“Let me show you to your cell.” It’s not the first time I’ve heard these words while standing in a corridor lined with doors, but seldom have they been delivered with such warmth and by a man wearing robes. Brother Joseph is the Guest Master of the community of Benedictine monks at Belmont Abbey in Herefordshire, entrusted with showing novice monks and visiting clerics to their quarters.
A Victorian neo-gothic wonder built in the mid-19th century, Belmont is one of three institutions that feature in Retreat, a three-part series that aims to give solace to viewers driven to distraction by the pace and noise of modern life. Although there have been previous slow TV forays (Scandinavian train journeys and bus tours of the Yorkshire Dales), things don’t get any calmer than watching a contemplative religious order founded by St Benedict in the sixth century. But how much more calming would it be to join the actual order?
Becoming a Benedictine monk, as a postulant, novitiate and then, after taking solemn vows and renouncing all worldly goods, a full-time member of the community, can take up to nine years. With the permission of the Abbot of Belmont, Father Paul, I will be condensing this process slightly. It is now 2pm on Tuesday, and I aim to be finished by 2pm on Wednesday. I’m also keen to avoid the renouncing worldly goods part of the arrangement. And the vows.
Benedictines are known as the black monks for good reason. Their vestments, habit, scapular (a sort of apron), hood and the cowl mark out the 40 monks of Belmont as men who have forsaken the chance of having children so they can dedicate their lives to the worship of God. They also provide material for gags. “Ah,” says Father Paul, as we enter the musty foyer where the monks hang their robes. “The cowl shed.”
Passing through the intertwined crosses and leaves of the worked-iron gates that divide the monastery quarters from the outside world, Father Paul asks if I have any last-minute doubts. There is one: the celibacy. Is it a big problem? “You’re here for 24 hours,” says Father Paul. “I wouldn’t worry about that.”
My first divine office is the ancient service that marks the going down of the sun. I approach the chapel along the long tiled cloister, passing a large crucifix bearing the figure of Christ on the wall, then take my place in Belmont’s ravishing chapel. The monks file into the chapel after me with their hoods up, genuflect before the altar, then take their place on part-enclosed wooden benches in the choir and begin to chant. Robert Langdon doesn’t run past shouting, “I have got to get to a library… fast!” but the effect is more than a little Dan Brown.
The monks gather in the refectory for an evening meal of onion soup, chicken stew and trifle. We sit at two long trestle tables, facing each other, beneath portraits of long-dead clerics. On the sideboard there are napkins and named napkin rings; next to mine the napkin for a visiting archbishop is labelled “Your Grace”. There is no sign of the archbishop. I’m sorely tempted to swap but resist. Benedictines do not renounce conversation but all meals are taken in silence. The sound of many spoons on glass trifle bowls echoes like the crack of doom.
My second service, compline, marks the ending of the day with more prayers and psalms. Until 40 years ago it would have been in Latin, but now it’s in English, though still chanted in the old, and exceptionally beautiful, way. The words are rather disturbing, there is much smiting and inviting the Lord to strike down those who have scorned the righteous. Nonetheless, I’m noticeably calmer than when I arrived.
Evenings are spent in quiet contemplation. In the library, among the expected religious works like the lives of Benedict and other saints, I’m surprised to find a Harry Potter and PD James’s Death in Holy Orders, about a series of killings at a Catholic seminary. Which book, I wonder, is truer to life at Belmont?
In my cell is a single bed, bedside table, lamp, bookcase, wardrobe and sink. It’s basic by 2017 standards but state of the art for 1950. Feeling starved of news, I get my mobile out and start to surf the net. Looking up, I see into another cell through my window. A solitary monk, bathed in the transfiguring glow of his reading light, is studying scripture. Shamed, I stop surfing.
Michael Hodges in a monastery (Richard Ansett for Radio Times, EH)
6.30am VIGILS AND LAUDS
It’s a cold start to the day in the chapel, but as the monks take up the psalm, I feel a surge of joy. This could be because I am now more than halfway through my stay or because I’m aglow with an inner peace. Afterwards I take a walk in the gardens. The sun comes up over the soft Herefordshire countryside and reveals, hidden in a copse, the graves of generations of monks.
Back in church I sit by a stained-glass window depicting a martyr, the axe that killed him beneath his feet. Even so, he also seems calm.
Breakfast is as pleasingly old fashioned as dinner. We eat from a giant pot of porridge and a peculiar but charming Benedictine custom means we take tea from bowls rather than cups – are handles the work of Satan? Less happily, the archbishop is here. No napkin swapping.
The 1,500-year-old rule of St Benedict declares, “Nothing should be preferred to the Work of God,” but that doesn’t mean sitting around all day. In the monks’ lounge (the calefactory) there’s only a silent television and the whiff of tobacco. I’m rescued by Father Alex who invites me to join him for some icon painting. Transfixed with peacefulness in the chilly white-washed cell that serves as his studio, Father Alex applies delicate strokes with a paintbrush to the icon of St Michael, patron saint of the monastery. I achieve maximum tranquillity.
12.00 noon ANGELUS
Stress levels rise when I rush back to chapel for the angelus, only to find it’s empty. The prayer, a brother tells me, can be said wherever you are – a moment to stop and consider what it must have been like for the Virgin Mary when she was told she was going to bear Jesus. Which puts my concerns into perspective.
12.45pm MIDDAY PRAYERS
Technically it’s not midday, but I’m prepared for ecclesiastical curve balls now and arrive at the prescribed time. A pleasant service with psalms. I’m feeling thoroughly Benedictine.
Lunch is the main, and very formal, meal of the day. As a monk pushes a trolley laden with meat pie, vegetables and cheesy mash, Brother Bernard reads aloud to us from a history of India. I was expecting the Bible but, even if you’re a monk, I suppose it can’t all be God, God, God. For afters, a slice of pudding and custard.
Afterwards, on the doorstep of the abbey, Brother Joseph asks me how I am. “Spiritual,” I say. “Very spiritual.”
Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery is on Tuesday 24th – Thursday 26th October at 9pm on BBC4