Monks are my neighbours,
A community of prayer and work
by Elsemieke Wishart
Every time I walk along the rolling hills of Westminster Abbey in Mission I feel like bursting into the opening song from Sound of Music “The Hills Are Alive”. The hills at Westminster Abbey are alive with monks working, visitors strolling and cows grazing the green pastures. Giant rhododendrons grow in the verdant forest (it all blooms gloriously in May) and the sounds of the steeple bells tolling regularly are reminiscent of church bells in a European village.
When visitors, who come from all over the Lower Mainland and around the world, walk the grounds there is a good chance they will pass a monk or two. Guests come to admire the beautiful church with its spectacular stained glass windows, built by Norwegian architect,Asbjørn Gåthe, and they come to admire breathtaking views of the Fraser Valley. Walking to the southern lookout you can see the meandering Fraser River, and look to Abbotsford and Mt. Baker, and in the east Mt. Cheam in Chilliwack. My interview with Father Abbot JohnBraganza was on the feast day of St. Benedict, and we had a short time between the morning service and midday prayers. Arriving as people were leaving the church, it seemed like everyone wanted to talk to the abbot.
Westminster Abbey is home to 33 Benedictine monks – including FatherDunstan Massey, who is the resident artist. The monks live their lives in community, by the Bible and the Rule of St. Benedict which includes the Latin motto ora et labora or ‘pray and work’. “All monastic life is focused on the Word of God,” explains Father Abbot. “It is about Jesus...living in community is the basis of Christianity.” Becoming a monk is a decision that is not taken lightly. It is a long, slow process beginning with a year of postulancy, when the candidate is introduced to the way of life, learning how to live the Gospel. If he expresses a desire to continue after the first year, he becomes a canonical novitiate for one year. Then he will commit to three years of formal monastic instruction, and this is where serious intent is expressed. Following this time he becomes a monk through a ceremony of solemn profession that is very much like a marriage commitment. “You have to really want it....it’s a calling,” explains Father Abbot, who began his journey as a monk at the age of 18. The monks work hard on the 80 hectares of land raising cattle, chickens and harvesting hay. “It is all part of ordinary life that is lived everywhere else.”
The monks at the abbey follow the rule of St. Benedict, a document that was written in Latin (80 per cent of which is Scripture) around 480-597 AD. St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries has been translated into many languages and revised often to accommodate modern rhetoric. The rule book outlines the rules of monastic life which this community of monks live by. There are also 200 to 300 oblates – lay people who are not monks but associate themselves with Westminster Abbey—who live by the rule of St. Benedict as well.
The rule book includes guidelines for life through work, study, private prayer, common prayer and rest. The lifestyle of a monk may appeal to some as being restful, yet the days are busy. “We all work about six hours per day,” says Father Abbot. Breaks during the day include time for prayer and meals. The Seminary of Christ the King, first founded in 1939 in Ladner, BC, is now operated at the Abbey in Mission by the monks who live there. There is an all boys’ high school teaching Grades 8 through 12 and an accredited college where degrees can be earned in arts, theology and divinity. Some laypeople teach at the school. The abbey also has 36 rooms available for guests who want a quiet retreat from their regular lives. “Some people book a year in advance and come back every year,” says Father Abbot. Everyone eats together in the dining room and may join in with common prayer.
The monks are at peace, living all their days in community together, while professing faith, hope, and charity, existing obediently and monastically.
April 2014 (2014-04-02)