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Habits of a lifetime

A Benedictine Abbey has opened its doors to school groups and reveals the workings of modern monastic life. Elaine Williams reports.

Men in black frocks who sing in Latin, eat in silence, rise early for prayers, abandon personal possessions, practise celibacy, dedicate their lives to God? Surely they can't be for real? Not today?

Pupils visiting the Benedictine monastery at Belmont Abbey, Hereford, can't quite believe that such a weird way of life still goes on in the 21st century and that they're not watching a re-enactment of life in the Middle Ages. And then they can't resist those questions. The lad who asked Father James Norris whether monks were ever tempted, was probably not expecting a frank answer. "I looked him straight in the eye and said 'Do you mean drink and sex? The answer is yes. There is a person behind the habit and they are not exempt from the problems that face people generally'. We try not to dodge questions," says Father James.

Answering the questions young people want to ask is at the heart of the matter. As part of its mission for the 21st century Belmont has decided to open its doors to visiting schoolchildren and students to share the workings of modern monastic life.

Abbot Paul Stonham, who leads a community of 40 monks, wants young people to see a way of life centred on a daily office of prayer and worship based on the 6th-century rule of St Benedict. "We want to illustrate all facets of a living tradition at its best," he says. That means face-to-face contact and discussion with the brethren. Abbot Paul is determined that young people should not view monastic life as a quaint and curious phenomenon that's stuck in the past, but as a contemporary alternative to the materialism of society, with all the difficulties and struggles that entails.

Father James, Belmont's educational visits co-ordinator, has been charged with the task of tailoring visits to schools' needs, but he finds mostly that pupils are curious to know how the monks became monks, what they did before they were monks, the importance of vows to the community, what they have in their rooms - are they allowed a computer or a telly? Many are surprised that most of the monks are computer literate and have their own computers.

What kind of food do they eat? Father James tells them that they no longer get fish from their ponds, but buy it in Tesco. "I tell them that the hardest thing is living and working with people 365 days of the year, 24 hours a day, without choice and without a break," he says.

Julia Dooney, an RE teacher at the Blessed Robert Johnson 11-18 Catholic College in Telford takes students to Belmont as a way of enriching RE GCSE coursework on Christian vocation. She is impressed with the honesty of the monks in fielding questions.

"I have taken 50 students to Belmont and they all had time with the abbot," she says. "He was very honest and open about his personal life. They couldn't believe that people were living this way of life just down the road from home."

Belmont is a few miles south-west of Hereford. With its abbey church and beautiful sculpted gardens, walkways and enclosures defined by yew trees and rose bowers, it retains an air of peace and order.

It was founded in 1859 as the common house of studies for monasteries at Downside in Somerset, Ampleforth in north Yorkshire and, later, Douai in Berkshire. In 1917 it became an independent priory, then an abbey in 1920 and in 1926 opened its own school. However, Belmont Abbey School fell prey to rising costs and falling boarding numbers. There were also fewer monks to teach in it and so it closed in 1995. Its boarding houses are now leased by the local NHS trust, and its teaching blocks have been turned into sheltered housing. The monks now run retreats and a guesthouse, administer the estate and run parishes in Cumbria and a monastery in Peru.

With only a quarter of the community under the age of 50, and with no novices for the past 10 years, they have to think hard about the future.

Although opening the monastery to schools is only a break-even exercise in financial terms, Abbot Paul sees it as an important witness to the religious life, though Father James is quick to emphasise that this is not a recruiting exercise. It does mean that young people remain a focal point of the community's work, but he says the monks hope for nothing more than that pupils will remember in their future lives that there is an alternative to materialism. There's no doubting the fact that monasticism is a hard choice today.

Many of the community's older monks would have gone from school to monastery. These days, says Father James, the community wouldn't dream of taking someone aged 17 or 18. They would be told to go away and work, study and experience life first of all.

Father James trained as a librarian and worked in bookshops before joining Belmont's novitiate. He says: "For most of my working life it never occurred to me that I would become a monk." Others, like Father James in their forties, come from a variety of working backgrounds - the wine and bar trade, nursing, tourism, or straight from university.

However, Benedictines are a working rather than an enclosed order and have traditionally been heavily committed to education of the young. Belmont's new initiative is in line with this tradition. To help them with school visits Belmont has called on the expertise of Philip Nicholas, a retired French and German teacher from Port Talbot, and Pat Twyman, a former journalist and retired principal of Bourneville College, Birmingham. They are both oblates of the order (that is, they follow the Benedictine rule and office, but within the pattern of their own lives).

Schools can tailor visits to their particular needs, but the monastery also offers tours of the gardens, the abbey church and refectory, as well as sessions on Gregorian chanting, Latin, and much more. Schools have asked for sessions in medieval mysticism, but it is the way of life that arouses the greatest curiosity.

"A lot of pupils come thinking that monks just pray all the time. They're surprised to learn that they have to work hard, just like the rest of us," says Philip Nicholas.

For information contact Father James Norris, tel: 01432 374745Email:

Noa-5 Silent praise lA newcomer to the monastery, called a postulant, will join in the divine office of prayer and worship, which includes vigils and lauds (morning prayer) at 6.30am, mass at 8am, prayer at 12.45pm, vespers (evening prayer) at 6pm, and compline (night prayer) at 7.50pm. Each monk is also bound to a daily time of private prayer and reading. Silence is kept at meal times and the great or solemn silence lasts from 9.45pm until after mass the next morning.

lAfter a few months a postulant will become a novice and receive the habit.

He begins to study the rule of St Benedict, theology, scripture, the liturgy, patristics, monasticism and the historical tradition. This continues throughout his life.

lAfter a year a novice may take temporary vows for three years or more.

lFinally, solemn vows are taken, pledging obedience to the abbot and conversion to a monastic life which embraces chastity and poverty. At this point monks have to dispose of possessions.

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