerful voice in the peace movement, at first through his writings, and later in speeches. He was, as a monk, supposed to be deeply concerned with stability (which mostly means staying in one place), but travelled a good deal towards the end of his life. He was in a communal Order, but longed and argued for a solitary, eremitical life. He was supposed to be living the life of holiness, wholeness and tranquillity, but was disturbed to the point - then and now not necessarily to any great extreme - that dictated the need for psychotherapy, an activity hard to reconcile with the founding ideals of his Order.
His death was almost wholly ironic. As a monk of an Order whose origins were rooted in triumphalism and fundamentalism, and which was devoted to a spartan, medieval, enclosed, silent, anonymous life, he died very famous. it happened (probably of electrocution by a cooling fan) in a conference centre bathroom in Bangkok, on a speaking tour in which he was exploring ecumenical connections with the eastern traditions. In a yet greater irony, in a man devoted to the peace campaigns of the day, his body was flown home in a US Air Force plane returning from delivering supplies and men to the US Forces in Vietnam. Munitions outward; monk inward.
Cistercians nowadays stoutly defend the Merton tradition. They believe him to have been authentically Cistercian in his quest; they are quite anxious to claim him as one of their own. This may simply be the desire to be seen to have attracted and held the loyalty of so extraordinary a man. He had suffered enough under the rigours of the Cistercian Rule to.be allowed his freedom from it at the end; and he died prematurely for his pains. There is enough there of a Hugh of Lincoln. But there is plenty of room for doubt as to whether Merton actually was a Cistercian by the end: his desire for reconciliation with other faiths and styles may have taken him too far from the defining characteristics of the Cistercian way. The Cistercian claims to be living a life which places the Rule of St Benedict at the centre of the community. It is a flexible, Rule, and it allows the required little adjustment to make it work in a modern society. But I doubt that it could manage the degree of change towards which Merton was heading.
Merton wanted to speak to modern issues in the world. Many men and women want to do that. I prefer the modest disclaimer of the Abbot of Nunraw, who says that though he and his community might like to bear witness to their desire for peace, there are others in the world making their case very well. 'Even on the rights of the unborn child, on which many of us feel strongly, there are others to bear witness and state their views who do it very well. Parents and others are closer to the issue and can speak on it just as well as we can. The monks of our monastery of the Holy Spirit in Georgia had wanted to join Martin Luther King in his protest marches. The Abbot said no. And when Luther King heard of that he said that he was glad that he had taken that line: he said that if the monks weren't helping him on their knees, they couldn't help at all. He did, however, practical man that he is, give evidence to an inquiry when the electricity board wanted to run pylons through his valley: that was an issue where his competence was not in question. A timely appearance before a tribunal was judged then to be even more obviously a duty than prayer. It cost the electricity board six million.
Bishop Christopher Butler, who attended Vatican II as president of the English Congregation of Benedictines - he was the one-time Abbot of Downside Abbey - says in his The Theology of Vatican II, that the Council gave the monks and nuns little comfort in any superiority they might like to feel. They were freed from the world's concerns and in a unique position to bear witness to the mystery of the Church, but they are not engaged on anything fundamentally different - the achievement of charity, for instance - than was the proper hope of any Christian.
He goes further and hints that the theology of the monastic life is not well formulated. In particular, the most singular act of the monk - that of taking a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience - is nowhere explicitly demanded by the gospels. Taking that vow may be a thoroughly authentic Christian thing to do, but it is voluntary and personal and idiosyncratic: it is not what any Christian who wants to be serious in his faith has to do. We may be grateful that monks take that vow, but they cannot claim to be making more of their Christianity than those who do not make it. They may, of course, be obeying a particular call, and it may be a divine one. But to be an authentic monk one is building on the scriptural basics of the faith, as adapted, developed, codified, and - frankly narrowed as well as honed, by men of the fourth, sixth and eleventh centuries in particular,
The Vatican II documents which most concern monks are gathered together as the Decree on the Up-to-date Renewal of Religious Life (which title is also the closest translation possible of the overall intention of the council: namely to help the Church in its aggiornamento). Amongst them there are passages which deal with the particular vows of the monk. Obedience is seen as a matter of 'losing one's life' in the loving service of God. Chastity flows from a particular love of God: 'It reaches, transforms and imbues with a mysterious likeness to Christ man's being in its most hidden depths.' And it poses a rich alternative to the 'ravaging eroticism' of the present age (religious writers always think they are living in the worst century yet, as though sins were freshly minted). Poverty is more simple: a monk's treasures are in heaven. But a monk's poverty allows him to enter into the poverty of Christ; to share the real poverty of many of the world's poor; to pose an alternative to materialism.
'The Renewal of Religious Life' warned against the young and inexperienced being taken into monasteries: it warned abbots to take only mature spirits, especially in a largely secular age. It insisted that the thousand-year-old tradition of lay brothers and choir monks be undone: all brothers in a community must be equal and be seen to be equal. It warned abbots to be open to the will of their communities and to discover it democratically. The priest was supposed to remain wonderfully possessed of the capacity to reign over the communion miracle, but his mystery was subtly eroded and the role of the layman enhanced.
The process of consultation, as much as the documents which emerged, shattered the calm, however tense it was, of the traditional monasteries. Monks, long committed to silence, compliance and stability, were plunged into disturbing debate. The kind of man who had sought monasteries as places where he could hide himself in the cowl and in prayer was struck to the roots. Many left. Those priests who had joined monasteries with priestly duties and superiority much in mind believed they had been demoted. There were lay brothers who did not want a full - and wearisome - liturgical life: they had joined to be praying peasants. Many of these left.
And then there were those who left because Vatican II confirmed and legitimized their own restlessness: such men would leave, one of them to become a leader of the Scottish peace movement. At least one runs a fashionable North London wine bar.
The New Spirit
We do not know, of course, what Merton would have made of the liberalization his monastery would see in the wake of the Vatican II process. The only nearly equivalent figure now is the one-time member of the Prinknash Benedictine community, Bede Criffiths. Having searched in India for a reconciliation between the Christian and the Hindu traditions, he now has an Ashram there, and has recently become a member of the Camaldolesi congregation.
There are of course other impulses at work in the continual regeneration of the monastic spirit. The nineteenth century provided plenty of examples of monastic foundations, or refoundations. They were mostly, as at Solesmes, self-conscious and deliberate attempts to restate the medieval tradition of monasticism. They were of a piece with PreRaphaelite paintings or St Pancras Station: the gestures - very serious gestures - of a generation worried that secularism and the steam engine was denying modern European man's roots.
The mood survived into the twentieth century. Several English Anglican foundations of the early decades of this century have survived. One of these was formed on a small island off the Welsh coast, one of several which had Celtic monastic associations. The community converted to Rome and, in 1928, left the island to come to Prinknash in Gloucestershire (it was replaced on the island by Cistercians).
Originally housed in a lovely Elizabethan house, the Prinknash community decided to build itself a brand new establishment: its present Prior cheerfully describes it as being like a railway station, and recalls with mixed delight the remark of a visiting Italian that its architecture is 'fascist' in style.
The architect of the original building had grand schemes. In the hopes of seeing them brought to fruition, he left a painting to the community which was valued at a few tens of thousands; it fetched half a million, which was largely used to build a much more modest place, to someone else's designs.
'The present church', says the abbot of an adequately large building, 'would have been the sub-crypt in the original scheme. The abbey would have been at least twice as long.' The present monks rather wish that the splendid five-floor structure which climbs the side of a hill had been on the flat and on one floor.
The monks discovered, during building work, that they owned clay which could make pottery: they have been at it ever since, and with hideous results which are eagerly though less eagerly of late - snapped up by the tourists. The monastic spirit here is rather more enclosed and Cistercian than in much of the modem Benedictine world: in that it rather matches Silos and Solesmes than Ampleforth or Einsiedeln.
In the twentieth century, the monastic spirit has taken people in different directions. Important amongst them is the commune movement whose members sometimes come together in order to live a more socialist life, or a more ecologically sound one. But they often have some sort of spiritual impetus, more or less clearly stated. In France, for instance, there is the Community of the Ark sixty miles north-west of Montpelier. It is devoted to the simple life, self-sufficiency, and an exploration for 'a harmony between body and soul'.
On Iona, our most famously religious island, there is a community, but its members come and go a good deal, and do not, I think, regard themselves as particularly contemplative and certainly not as enclosed or celibate. Their postmark 'Christ The Worker' - so much put me off that I didn't visit them. We may suppose that Christ might - might - have pursued his trade as carpenter: but it was not as a worker that he inspired the world. I would have preferred, 'Christ the Indolent', or nearly anything, to a description so narrow and narrowing.
In the early 1940s, in the midst of war, George Ineson set up a community in Cornwall which was dedicated to peace and the commune ideal. The members were not then religious in intention, but left-wing and political.
Ten years later, they moved to a farm on the edge of the land belonging to Prinknash Abbey, in an attempt - which they had arrived at through Jungian therapy and exploration of eastern traditions - to combine the communard spirit and family lives with the Benedictine liturgy at their heart. They live there in six houses - some of them large and beautiful - on a 135-acre dairy farm. They describe themselves as an 'intentional village'.
