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 A different world: discovering monastic life at the Mount

Ryan Bachoo was a participant in a recent ‘Come & See’ experience hosted by the monks of Mount St Benedict Monastery in Tunapuna from Friday, June 28 to Sunday 30. He shares his experience.

Behind the Abbey Church of Mt St Benedict sits an entirely different world — a world largely unexplored and out of bounds for visitors. This world is called the monastery, where the monks live, pray, study and work. Their life, one of chastity, spirituality, strict discipline, and brotherhood, can only be fully understood when experienced.

For almost three days, I, along with five other young men, attended a retreat with the monks. The architecture of the 112-year-old monastery immerses you in its historical significance.

The towering walls, which have stood longer than anyone in the monastery has lived, reminded us of our own mortality, and the dim halls add an overarching reverence to the place. It is so quiet that if a door is slammed, it echoes through the building.

For those three days, our timetable was filled with prayers, learning about the life of St Benedict, understanding the history of Mt St Benedict, living in community, and experiencing the monastic life of men whose way of life remains a mystery to outsiders.

It was a surreal and enriching experience, both spiritually and physically. Here are my takeaways:

Monastic life harnesses discipline –The structured way of life molds discipline into the novice. It calls on him to be, or become, responsible for meeting the requirements of not only being present for prayers five times a day but also studying and working.

Silence is loud – A large part of the Benedictine way of life is silence. Few times when we gathered as a community for breakfast, lunch or supper did we communicate.

Instead, we ate in silence, sometimes listening to the Psalms, devoid of distractions. More than that, silence allows you to hear. We visited 91-year-old Bro Rupert briefly and he said something that stayed with me, ‘We often look for answer from God, but we must instead listen.’

Prayer is at the heart of  monastic life – You’ve probably never prayed this much before. What I found was that being in such an environment helps you shape your prayer life as an individual and deepens your spirituality. There is also a room where the Blessed Sacrament is always exposed and those practicing can use the room at any time. Of course, one’s prayer life is a lifelong journey, but you can emerge much more spiritually mature through monasticism.

Studying is key – It is so important that monks devote time during the day to reading. There is a huge library on the first floor that can be utilised, as well as a designated reading room. Reading is mandatory, not optional.

You never stop working – While one’s prayer life in the monastery supersedes everything, the monks actively work in other sectors. Some produce crucifixes in the workshop, others practice agriculture and there are several other initiatives underway.

Vocations – At a time when vocations to religious life and the priesthood are on the decline in the region, there is enormous attention on where the next generation of vocations will come from.

Being in the same room with some monks can be intimidating. Some entered the monastery when they were 20. Others say they knew it was their calling from day one. However, many elder monks offer sobering words of advice on this thing labelled “the calling.” It almost never arrives in clarity. It’s a decision one must make in their own interest and for themselves. And even then, every single day for the rest of their lives, they must pray for perseverance lest they risk falling by the wayside.

The retreat was less about which of us will enter the monastery next and more about understanding the monastic way of life, which has enormous benefits even to the layperson.

In fact, in some strands of Buddhist monasticism, monastic life is seen as an ideal preparation for the married state. It is quite common for Buddhist boys to leave the monastery after a few years and get married. Their life in the monastery was meant to mold them into rounded and responsible people. In Roman Catholic monasticism, as practiced on the Mount, it is a lifelong commitment.

Finally, the monastery teaches the importance of sacrifice. It was St Benedict himself who warned in his Rule against sleeping and eating too much.

Thank you to the monks of Mt St Benedict who took care of us so well.