Richard McComb enters a monastic enclosure to break bread with the brotherhood.
My spacious, well-appointed bedroom has large windows offering commanding views of the beautiful countryside.
There are tea and coffee-making facilities, cookies, a personal laundry service and a comfortable off-white designer sofa. Dominating the room is a large double bed with a silky, cream-coloured floral bedspread and bolster cushion. The room was recently refurbished and compares favourably with the accommodation provided by a swanky hotel.
In fact, I am staying in the bridal suite at Hedley Lodge, which isn’t odd in itself. Lots of hotels and guest houses have rooms for newly-weds to do what newly-weds do. It is the location of this bridal suite that sets it apart. It is next to a monastery.
Look out of the side windows and you spy the church where the monks pledge holy love and devotion five times a day. Crane your neck ever so slightly and you can see the cells where the brethren withdraw for scripture reading, meditation and sleep. The spiritual and the secular happily co-exist in this corner of Herefordshire.
The only clue to my suite’s ecclesiastical connection is the discreet scene of the crucifixion inside the door, placed above the restaurant opening times. Oh, and there’s the bells. They toll every 15 minutes although mercifully the ringing is suspended from 10pm until 6am for The Great Silence.
Hedley Lodge is the official guest house for Belmont Abbey, a small, bustling community of Benedictine monks situated a mile south of Hereford. The city’s grand cathedral, home to the Mappa Mundi, is shrouded in mist when I glimpse it at sunrise after early-morning matins. Matins, of course, aren’t the half of it. The 6.30am service is only the first of five calls to worship for the monks, who attend mass at 8am followed by midday prayers, vespers (6pm) and compline (8pm). It is a relentless programme of worship; and that’s the overriding impression of a brief sojourn chez the brotherhood: the business of devotion never ends.
My introduction to monastic life provides a pleasant jolt. Following a nightmare journey through a traffic-clogged city centre, during which my curses reach Tourette’s proportions, I arrive just in time for lunch and am met by the cheery retreat master Father Brendan, whose job it is to welcome and assist those seeking spiritual guidance and reflection.
I am braced for a solitary sarnie in a communal area of the guest house and am rather chuffed (humility falls hard for people like me) to be ushered through to the refectory to dine with the monks. This beats an invite to the chef’s table any day.
“There’s no talking during meals. Lunch will be served at the table. Just follow me,” says Father Brendan.
Let joy be unconfined! I have found the ideal restaurant – a dining room where I don’t have to engage in trivial conversation. You just sit, and eat. I’ve only been here five minutes and already one prayer has been answered. The monks operate a rota to decide who will serve at the table. In full habit, one of the brothers lays out steaming trays of a pork casserole, roast potatoes and vegetables in the wood-panelled room. There’s chilled water and fresh apple juice to drink; no mead. Pictures of previous abbots – the current one, Father Paul, is sitting at the top table – look down on us. The only sound is that of a monk reading from this week’s book choice, a collection of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI.
“Question: ‘Do you fear being assassinated?’
Next week’s book is Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare. But biographers and historians beware. The brothers are harsh critics. Alistair Cooke’s Memories of the Great and the Good was ditched after a couple of sessions. “We gave up. It was dreadful,” Father Brendan tells me later. “We like a book with a bit of humour in it.”
I ask if they’ve had Wayne Rooney’s autobiography. “We haven’t yet,” says the monk with a wink. “Or Jordan’s sixth autobiography.”
The monks appear to be big fans of crime writer Ian Rankin (there are plenty of his paperbacks in the informal library – together with PG Wodehouse and Dorothy L Sayers) but such stuff would be too racy for communal lunch.
As the Pope’s denunciation of sex trafficking slips through my consciousness, a plate of Black Forest gateau, profiteroles and chocolate sauce does the rounds. Then the abbot rings a small gold bell and it’s all over. Grace is sung and the monks shuffle out for their afternoon jobs.
Belmont Abbey was established in 1859 and follows the Rule of St Benedict. The regime is less harsh than I had anticipated. There are no hermits and no flagellation; a few monks have been known to watch Downtown Abbey on the telly.
But do not misunderstand life here: the monks at Belmont have committed to a life of unremitting obedience. God, for them, is everything.
Fortunately for me, the work of the Belmont community is centred on offering hospitality to guests. Groups and individuals pay frequent visits, staying at the lodge or sometimes in cells within the monastic enclosure. There are special courses – a recent one was devoted to the parables – or guests may choose to make private retreats where you can merge as far into the background as you wish.
Do not expect to see monks throwing clay, binding ancient scripts or pulling ploughs. Belmont comprises just over 40 monks but only 18 are ever present at the abbey. The community has parish priests working in Herefordshire, south Wales and Cumbria and a monastery in northern Peru. One of its monks is the parish priest at St Begh’s in Whitehaven, where taxi driver Derrick Bird went on the rampage last June, shooting dead 12 people and injuring 11 others in West Cumbria.
Despite the popular image of peaceful monastic detachment, it quickly becomes apparent that the “real world” frequently touches the lives of the Belmont monks.
