Monday, 26 July 2010

Tarrawarra Abbey (or The Benefits of Monkery)

There has been something of a paucity of blogging in recent days, as no doubt some of you, my avid readers, have noticed. I will try to remedy this in the days to come.

This past week, however, I have had an EXCUSE. Yesterday, I arrived back in Sydney having recently enjoyed the hospitality of the Cistercians of Tarrawarra Abbey of Victoria (they live somewhere outside of Melbourne, in a place apparently home to a number of vineyards which I think begins with Y- as a Sydneyite I am a bit fuzzy on Victorian geography). It was my first time in a proper cloistered monastery, participating in the monkish lifestyle at least to a limited extent.

A truly wonderful place. I have returned with much food for thought. Which I thought I might share, as it's a sorry man who eats alone. Especially from a banquet table.

Two things, in fact, struck me more than anything else while I was there. Firstly, the Office.
I love the Office! More than I did before! On it goes, seven times a day, until the Psalms become a blessed blur, sanctifying every part of the day and making God present in it. All things are done within sight of God, in the continuous consciousness of His presence. He is nowhere absent. My whole day each day was sustained and nourished by His Word. The passing of each day - time itself! - becomes an act of swimming through Scripture, immersing oneself in it, letting the Word and the God Who inspired it into every nook and cranny of one's day and activities. My regular Bible reading is to that lifestyle like the difference between drinking eight glasses of water a day (the recommended dietary intake) and learning to breathe underwater.

Sleep regulation was a bit tricky (I missed Terce last Wednesday because I went to sleep while reading and was only awoken by the bell, after which it was too late) but I got better at it as time went on. I think getting up at 3:30am (or 3:45 si on peut faire vite sa toilette) and going to bed at 8:30pm would become relatively easy and routine before long. One merely needs to shift one's normal sleeping pattern a couple of hours earlier.

The other thing that struck me forcefully is the import and psychological (and spiritual) implications of the vow of stability. I'm a big fan of travelling and I love seeing new places, especially ones of historical or cultural interest. But I must admit, staying a week at Tarrawarra Abbey, praying with the monks, doing my own (albeit quite leisurely) form of work - reading, studying, writing - and having the verdant pastures and rolling hills of the Yarra Valley all about (refreshingly free of eucalypts and gloriously green), the vow of stability took on unprecedented appeal. Being in that place, the sense of time, the permanence of the monastic lifestyle, the transitoriness of the individuals who follow it strike one's soul with surprising force. The isolation of the place and the freedom from distractions, be they media, newspapers or a bustling metropolis surrounding one, induces in one a consciousness of the transitoriness of life - of one's own life especially.

On Thursday I walked down to the small cemetery they have there (after 50 years, there are fourteen monks dead) and then walked back up the path for Sext, there to pray with the living monks. The juxtaposition impressed upon me that each of those living monks has vowed to spend all his days in that place and ultimately to die there. The landscape around that they saw when they first arrived as novices is the landscape each man will see on the day he breathes his last. The very act of living there is a memento mori. And the fact that, for every monk, each day from today until his last day on earth will be spent doing essentially the same things puts the whole of life in perspective.

In the world, one tends to imagine an endless torrent of new experiences coming at one like a wet flannel, with no end in sight. There'll always be more time. The pursuit of the novel foresees no end. Until there is no more time. And sometimes even then, people grab the bull by the tail and start writing Bucket Lists. We are even prone to live like this as Christians.

The monk, on the other hand, has a different vocation from most of us. He is, in a sense, the only man who sees clearly, who looks squarely at life in its contingent nature without turning away or blinking. Since every day is basically the same, the monk can accept peacefully that every day could be his last. Maybe today he will die. Maybe he won't. Whenever his last day comes, he will spend it doing basically what he did today. The same work, the same prayers in the same place. A life lived in the sight of God.

Such lives, if they are lived thus, stand as silent witnesses to the sufficiency of Jesus Christ and to the emptiness and futility of everything else.


Matthias said...

You are so lucky. I live 20 miles form the abbey and have not yet visited.

GAB said...

Really? I'd have gotten in touch if I'd known you were so close by.

Do visit it when you have a chance. It's well worth it.

Matthias said...

i hope to.They have Mass @10am on Sundays aso might go along to one.