The ringing of the Church Bells broke the silence of the night as I listened to the soft pitter-patter of rain against the window.
The whistling of the wind and the rustling from the trees were pre dawn indicators of the inclement weather outside my sanctuary. I looked at my watch – my blurry eyes registered the time at 4 am.
The Bells chimed once more for a final call to prayer. This was an ungodly hour for most people to rise but it was the start of just another day for these men of God. The chanting of the Monks echoed through the corridors of the monastery. Their feeble voices betrayed their diminishing numbers and advancing years. These pious men had sacrificed their lives for a greater goal and were cloistered from the world. To the observer, their faith appeared to be un-tarnished by church scandal and indicators were that their souls were un-sullied by Man’s greed. I watched, transfixed, as their daily ritual of prayer commenced.
Life in Mount Melleray differs little from the traditions established by the first Cistercian monks who arrived in Co Waterford in 1855. These monks embrace the discipline of monastic life and dedicate their daily lives to “seeking God through prayer.” Their day is segmented into time for worship as the sounds of hymns, psalms and scripture punctuate the silence of the monastery. Oblivious to the complications and stress of ‘normal’ life, these elderly men have abandoned everything to offer intercession for the world and help rekindle the memory of God.They have left their individual lives at the gate to to their monastery and have forsaken all things mammon in search of a more spiritual existence.
Fr Celestine encapsulated all I envisaged in my pre conceived idea of a cloistered monk. His eyes were clear and his face betrayed little of his 90 years on this earth. He is a thin frail man, who walks supported by a stick and his full beard, framed by his black and white cassock, adds drama to his image. In 1941, when war raged throughout a turbulent Europe, many idealistic young men responded to a call to arms and met their fate on battlefields of France. That same year, eighteen year old, Norman O Leary, from Blackrock, Co Cork, responding to his faith, answered a call from God and sought the tranquility of Monastic life. He entered the Cistercian Monastery in Mount Melleray, Co Waterford. Upon his ordination he was given the name Celestine and for 72 years he has devoted himself to a life of prayer. His religious philosophy is as simple as his life. Seeking reassurance about my own faith, he responded to my questions about religion. He looked me in the eye and with a gentle smile said,” God is Love, that’s all you need to know, nothing more – nothing less”. He told me that his life was fulfilled and said he would change nothing if he had the opportunity all over again. As I was leaving his company he posed a question that stopped me dead in my tracks. Who’s the present Taoiseach he asked? I replied with a laugh and walked away thinking deeply about the attractions and benefits of monastic life.
Fr.Celestine had one wish, to visit the nearby Grotto at Cappoquin, which he had helped build many years ago. I asked the Abbott, a friend of mine, to grant this gentle priest permission to leave the monastery. I promised I’d make sure the 90-year-old wouldn’t do a ‘runner’ on my watch. The monk greeted the news of his pending visit to the Grotto with the excitement of a child at Christmas. He suggested that we should go early the following morning to ‘avoid the crowds’. He slept little that night. The following day he told me he was feeling troubled and unwell. The thought of leaving his sanctuary had brought on a panic attack overnight. After a lot of reassurance, we departed on our ten-minute journey and to his surprise we were the only visitors.
Fr Celestine embraced the atmosphere of the Grotto with the love of a father greeting his long departed son. He was at one with his surroundings and the silent energy and faith projected by this frail priest was palpable. Two hours quickly passed and he was ready to go home. As he climbed the steep path towards the car he paused, looked back at the Shrine once more and his eyes glazed over as he said a final silent prayer, mindful perhaps, that he might never see his beloved Grotto again. Once home, he went immediately to the Church and give thanks to God for fulfilling his desire.
At 93 years of age Fr Boneventure is the oldest monk in the community. A small man, with a sharp eye and quick intellect, he originally came from Co Meath. I was told that as a seventeen year old boy he paid a visit to Mount Melleray with the family of his girlfriend. The conflict between his love of God and that for his girlfriend was answered during his short visit. He joined the monastery but the two were to remain friends for life. Upon his ordination he chose the name Boneventure. Around the same time his girlfriend decided to join a convent and also chose the name Boneventure, when she took her final vows. Two parallel lives, a pious Monk and a devoted nun, brother and sister in Christ. One cloistered in an enclosed community devoting his day to prayer and the other travelling extensively spreading her knowledge and beliefs as a teacher and a nun. Both sharing their love in a deep-rooted faith and a supreme God. Both united for life in a special friendship that has lasted more then seventy years, a friendship that will remain steadfast until their parting breath.
Such men live behind the impressive Monastery perched in the rolling landscape of County Waterford. Given the changing world, I questioned the future and very relevance of this secluded community. The Abbott frowned with the strain of a man faced with finding answers to an such an imponderable dilemma. And he placed his faith in God.
On the day of my departure I rose at 4.30 am and watched the sunrise on the monastery. The first rays of dawn cut through the early morning mist and the golden hues painted the ancient bell tower with their glow. My subconscious replayed the chants now embedded in my brain as I listened to the sounds of the wakening dawn.
I recalled hymns and prayers which were symbolic of my youthful religious comforts and I thought of the life devotion my parents had to a Church that subsequently betrayed their trust. My week long stay in Mount Melleray was at an end. In a country which has grown cynical of religious and traditional values, I had made a short return to the simplicity and values of my upbringing and I felt enriched by the experience.
My thoughts were interrupted by the chiming of the Bell. It was the early call to prayer. I visualised the silent shuffle of the elderly men as they made their way to Church. I returned to the Monastery to observe the small community of Cistersian Monks devote another day of prayer for the redemption of sinners. Steadfast in their belief, they chanted their hymns and recited ancient Psalms, and I envied the Monks their deep-rooted faith. I questioned my own religious convictions and yearned for solace in my faith.
After breakfast I bade farewell to my new found friends.
I promised that I would return,sans camera, to further explore and develop my personal spiritual needs. As I drove from the Monastery I felt a sharp uncomfortable pain in my back. A short time later I was diagnosed with very rare blood cancer but that’s another story.
Upon hearing of my illness the Abbott, Fr Augustine, reassured me that he believed I had an abundance of faith and he told me that I could outsource my praying requirements to his Monks in County Waterford. Now, from a hospital bed, I get some solace from that thought and I visualise the monks as they intercede on my behalf. I recall, with gratitude, the tranquil week I spent in the presence of those gentle and humble men. Now, at the most vulnerable period of my life, I have asked myself the question I put to Fr Celistine some months ago. If I was given the opportunity, what changes would I make to my life. I thank God that my response would be the same as his. Not a thing!
After all “ God is Love – no more no less” and I have been fortunate to experience an abundance of love in my life.
My quest for my religious convictions will continue and I hope the Monks prayers, coupled with my feeble efforts, help me find an enlightened answer before the good Lord finally calls me.