By a Staff Reporter I have just returned from an investigation of the alleged " commercialisation " of Buckfast Abbey, a charge renewed as the yearly season of sightseers opens. I paid the monks an unexpected visit, stayed the first night with them, and never hinted at what I was after.
Complaints, all from Catholics, are that the Abbey is simply a showplace for all and sundry, who are encouraged to come in parties from neighbouring resorts, park their vehicles in the church precincts, eat their fill in the restaurant and buy articles of piety in the monastery shop. Monks take visitors around the church, and the peace and quiet of the sacred edifice, it is said, vanish, I save during times of services.
A large signpost 800 yards away by the main road on Dart Bridge points to Buckfast Abbey; teashops abound. But I saw no justification for these charges. Buckfast is indeed a showplace, a showplace of the Faith—a work of Catholic Evidence.
The church is simple, austerely Cistercian in exterior; without its dignified 158 foot tower, it would, in fact, appear externally uninteresting. h ut. once inside, you are faced with the splendour of a new Cluny. The golden altar is a priceless treasure. White beauty of stone and brilliance of sanctuary paving are a treat to the eye.
But when I questioned the leading artist-monk, Dom Charles Norris, M.B.E., I found him unwilling to sell plaster products from his recently started studio. " We prefer to make these beautiful sacred things, stained glass, embroideries, painting and so on, for the embellishment of Buckfast itself," he told me.
To that end he recently issued an illustrated booklet " Buckfast Abbey: Works of Art," and a new Pictorial Survey, both warning sightseers that the Abbey is no museum. " Buckfast," he writes, " is not Art for Art's sake. It is not merely architecture to marvel at but a shrine to worship in, not a building for admiration, but a house for adoration."
Most remarkable of Dom Charles' artistic achievements is the immense masterpiece in tempera painting and gold on the ceiling of the Lantern gallery, nearly 100 feet up. It shows the Lord of Hosts surrounded by angels, prophets and saints. I was intrigued by an original Easter Empty Tomb effect in the Resurrection Chapel. It is in the hollow below the altar slab front which the figure of the dead Christ has been removed. In its place concealed lighting showed neatly folded napkins at one end, a priceless gilded True Cross Reliquary at the other. In striking contrast to the above is the monks' obvious sense of the practical. A loud-speaker carries the reader's voice to all sections of the refectory at meal times.
Brother Adam, widely known as an expert on bee-keeping, has mechanised the process of honey extraction with his own inventions. The famous Buckfast Tonic Wine continues to be made and to be sold in Ireland and India.
Visitors are shown the two most precious objects in the church, the altar and the font, both of beaten bronze. and care is taken to explain that the church makes them beautiful because of their supreme imIpn capable hands, therefore, sightseeing at Buckfast, far from being merely a commercialised project, becomes a lesson in the things that really matter, and monks undertake a useful apostolate to holiday makers. Theirs is Catholic Evidence work of a unique type, a reminder to visitors who have " taken in " neighbouring Exeter and the old monastic ruins that the work for which the ancient monasteries were built is still needed, and is in fact being carried on to-day at Buckfast, Quarr, Prinknasla, etc.
A notice displayed in the guestroom where I stayed read: "Yearly visits are not encouraged. The Abbey is not a place from which to set out to visit the surrounding countryside."