In 1961, they moved toward a life in which the various families (at one time there were six families, thirty-three children and various single people) lived more separately and were each responsible for their own income and management. George Ineson describes them as trying to see the spiritual life as growing out of sexual life. They remain closely linked to Prinknash, and a monk comes to them each week to celebrate mass in their church. Their worship takes place in the first floor room of a big barn, which is reached by passing through a tractor oil store.
Other foundations in the modern world conform much more fully to our idea of a monastery, in which monks are enclosed, or at least have an enclosure, and are contemplative, celibate, poor and obedient.
The most famous of them, Taizé, in Burgundy, is one of the major phenomena of the Christian Church, and people within the Church are very divided by it. One hears of some young monks who would like to visit the place, but whose abbots perhaps frightened of it, or perhaps detecting or believing they detect something not quite right - refuse permission. But the Pope and the founder of Taizé are photographed in embrace; Mother Teresa and the founder meet together: all the signs of church approval are there. More or less than that approval is the affirmation by seldom fewer than two thousand people a week who come to Taizé to live in near squalor in order to worship and congregate, and be near the founder. Roger Schutz was born in 1915, and grew up in a Protestant household. His father was a clergyman who had a noted interest in improving the relations between local Catholics and Protestants.
Young Roger gathered some friends to him and suggested that they might form an ecumenical community. Then in 1940 he set out alone for France to look for a house. At the ruins of Cluny he spotted a notice advertising a house for sale in nearby Taizé. There a local woman, with whom he sheltered, said that he should buy the house, because the village could use all the new blood it could get.
This was at the beginning of the Second World War, and during it, Roger worked hard and bravely to look after refugees, many of them in his house at Taizé.
He had studied the rules of the great monastic founders and was anxious to set up some sort of monastic house himself. In 1944, he decided to do so in Taizé. I would not dare say that he saw himself as an instant abbot, nor can I say that there would be anything wrong if he did: after all, how could Benedict and the others have operated without a singular confidence or ambition? 'The Rule of Taizé’ which he wrote in the fifties is a tract which gives a great deal of authority to the prior.
This is a region of France with great, gently rolling hills graduating to mountains: it is not notably Christian and never has been, and its thin soil has kept the place sparsely populated and poor. The community helped found a cooperative amongst the farmers, and actually gave away such land as they possessed. The community is steadfastly ecumenical; it renounces all wealth and property for itself; many of its members work amongst the poor abroad.
Young people began to come to Taizé. It appears to have been a spontaneous movement which began in the late ‘fifties. The community developed a system of housing the young, and a programme for the time they spend at the community. It has developed to the point where a community of nuns operates besides the community of men, and between them they operate a tent and barracks religious holiday camp in which young people come and discuss their Christianity.
The most important building in Taizé is the church. It has been described as the only ugly thing for miles around: a big, low building in concrete, with its windows being horizontal slits just below the roof. I wandered in about an hour before the main morning service on Sunday, the highpoint of the week. Inside, it was dimly lit, a kind of sloping aircraft hangar, or perhaps coldstore without fridges, with a sloping floor which runs gently down to a large altar area in which there was a kind of low mountain range of boxes, open to the congregation, with candles burning in each. There was a kind of cyclorama effect behind, and the boxes themselves made me think of a third-world shanty. It looked like a stage set: for some ersatz Cats, perhaps.
Around the walls of the church were benches for the timid, and this is where I parked myself. The main floor of the church was down banks of steps. People were sitting on the steps already, whilst others half-sat and half-kneeled on small stools which I have never seen anywhere else. A swift, burly man was organizing a group of people in banks for a choir practice. I learned later that he takes anyone who has a voice or an instrument and gets them to practise for a couple of hours a day.
The music the community use was written specially for them, and is a clever blend of the brief and simple which can be made to sound very sophisticated and beautiful. As the time for the service approached the place really began to fill up. But everyone was completely silent, except for a couple of elderly English women who had come with a party: their shrill, confident voices bit into the stillness.
One young couple seemed to be devouring each other, more like lovers in a park than people at prayer: they avoided kissing each others' lips, but hugged and stroked each other as though parting at an airport. Altogether, a good many of the people embraced and hugged. (They were mostly going to leave Taizé straight after the service, having been here for a week.) Most wore no shoes.
As the service began, the community swept in: they had a central corridor of the sloping floor reserved for themselves, a kind of enclosure made of the entwined branches of shrubs.
It was an impressive hour. The singing was led by choirs spread through the congregation, divided into basses, altos, tenors and trebles. The rest of us joined in with gusto. The readings were in half the languages of Europe. Children did some of the readings. After the service, the people would not leave: they kept one of the litanies going for nearly a quarter of an hour, an exquisite roundel of voices in the candle-lit gloom, whilst the young sat, kneeled, lay, crouched as they chose. It was religion and pop festival in one.
And then outside, into the hard-driven drizzle, the usual Taizé muddle of buses, knapsacks and groups being marshalled to leave or arrive was in full flow. I was assigned a bed in a bunkhouse, but no sheets or blankets. You're assumed to have a sleeping bag, unless you ask (this is made clear in a letter before you come). I found myself wanting to ask as little as possible of the place: a kind of inner boycott against it. I hugged my discomfort to myself as a silent weapon against the efficient, rather grim young nun who was doling out accommodation.
Brother Roger says again and again that he is not the centre of a cult or a movement: the young are welcome to come to Taizé and discover their religion again, and think it through, he says. They are not to set themselves up as a cell within the churches from which they come, but are to participate fully in the life of their local churches.
There was a good deal of evidence at Taizé. that the young are encouraged to think about poverty in the world and the causes of it, and to identify themselves with the poor. But in the Taizé newsletter I saw I detected no very intelligent or informed thinking about why poor people are poor and what may help them to be less so. There is much talk of renouncing capitalistic thinking; rejecting consumption.
There is something just the smallest bit suspect in a monk such as Brother Roger when he spends most of his year at Taizé, and then travels abroad for a month or so, to be amongst the very poor. Indeed, there seems almost to be something of a kind of poverty-chic in the way he does it. South America used to figure, but now - somehow, one sees it as all too likely - he has been visiting the Sahelian desert.
He has already chosen a successor, whose name is known only to Roger and is in envelope to be opened on his death. Here again there is evidence of Roger's grip. He seems to be less of a democrat even than the great fathers and founders of the past. Probably it is no more than a question of a deeply charismatic man who has a powerful desire to lead as well as to pray. Certainly, Roger did not and does not ask the young to flock to his monastery, nor does he make it very comfortable for them when they come. Certainly, there is a delicious, exciting, profound loveliness in the worship.
Yet there was almost too much joy at Taizé: not enough penance. I think I detect the modern 'Jesus saves' salvationism of the Christian young. I prefer Christians when they modestly wonder what a miracle it was that Christ died for them.
The affluent youth of the world comes to Taizé to bemoan the luxury of its own condition and the materialism of their parents, to whom they owe the luxury of complaint. (The community points out that many underprivileged youngsters also struggle to make the journey.)
Their activities are modern in style. 'In 1981, over fifteen thousand young Europeans crossed the Channel in a single night to join their British counterparts for a European meeting in London. Participants filled Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral, wired together for sound. In late 1983, Brother Roger joined young people for a European meeting in Paris after returning from several weeks spent amongst the poorest of the poor in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As part of the pilgrimage, world gatherings, beginning 1985, are being prepared throughout all the continents.' This is in the spirit of city marathons, or Live Aid.
The rain poured and the wind howled all day. In the evening there was another big service, with the tail-end of the old crowd and the beginnings of next week's. Some locals from the nearby villages also milled around, seeming more curious than enthusiastic. One or two older ones did stay to join in, and there were whole families at worship too. Once again the singing was beautiful. Gathered round Brother Roger at the back of his double column of monks, there were gathered a bunch of young boys. I am afraid I wondered if other members of the community would be allowed the luxury of such companionship.
After the service, various members of the congregation went forward to speak with Brother Roger or one of the other two or three monks who stayed behind in the glowing, dim church. I had been told to wait around afterward to speak with Brother Roger. We shook hands and I told him that I had enjoyed the services very much. He chatted with me in a French that went by far too fast for me to understand, but indicated that I should walk along with him to the monk's house, where there would be a cup of chocolate.
We entered a hallway which was done in wall-to-wall pine and then into a room similarly panelled where there was what I took to be a Japanese-style round table, with a cloth and a vase of flowers on it. A stereo system was playing classical music. There were four or five monks, Roger, another visitor or two, and me. Bowls of drink were brought. We sat about in a more or less goofy cloud of smiling peacefulness and then someone said a prayer. A monk was summoned to Roger, and seemed almost to cower as he beamed his acquiescence before rushing off to get some sheets of paper that Roger had apparently forgotten. It was to be a present to each of us: a photocopy of Roger's prayer at the service earlier. I had by now decided that the set-up definitely had something, but that it was also just a little bit creepy.
Yet the monks themselves are clearly intelligent and powerful, mostly young, men. In their grey flannels and their blousons, and their cropped hair, and their dedication, did they have just a little of the mormon about them?
