Last Night's TV...
by a Monk of Ampleforth
Wednesday 25th October 2017
Chaplains, teachers, retreat-givers, parish priests, carpenters - all traditional occupations for Ampleforth monks. But 'TV reviewer'? As monks, we don't watch television and novices are usually surprised to find out how little they miss it. But today I've been asked to make an exception and dip into BBC iPlayer. Why? Because TV producers suddenly seem to have got very excited about monks and nuns.
It's been hard to miss the publicity in the papers recently for two programmes set in religious houses: Channel 5's series 'Bad Habits, Holy Orders', which began last week, and BBC Four's 'Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery', whose first episode aired last night (the second is on tonight). As the titles suggest, the programmes are coming from two quite different angles. The first was described as: 'A group of wild twentysomethings go to live in a convent in rural Norfolk.' The second was billed as "slow TV" 'going in search of inner peace in three Benedictine monasteries in Britain.'
From Downton Abbey to Downside Abbey....
Back to 'Bad Habits' later. But this morning I've just finished watching the first BBC episode about Downside Abbey. We know the monks of Downside quite well, as fellow members of the English Benedictine Congregation, but it was a privilege to get this unique glimpse into the heart of their day-to-day life. They're Benedictines like us, but every monastery is different. There's an obvious family resemblance and their fundamental values are our values, but each monastery has its own 'personality'. So the programme made for intriguing viewing, even for a monk.
I could certainly identify with the sense of rhythm in the Downside day: the recurring but purposeful ebb and flow, gently moving from prayer to work to meals and so on, carried along by periods of silence and the companionship of your brethren. There's a beauty to the monastic day which perhaps we monks take for granted but TV viewers are rather spellbound by. And although the programme focussed on the tranquil moments of the day (I'm sure life at Downside can be as hectic at times as it can be here!) and was shot carefully to accentuate a strong sense of an intense spiritual atmosphere, it was also honest about the ordinariness of much monastic living. It's not a dizzy stream of mystical raptures or romantic floating along cloisters. Monks are ordinary human beings with ordinary human routines: sleepily munching their bowl of cereal in the morning, cleaning up, getting on with work.
The programme was slow. Very slow. And unexciting (a monastic writer once wrote a book about monastic life called 'An Unexciting Life'!) Now, monastic life is full of moments of joy and laughter and, yes, even fun! But it's also true that nobody becomes a monk for the thrill and adventure. So why do people still become monks, even today, with all the excitement modern life has to offer? Presumably people are tuning into these programmes because they are curious to find out - and also because they already suspect they partly know the answer. That is, many people have the feeling that there must be something richer and deeper to life than frenzied activity and entertainments. Where is peace and meaning to be found?
Even the party girls in 'Bad Habits, Holy Orders' express a sense of dissatisfaction with their lives which they hope the TV series's promised 'spiritual journey' will help them move beyond. Though they hadn't realised they were going to be spending time with the Daughters of Divine Charity at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Swaffham!
I skimmed through the first episode rather nervously, given the slightly tacky publicity for the series (though the Abbot President and the Catholic Bishops had given it their seal of approval!). But it was a pleasant surprise - although the Radio Times reviewer was disappointed to find this wasn't a cheap 'girls cause chaos in convent' bit of trash TV ("Where's the debauchery?")
The girls, more used to a world of partying and excess, found themselves challenged by another way of being. Deprived of smartphones ("I would be very lonely without social media"; "I feel like my self-worth comes from Instagram"), the girls were invited by the sisters to embark on "a time of building relationships without a machine in the middle" ("it'll be lovely, won't it?" Sister added; the girls didn't look convinced). They were encouraged to quieten down and reflect on their priorities in life. Used to spending time shopping and glamour modelling, they had to get used to a steady routine of early mornings and early nights, and distinctly unglamorous work such as cleaning.
I don't think anybody expected the girls to be transformed into nuns, and there was a fair amount of resistance and rebellion, but there were also moments of insight and connection with the lessons the sisters were trying to convey. Some of the girls recognised that their lives were somewhat out of control. Meanwhile, the sisters' lives clearly communicated a refreshing message, even if their 'unexciting life' is not for everyone. Their message was simple, the simple wisdom that underpins the monastic/religious life. For example: that silence provides a chance to get to know both God and ourselves better (hard though that can be); that a well-lived life is a journey of (sometimes painful) change and allowing oneself to be changed and grow; that to live in community (and to live a non-self-centred life) requires hard work and self-giving, but makes us better, more human people.
"I really don't like mornings. If it wasn't for God, I really wouldn't get up."
And the sisters were indeed very human, full of affection, emotion, fun (I'd never seen religious sisters playing basketball before...) and humour. Many of us who are used to rising early for Matins will be able to identify with the sister who admitted: "I really don't like mornings. If it wasn't for God, I really wouldn't get up." Without God, indeed, our life would be unliveable and wouldn't make sense; with Him, the religious life becomes something beautiful and transformative, even if we who try to live it are very ordinary and flawed.
"Come and see"
'Bad Habits' and 'Retreat' are two very different TV series but both reveal an abiding interest in the religious life and a recognition that it still has something to say to our time. They also highlight the fact that the religious life still goes on today, despite challenges and an ever more secular world. God continues to call.
The programmes also remind us that the doors of the monastery are not closed to the world. Monks and nuns always, in some form, welcome those who are searching and they try to provide some opportunity to share the peace of the cloister with them. At Ampleforth, we have for some years reflected on Jesus's words, "Come and see" (John 1:39), and tried to invite people in to seek God with us. Indeed offering traditional Benedictine hospitality has always been part of our mission. Many people visit the Abbey and its grounds throughout the year and many come to stay as guests for organised or private retreats - people from all backgrounds, not all of them religious. We also welcome those who are discerning whether the Lord is calling them to the monastic life. 'Come and see'.
'Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery' is on Wednesday 25th October and Thursday 26th October. The next episodes feature Pluscarden Abbey and another EBC monastery: Belmont Abbey.
'Bad Habits, Holy Orders' is on Thursdays at 10pm on Channel 5. Please be advised that the programme contains some strong language.