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   Inside Out - East Midlands: Monday February 7, 2005


Monks praying
Brother how art thou? The real big brothers in their solitude

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to exchange your lifestyle and become a monk? It's a radical move by anybody's standards.

One Cistercian monastery in Leicestershire is finding no shortage of candidates hoping to start a new life within the confines of its cloisters.

"To be a monk is to be a brother among brothers in a living and human community where friendship, mutual help and support play a vital role...

"Such a way of life demands great generosity and renunciation of oneself; its fruit is deep joy and peace." Mount St Bernard Abbey.

Life in a monastery couldn't be more different from the stressful world we live in, so perhaps it's unsurprising that the lure of a cloistered lifestyle is attracting record numbers of aspiring monks.

So why do monks renounce the outside world and how do they cope with the austerity of a life dedicated to prayer?

Inside Out goes behind the closed doors of Mount St Bernard Monastery in Leicestershire to investigate why it is having to turn away a growing number of applicants.

From dissolution to resurrection

England once boasted 54 Cistercian monasteries, but these closed their doors when they were dissolved by Henry VIII in the late 1530s.

Today the only Cistercian monastery in England is Mount St Bernard near Coalville.

Mount St Bernard - a peaceful retreat for the Cistercians

Mount St Bernard survives only because it is a relative newcomer, dating from the 19th Century.

It was founded in 1835 as a continuation of the dissolved Garendon Abbey, which provided a spiritual sanctuary between 1133-1538.

Mount Bernard is unique in being the first Catholic abbey to be founded in this country after the Reformation.

Designed by Augustus Pugin, the abbey has a real sense of solemnity and simplicity, with every element of the architecture echoing the austerity of the Cistercian order.

At one time up to 85 monks slept in the abbey's long dormitories, and spent a large part of their day in silence.

Cistercian living

The term Cistercian comes from the Latin "Cistercenses", referring to the name of the town Cîteaux (Latin Cistercium) where the order was founded.

The brothers are often referred to as "White Monks", after the colour of their habits.

Cistercian monks

The Cistercians were founded as an order in 1098. The order began in Citeaux near Dijon in Burgundy, France.

A total of 86 Cistercian abbeys were founded in Britain.

Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries between 1536-1540.

Mount St Bernard was founded in 1835 on land provided by Ambrose de Lisle, who was keen to re-introduce monastic life in England.

The first monks at Mount St Bernard were called Luke, Xavier, Augustine, Cyprian, Placid and Simeon led by Fr. Odilo Woolfrey.

The first monastery opened in 1837 and was followed by a new monastery designed by Pugin in 1844.

Mount St Bernard was given abbey status in 1848, and appointed the first English Abbot since the Reformation.

Other famous Cistercian monasteries include Fountains, Rievaulx, Kirkstall and Tintern.

The only convent of Cistercian nuns in Britain is at Stapehill near Wimborne, Dorsetshire. It has a community of 42 members.

The Cistercian way of life puts great emphasis on solitude and isolation.

The basic principle which sets the Cistercians apart was their desire to live more simply, in accordance with a literal interpretation of Saint Benedict's Rule.

Today's monks follow a lifestyle which has remained largely unchanged for the last 900 years, with a few differences.

They no longer sleep in dormitories, but in their own cells, enabling greater solitude and individual prayer.

However the monks at Mount St Bernard still take lifelong celibacy vows, and they are committed to spending the rest of their lives in poverty and celibacy.

Prayer, work and reading form the three cornerstones of the brothers' lives.

Work is highly revered by the Cistercian order, especially manual labour, and much of the day is spent in sustaining the monastery's needs.

The type of work ranges from dairy farming, bee keeping, and looking after the orchard to pottery, building maintenance and running the shop and guest house.

New monks start as postulants for six months, followed by two years as a novice, after which they take their first vows.

Their first vow is for a minimum of three years after which they can leave or choose to take their solemn vows for life.

The brotherhood

"If you are going to be a Christian at all, you might as well live entirely for God." Blessed Cyprian Tansi, monk at Mount St Bernard, 1950-1964.

The monks at the abbey have a long tradition of service to God - and one former monk, Iwene Tansi, was beatified by the Pope.

Newcomers continue to join the monastery, perhaps reflecting the desire of applicants to escape from the rat race and pursue a more spiritual vocation.

More and more monks are increasingly coming to the monastery, having led conventional lives.

Brother Michael has just taken his first vows - he's the abbey's Estate Manager, having completed his degree in Environmental Studies.

Monks praying
A special calling - monks are often called to their vocation

Brother Thomas used to work for Marconi on transistor development, whilst Brother Martin was formerly a freelance photographer with National Geographic magazine.

Father John-Paul has been at the abbey for ten years, and recently completed a Theology degree by correspondence course.

He took his lifetime vows five years ago, and now works as the monastery's archivist.

Last year, he was ordained as a priest, something he dreamed of during his childhood.

