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'I had trained to be a paratrooper... but became a monk instead'


Have you ever wondered what it's like to live in a religious community? In a fascinating insight into his daily life, Fr Simon Sleeman (66) of the Benedictine Order tells of the extraordinary experience that made him enter Glenstal Abbey as a teenager.

I went to school in Glenstal and I decided when I left that I wasn't going down the route of 'go to university and get married'. But I didn't know what route I'd go instead and monastic life definitely wasn't on my horizon either!

"I decided to do voluntary work, signed up with Voluntary Service Overseas and ended up in Belize at the age of 18. That was an … exotic year, let me put it that way, especially after 12 years in boarding school. It was wild: sun, sand and party time, everything I'd dreamed of after being in an all-male boarding school most of my life.

"Reggae music and dancing the night away - it was great. Actually, it was probably too much.

"When I came back, I thought I would do a short service commission and travel the world for three years paratrooping. My father had been in the British Army and his father before him - and his father before him. I had my medical and was all due to go.

"Before heading off I decided to go up to Glenstal to let them know how I'd got on in my voluntary work.

"I remember standing on the circle in front of the castle and I just felt this energy rising up from my feet through my whole body. I had a sense of 'this is it'. It didn't feel like I was being commanded to do anything, it felt like I was being offered an opportunity, there was a sense that this was a possibility.

"I had no great religious affiliation or devotion - especially after Belize - so deciding to go down the path of a monastic life was a huge surprise to me and everyone else.

"My mother grew up nominally Church of England and I remember, when I was ordained in 1991, the archbishop said 'you must be very proud to have a son as a priest' and she said 'I am not!'

"Ultimately, both my parents were supportive.

"They were probably just concerned about me going into it very young. Today most people who join come out of university - the last guy we had come in last year had a doctorate in medieval theology - people are much more mature and well-qualified, they are much clearer that this is what they want.

"There was, and still is, an emotional struggle in my head about my choice - that sense of 'what am I doing?' This is a crazy life, living with 30 men, believing and searching for God.

"The basic timetable is: up at 6am and go to church in the morning, then you have time for private prayer, then a self-service breakfast and the morning to work either in school or the farm or whatever your job is. Mass is at 12.10pm and then lunch, then there could be a siesta after lunch, I might go for a cycle or I keep bees and might go to them. I'd be back in my room for 4pm and I'd read.

"You're always preparing lectures or retreats or writing something.

"Then there's vespers (evening prayer) at 6pm and supper at 7.15pm (it's a formal affair where you read in silence).

"After that there's recreation, when I might play Scrabble or cards, then we've the final prayer at 8.35pm and back to the room at 9pm ready for bed at 9.30 or 10pm and ready to go again. That happens every day of the year, more or less, so it's very regular.

"It's a privileged existence. Most people's lives today are so busy, they're so distracted, it's hard to find a life that is designed to make you grow and find fullness of life.

"When St Benedict, whose rule we follow, established the community in 480AD, it was when Roman culture was decadent and morally bankrupt. He was looking for a life where his heart was enlarged with love and he knew the Roman culture he was living in would never provide that for him.

"I'd say our civilisation today isn't too far off Roman culture. People don't listen very well, there are too many distractions. There's no opportunity to really focus on what this life is about. Is there any meaning to it? The monastic life is a life of listening, waiting, trying to hear what's going on in our world, listening to God and the universe.

"You're given the time and space to try and concentrate. When you come to the monastery, the one thing you're asked at the gate isn't 'Are you a signed-up Roman Catholic?' or 'Have you found God?', it's 'Are you seeking God?'. It's about the search. When a person comes here, the community's only job is to see 'Is this person after a cushy number or are they really seeking God?' It's a tough one to assess, but that's what it's about - the search.

"There have been times I've thought about leaving. When I look at my brothers and sisters and the pleasure and connection they get from having children and grandchildren, I have a sense of free-floating. I'm just after becoming a pensioner and suddenly that brought on a feeling of 'this is it'.

"I've never lived an independent life and I miss privacy, it's a challenge living with a group of people.

"There are plenty of misperceptions about monastic life - my father always had an image of me out in the fields hoeing in my habit with the hood up - but the biggest one I would say is about the peace here.

"People come to visit and say 'it's so peaceful and calm' but when you're an inmate on the inside, it's anything but. Inevitably there are set-tos and the edges are knocked off you sharpish, but that's ... what makes you grow.

"The order is designed to be set up in such a way that the spirit can work in and through us without us killing each other.

"We have about one new person join every year. We could probably do with more but we're lucky, a lot of places like this are bereft of people. The number here stays around the 30-something mark. But Benedictine life has survived all these centuries and I think it will go on surviving in some form. People are searching for God and that won't stop.

"I did a talk at the beginning of the Novena at Holycross last year and the place was packed with people at 6am and all day. All I hear is 'there's no one in church' but it's just the practice that has changed.

"People don't want regular Sunday mornings but they're at Holycross or doing Caminos - there are a whole lot of manifestations of a faith. I think the idea of 'parish' is under threat but I think, looking ahead, there'll be spiritual hotspots around the country and what I suspect is that monasticism, of all the parts of the church, could be what flourishes."

interview: chrissie Russell

Belfast Telegraph


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