℣. My help is in the name of the Lord. ℟.O Lord, make haste to help me.
by Peirce Yip
With these ancient words began the office of Vespers. I was at the back of the church, having only just arrived minutes before, my huge backpack on the seat beside me. Without any fuss, the monks proceeded to chant the hymns and psalms of the day. With the exception of one brother (who seemed to be always half a beat behind and a pitch too high), the purity of their voices was quite unlike anything I’ve heard before.
When Vespers was done, one of the monks approached and motioned for me to follow him. “We’ve been expecting you”, he whispered as we shuffled towards the door. “I’m Fr Nicholas, the guest master. I’ll show you to your room now and then Br Duncan will be giving the official welcome in the common room–in about seven minutes.”
I was there at Quarr Abbey, a Benedictine abbey on the Isle of Wight, for their first Monastic Experience Weekend from 13-15 March. I had first heard of Quarr from my godmother who had spent some time before at St Cecilia’s Abbey, a convent of Benedictine nuns also on the Isle of Wight. I happened one Sunday to chance upon a poster at the back of my church promoting this programme and immediately sent an email to express my interest. I had never been to a monastery before and was quite keen to get a taster of the monastic life. That was what I basically got for those three days. Eight times a day I prayed together with the monks. I shared too in the daily chores and work of the community.
What struck me above all was the seriousness and prayerfulness of the life at Quarr. “Prayer is not just confined to the Divine Office,” Fr Nicholas explains. “We do not go to the church to pray, leave to work, and then come back to pray again–our work is prayer. When we work in the garden–that’s praying. When I’m here talking to guests like you–that’s praying too.” This accounts for much else that one witnesses in a monastery: for example, the general silence kept throughout the day and the ecclesiastical style of the refectory.
The monastic life is however not all seriousness. I witnessed the lighter side of the monks during their weekly community recreation. Over tea and sweets, they freely chatted about the upcoming UK general election and the beauty of Russian liturgical music, among other things.
By the end of my short stay at Quarr, I’d grown quite fond of that community and was rather sad to leave. This was after all my first monastery and–like all first things tend to generally–had made a firm impression on me. As I left on the ferry back to Portsmouth (and to the busy secular world), I made plans for my next visit to Quarr–the next time hopefully a longer one.
Peirce is a neophyte convert from Anglicanism and is currently a Fresher reading Theology at Durham University. At present, he is on retreat in a monastery somewhere in Europe.