"I told my mum when I was 12 that I wanted to be monk, so I got a clip around the ear and I didn't mention it again till I was 15, by which time I'd got involved with the local parish.

"So I went off to study for a priesthood at 16. I came from a Catholic family, but they were a bit shocked and surprised.

"Some were worried whether I was running away, but gradually as they've come and stayed at the monastery, they like what I do, and they appreciate that I have my own life."

Growing interest

The abbey currently has a full quota of 35 brothers, and has 50 applications to join the monastery every year.

It is now having to turn away applicants because there are so many wanting to opt for a monastic life.

So what are the attractions of the monastic life to those seeking a career change?

Most have a calling or vocation from an early age. Father John-Paul realised that he was going to be a monk when he was sitting in his class at school.

The teacher was talking about monastic life, and he was thinking about the romantic idea of being a monk, "Something just clicked and I knew," he says.

Brother Michael also always thought that he'd become a monk, even when he had girlfriends, and has no regrets so far.

"Once you're here, you settle into the routine. You don't worry about not going out and what you're going to do in a few years time. You live more in the present."

The monks pray seven times daily, starting at 3.30am

Living in the protected abbey environment is no soft option either, as Brother Michael points out.

"All the challenges you have to face outside, you have to face on the inside here too - living with 36 people who are all different, with different opinions, and personality clashes."

"You have to remember when you come to a monastery, you're not leaving everything behind so whatever the problem was you're running away from, it's still with you when you come here.

"Anyone who comes to a monastery to run away, would soon be runnning out again. If it's not your vocation, you just wouldn't survive in this kind of place."

Father John-Paul agrees - life here is for those dedicated to prayer but monks lead very full lives, including producing a web site, working in the shop and running the farm.

"The life is austere, but it's not a prison - it's a joyous place. I felt that this was the only thing going to fulfill me."

A strict routine

"We surrender our lives into the hands of God and never take them back". Thomas Merton.

The monks' strict daily routine is marked by the two bells in the tower which sound to tell the monastic community when to eat, sleep, work and pray.

Monks eating
A life of prayer and dedication to God

It's a long day - the brothers rise at 3.15am and start their work at 9.15am, after prayers and vigils. They work and pray throughout the day until 8pm, when they retire to bed.

The monks try to be self-sufficient, running their own 200 acre dairy farm with 90 cows, and producing most of their own eggs, fruit and vegetables.

Prayer is the focal point of the monastic day. Every monk spends part of his day reflecting and meditating on the words of scripture, a practice known as "Lectio Divina".

At regular intervals during the day and night the monks come together to praise God in a ceremony called the "Opus Dei" or "Work of God", consisting largely of prayers, hymns, psalms and readings.

The monks also welcome visitors to their guest house including friends, relatives and those interested in retreat or a monastic way of life - there were 5,000 guests last year.

Guests can stay up to five days, and there is no charge, although the Abbey encourages visitors to make a contribution to the running of the guest house.

Test of faith

For more than 900 years the brothers have taken their vows of poverty, obedience and celibacy.

Brother Michael
Brother Michael contemplating a life of prayer to God

But in modern times some would argue that the vow of celibacy tests the monks' faith to its limits.

Young Brother Michael knew what to expect when he joined the monastery, "I'd spent two and a half years already looking at the life, so I knew what I was getting into".

"Also the vows are only for three years, which is a further preparation to see whether I want to make the final commitment to stay here for life."

In time every monk at the abbey will end up in the monastery's communal coffin.

The coffin comes out purely for funerals, and then is returned to the abbey's attic.

For the monks being interred, this is not the end of their lives, but the beginning of a new spiritual journey that extends into the after life.

Mount St Bernard

A monk's typical day

Script from bible


Afternoon and Evening

3.15am - Rise.

3.30am - Vigils, silent prayer, reading, breakfast.

7.00am - Lauds - morning prayers.

8.00am - Community Mass and Tierce.

9.15am - Morning Work.

12.00 noon - End of morning work.


12.15pm - Sext or lunchtime prayers.

12.30pm - Midday meal.

2.15pm - Afternoon work.

5.30pm Vespers - evening prayers, psalms and hymns.

6.00pm - Supper, prayer and reading.

7.30pm - Compline - end of day canticles, prayer and benediction.

8.00pm - Retire.

See also ...

Inside Out: East Midlands
Castle Living

On the rest of Inside Out
Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Choir

Dissolution of the monasteries

On the rest of the web
National Forest
New Advent
Mount St Bernard Abbey

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Jon Lewis

John Sanderson
I am the father of Fr.John Paul. It was a shock when he wanted to be a Priest, no wife, no grandchildren, but a monk! that was something else, an alien lifestyle. However 10 years on we couldn't be happier for him, we see him a couple of times a year, and he phones regularly, it is not as austere as it used to be and he is content. The lifestyle seems to suit him and his fellow monks.

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