And then we issued forth into the night and I went to the much-proclaimed no-profit, no-exploitation coffee shop. There, so far from selling the brands of coffee and sugar which help the third-world producer, and which are available quite easily, they sell stuff on the sole criterion of its cheapness. No help for the third-world producer lies that way. I phoned home from the call boxes which looked so odd with their ankles in the mud, but which I was profoundly grateful for, and went to my grim bed. I had wanted to read a while, but did not like to disturb my neighbours in their bunks by putting on the light. I took grim satisfaction in a latecomer who left the light on for ages, and was greeted with much stifled but heavy sighing from the men around us. At dawn I got up and walked down the hill to the bus stop for my visit to Cluny.
There, an obliging café owner gave me a good hot coffee and promised to watch over my bags as I walked around the famous old place. Just one of its ruined towers shows how vast a church this must have been (it was the biggest in Christendom before being demolished and the stones used to build the national stud). It was the most profoundly powerful and confident institution in Europe. It had been planted in dissidence, and grown to overweening authoritarianism. It was a timely reminder that Taizé may be the beginning of a new world; merely a hiccup; or darn nearly anything in between.
I welcomed myself back to the mixed old world with a good deal of pleasure.
The fifth Orthodox monastery I stayed in was probably the most traditional in its origins and inspiration, and the most eccentric in its prayer life, its openness, its ecumenicism. It was also oddly placed in a small Essex village. Its church is at the end of a lane which runs down past a couple of farms, perhaps half a mile from the old rectory.
The rectory is an ordinary sort of house, except that it is home to the Monastery of John the Baptist, and the Geronda ('Elder') whose inspiration it was and is.
At the turn of this century, there was an illiterate monk living in the Citadel of Panteleimon Monastery on Athos. Brother Silouan (1866-1938) had been a Russian peasant until his entry to Athos, and he was a wise old bird, who had become prized as a Staretz.
In the last years of his life, he was spiritual father to a remarkable Russian painter and intellectual who had been exiled from the Revolution and found his way to Athos. For five years he listened to his peasant Staretz.
On the death of the Staretz, his young follower, Brother Sophrony, left the monastery to become a hermit. His reputation spread, until he was spiritual director to four Greek monasteries, but after World War II, Sophrony decided that he must arrange the publication of Staretz Silouan's utterances, and made his way to Paris.
There he assembled his recollection of Silouan's spiritual wisdom. He also fell extremely ill, and had major operations on his stomach. Gradually, a community of Orthodox monks built up around him, based at first in Paris.
In the early 'sixties, the community decided that it was in need of proper monastic formulation. Sophrony approached Patriarch Athenagoras in Constantinople, and his community was granted the Canonical Status of a Patriarchal and Stavropegic monastery: the new foundation was to be independent of any bishops, except the ultimate power in Constantinople.
A woman friend of the community, a celebrated translator (she had worked for de Gaulle in London), offered them the means to buy an old rectory in England. It came with a church, which changed from being Anglican (of course, it had once been Roman Catholic) to Orthodox.
From the beginning the community had been open to women, and this spirit was kept when the monastery proper was begun in England. From the beginning, it was multilingual. It allowed no snobberies between the Creek or Russian traditions: this was a Byzantine monastery. Now there are seven monks and ten nuns. In the community, there are members of several nationalities: English, French, German, Australian, Danish, Swedish, Swiss, Russian, Romanian and Greek Cypriot.
It is at a point in its development now where its past is still laid open to the visitor very clearly. This is in part the past of an elderly rectory building, with a vast complicated boiler in the hall, and the creaking shambles of corridors upstairs, in which a vigorous - and now mature - community of men have lived. The makeshift and the doughty and the traditional co-reside.
But the likely future is also clearly visible. In the grounds t~ big new buildings are nearing completion: the church large, airy and plain architecturally - is receiving the st details of lovely, simple, father pale murals on biblical subjects (the Nativity, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension into Heaven, Pentecost Paraclete).
Soon there will be regular services there. A vast nun, looking unnervingly like Peter Ustinov - who learned her iconography from the great Russian exile Leonide Ouspensky - is in command of the process of bringing to fruition the outline work of Father Sophrony, who has been known gently to command the reworking of month upon month of effort, having decided the overall effect is a little jarring to his eye.
Born in 1894, the old man is at the centre of this community in a way which no western abbot ever could be of a monastery formulated along Benedictine lines. He is its heart. And this is reflected, illustrated, by the fact that he is not now formally the abbot at all. Father Kyrill, a brisk, burly Australian, holds that office - yet one can see that he does so simply in order that the spiritual authority of the old man may be more clearly ministered to.
The relationship of the old man to the community is expressed perfectly at meals in the refectory. The guests eat alone at lunch, so as to allow the community that one communal and ceremonial time together each day. But come supper time and one is treated to the proper Orthodox refectory experience.
The room is modern (it is in a new block which includes a spacious library) but as perfectly orthodox as the most ancient spot in St Catherine's. The walls are entirely covered with paintings of the Last Supper and so on. On the roof beams there are neat monographic writings remembering: 'St Dionysius the Areopagite'; 'St Polycarp-of Smyrna'; 'St Gregory of Neo-Caesarea'; 'St Peter of Alexandria'; 'St Spyzidon of Tremithus'; 'St Epiphanus of Cyprus'; 'St Ambrose of Mflan'; 'St James, Brother of God'.
We range ourselves at two tables set at right angles to a third, which has rather few places on it. Everyone is within yards of everyone else. The mood is intimate and yet quite formal.
We all stand as the old man approaches on the arm of the youngest monk. The Abbot watches him attentively, waiting to see whether any service needs performing. I would not be surprised if deep down he was chafing under the yoke of this squire-knight role-play. The old man is wearing an enormously wide-brimmed black hat and a long, long scarf (if it were not black, the overall impression would be of Aristide Briand in the Toulouse Lautrec poster).
After grace, Sophrony settles into his place, in the middle place of the table, with the Last Supper behind him. He sends the Abbot to fetch some brown bread and butter from the kitchen. Or at least - I could not hear the exchange, but only note its demeanour - he drew the Abbot's attention to the deficiency in the setting of the table. It was done without smiling or courtesy. It was the action of an old man who is used to the exercise of authority.
A young nun, rather slouched, and looking as though she were cold, sits - alone on her side of the table - exactly opposite him. The scene is almost confrontational. She is reading from the modem Orthodox spiritual masterpiece, Vladimir Lossky's, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.
It is a text of a kind familiar to the medieval mind. 'God's presence in his energies must be understood in a realistic sense. It is not the presence of a cause operative in its effects: for the energies are not effects of the divine cause, as creatures are; they are not created, formed ex nihilo, but flow eternally from the one essence of the trinity. They are the outpourings of the divine nature which cannot set bounds to itself, for God is more than essence. God thus exists in his essence and outside of his essence', reads the small, young nun.
At one point she stumbled. 'This seems odd', she said. Sharp of her, I thought, to spot one bit of oddness greater than another. Looking up, she asked the Staretz if she should repeat the passage she had fumbled. He looked as though he had not been listening to the stumble, and it took, I thought, a moment for him to realize that he was being addressed. He looked up from his dish. 'It is not dangerous to repeat it', he said in a small voice, a little enigmatically, as though there might be grounds for not repeating it, but at least they did not include extreme risk. It was a joke, I think; there was a twinkle there. The small nun repeated the sentence. The reading went on. I was to hear nothing as complex again until Dr John Gribbin explained the Big Bang theory of matter, anti-matter and the moment the Universe was kick-started, on my favourite 'drive-time' show on Radio 2. They were, of course, addressing the same problem.
The rest of us busied ourselves in our supper. The food is agreeable, simple, vegetarian: pulses and the rest. Some of the monks garnish their heaped dishes with squirts from the olive oil bottle, a taste I am developing myself, I notice. One woman, a visitor, looked at Sophrony constantly, dreamily, as though she wanted to plug herself into him; she seemed to be drinking him in. I should not like to attract such powerful admiration from the unstable.
After supper, the men would go to their rooms in the old house, whilst the women went to their own scattered campus across the garden: there was an array of battered caravans, makeshift creosoted prefabs. Soon, all will be regular and neat: a new block of accommodation was nearing completion.
Every Sunday (and Tuesday) the numbers of visitors swells dramatically: these are the days when the old church down the lane is in use for the full liturgy of the eucharist. At the weekend, dozens expect lunch; the refectory becomes mildly chaotic. No one expects the children to be entirely still during the four-hour liturgy: they are required to be muted and respectful.
And then the monastery subsides into its curious peacefulness. A small tide of visitors ebbs and flows through its day.
Only resident guests attend the first religious event of the day, however. This is held in almost complete darkness, in the chapel of the old house. It is a large room, lit only by the candles burning before two ikons in the small iconostasis. It largely consists of the Jesus Prayer, which is said two hundred times in each of four languages: English, French, Greek and Russian. 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me': repeated eight hundred times it becomes . . . it becomes whatever you can make of it. It takes about two hours. The prayers are led by a succession of voices: each has its pace of delivery. I taught myself not to enjoy the quick ones, but only just.
