I was starting a new potentially life changing experience – a retreat with the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon.
I boarded the 11.06 service at Paddington and was told the journey to Totnes would take about three hours. Sitting in the “silent” carriage I thought this was a sign of things to come during the next few days. I would stay in the monastery guest house and share the daily life of the monks – the services, prayers, meals and silence!
For this trip I was determined to travel light, so chose the smallest bag I had. Amazingly with some advance planning, everything fitted in comfortably. I have visited Buckfast Abbey as a tourist twice before, but this time would be different. A short walk from Totnes station led me to the South Devon steam railway, and from Buckfastleigh a walk of less than a mile would bring me to the Abbey. By mid afternoon I was at the Abbey, ringing the guest master’s bell. Brother Daniel welcomed me, gave me a short tour and left me at my room on the second floor overlooking the beautiful cloister. The en-suite room was simply furnished and the narrow single bed was comfortable. My first impression was the silence, and the size of the complex of buildings. The next service was Vespers and I arrived at the Chapel in good time. The fairly plainly decorated chapel was in temporary use, as major building works in the Abbey prevented regular usage. They celebrate their millennium in 2018.
All the brothers seem elderly, with ages between 60 and 80 something. Surely the community cannot continue without many more vocations. Brother Daniel told me he had been at the Abbey for 34 years, and still living in the same room as the first day! It is this daily permanence that is so awesome and hard to imagine. Imagine knowing exactly what you will be doing in even one year at exactly the same time each day!
The aim of my stay was to experience time with God, without the distraction of modern day technology. I managed to do without my mobile phone for the entire duration of my stay. Although monastery guests had access to the internet I avoided the temptation of social network sites! There was a copy of a national and a local newspaper in the Common Room. The flow of life in the Abbey was continuous and I had to keep an eye on the time in order to attend the next service. The only one I never managed to attend was Matins at 05.45. Latin and psalms were much used with plain chant – quite magnificent. Guests had reserved seats in the refectory, and silence is maintained during mealtimes. Scripture or suitable non-fiction titles were read out loud. I was interested to see that second helpings were not permitted! Living alone means eating alone, but by focussing on the food in front of me the experience became meaningful and relaxing. The 3 meals a day were varied and appetising.
There was free time during mornings and afternoons for reading or walking in the beautiful grounds adjoining the River Dart and this quiet time outdoors was inspirational. As a monastery guest I had widespread access to the private areas with the use of my electronic key. Only males are permitted to stay in the monastery. Payment is by donation – give what you can up to a maximum of £40 per night.
Although each day of my stay was identical, this structure helped me in my quest for solitude, prayer, reading and time to listen to God. In everyday life it is much harder to achieve the peace and understanding that I acquired in Devon. The overall experience was quite intense and empowering.