the monk said, "no-one — no-one — needs more than one clean shirt a week." Was this serious? Uncertainly, I nodded, shook my head, and nodded again: this was ill-timed, since he had closed his eyes in apparent reverie, and was now swaying slightly from the waist up, smiling seraphically.
"There is a clean towel a week. Two clean hankerchiefs a week. A clean pillow-case every three weeks." His voice spiralled triumphantly into the upper register.
"And," he cried, striking a _ pose of climactic ecstasy, arms raised slightly, the palms of his
hands turned slightly outwards, "clean sheets every six weeks. "
Much more reasonable; but was this serious either? This time I tried shaking my head : first and then nodding: my timing had possibly improved, since he had opened his eyes could I detect a twinkle in them? — and was staring at me. I twinklessly stared back.
Paul Goodman gave up a promising political career to enter the Benedictine monastery at Quarr. Two years later he emerged, deciding his vocation
was as a lay person.
Twinkle or not, the point is made; to begin to live the monastic life is to enter a different world. The man who enters a monastery can never be fully prepared for what he will find there — however frequent his visits to the guest-house, however assiduous his preliminary reading, however cautious his preparation. I write from some degree of experience — however partial my observations, however faltering my insights — having recently returned from two years spent at Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight, trying my vocation as a Benedictine novice.
The monastery is a contemplative community affiliated to the Solemnes congregation, a family of monasteries that is mainly, though not entirely, French; just under 25 monks live there.
But first things first. Bafflement, romance, amusement, confusion, rage, contempt, misunderstanding and fear are among the firsttime reactions evoked by the subject of monasticism (though, thankfully, not all at once, or at least not very often). This is not so surprising. Monks in Britain were once, in the best sense of the word, common: as much a part of their world as the advertising executive (to strike a meaningful contrast) is of ours.
The assumptions they lived with — religious, political, social — were those of the society around them. But to be a monk now is certainly most unusual, and the assumptions that monks live with could not be further removed from those of our consumerist culture.
Yet, curiously, this contrast has always held. The monastic idea, to state it at its simplest, has always drawn the most elemental of contrasts between the way of Christ and the way of the world — unlike the rich young man in the gospel (no; possibly — just possibly, for we cannot know the end of his story — like him), the monk must be prepared to give up everything that the values of the world prize highly; to become, in the eyes of the sophisticated, a fool for Christ. But as he follows the way, the paradoxes deepen: the monk is not withdrawing from the world, flying from confronting its complexities in a gesture of other-worldly piety and disdain, but entering more richly into its agony and its rejoicing. And, in some mysterious sense, his hidden life of bearing witness to the truth — to the truth that, in the last resort, God alone is sufficient — is helping to create the world anew.
Noble words; fine sentiments. My advice to anyone who has experienced, while reading the last paragraph, a tremulous frisson of insight into monasticism, is as follows. Kindly stand up, replace this newspaper where you found it, go in search of the nearest available lavatory, and — once discovered — begin cleaning it: this will give you a far more profound understanding of the monastic life than I am capable of providing.
Or, if cleaning lavatories is • beneath your dignity (and I cheerfully admit that, when asked to do it for the first time, I thought it was well beneath mine), substitute sweeping cloisters, mopping bathrooms, tending orchards, mowing lawns, or growing vegetables. ("But what do you do all day?" my friends used to ask me on our rare meetings, earnestly scratching their heads. "What do you actually do?'). The monastic life — with its unrelenting rhythm of liturgical worship, private prayer,
spiritual reading, manual work, and study — is, in an old phrase, one of busy relaxation.
Monks, like monasticism, are not what they are too often taken to be — stained-glass saints, striking wistful attitudes beneath gothic arches while pondering a higher knosis unknown to everyone else. Indeed, they are reassuringly like everyone else. But if there is a difference, it is this: living with oneself is never easy, and monks have to do more of it than most.
In two years, I got used to the tell-tale signs: the understated humour, the bursts of irritability, the wry realism about human nature, the unsentimental compassion. The monastic life can be — even, at times, should be — boring. For it is in the boredom, in the seeming absence of consolation, that a monk's vocation is tested.
Thus it is, curiously, that I come to telling my own story why I entered, why I left — last of all. Of all questions, these are the most difficult to answer; one might as well ask why two people fall in love, or why the love between them doesn't always lead to marriage.
And of all answers, inadequate though they must be, these are perhaps the best. Just as the lover, by talking of someone he once loved, may
give the casual enquirer some idea of what she was like, so I, writing of two years of life in a monastery, may convey some dim conception of what that was like, too.
The key to the mystery is the word test: "test the spirits," wrote St Benedict, "to see if they come from God." Love, like anything true, must be tested; only by testing a vocation can someone find if they are meant to live it — to win through, seemingly, against the odds, to the peace and the joy that I have seen in some old monks.
Twin candles by the high altar flickering in the mid-winter darkness before dawn; cumuli of incense drifting, head-high, down the length of the church towards the nave during mass; the scouring of the monastic choir with holy water at the end of compline. These romantic images, though good in themselves, can ultimately prove trivial, even misleading; it is the reality of what they point to the mystery of redemption that matters. My vocation, like nearly everyone else's, is to encounter these as a lay person and if, somehow my understanding of them has been deepened by the last two years then — as I struggle daily into a clean shirt — what should I do, what can I do, but be grateful?