And then the day proceeds gently through its business: painting in the chapel; painting ikons for sale (the workshop is a wooden shed, warm, busy and religious in its own right); cooking; gardening; building. At six o'clock the Jesus Prayer ritual is repeated.
There is no rule of enclosure; no rule of silence; no formal Rule at all. I and a companion went into town; we walked; we read in our rooms. We talked about spiritual matters with the monks, who were attentive and deliciously indifferent, too. They patiently explained their tradition, when we asked; and left us alone when we did not.
Father Zossima, a Greek Cypriot who had been a chemist in the world, told us how much monastic life was an experiment; that all spiritual life was an experiment. One was learning, testing, trying, one's relationship with God. 'We are personalist', he said, more than once. The Staretz was a person, a person tested and proven in his spirituality. The monks would need another when Sophrony passed on; one would emerge. One could not predict who he would be. God is ineffable and effective (that reading at supper had been trying to make sense of the same sort of thing). A monk cannot think of what God is like, nor know how to address him; but a monk's duty every day was to allow God's grace to settle on him and illuminate him. One must offer oneself out of a personal desire to do so: faith must flow from free will. One must love the person of God: the business of being a monk is not abstract. 'Philosophy', he said, 'does not save anyone: only the grace of God can save.'
Or one might find the library. It is run by a Swiss monk. Now middle-aged, he was destined for the law as a child. He recalls that at school he much admired the British RAF and their Spitfires, when he read about the war, in which his country played only the role of useful refuge.
He was a teenager when he read Vladimir Lossky's, The Way of a Pilgrim. 'Probably the best summary of Orthodox theology then available', says Father Symeon. 'I read it in Lausanne, and so I went to Paris to meet the author. No, I did not telephone him first. Such a thing would not have occurred to me. I was young. It was New Year's Eve when I arrived at his apartment - I don't remember how I knew where it was and the family was celebrating the engagement of one of their children. There was dancing and so on. They kindly asked me in.'
The young Swiss was told about Father Sophrony, in the suburbs of the city, and he went to visit. That was in 1951. He felt himself powerfully drawn to the new world of Orthodoxy which was opening up before him. He had to pursue his legal studies, and made the grade. But by 1958 (the year of Lossky's death), he had joined Sophrony's burgeoning community.
There is no saying what the different qualities of mind are
which different national circumstances create. This book has been in part an account of the Egyptian and Celtic minds and the way they have diverged from the West European mainstream. But when a Swiss lawyer - hot from the land of Zurich's numbered accounts and Einsiedeln's wedding-cake cherubims - can see the ordinary - extraordinary - good
sense or beyond-sense of the Orthodox faith of Russia, Thessalonika and the Sinai Desert, we know that wonders will never cease, nor the human enigma ever be pinned down.
His monastery strikes me as representing everything a modem monkish establishment can offer. It is open, tradi tional, prayerful, hospitable. The guest is welcome to come; he or she will be amongst people who know what they are about. He or she will be amongst pilgrims, but not amongst people who are endlessly in quest of something elusive. He or she will meet certainty which is not complaisance. He or she will be allowed to visit a community which lets visitors come and share, and yet knows how to preserve its own familial privacy (not least by keeping itself very much to itself during certain periods of the year).
Father Symeon took me to fetch something from his room. He had some sort of little inhaler - very Swiss - for his chest cold. He had books and post cards and a jury-rigged light to read them by. The room was in the old rectory. It was tidy, fusty, stuffed. In the corner, neatly tucked into a space created by an old-fashioned curtain rail, a small bird had made its nest.
There was a burly skinhead drawing pavement pictures in chalk: Mrs Thatcher as a paunchy boxer; Clint Eastwood being macho. In the corner of the labyrinth of concrete and ramps which leads to the covered market, a ghetto-blaster the size of a mini car was pumping out a robot-thump of music whilst kids body-bopped. As if they had tailored it to a Catholic city, a burger-bar was advertising its adventure toward fried fish by saying on its hoardings, 'Why wait till Friday?' Liverpool is a depressed city, but within a minute's walk of Lime Street Station, there is plenty of vigour amongst the dereliction.
That morning, a taxi had taken me out from the city centre to Little Crosby, just before the rather politer suburbs of Liverpool begin, and then peter out into flat countryside. A priest told me there that Father Thomas, whom a friend had told me about, and who is often described as living an eremitical life, had moved on from his old address, and I should go out to a convalescent home in a village a few miles further on, where he now lived in a hermitage.
If I could find some taciturn old man full of prayer and quiet, who would perhaps not want to talk, but might indulge me with a word or two, or even be glad of chat, so much the better. I could see the hermitage itself in my mind's eye: small, wooden, sparse; perhaps like a slightly expanded shed on an allotment, or a mildly domesticated cricket pavilion. I saw it as the kind of place that Thomas Merton managed to organize for himself at the end of his long struggle with himself and his abbot.
The taxi dropped me at a vast Victorian pile surrounded by parkland. Nothing happened at first when I rang the bell, and then a smiling Sister said that there was a man living in the grounds but she didn't know where. Then another was fetched, Sister Madeline, who smiled even more and told me the way to get there, and said there used to be a gate with a little piece of wood on a string which you pulled to lift the latch, but she didn't know if it was still there.
She pointed towards a classic walled vegetable garden which is now an informal monastic enclosure. The wall is rather lower than one might expect, considering its original purpose. Three or four very woolly sheep were grazing in one fenced area, and a big old black and white horse in another. The building reminded me of things I'd seen in a hippy tome, Shelter, published in California. It had the pioneer and the bijou and the imaginative all decently under control, looking like a slightly ramshackle Swiss chalet, like the housing of an abandoned cuckoo clock. It would not have satisfied a Dane or an East-coast American looking for a weekend of rustic life, but it had a greater panache. It was also surrounded by bits of other buildings which might one day be merged with it.
Here, a pile of wood; there some glass. Under its eaves, which overhung the pathway, there were great planks of wood, the thickness of railway sleepers, to provide dry footing. There was no front door, but inset in one of the sides was a large door which had come from some much older building, and beside it some useful notices. Firstly, one could attend the proper Benedictine hours if one felt like it, though op one or two days next month there would be no noon prayers. If there was no one around, one was to go in and make oneself at home. I knocked. A man came to the door. Without surprise, though I do not think he had heard me knock, and did not know I was coming, he took the cigarette from his mouth, smiled, and welcomed me inside.
He was carrying panes of glass, which he was cutting into squares for a lean-to greenhouse set against the enclosing wall.
I made myself a cup of coffee, whilst he went on cutting a pane of glass on the floor. He crouched over it, with grey sparse but boisterous hair and lively eyes. He had hawkish good looks, just a little gone to seed. A copy of the New Statesman, quite elderly, yellowed, was open at an article not notably monastic. There were stray newspaper clippings. The first-floor room, kitchen at one end, meeting place at the other, was very long, with big windows set diagonally, high in the eaves. It had a backwoods feel to it, mostly because the A of the roof has not been blocked by a ceiling.
A large pipe ran up the wall and across the roof timbers: it is the chimney of an oil-drum stove. The big refectory table, comfortably large for fifteen people at least, is in cherrywood, and made from the same Ampleforth tree which made the altar in the tiny chapel downstairs. The vegetables are chopped on slate slabs which came out of demolished grocers' shops in Liverpool. The timbers for the main frame - good, square, pine timbers - came from the docklands area, which has for years been in chronic decline, and whose demise has been the central Liverpool heartache for decades. The tiles on the roof came from a block of flats built in the 'sixties, but built so badly for the poor of Liverpool, that it was soon demolished. Tom and his friends got there in time to roof their monastery with it.
Tom Cullinan, an urbane, friendly man who has the strength to question and live with uncomfortable answers, is an excellent symbol of the strength and weaknesses of the Benedictine Order. That is not to say he is representative: he is a rare bird. But it is clear that he intends to be an authentic monk, and an authentic Benedictine monk, at a time when these are difficult things to be.
Benedict asserted that a monk's first duty was the work of God (opus dei): he meant by this the business of praying, or fitting oneself for prayer. He did not mean doing good works in the community, or spreading the word as a preacher, or teaching the children of the well-to-do, all of which especially the latter - modem Benedictine monks do, and nowhere more famously than at Ampleforth, the monastery to which Tom Cullinan belongs, and which he left in order to found Ince Benet, his homesteaded hermitage.
But the work of God that a monk does is quite particular in the matter of time and space, according to Benedict. A monk must be stable: he lives in one monastery and does so for ever. Only one main source of change enters his life: his Abbot. Benedict's Abbot is a very powerful man, Jesus present in the enclosure, and can command his monks as he pleases (though with discretion, and his community's interests always in his mind).
Benedict sees monks working with their hands because there are jobs which must be done, and which it is better to do in the monastery than to deal with the outside world in order to get them done, but not in pursuit of some hippy ideal of self-sufficiency.
Ampleforth Abbey, which Tom Cullinan entered as a young man, has been a public school for around a hundred years. It began as a small enterprise and had every right to claim that school-mastering was an extremely Benedictine activity. By the time Dom Thomas was thirty, there were over seven hundred boys at the school, and many of the monks had come to question whether being paid to serve the educational needs of an elite - albeit, or perhaps particularly, a professedly Christian elite - was quite right for a community devoted to poverty of spirit and renunciation of the world.