I learned the reason for the traffic chaos which delayed my arrival. A lorry shed a load of timber a mile from the abbey. The wood struck Thomas Matts, aged 29, and partner Terri-Ann Barnett, 24, who had just dropped their 18-month-old baby, Morgan, at nursery. Both died in the accident, leaving their son an orphan. Work that out if you can.
So how does Fr Brendan, a 46-year-old from Merthyr Tydfil, square the acts of a mass killer like Bird or the death of young parents with a benevolent, caring God?
“Not all human beings are benevolent and caring,” he replies. “We are fallen creatures. Bad things happen. The Christian answer to suffering is Christ on the cross. There are no easy answers to human suffering. Sometimes people come here on retreat in a crisis and you cannot give trite answers. All religious beliefs and secular beliefs fall short of a giving a satisfactory answer. We are seeking the truth. We have not arrived there yet.”
During a tour of the stunning church, designed by Edward Welby Pugin, son of the great Augustus Welby Pugin, Fr Andrew confides he’s been having a nightmare morning with the monastery’s computers. (Belmont is wi-fi and I have to say the broadband connection I get in the guest house puts many hotels charging four times the price to shame.) He also has to prepare for a weekend retreat, which he will lead with the abbot, so the heat is on.
Fr Andrew, aged 48, from Bolton, was a relative latecomer to the community, which he joined in 2004. Converting to Catholicism in 1982, he was armed with degrees in philosophy and theology when he first attempted to join in the early 1990s. “It was the wrong time and it didn’t work,” he says.
“But there was always a little niggle at the back of my head, which was God, I guess. Most of us come here after having a job, having a mortgage, having family and friends. It is only God that can bring you here.”
Fr Andrew, who worked in computer software, was ordained last June, having trained at Oscott College in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, for four years. He is now assistant novice master, taking responsibility for training the new recruits, and his faith is unwavering. “I love God more than I can begin to understand,” he says. “This can be a very difficult and a very lonely existence but that is the choice I have made.”
Brother Huw and Brother Alban are the latest at Belmont to have made a similar stark choice. Following seven months as postulates (the first phase of joining the community), the two men became novices a week ago.
Huw previously worked in business banking, for Lloyds TSB, and Alban was a self-employed accountant and investment adviser, specialising in UK equities and derivatives. If he can understand the futures market, the Divine Office and Lectio Divina will be a doddle for Alban: from derivatives to divinity in one easy step.
“It was quite difficult to explain to my customers my motivation in coming here and that I was not going to be there for them any more,” says Alban, who is 39, from Derbyshire.
“But ultimately it depends on what you value, and it dawned on me that I value being close to God and being in a monastic community more than being outside. It sounds a bit extreme but I don’t miss anything I had before because there is more here.”
Even if we toyed with the thought, it would be impossible for most of us to give up our relationships, homes and belongings to pursue a life of religious seclusion. I learn a UK lawyer based in the Caribbean is set to join the Belmont community. “And you thought we were mad,” says Alban, laughing. “I think people think of monastic life as an idyll, of Gregorian chanting all day and floating about the cloisters. It is a very beautiful life but it is very hard as well,” adds Huw.
It’s tough at the top, although you wouldn’t necessarily think so by talking to the self-effacing Fr Paul, who has committed himself to the life of the community for 42 years. As abbot, Fr Paul is the head of the monastery, God’s man at Belmont, if you like. A simple gold cross, worn on a looping chain around the neck, is the only outward sign that marks him out from his fellow brothers.
The abbot is responsible for the collective soul, sustenance and sustainability of the monastery. It’s a heavy burden but Abbot Paul takes it in his stride. When I ask him how he keeps up with the psalms, the canticles and the rituals of devotion at 6.30 in the morning, he has a refreshing answer: “You just have to let some of it wash over you,” he says in his soft, south Wales accent.
I tell him I’d never attend an organised church. He’s as swift as an angelic arrow: “Would you go to a disorganised one then?”
Abbot Paul, who joined Belmont at 22 – young by today’s standards but par for the course in 1969 – spent 20 years in north Peru, helping to establish the Monasterio de la Encarnacion at Tambogrande. During five years as a parish priest, he saw the number of churches and chapels he covered rise from 123 to more than 200. There was one road, no electricity and no pool car for the monks (they have one at Belmont). “There was lots of travel on horseback or foot. Occasionally you had to swim a river. But I was young and full of energy and enthusiasm. I loved it,” he says.
Ministering to Peruvian converts is a million miles from the abbot’s daily concerns now. Chief among those is the impact of government cuts on the Belmont community, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of its foundation last year. The abbey derives the lion’s share of its modest income from renting buildings, once used for its now defunct school, to the local primary care trust. However, the trusts are being abolished under NHS reforms and unless it can attract new tenants the abbey will be placed in a perilous financial situation.
“Don’t blink or you might find us on the streets,” says the abbot, deadpan.
“It is a very worrying moment. We are looking at several Plan Bs but it is uncertain because we don’t know what is going to happen.”
He adds: “A monastery is not a fantasy island. We are part and parcel of the world and we suffer the same uncertainties and insecurities. We are not protected because we are in a monastery.”
* For more information about staying at Hedley Lodge, which is available for retreatants, holidaymakers and functions, including weddings and “away day” conferences, go to www.belmontabbey.org.uk