When I picked up a leaflet several years ago about becoming an alongsider the idea was little more than a fantasy, but some time later I found myself at a crossroads in my life. I felt the need for a time of reflection and prayer and decided to enquire further.
Once I’d been accepted and broken the news to my friends, many of them were concerned about what effect the physical strictures of the monastic life would have on me: would I cope with the early mornings? (The first office is at 4.30am.) Would I be warm enough? (My stay was September to December.) Would I get enough to eat? What about not being able to leave the enclosure? And would I really not have access to my mobile or email?
My own worries had much more to do with the internal or spiritual challenges involved in leaving the support of my friends and family and facing up to myself in silence and solitude.
When I arrived I was quite literally welcomed with open arms by the sisters, and that attitude of welcome and acceptance pervaded my whole stay. My first few weeks were an effort of supreme concentration as I tried to put names to faces, remember the daily timetable and get to grips with all the rules and conventions that characterise and facilitate life in community. However, with the gentle and timely guidance of the sisters all these things grew more natural as the weeks went on.
The daily timetable was pretty full. The offices created the rhythm and all the other tasks fitted in around them. I spent around two hours a day in private prayer and spiritual reading. In the mornings I worked in the laundry and in the afternoons tended the vegetable garden. I also had to clean my bedroom and study daily and wash up after supper. I usually had between an hour and an hour and a half of free-time in the afternoons during the week and at the weekends I was also excused from morning work. Although the days were busy they were not rushed and the daily tasks were arranged in a balanced way so that the rhythm was sustainable and didn’t become too much.
The mornings were not as early as I’d feared – I was not expected to attend the first office and so did not have to rise until 5.30am which, coupled with the early (8.00pm) bedtime allowed me plenty of sleep.
The smaller rooms in the abbey were well heated, but as autumn turned to winter I was heartily glad of the thermals and woollens I’d been advised to bring – particularly in the cloister and larger public spaces of the church and refectory.
Although food was restricted to meal times – no snacking allowed – it was tasty and I always had enough.
Foregoing my mobile and laptop was no great hardship and I was able to use the abbey phone to maintain contact with my family. I was also delighted to find that many of my friends – even those I did not normally have frequent contact with – wrote to me during my stay.
I did find the enclosure something of a challenge though. The abbey buildings are extensive and the gardens are beautiful, but I soon found I was longing to get out and go for a good long walk. In the early weeks I would pace the grounds restlessly in my free-time, but about half way through my stay the desire to escape the enclosure left me. I came to realise that being somewhere else would change nothing – if I couldn’t be content within the enclosure I would not be content anywhere.
One of my highlights was discovering the joy of singing office. This came as something of a surprise to me as I have never been gifted in music, but with the encouragement of the sisters I stopped worrying about whether or not I could sing and started enjoying using my voice to praise God. It has also helped me to learn parts of the psalms and is one of the wonderful gifts I will take away from the abbey.
Being an alongsider has been a wonderful experience - not always easy because you do have to face up to yourself in a way you can often avoid in the busyness of the world, but undeniably rewarding. I would encourage anyone who is interested to enquire further. Life at the abbey is very disciplined, but it is a life which constantly looks towards God, and if you are willing to give yourself up to it for the space of a few months, then gradually: “Christ will make his home in your heart as you trust in him,” and “your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong” (Eph 3:17, New Living Translation). May God bless you on your journey.