After a time, Tom Cullinan was allowed to go off to a parish in Liverpool with four monks, to start a new community. From there they decided that they ought to build somewhere of their own: a specific, monastic building, and the result was Ince Benet (Ince from the immediate locality, and Benet as the old English for Benedict). But the five original pioneers became one, and the monastery became a hermitage. Tom became a hermit because that is what a monk is if he is not in a community. 'In fact, of course, a Benedictine without a community is a nonsense', he says with a smile. Benedict, like Basil before him, was a monastic founder, not a paradigm for ascetics.
He thinks of his hermitage as a skete in the Creek Orthodox manner: a house which is open to prayer. He says Ampleforth acceded to his request to start a new monastery out of its strength and well-being. 'It was large enough in numbers and happy to admit a small venture in another form of monastic life.'
Tom - in setting up a new institution, however small - is free to develop that institution in whatever way chance and his own will allow. In other words, he has the difficulty of deciding what an authentic Benedictine life might be at this moment, and for him, and for those - whoever they are and will be - that come to him. 'The world has great need of monastic institutions', he says. 'I think what I would like to do is be here, keeping the hours and observing silence most of the time, and living an orderly routine, and then if people would like to share that at any time, for as long or as little as they like, they are welcome to do so.'
Modern man is above all things terrified of the wilderness within: we fill it with business and activity. And yet we know that we must find and allow the stillness within us to grow. We need, each of us, to come to terms with the aloneness of our condition; and, contradictorily, with our hunger for community. Monasteries - though not hermits in their caves are where aloneness and community are explored with unique concentration, by professionals.
The monastery is nowadays a place where we can be sure that the wilderness-within is understood, loved, respected, cherished, explored, but not feared. The monk remains a desert-dweller. Even the Egyptian monks, who are making the desert around their monastery bloom, are, at the heart of their enterprise, returning to the monastery where they send prayers from their private wilderness.
The emerging theology of Vatican II does not allow monks their ancient dislike of the world, or their triumphalism about their route to heaven. Its most remarkable implication for monks is that they no longer have a rationale for turning their backs on the world. Instead they must love even the non-Christian, as being - like them - God's creatures. And as they seek utility, they have had to learn that by and large the world prefers them to be in their monasteries and on their knees: we do not much need them as social workers. We also need them to be silent, even if nowadays this will be a voluntary silence. We need them to be enclosed, because only then are they preserving remarkable, separate sanctuaries.
To be thoroughly monastic and world- and life-enhancing, whilst staying firmly and quietly in their enclosures: that is the way forward for the monks. Yet monasteries can preserve everything we need of them, and everything monks need of them, even if their doors are open.
Already, in Tom Cullinan's hermitage, which is open to those who think they can make use of its silence, we have a model. Perhaps even Taizé. is a model. Many of the Benedictine monasteries I visited - with the invitation they extend to the outside world to share a church, cloister, refectory - are already providing a thoroughly monastic and thoroughly practical service to the world. I have met Cistercians who think it may answer a call within that Order.
Curiously, it is the least liberal, least noisy, least free and easy places which can manage this openness the best. A monastery in which people must be silent, possibly hungry and short of sleep, is not likely to attract to its enclosure the sort of people who would make life difficult for the monks and their own private requirements for aloneness and community. A strict monastery would be self-selecting for mature, or at least silent, people to come as visitors. It is a quiet and strict monastery which would attract visitors of a kind to realize that the most precious thing in a monastery is the monastic vocations being nurtured there, and that only after that requirement is met, the needs of the outside world merit attention.
I visited monks and monasteries as a spiritual tourist, as an outsider who did not share the fundamental premise of faith of the men I spoke to. But I understand well enough, and felt, the charm, value and perhaps necessity of there being places where people 'in the world' can live for a time in the wilderness. Already, people are choosing to die amongst
religious people - in at any rate a spiritual atmosphere - in hospices. Already, thousands of men and women go and stay in or near monasteries for their spiritual nourishment, rather as people once looked to them for food and shelter for their bodies. I am one of thousands who have much to thank modem monasteries for.
In France, Britain, Spain, Italy and Portugal there is no monastery which has been continuously occupied by monks for more than five hundred years. Since the Reformation in the sixteenth century, every country in Europe has been assailed by Reformation, Revolution or anti-clericalism: each has brought disruption, but also wider distribution, of the monastic virus.
Yet the monasteries keep getting built, renewed, repopulated. In Africa now there is a rapid expansion of the monastic life. After the Second World War, there was a big increase in the USA. And it seems that it is always too early to write off the monastic adventure in Western Europe, where it has survived and often intensified against all odds. The Carthusians, for instance, saw a great decline in numbers of monks, from seven hundred at the end of the nineteenth century to perhaps four hundred in the mid-eighties. But even so, there is a steady tiny trickle of novices, and though one or two houses have been closed, in at least one case it now seems that the closure may have been premature, as the Cistercians now believe their one recent closure may have been.
It is tempting to feel that there must have been greater days than now for the monastic spirit. But if we take from the great medieval houses those who were there involuntarily, or for reasons far removed from the prayer-life, then the real figures of prayerful monks for the two centuries might not be quite so far apart, or might even swing in favour of ours.
Some of the very greatest eleventh-century English houses possessed thirty-odd full choir monks at their very peak. The biggest was only a hundred or so strong. And this was the century when, following a vast Norman injection of numbers, monasticism was at its strongest. The evidence of the power of the institution is phenomenal: from the low point in 943 when, says Knowles, 'there was scarcely a single fully regular monastic community, in 1216 there were over a hundred large monasteries of black monks, some seventy abbeys of Cistercians, and a multitude of lesser communities and groups, to say nothing of the quasi-monastic families of the regular canons, themselves almost as numerous as the monks.'
He puts the peak of the population graph as occurring at about 1150, with five thousand black monks and perhaps the same amount again of Cistercians if one adds together in the latter case the choir monks and lay brothers. That gives us, he suggests, a total number of 'religious' (monks and canons) of about fifteen thousand, implying by that between one and two per cent of the adult male population of England.
The picture was roughly similar on the continent. The decline, when it came, was not attributable merely to lack of vocations: more likely, the revenue of the abbeys was falling, and the inhabitants thought to eke out their wealth across as small and as aristocratic a community as possible. In many places, the Abbot was gobbling up two-thirds and more of the community's income.
Southern shows us a glimpse of the great Abbey of Mont St Michel in the early fourteenth century. Forty monks lived in the great pile heaped on its rock in the vast flat estuary, then as now powerfully attractive to visitors. But there were a further fifty monks scattered around the monastery's lands, in priories as far afield as Cornwall. These outposts made Ł7,000 a year available to the main abbey, but spent Only Ł2,000 themselves.
By the fifteenth century, the Benedictine Order was less attractive to benefactors than the many more urban, straightforward little houses in which lived monks who would also pray for one's soul. A Benedictine cost three times as much a year to endow as some more humble canon, say an Augustinian: no wonder the latter began to be much more common.
By the time of the late fifteenth century, the numbers in most monasteries - even famous ones - would be below twenty.
And yet the picture of a peak in activity in the twelfth century, and a decline in succeeding ones, can be exaggerated. The expansion of the Cistercian abbeys was very rapid indeed in the first hundred years (1100:0; 1200: 525) - but all the same there were nearly 700 Cistercian abbeys in 1300, 712 in 1400 and 742 in 1500. Yet Lekai reminds us to be modest in our assumptions about the numbers in each monastery: perhaps fifteen choir monks and twenty lay brothers would be a fair guess, he suggests, as an average. In the eighteenth century, the biggest by far was Citeaux (only Clairvaux came close): in 1770 it had sixty monks, and many of them were very young. In 1972, its seventy members did not put it anywhere near the top of the numbers league.
There was a Europe-wide population of Cistercians of 11,600 in 1150; 20,000 in 1250. Thereafter, a decline in total numbers - though the number of abbeys would go on rising because fewer men were coming forward to be lay brothers.
The population cycle of the Engelberg Benedictine monastery can be sketched in as typical. In the thirteenth century there was an average of around 45; in the sixteenth about 12; in the seventeenth about 24. There were 50 monks in 1900; 129 in 1951; and there are 76 now. There have been 900 monks in 900 years at that monastery (though very many more boys - and now girls as well - received an education there, of course).
The modem population of monks is considerable. There are about 10,000 Benedictine monks worldwide, of whom 580 are in British abbeys. This represents a steady climb back to the pre-Vatican II figures after the exodus that followed the Council.
The modem Cistercian picture is that the Strict Observance monks in 1947 had 64 houses containing about 4,000 monks, which itself represented a considerable increase (of about 800 monks) over the figure for half a century before (and represents an average house population of over 60). After the war, and perhaps in part because of it, there was a vast expansion in Cistercian vocations, especially in the United States, whose population of Cistercians went from three hundred to a thousand. In the mid-sixties, the Cistercians lost many men, though they were expanding in Africa and elsewhere. In the early 'seventies there were around 3,500 Cistercians (of the Strict Observance) worldwide (average house population, a little over 40; average age 52).
