Friday, 12 April 2013

Monastic life: the path to hermitude


I have just come back from a short break in south west Wales, Penally to be precise. And very nice it was too before you ask. Here is a picture of the beach from Tenby, looking south towards Penally as the sun sets...


To the left of the shot (or east if we are to be nautical) lies the tiny island of Caldey, an unimposing, yet far from unremarkable piece of land that is home to an old Celtic monastery that attracts scores of visitors every summer. I must confess that I had not even heard of the island until I visited Tenby for the first time last Easter and it was only when browsing a small shop dedicated to selling the monk's wares on the mainland that I discovered a little of the history. Unfortunately, owing the fact that I am the parent of a toddler (that isn't unfortunate, more the consequence of responsibility), I have not yet had the opportunity to visit the island but I do hope to get round to it one day. In the meantime I have satisfied myself with the occasional wistful gaze out to sea, musing upon the distant rocks upon the ancient question that has perplexed mankind since the dawn of philosophical consideration:

What drives a man to become a monk?

Actually, I've got that wrong, it's quite an easy question to answer, for the list is long. Infinite peace and solitude, no women, no taxes to pay, no traffic, the chance to indulge in craft and living off the land. The correct question is:

How to you even get to become a monk?

I ask as it's far from a given that the audition queues are long enough to sustain their monastic ecosystem...consider that on reflection the gig isn't quite as attractive as first you might think. Infinite boredom, no women, no technology or mod-cons... it's enough to put you off. However, even if the daunting list of denial failed to dissuade would-be hermits then the task of applying might. Boats only sail across to Caldey in the spring and summer and only then to ferry visitors across to the islands. Are prospective applicants to pay a visitors fee and simply post their application on the front door? Or should they come with a secret change of cowl and slip casually into the herb garden to do some sowing whilst none of the other friars are looking?

It isn't as if the current occupants are in the business of actively sustaining their population... a monk will die a monk and will never have children to succeed him so one would have thought that they would seek to entice newcomers to their way of life. Maybe they do and I have it all wrong, but if and when I do get to visit Caldey I will be fascinated to find out who the youngest monk is and when and how the most recent addition to the flock made their arrival. 

There is another slant to all this; consider that a monastery might just be a cheaper, more wholesome and far more enjoyable retirement home than the default option currently available to us once we become old and too cantankerous for our families to cope with. Just a thought.