Max Le Grand wonders if Christmas is the season to show faith or propose a toast
As the festive season approaches, here is a personal declaration. I’m an atheist. During my formative years, a Sunday School Teacher had preached how God had created all creatures great and small. Youthful curiosity got the better of me. I asked Ma’m where this great man lived? She merely replied; “God is all around us”. What kind of answer was that! I demanded to know which street he lived on? The woman was nonplussed and repeated the cliché. That was it. I rose from my seat and stomped out of the church in a huff.
From then on, Christmas became an occasion when the family gathered at home, and not a religious celebration. So, bearing in mind my ungodliness, what prompted me to visit Prinknash Abbey? The monastery in Gloucestershire was inspired by Aelred Carlyle. He pioneered the first Anglican monastery after the reformation, on Caldey Island, off the coast of Tenby in Pembrokeshire. Then, the position within the Church of England became so tenuous, most of the community converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1928, the Abbey moved from Caldey to Prinknash. There were about 25 Benedictine monks, compared to 13 brothers at the monastery today. The Abbey is just off the A46 between Cheltenham and Painswick. On the drive down to the monastery, there are panoramic views over Gloucester, where the cathedral dominates the landscape.
Business at the Abbey goes on at the spacious café and library. There is a pottery and the Chorley auction room. Nearby is the glorious bird and deer park. A new concrete monastery was built in the 1970’s. Abbot Father Francis and the dwindling brotherhood, felt like peas rattling around in a pod. Consequently, they moved back into the more homely environs of the original monastery. I found the supremely energetic Father Francis and Brother William working at the Incense Shed. The two men mixed various oils like lavender, cedar and lemon with frankincense, thus producing a heady aroma, which wafted over the farm house. The Abbey is subsidised by exporting the incense around the world.
I wondered what kind of daily routine kept the brotherhood occupied? The Abbot explained that Lauds was taken in Latin at 6.30 a.m. followed by breakfast and spiritual reading. Each weekday morning is split between work or study. Had I joined the brotherhood, I might tend the Monastery Garden, observe the animals or work the printing press. There is midday prayer, Bible readings and hymns. This hypothetical monk would dodge these services for dinner and time allocated for rest. The church is the centre of life, where the community come together. In between sessions of worship, the monks employ their own particular skills while performing required tasks. For instance, the wrought iron screen and the altar rails were produced by a monk who was a blacksmith on Civvie Street. The organ and the choir stalls were also made within the community. They are talented men who chose this frugal path in life.
There is free time late in the afternoon when the monks can put their feet up. The men then relish supper, followed by Latin Vespers and silent prayer. Hunger sated, I would probably go to my cell to read Cotswold Style, while I awaited the community to retire in their cells at around 9 p.m. Complete silence is observed until Lauds at dawn. Then it’s back into the old routine.
Prinknash Abbey does offer hospitality to visitors. They have a small number of men only guest rooms at the monastery. If you want to get away from the maddening world, to relish some peace and quiet, the Guest Master is your contact. Apparently, there is no fixed charge. But Father Francis did say, a donation is appreciated according to your income. Very much aware they don’t want to alienate the gentlemen from their female partners; the monks are redeveloping The Old Farm House into accommodation for women and mixed groups. I encountered a juniorate staying for a few days solitude from Minster Abbey in Kent. This young, attractive Worcestershire woman, was about to take her vows to become a Nun. I admired her open faced belief and commitment to the faith.
Prinknash Abbey is not just a place of worship but also, a going concern. Christmas is observed with appropriate solemnity. I appreciated Father Francis’ time to provide an insight into the monastic life. I shall be at home over the festive season, filling my face, drinking and generally, making merry with my family. Take care and be happy everybody.