Cistercians of the less numerous Common Observance have had less dramatic ebbs and flows in their populations; still there were 940 of them in 1891; rising gradually to 1713 in the mid-sixties, and then falling to 1547 in the mid-seventies. At each of these dates, they had, broadly speaking, 2,000 fewer monks than the Strict Observance.
A Cistercian of the Strict Observance, Father Uinseann 0 Maidin, writing in November 1983, says that the 1982 figures are the most recent he has. They show 3,050 monks in 1981 and 3,021 in 1982. But though the overall number of monks had fallen, the Order had seventeen more novices in 1982 than in 1981: an important sign, possibly. Of the monasteries at that time which had more than six postulants or novices, two are in the USA; three in Spain; two in Zaire; one each in Indonesia, the Philippines, Cameroun, and Belgium. This indicates an international spread which, if patchy, must be reassuring to the Order.
By 1983, the Order could boast a small increase to 3,034. Comparing 1982 with 1983 figures, in the ninety-one Cistercian houses of the Strict Observance, twenty-three had an increase in novices, as against twenty-two which showed a decrease. The monasteries in the Philippines and Indonesia had the biggest novitiates.
An outsider would probably look to overall numbers to know whether an Order was in good heart: but from the inside, the age profile of the community is a far greater concern. A small community of men in which the old and infirm are well matched by the young and vigorous would 'be far more satisfactory to an Abbot than a large one in which the liturgy suffered because of the business of running an infirmary.
The Cistercians reckon the average age in their order may be 55-60: that implies too few young men having to look after too many old ones. Monasteries have to deal with the problem as best they may. At Solesmes, one of the monks has taken a course in nursing in order to qualify the monastery as a state old people's home.
The relatively small total numbers of monks hide the considerable size of many modern monasteries: the medieval pattern of large numbers of scattered communities with small memberships is reversed today. The Cistercians and Benedictines can field monasteries of fifty, seventy and even ninety (Gethsemani, Merton's old monastery) and Spencer (also in the USA); and a hundred and four (Ampleforth). These get close to the figures boasted by Canterbury in its medieval height, when it was the premier monastery of north Europe.
Of course, there is the difficulty in assessing the quality of monastic life. Clearly, nowadays it is largely voluntary, in the sense that the men in monasteries are there because they have chosen between fairly acceptable alternatives.
Modern Abbots turn away the young and inexperienced as unsuitable: they want to see proof that a man can survive the world before encouraging him to leave it. Men with second- or third-rate minds no longer go to monasteries as an easy route to the priesthood: that practice has been frowned on for a couple of decades.
There are still occasional scandals. Periodically there are ructions as an Abbot here or there leaves to marry. More shattering - and amusing to the bystander - is the case of the Austrian abbot of a Cistercian community of the Common Observance - Rein, rich and ancient - who was reported in The Times on 8th March 1986 to have been borrowing enormous sums of money, running around with women, and generally cutting a thoroughly medieval dash, though with a Mercedes in place of a sprightly hunter. Some ten monks are reported to have left over the years, in protest.
But even in the most - rather more common - dedicated regimes, there is a higher turnover of novices than there used to be: more coming and going. And there is some anxiety amongst older heads as to whether the new, relatively relaxed, monasticism is quite what it was. Luckily we are free to let God, and history, judge that.
Merton and Knowles
Two modern monks - Thomas Merton and David Knowles epitomize the dilemmas facing modern monasticism in an age which believes in democracy and in science, and in particular believes in a science of the person and of human groups.
Two contrary tendencies have flowed from the new fashions: the impression amongst individuals that they must explore their own whims, fancies and will; and the feeling that man is a mechanical being, in the grip of his circumstances, environment and background, but essentially explainable. In the new age, one is bound to seek one's own very personal and particular identity; and one is quite likely to seek the advice of a pseudo-scientist to do so.
Merton and Knowles had analysts. But as though expressing the new problem people find in staying still and merging their lives and identities into that of a community, neither of them died in a monastery (one of them hadn't lived in one for years). Both spent much of their monastic careers wishing for a regime very different from the one they had adopted, and both were a great deal of trouble to their superiors.
It must be admitted that any monk who is extraordinarily good at being docile, prayerful, stable, and all the other monastic virtues, stands a very good chance of dying unknown, and loved only by those of his community privileged to share a sense of his vocation. He will probably have been a quiet monk. He will not be a monk of whom things are known by the outside world, unlike the case of our two writers in whom the reclusive had to become secondary.
Equally, no institution, not even the monastic one, can advance without rebels. Unquiet spirits are the mucky grease on which the smoothest organizations are wont to ease their way into the future.
Both m en wrote about monastic life a great deal, and their work is likely to create in others the kind of stability which they did not find for themselves. In the case of both men, it is possible for an outsider, a non-monastic, to feel what may well be an unjustified irritation: in the face of difficulties these men broke what we would like to see as a monastic rule: for a monk, personal difficulties should be solved monastically. It is a hard counsel and perhaps impossible: but the alternative is to have monks who do not know, and of whom we do not know, whether the monastic life is satisfactory, in the long haul, warts and all. A monk seeking help outside a monastery is like a politician advertising the merits of the National Health Service whilst buying private medicine for his family. We do not expect him and his to stay well; but he ought to be content to find cures within the institution he boasts of.
In the case of Merton, however, it is possible to feel that a certain kind of betrayal was going on. Auberon Waugh, in his review ('Merton: Times a-changing', Sunday Telegraph, 11 January 1981) of Monica Furlong's biography of Merton, charts the upset very eloquently. People read Merton's account of his early Cistercian days (Elected Silence, 1949) with a good deal of pleasure. 'It was a profoundly moving book, describing the joys and tribulations of one of the strictest forms of monastic observance . Not the sort of life you or I might choose, but jolly interesting to read about in others. It was gratifying, too, to learn that these people were doing it all to atone for our sins, as well as to "escape from the prison of their own selfhood, as Merton happily put it.'
Then, notes Waugh, Merton begins to get special treatment: a hermitage, a record player (on which 'he played Bob Dylan records, claiming to perceive some profound significance in them'), visits to friends. He meets Joan Baez, and a liberal woman theologian. He is encouraged to be sceptical of his abbot's authority. 'His escape from the prison of self had become the familiar American search for self-identity ...
Having found himself to his own satisfaction, he decided that the monk's role was to lead protest about the war in Vietnam, poverty in Latin America, civil rights in the United States.'
He also writes nonsense, according to Waugh, who cites, convincingly enough, Merton's being very impressed 'in Madras by the enormous lingam (phallus) of Shiva "which stands alone ... black, heavy, tumescent ... It is washed by the sea and the sea is woman: it is no void, no question".'
The anxiety raised in Waugh's mind by the transformation is that if Merton is, at the end of his life, just a silly, self-deluded man, it may be the case that he was these things all along. And then what is the standing of Elected Silence?
'Miss Furlong approves of (the) later, 'hip" Thomas Merton and explains the earlier, ascetic Merton in terms of insufficient mother's love, rootless home background and guilt over having fathered a bastard child while an undergraduate at Cambridge ... sadly, I feel I must now concur in her judgement on the earlier Merton, if not in her enthusiasm for these later manifestations.
Monica Furlong's book paints a clear picture of Merton's growing disaffection from his Order, and in particular of a long struggle he had with his first abbot there. The abbot is painted as severe, repressive, unbending. Actually, the abbot's resistance to Merton amounts to little more than a superior maintaining the Cistercian tradition. It would be a peculiar Cistercian abbot who would be prepared to countenance Merton's desire to live a life which no Cistercian had ever lived before him. The Cistercian is an enclosed cenobite; Merton wanted to be a mobile hermit.
By the end of his life, Merton was contemplating leaving his monastery altogether, at least for a while. He claimed to want more solitude, though it would probably have been a solitude mixed with a good deal of activity in the world. He himself recognized the personal spiritual dangers of the excited kind of life he was increasingly leading; a nd he recognized that the Order might be damaged by some of the modern forms monastic life was taking.
It is very likely that, sooner or later, either the Order or Merton would have insisted that their association end. Merton might have grown deeper into his desire to speak forth on the great issues of the day; he might have grown out of it. He was changing fast, at a time when change was in the air. Who knows where it might have ended.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger, of the Cistercian Genesee Abbey in New York State, was a former monk at Gethsemani, with Merton; indeed, he was taught by Merton (and, like Merton, was novice master there). He writes in Cistercian Studies (vol XVII, 1982-) that Merton once said, in 1955, that he was 'not satisfied with the way things are going around this place ... I'm clearing out of here and going to the Camaldolese.' This was the kind of remark he was wont to make to novices he was training in the difficult art of being Cistercians, with their intense requirement of love of place and stability. But, says Bamberger, a good number of the novices went on to be professed monks, 'having been helped on the way by him'. It seems that being around Merton taught at least these men how to take his utterances (we are not told whether others found them unsettling). Either he was so charismatic a leader that people allowed him a special licence of individuality they would not expect or accept for themselves, or they spotted an immature side to a great man and indulged it, and grew in the observation of human fallibility.
