There’s nothing like visiting a monastery for a good day out. At least, that’s what they think in Lebanon, where mountain-top monasteries are a popular visitor attraction. Go to one of the big, Maronite institutions, and you’ll find families and coach parties circulating between the various chapels and shrines, making votive offerings to saints and buying souvenirs in the gift shop.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find the same culture of monastic tourism flourishing at Caldey, an island a boat ride off the south Pembrokeshire coast which is home to a community of Cistercians.
Cistercians are a strict order following the Rule of Benedict more commonly known as Trappists and known for embracing silence as part of their spiritual discipline. On Caldey since 1929, they are continuing the long tradition of British monasticism that began in the 6th century when the Celtic Christians, realising the potential of beautiful, remote places to foster the life of the spirit, began to found holy islands such as Iona and Lindisfarne. Today, the community at Caldey is all that remains of the once-thriving Cistercian tradition in Wales, home to 13 such monasteries until the dissolution of 1536 put a sudden, violent end to the monastic way of life.
But peace pervaded the place on our visit last week. The island was full of monastic tourists, as families took in the sea views, visited the chapels, sniffed in the perfume and chocolate shops and sat at the cafe below the island woods. The prayer board in St David’s Chapel and altar of the tiny medieval St Illtyd’s Church were testimony to the visitors’ longings and loses: ‘Dear Monks, Please pray for the Swansea five nurses that justice may be done’, wrote one petitioner; ‘Dear Dad, We miss you every day and love you always’, wrote another.
On the hill above the jetty stood the abbey itself, an italianate creation by a local architect echoing the style of monasteries in the European tradition. Behind its closed doors, the monks were getting on with their highly-structured day, starting with Vigils at 3.30 am and proceeding, through periods of prayer, study and manual work, to Compline at 7.30 pm, and bed. There was no chance of getting a taste of monastic life on the inside, as I did when I spent a weekend at Holy Trinity Monastery, a tiny Benedictine start-up a few years ago. But we did see one monk, whipping up to the jetty in a VW polo and striding purposefully to have a word with the boatman. And I enjoyed overhearing a conversation in the museum about how the shortbread sold out immediately because the abbot only baked once a week, and then had to wait for Brother So-and-So to wrap it.
My hunch is that modern monasticism has a peculiar fascination for us Brits because our religious history, with the sudden break from Rome, sets the religious way of life more apart from society than on mainland, Catholic Europe. Perhaps all those smutty jokes about nuns and monks are an attempt to make them more normal, more like the rest of us. How do they do it, live this life apart, day after day, year after year, we wonder. And what does it bring them?
The Abbot of Caldey, Father Daniel, tries to explain what it means to be a Cistercian today in this frank account. It involves, he says, life in a community centred on prayer, with all the challenges and disappointments that living closely with others brings. And it means a concerted attempt to attain what we moderns more commonly associate with the eastern spiritual traditions, to live in the moment: ‘To be a Cistercian is just to get on with life as it presents itself from moment to moment, to try to be “here”‘, writes Fr Daniel.
I would hazard that, as life in modern Britain becomes increasingly driven by noise, activity and money-making, it’s a desire to get briefly closer to this, more contemplative approach to life that draws around a thousand visitors a day to Caldey Island each summer. Like in the mountaintop monasteries of Lebanon, it provides a good, but peaceful day out. I don’t think I was imagining it, but the expressions of everyone in the boat as we ploughed the sea back to Tenby were of joyful calm.