First Person

Diary of a Monastic Retreat

A few years ago, I undertook a retreat in a Cistercian monastery on a small, remote island off the coast of Wales. I had flown 17,000 kilometres from Sydney to London and had made a train journey to the Welsh seaside village of Tenby. Then, I boarded a ferry for a twenty-minute ride to Caldey Island, home to a monastic community of Cistercian monks (above). The monastery was to be my dwelling place for the week, with no internet and no phone calls.

The ferry docked and I stumbled onto the island’s pier. Brother Titus, the monastery’s guestmaster, had earlier sent me an email giving directions to the abbey. I was to follow the sign to Caldey village and meet him at the post office, where he would take me to the abbey’s guesthouse and help me get settled in for the week.

I walked up the landing to the beach and followed a weathered blue sign to a trail that weaved its way through some woods. After a hundred metres or so of wandering the solitary path, I entered an elevated clearing where I could see the white walls and round, brown towers of the abbey.

I did not have long to wait in front of Caldey’s only public letterbox before Br Titus walked up to me in his white habit and brown cowl. He cupped my cold hand in a warm clasp and bade me welcome before leading me down a narrow pathway to an aged wooden door. As we wandered along the path, lined with trees and shrubs, he told me how he had been a rally-car driver in France before pursuing the life of a Cistercian monk.

As we entered the guesthouse, I was led into the reading and recreation room, a large, well-furnished space containing two long tables with books spread across them. At one end of the room, beneath a set of French-style windows, there was a coffee table with even more books. It was a literary paradise! There was also a piano. During my stay I would tinker away on it, composing melodies inspired by the birds I heard on my walks around the island.

Next, Br Titus led me into the monastic cloister, stopping at the refectory where I would have meals with the monks. He pointed to a lectern raised above the floor and described how a monk would read from a holy book at lunchtime. Then he led me to the chapel, a space of silent prayer and meditation, where daily Mass was said and the Divine Office sung.

We left the cloister and headed back to the guesthouse. I collected my backpack from the guest room and Br Titus led me up a set of wooden stairs which seemed as old as the creaking sound they made. He showed me to my bedroom and left me to get settled.

Soon after, I walked downstairs, entered the kitchen, made some tea and returned to the guest common room. I nestled into a leather chair and my eyes scanned the books on the coffee table: T.S. Eliot, G.M. Hopkins, G.K. Chesterton, Cardinal Newman and C.S. Lewis—an eclectic representation of Western Christian wisdom! I noticed the monastic timetable lying on top of Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World?

Outside, sunlight dazzled off the leaves of a branch hanging over the window. Gnarled shadows from neighbouring trees criss-crossed on the lawn and in the distance I could hear Arctic seagulls call and respond in a lonely hark-hark antiphony. The warm sunlight rested on my face and arms, my breathing deepened and my eyes fluttered. I let them close as I settled further down into the chair. I felt completely at home and wanted for nothing.

Regularity in prayer is very important in the Rule of Saint Benedict, which is followed at the abbey. He stipulated that the Divine Office should be sung seven times a day:

Lauds (3.30 a.m.)

Prime (6 a.m. with Mass)

Terce (8.30 a.m.)

Sext (11.30 a.m.)

None (1.30 p.m.)

Vespers (5 p.m.)

Compline (8 p.m.)

I wanted to rise for Lauds, and when the 3.15 a.m. bells rang the next morning, I managed to resist the urge to remain in my warm bed. I forced myself up, splashed my face with cold water, dressed for the day and made my way down the creaking stairs before entering the cloister.

Along the passageway leading to the chapel, I saw several monks ahead of me. The sounds of our footsteps intruded upon the early morning quiet, making polyrhythms on the wooden floorboards. Br Titus waved cheerfully at me from the chapel entrance and motioned to me to step inside.

I followed the other monks’ lead and bowed towards the altar at the front of the chapel. Br Titus showed me to a pew where I sat down, while the monks took their seats in theirs, some ten metres in front of me, to my right and left, and facing one another across the aisle.

Two candles had been placed on the altar, on opposite corners. The flames swayed slowly from side to side, bathing the sanctuary in a warm, amber-coloured veil. I looked around at the monks in their stalls. Some had heads bowed and a few read the large-sized books that contained the psalms for the Office.