Bamberger then goes on to note how Merton loved and respected the difficult old abbot, and remarks that they met every week, privately, and that, extraordinarily, it might seem, Merton was the abbot's confessor.
However, even if Monica Furlong's account of some of the detail is flawed, the seed of doubt has been sewn. We accept spiritual and monastic literature as helpful because it pleases us, and as authentic because written by saintly and holy men. If one of these then shows himself to be a clot in his thinking about things we all know about, we are bound to wonder. if he might be just as untrustworthy on the matter of prayer or our relations with the Almighty. Perhaps behind the great spiritual literature - behind the desire for monastic life altogether may not there merely lie unhappy childhoods, crankiness, or worse?
Looking at the four great volumes of the work of Dom David Knowles, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University - one for The Monastic Order in England and three for The Religious Orders in England - is to feel the solidity, permanence and steadiness of the monastic tradition. Here was the first monk-priest to be a Fellow of a Cambridge college since the reign of Charles II, and the first priest ever to hold that professorship.
But the facts of Father David's life seem, at this distance, quite extraordinary. He was ordained at Downside Abbey, where he had become a monk sometime in the very early twenties. Within a decade he had ideas of starting his own more contemplative monastery in Australia or England: he had come to believe that Benedictine monks should not be running a public school. He had a group of followers and seems to have required a good deal of loyalty and discipline in them. His abbot was irritated enough to send him to Ealing Abbey (which is also a school).
There he met a lady - a convert to Catholicism, an ascetic, and a medical student specializing in psychiatry - whom he believed to be a saint and who diagnosed him as schizophrenic. He left his monastery (thereby in effect excommunicating himself and after some time began his Cambridge career. After a good deal of toing and froing he was declared an ex-claustrated monk (a monk who is not required to live in a monastery: a very Catholic idea) and the position was somewhat regularized. He never again lived in a monastery, preferring the college to the cloister.
His books are monuments to kindly orthodoxy: respectful, mildly sceptical, detailed. They describe the background to the lives of thousands of monks, living within a tradition hundreds of years old, not one of whom would have thought Professor Knowles' life story remotely credible.
Both these lives bring the very possibility of monasticism into doubt. They do not of course imply that monasticism will stop happening; but they do raise the awful possibility that in this century, wanting to be a monk may come to be seen as being just another problem.
Actually, that is not likely to be the case. Lurking just below our modern belief in science are all our older understandings and accommodations on the nature of man. There are those, of course, who believe he is a spiritual animal. Even those of us who are sceptical of that sort of definition can often come close to it; we at least behave as though man was a spiritual animal. More: many of us believe man to be an animal in whom life is only tolerable for men and women who live as though they believed mankind to be spiritual.
I have met very few people who mock the monks and monasteries of the modem world. I have also met very few who actually believe what monks profess to believe, say about Jesus, or the desert. But there is so positive and definite a hunger for a spiritual dimension in mankind - a hunger as old as the species - that the monk retains his perennial fascination.
Prayer and Purpose
Reading St Benedict's Rule - not trying to interpret it overmuch, but just simply reading it - it is clear that in the sixth century a monk entered into the service of the Lord with the expectation of salvation above all others in his mind.
A monk is a man who wants to go to heaven. So he needs to believe heaven exists, and that his profession will take him &.-here. These are peculiar beliefs, for all who do not share them, and beliefs which many of us sceptics are profoundly envious of.
But the power of these ideas becomes very clear to anyone who spends time amongst monks.
Thousands of feet above sea level, at the top end of the winding road and the mountain train, and at the bottom end of the cable cars which run up to snow slopes where the largely godless go skiing, there is the Swiss monastery of Engelberg.
In the sanctuary of the abbey church there, the custodian of the monastery's treasures unlocks a cupboard. Inside there is a casket, and within that, a thirteenth-century crucifix in gold. At its four points are biblical scenes. At its edges there are various glowing stones.
A monk knows that his fellows have given him up for dead at the Benedictine monastery here when they come to him and hold this crucifix out for his last farewell. It is a signal, an amicus mortis (friend in death). The degree to which a monk has been successful or lucky in his faith is the degree to which this moment is one for celebration.
'We had one man here who suffered badly at the end. As he
was dying we brought him the crucifix, and he stretched out his hand to it, and died so quietly and peacefully. A man does not feel shocked to have the cross brought to him, but protected', said my guide.
It is an inevitable theme. When Malcolm Muggeridge was visiting Nunraw Abbey for a television film he made in I967, there were still surviving there members of a peasant-monk tradition which has all but died within the past twenty years. It was simpler than anything which the really modem mind can produce. It was obedient, and more thoroughly penitential than is the taste today.
One such old man, an Irishman, told Mr Muggeridge that he had been in Scotland for twenty years, and for twelve years before that, a monk in an Irish Cistercian house. He said the work was indeed hard, out on the farm. But, 'You know the old saying that the Cistercian bed is hard to he on, but it's sweet to die on.' So he found the bed hard to he on? 'Oh, indeed I always have done, and to this day I do. That's the one consolation you get when you go to hospital - you get a lovely soft bed. You can sleep and sleep, and the last time I was in hospital the sister said she thought I was never going to waken. She said I slept for six days without break - so there you are. That is a fact!' But yes, the sweetness of the dying bed, 'Well, that's the reward of a monk's life. I suppose he comes into the monastery to die, or to learn how to die perhaps ... that's my purpose. I don't say it's everybody's perhaps, but if I didn't think I was going to get to heaven I wouldn't be here three days!'
A very much more intellectual young man, Father Hugh, told M@ Muggeridge (who was later to be converted to Catholicism, and perhaps in part because of his experiences at Nunraw), that the austerities, the physical austerities, did not strike a modem monk as being the hardship that the 'brush of temperaments' did.
Already then there were Nunraw monks who thought farming was not the best, the most relevant, way of earning the monastery's living. They should be, they thought, near to towns and factories in place and purpose.
That this flew in the face of the great monastic tradition of being as far from the cities as possible was neither here nor there. One young monk, Martin, tried to assess briefly the impression Muggeridge had gained that the young and the old men there were split', on generation lines, between the younger men who wanted greater relevance and those older ones for whom the old promise of salvation was strong enough. He thought that perhaps the monastery would have to face up to the calls for the organization to become less actually pastoral in terms of its living, and more metaphorically pastoral in terms of its purposes.
In fact, Martin and Hugh are still Nunraw monks, and the regime is still largely agricultural and enclosed. Some monks did leave the monastery, and of them at least one has made the relevance and usefulness of Christianity an important part of his life. For the rest, they speak to people who ask for conversation with them, but otherwise remain largely and mostly prayerful.
At least one British Cistercian monk has paid the price of the newish, and quite slight, contact with the outside world. He fell in love with a woman and had a long tussle with himself to discover whether his life should lie with her or the brotherhood. He remained a monk, and the relationship was very firmly called off. He suffered, he says, a good deal, but is glad that he had the experience, which showed him the feminine side of life, and - he rather thinks - of his own temperament.
The modern freedom of monks is, of course, relative (and not just a modern phenomenon). In at least one other case, I know of a monk who is very much in love with a woman, and she with him. They meet when they can, and their relationship is deeply passionate, but unconsummated, so far.
But love is a lesser distraction in most monasteries than the business of earning a living for the place: ministering to guests and benefactors; in the case of a Belgian Cisterdan, running a medium-sized brewery; running a big beef herd; administering a public school.
Doubtless, a subtle and shrewd abbot knows how to manage the talents and temperaments in his charge and at his disposal, just as any leader must. But a business chief need only do what is good for his business; the abbot must do that, but with an eye to the spiritual well-being of his brethren.
He will want to be sure that the people he thrusts into the practical side of his monastery's life are capable of combining the spiritual and prayer lives with the marketing and management lives.
A modern monk may have a modem mind's scepticism that he can know much about what heaven is like. He may even be a little doubtful that a monk is any more likely to see his Maker's face than the next man or woman; But he will need to believe in prayer as the centre of his life if he is to make sense of it at all. In this, the monkish life is unchanged, as it is unchanged in the keeping of the hours. in which a day is shaped and compartmentalized for prayer. Overwhelmingly, they would always have said, and say now, that their main purpose in life is prayer. It is what they uniquely dedicate themselves to. Prayerfulness is what a monk can achieve, and all that he can achieve, that other men have to relegate to a lesser role in their lives.
A monk who does not pray is like an actor without a stage, a civil servant without memoranda.
If you believe prayer to be important you are halfway to sympathizing with the monkish mission, because you can begin to see firstly that it might overwhelm someone, and secondly that it is as well for the world that someone concentrates on it. If you can bring yourself to believe that God requires of some people that their lives be dedicated to prayer, then you will probably either want to be a monk, or be close to monks for some of your time, or to support them in some way.
But the business of prayer reduces grown and intelligent
men to drivel when they pick up their pens. This is hardly surprising. In the long tradition of mystical writing fantastic allegory and physical metaphor has had to do for the ineffable. The language of physical love and of woundings, piercings, beloveds, and lovers resting between breasts (but translated to Christ and nuns) abounded.
This sort of directness is not possible now. Something more ethereal has to take its place, even though it involves very powerful and definite emotions and longings, and - perhaps psychological difficulties.
