Often I hear people saying that their heads are spinning! They haven’t time to think. They literally haven’t a minute. Moving from here to there. Delivering. Collecting. Deadlines. Goals. Doing. Undoing. Rushing. Fussing. Life can be hectic. And the years can pass us by quickly. Sometimes, you’d wonder what is life all about? What is the meaning of this journey?
Life for all of us could easily be a continuous flux of countless bits and pieces of fragmented activity. When we would add up the pieces day after day, year after year, we’d end up with an entire life split into millions of fragments but no connecting thread. This fragmentation of every given day is a barrier to the peace of mind that we all internally crave. Over time we become like slaves and our daily stresses suffocate our souls, our inner selves that crave for focus, purpose and direction. It is no surprise that after forty or fifty years of muscling through such disjointed days that many of us wake up and suddenly wonder, “What is this life about? Indeed, the latest research suggests that happiness is synonymous with having a meaningful life. A fast life eventually slows us down. We all want to live meaningful lives. The more meaning we have in our lives, the more meaning we give to our very existence and the more meaningful days we live the happier we will be.
I was in Glenstal Abbey on Wednesday afternoon. I was invited to address the staff there. It is a Benedictine monastery in County Limerick on the south-west coast of Ireland. Situated on a 500-acre estate with streams, lakes and woodland paths the castle was built in the romantic Norman style. The Abbey, which is dedicated to Saints Joseph and Columba, is home to a community of monks. Their prayer and liturgical celebration is combined with managing a boarding school for boys, a farm, and a guest house. The monks assemble in the church four times a day for the Divine Office and the Mass. The local people and visitors are welcome to join them in their religious rituals.
Over the years many thousands of people have come to the Abbey for some ‘time out’, to create some space to ‘think’, to seek meaning, to invest in their spirituality, to foster the inner-peace that so often eludes us. After my presentation to the staff that day, I decided to stay in the guesthouse. It is on the same grounds and within walking distance of the church and refectory. I had work the following day in Limerick but chose not to stay in a hotel in the city. There was an excellent opportunity for me to take some time-out for myself at Glenstal. Lately, I have been exceptionally busy and travelling throughout the country. I could not resist the window of opportunity that my invitation to the Abbey presented me.
The guesthouse is a relatively new facility. The rooms (all en suite) are comfortable. About twelve altogether. You are meant to book in advance. I was lucky that there was one available for me. Patrons are asked to make a donation for their stay and there is a collection box on the ground floor. There were six people staying in the house. It can be assumed that everyone staying over was on some form of personal retreat. So it would be inappropriate to overindulge in conversation or be too inquisitive. The welcoming Father Christopher is a former Abbot and is in charge of the guest house. Robbie from Minnesota is a volunteer and is helping in the office for a few months. The guests included two Michelles – one from Galway and the other from Canada. Caroline was from north Dublin. There was a priest from Kilkenny who was making a return visit to the guesthouse after six years. He used to come more regularly. And Pat shook my hand outside the church. I never got talking to him properly.
Father Christopher called me into the kitchen when I entered the hall. He had just cut cake and there was tea in the pot. The two MIchelles, Robbie and the very learned priest discussed American politics and how the world perceived the US. Maybe I was tired but I wasn’t drawn into the conversation. I was glad I had the lovely chocolate fudge cake to fill my mouth! Six o’clock was drawing close and Father Christopher reminded us that it was time for Vespers. Vespers are the sunset evening prayers, which are held in the church everyday. They would be followed by dinner with the monks. A silent dinner!!
After grabbing my coat I headed to the church. The incense and the half-light created an immediate mystical atmosphere. The monks entered in a solemn straight line and took their side seats on the altar. They sang the prayers in Latin. These prayers are 1500 years old. I found these moments deeply engaging and somewhat moving. A tribe of holy men in long brown capes had chosen such a completely different life to most people on the globe. I was on my knees and started to pray at a level I haven’t done for years. We were all united in prayer under the same roof – all linked in a chain of history that is centuries old. All six residents were speaking to their God. There were three other people, possibly locals, following the translated text. Afterwards I lit candles at the side altar for the health and happiness of my family and a token of remembrance for my dead relatives. I also lit a candle for the intentions of all those doing the Moodwatchers course!!! From Glenstal to Froebel College and Monaghan town with love!!
I bought a book about St. Benedict. It was entiled ‘How to Live a Good Life’. The title caught my attention because the new psychology – Positive Psychology offers its own opinions on how to live a good life. Tapping into our inner-strengths, being engaged and having meaning in our lives are at the heart of happiness studies of the last ten years. The Rule of Benedict rekindles a sense of journey for the monks on seven occasions each day. A crucial aspect to their living is peace. A stillness. Work, love, community, prayer but also time to contemplate – time to rest. We are so busy, so stressed and rushing so much that we have incorrectly learned ‘rest’ to be a time when we sleep. There is a different type of rest. Life can be relentless, frantic and exhausting – but it doesn’t have to be this way. If we feel a lack of meaning in our lives, maybe it’s because we have insufficient ‘rest’. We all need more peace than we allow ourselves. We need some new rules if we want more meaning in our lives.
The dinner was stew. The tea was in bowls, which we raised with both hands to our mouths. Monks cooked and served. And there was no talk. Just stillness. Another monk read aloud. In this kind of stillness we can hear others but also tune into ourselves. This kind of living allows for a more meaningful life because it legislates for it. I was late for dinner because I got lost but Father Christopher like a good shepherd found the lost sheep and I appreciated his efforts as I was very hungry! Night prayers in the church followed.
In the guesthouse the two Michelles, Father Christopher, Robbie and myself gathered around the fire. Earlier that day another monk, Father Killian told me to seek the meaning of life in the people I love. The gift of these people makes life worth living. We should not get lost in the fog of unanswerable questions of faith. We should focus on the ‘now’ – the gift of the life we have and the precious time involved. Total strangers gathered around a blazing fire became engrossed in a conversation that covered the emerging power of China, mindfulness, and atheism among many other topics. There was an unexpected synergy between us all. Technology has really reduced opportunities for such discourse in our ordinary days.
The only regret about my visit to Glenstal Abbey was that I squeezed it into a busy schedule. I only had one night. The other people were there for days. Michelle from Canada comes a few times a year. We all need to create a spiritual space for ourselves in this busy and stressful world. We should not be obsessed with understanding what this life is about but give it real meaning by living it to the full. By connecting with people. By being grateful for the gift of today. By making each day the best possible day (no matter what the circumstances we find oursleves in). By giving ourselves a ‘rest’ while we are awake! I will return to Glenstal for a proper ‘rest’ in the near future!
(c) Shane Martin
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