A bell was rung, and Br Titus intoned: “Lord open my lips and I shall declare your praise”, to which the monks, rising at the same time, responded in kind: “Lord open my lips and I shall declare your praise”. We then sang a hymn and the organist set the melody for the psalms of the Office that followed by playing a “reciting tone”.

The Office was sung in plainchant, a style of singing that has its origins in the Middle Ages. It is non-metrical, monophonic in texture and unadorned by expressiveness. The word I would use is simplicity. It is not meant to be a performance; it is not meant to show off one’s prowess. It is a means of approaching and absorbing God’s word with reverence and solemnity.

I noticed that the brothers paused mid-verse for a second or two. I was intrigued by this habit of theirs, and one evening I asked the oldest monk in the monastery, aged ninety-one, why they inserted a rest at this point. He replied that its purpose was to build a collection of words or phrases which the monks could recall throughout the day. “In many ways, a monastic is like a cow, chewing its cud,” he told me. “A monk keeps turning God’s word over, considering it, meditating on it.” This, I came to understand, was called Lectio Divina (“divine reading”).

One does not need to join a monastery to practise this method, he continued. But making room for silence was essential: “Without silence, we cannot hear God speak to us.” And silence was impossible to avoid in the monastery. Silence was observed at meals, at work (where possible), in the cloister and in the chapel. After Vespers, the community sat in silent prayer and meditation and, following the night Office of Compline, a “Great Silence” was held until the next morning’s Vigil. It was as if silence was a table with reserved spaces, made for the soul and God alone.

Benedict directed, in his Rule, that the “brothers should have specified periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading, and for rest”. Regarding “labora”, my tasks were very simple and involved working in the library, sorting the books that had been returned and placing them on their respective shelves. As I did so, I recalled what the old monk had told me about the cow chewing.

One morning, I was repeating a line we had just prayed at Terce: “My soul finds rest in God alone” (Psalm 62). Although my mind kept chattering away, I ignored it and kept returning to the silence and to the verse: “My soul finds rest in God alone”. Again and again, I recalled that phrase inwardly and gradually my mind began to stop its distracting yacking. I sensed a strange type of freedom: a liberation from my usual futile daydreams and of being tossed, back and forth, between past and future.

After the first couple of days, I had to dismiss any romantic notion that I could live a peaceful, contemplative life in a monastery. Indeed, the pleasant quietude of the place and its routine revealed my own distractions more intensely, as if I were looking at a wound through a microscope.

It did not take me long to become irritated at someone singing out of tune, at a monk who kept scraping his chair on the floor when he rose at the end of dinner, and the sharp pang of anger when I believed that a monk closed a window too loudly one morning while I was having breakfast.

Monastic life is not a fairytale world where introverts like myself can go to live happily ever after. I have no doubt that monastics also feel the same pangs of jealousy, anger and dysfunction that beset and frustrate all human beings. Yet, as the old monk remarked to me, “Do not worry. We are all on a journey to the promised land. God understands our weaknesses. He forgives us the moment we return to Him. He is mercy.”

Talking was allowed during washing-up after meals. At these times, I listened as the monks told me about their pre-monastic lives. One told me he had been an owner of a punk record shop in the 1980s. He was now a painter and a historian of early Celtic Christianity, with intriguing tales about the ancient shores of Caldey and its inhabitants. Another monk had been a lawyer, but after joining the Cistercians, he began writing poetry. Yet another monk was a sculptor who was learning the piano.

On the external level, monastic life allows little personal freedom—a rigid schedule, obedience to the Rule and to the Abbot, and vows of poverty, chastity and stability—of living with their brethren until their dying day. Yet, these external structures, paradoxically, allowed the monks an interior freedom, a space where the buds of inner creativity could blossom.

Each morning I explored the island. I wandered down its leaf-strewn pathways and beside its hedges, passing underneath green arches hanging from the branches of its ancient trees. My footsteps interrupted tiny birds, scattering them into the forest in a flurry of wings, as red foxes scurried across my path to their hideaways deep in the woods. On a path that led to the western coast of the island, I passed by the green-tinted waters of a pond, across from which I saw a church, St Illtud’s, and its priory. In these buildings, dating back to the thirteenth century, monks had lived, prayed, dined and died, observing the same Rule that the monks a few hundred metres down the road were, to this day.