There is, of course, a definite national style to these things, and in some cultures the medieval mind is still alive and well, or at least seems to be. In Egypt or Greece, I have seen men come in from the fields to prayer, and believed them capable of a simple forcefulness in their spirituality which makes the mystical life seem as tangible as the dirt under their finger nails. But that might merely have been my spiritual tourism flourishing again.
I have seen Frenchmen striking attitudes of such pious intensity that it would be churlish to suppose they were not accompanied by some particularly ravishing gallic transcendentalism, at once austere, dynamic, chilly and elevated. But this might, again, be the impressionable Englishman at work in those grey Normandy buildings, with the straight, star slate roofs and the promise of a stylish lunch getting the better of him.
I am forced to try to come to grips with the Englishman at prayer, because I can listen to him with the advantage of knowing his language, both physical and mental, so much better.
But English reticence, combined with a certain reluctance to wear one's heart on one's sleeve, makes this a difficult enterprise. Downside Abbey has had a reputation as a cerebral sort of Benedictine establishment, yet even so a classic pleasantry there will stand for much of the English tradition:
MONK: Father Abbot, I thought I really ought to inform
you: I am having visions.
ABBOT: Oh no, no, Father; we definitely don't have
visions at Downside.
Dom Fabian Glencross, who told this piece of apocrypha in his
contribution to A Touch of God, an account of modern British monastic experience, wrote a touching story of a monk's lifelong difficulties with his way of life (and he wrote just before
his sudden and apparently unexpected death). He describes a Downside still heavily influenced by the long-departed spirit of Father David Knowles, with his desire for a rigorous, poor, disciplined, prayerful life, in contrast to the activeness of the life Knowles did not like to see at Downside (it is a famous school) and which Father Cairncross was to pursue.
But first, he read the great spiritual classics: 'Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and - for me the most satisfying of all - the English mystics. My Odyssey was made in an English ship.' He says that prayer at Downside then 'was a form of intellectual exercise, of an emotional experience'. I do not know what this can mean. Prayer is surely neither about data nor about inference, and is therefore not intellectual in the ordinary sense of the word.
But, he writes, 'prayer is not just a state of suspended animation, like a cow asleep on its feet, nor a form of athletic trick by which one achieves in some way a stretching of the person: what is so hard for an outsider to understand, so hard for someone who lives for his activities to believe in, is that prayer is positive at all. Yet it is like a drug: it brings you to know a new world; not a drug like L.S.D. which kills experience and finally man himself, but like love for a young wife or like writing poetry. Prayer gives you experience.' . He suggests that one can learn technique, almost from instruction books, but will soon pass on to the great Old Masters. Amongst the modern instructors he notes Thomas Merton.
Merton sets a high standard, and one which it seems fair to say he failed even more spectacularly than any man must. He was born to be all sorts of things, and highest on the list would be that he was born to be a writer, but he does not seem to have found it easy to follow this, his most famous, dictum: 'The only true joy is to escape from the prison of our own
serfhood . . . and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our minds.'
However, Merton, in his The Ascent to Truth, seems himself
to be in the mainstream of medieval spiritual thinking and teaching. A prayerful man is to forget his passion, discover detachment, and seated there he will also find God, or - rather be allowing God to dwell in him.
Just occasionally, at Citeaux, in the desert, at Nunraw, at Lerins, and in monasteries more than anywhere else, I have thought it possible that I was on the brink of prayer. If ever I should find that I can do it, or it happens to me, then I don't doubt I shall read the great manuals of prayer and try to find whether any of them have meaning for me, or can help me progress in the life of the soul.
I can easily imagine that it is incredibly important for some people, since it is no more or no less than being with God.
But I do not understand it, and I think it is wish-fulfilment, and not all my hours - my very respectful, pleasurable, and satisfying hours - with monks have made me feel otherwise. In fact, sadly, they have sharpened my awareness that I do not pray nor do I believe in the existence of him who might inspire me to.
However, it is not my inability to pray that means that I cannot understand monks. I was told by several of them that I could not understand monasticism, and would have nothing useful to say on the subject. And this not because I was not religious, I think. It was simply that to be a mature monk is an extraordinary process which requires not less than ten years; and without being one, how to describe what it might be like?
The Pelican History of the Church (comprising classics such as The Early Church, by Henry Chadwick, and Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, by R. W. Southern, and The Reformation by Owen Chadwick) are crucial and delightful reading. I found much pleasure and more in Paul Johnson's A History of Christianity (also Pelican), even easier delight in Bamber Cascoigne's The Christians (Granada, 1978), with Hugh Trevor-Roper's The Rise of Christian Europe providing a masterly gallop through the issues of the Christian empire between the second and fourteenth centuries.
For the most general survey of monastic history, David Knowles' Christian Monasticism (1969) is a brief and masterly account, in the World University Library, from Weidenfeld and Nicolson. One moves easily from that to his The Monastic Order in England, and the three volumes of his The Religious Orders in England. All of them are on a big scale, but very relaxed and readable too. There is a very scholarly and beautiful modern account of the European Christian monk, and his architectural influences, Monasteries of the World, by Christopher Brooke (with photographs by Wim Swaan), published by Omega Books (1982, from the original edition by Paul Elek in 1974). It has been remaindered at much less than half its original Ł30. Scholarly and gorgeous.
On the very earliest monastic issues, one must begin with Derwas J. Chitty's The Desert a City (St Vladimir's Seminary Press (SVS Press), St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, 575 Scarsdale Road, Crestwood, New York, 10707, USA), which turns up from time to time in second-hand bookshops. Gustave Flaubert's The Temptation of St Antony is delicious if you can take it (Penguin Classics).
For the earliest desert monks, Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert gives both a flavour of our most famous modem monk and of the famous early ones (1982, Sheldon Press, Marylebone Road, London NW1 4DU).
There are any number of books about Athos and the Orthodox tradition. Robert Byron (The Station) and Robert Curzon (Visits to Monasteries in the Levant) are both available in The Century Travellers reprint edition. Philip Sherrard's Athos, the Holy Mountain (1982, Sidgwick and Jackson) is attractive and accurate. The Greek government's own official guide, Mount Athos, by Sotiris Kadas (1980, Ekdotike Athenon).
The modem Athonite tradition is perhaps best sensed from Sophrony's The Monk of Mount Athos (which is about Staretz Silouan by his acolyte, and published by Mowbrays) and Wisdom from Mount Athos (the writings of Silouan, also edited by Sophrony, and published by the SVS Press).
Timothy (Kallistos) Ware's The Orthodox Church (I983, Pelican), and his The Orthodox Way (1981, Mowbrays), are extremely valuable, being authentic, but by an Englishman.
In other specific strands of monasticism, there are various Penguin Classics of Bede's work, and that of his contemporaries. Magnus Magnusson brings together much of the early island monastic story in his Lindisfarne.
L. J. Lekai's The Cistercians (1977, Kent State University Press) is wonderful and pretty sceptical considering it comes from a Cistercian. The Cistercian Alternative, by Dom André Louf (1983, Gill and MacMillan, Coldenbridge, Inchicore, Dublin) is regarded by the Order as thoroughly authentic, and the various works of Thomas Merton are of course required reading, though I often found that Monica Furlong's Merton (1980, Collins and currently by Darton, Longman & Todd) was a quick and convenient guide to his life.
The Carthusians are a more obscure Order, and Robin Bruce Lockhart's Halfway to Heaven, the most recent celebration of it, is too laudatory for my taste: still it is semi-approved and authoritative (1985, Thames/Methuen). They Speak by Silences, by a Carthusian (1980, Darton, Longman & Todd) is an account of a pre-Second World War Carthusian spirituality.
There are many books on Taiz'e, and the community would almost certainly find any of them a better (and certainly a more sympathetic) account than mine. Mowbrays publish The Story of Taizé, by J. L. G. Balado, and Brother Roger's Parable of Community, an explicit account of the rule by which his community lives.
On specifically modern monasticism, Geoffrey Moorhouse's Against All Reason (1972, Pelican) is an agreeable account of monasticism and the modern spirit. There are others: perhaps notably A Touch of God, Eight Monastic journeys, edited by Maria Boulding (1982, SPCK) and Consider Your Call (1978, SPCK). The first is a collection of personal monastic autobiographies, and the second a more organized and schematic response to the spirit of Vatican II. An overlapping world of literary monks and nuns is behind both.
For the spirit of Vatican II, one can try Vatican II, the Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (1977, Dominican Publications) or The Theology of Vatican II by the late Christopher Butler (1981, Darton, Longman & Todd).
As general reference works, one would be hard-pressed to beat the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, in whatever edition you can afford, and the Dictionary of Saints from the same Oxford University Press, or another, from Penguin.
If monastic tourism is your bag, then The Ordnance Survey's Monastic Britain might amuse. Roy Midmer's English Mediaeval Monasteries (1979, Heinemann/Book Club Associates) turns up in bargain shops.
If you fancy monastic fiction, Ellis Peters' series about Brother Cadfael of Shrewsbury in Macmillan and Futura is great fun, whilst Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose will stand alongside the Decameron and Erasmus's Praise of Folly as splendidly sceptical.