Continuing to walk along a flat path towards the western coastline, I passed by an unmanned lighthouse and down a road beside the cliff face. There I stood among tall, wild grasses, perusing traces of clouds that were spread out across the sky, like a painter’s brushwork on a blue canvas. I breathed in the cool air, felt it fill my lungs and watched the seagulls battle the wind as they tried to land on the craggy rocks on the cliff face. The wind held them suspended in mid-air. I surveyed the distant horizon. It seemed to go on without end.

I returned to St Illtud’s church one morning after Lauds, when we had chanted Psalm 91, when I had felt myself drawn to one line in particular: “The Lord is my refuge”. I sat down in a pew in the old church, closed my eyes and repeated this line slowly until my voice became an inward murmur. My mind wandered, as usual, but I did not tangle with its restless thoughts. I allowed them to rise and drift away before I returned to that phrase: “The Lord is my refuge”.

Once again, my soul took a seat at the table, resting in that silent space. I listened to God’s word whisper inwardly until it became all but inaudible. I do believe that He gracefully allowed me to peer ever briefly (far too briefly!) into that dimension that Cardinal Newman speaks of: “that other world which the eyes reach not but faith only”. 

On the final evening at Caldey Island Abbey, I attended Compline, the final Office of the day in St Benedict’s Rule. At the end, before leaving the chapel, we sang the anthem of praise to the Virgin, Salve Regina (Hail, holy Queen). Afterwards there was a brief period of silence before a monk rang the chapel bell three times. The separate sounds of the bell-tones blended into one long, resonating wave until it could be heard no more. I wondered if this sounding of the bells was more than a sign that the day had ended. Perhaps the three bells were sounding out the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, “brooding over the earth”, as Hopkins says, spreading His divine grace through the universe?

The next morning I said my goodbyes to the brothers before catching the ferry back to Tenby. As it sailed across, I gazed back at Caldey. I felt a strong desire to return to the Catholic faith in which, growing up in the 1980s, I had lost interest. I did not experience this longing to return as a lightning-strike conversion. It was caused, rather, by the example of the monks and the simple, prayerful way that they lived out the gospel, making space for God, following their Benedictine Rule, unnoticed by the world in a life enclosed, far from distractions, seeking and praising God and following Christ into the wilderness. They pray for all of us, including those who cannot or do not pray.

Peter Mulholland is a music teacher at a private Christian school in Sydney

6 thoughts on “Diary of a Monastic Retreat

  • Necessityofchoice says:

    We are informed by Peter Mulholland that the monks sit in pews, facing each other. From the image provided, there would appear to be an approximate total of six monks plus the Abbott.
    The second image is of the Abbey, a very large and architecturally stunning building in apparent good repair; apart from the creaking stairs.
    How is this whole enterprise funded ?

    • Isaac of Stella says:

      The Cistercian Order became the owner of the island in 1929.
      Here is a website that tells a little more about the island and the order.

    • Peter M says:

      Hello Necessity,
      The Cistercian order owns the island. In the summer months, the island receives many visitors who enjoy staying or visiting the island and enjoy The Chocolate Factory and souvenier and coffee shops. I believe they also are paid some money from the ferry trips, Caldey Island being separated from the mainland.
      The Cistercians were formed in 1098 AD as an offshoot of the Benedictines by Robert of Molosme and some fellow monks who wished to live a more rigorous, ascetic, Christian life, returning to the original intentions of Saint Benedict and his Rule. They founded an Abbey at Citeaux and the rest is history.
      The monks (like all Catholic religious-priests, nuns, monks and brothers) take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as mentioned in the above article.
      I hope that helps somewhat.
      The Cistercians currently may not have many vocations (like all religious orders in the modern era), however, these dry spells have happened before and the monks have recovered their numbers. Of course, very few people feel called to become monastics and unfortunately the modern world often distracts and drowns out, for decades, that inner calling for such people.
      Caldey Island itself has an interesting history and has been home to monks and hermits since the sixth century.

  • Daintree says:

    Very nice little piece – congratulations to the author!

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Putting aside the world for a week to live in the present away from the flurry of past and future, living out age-old traditions.. Beautifully evoked. Helps me to comprehend the appeal of monastic life, for both men and women.

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