It’s day one of my monastic getaway and I am sitting on an ordinary bench in a very extraordinary garden. I started to get interested in gardening before I entered the monastery, so I am able to identify some of the flowers I can see: there are some foxgloves, alluring but deathly poisonous; below them, cosmos, blue and star-like; on either side of the path delphiniums, blue and fluted; in the grassy area near the entrance to the garden are bleeding hearts, so-named because they look like… bleeding hearts; on the wall roses, full and red. Walking along the gravel, past the media building and the plastic likeness of the exterior wall of the grand abbey church, I can see fuchsias and myriads of other plants and flowers whose names are unknown to me. I sit down heavily on a bench a few metres from the canal and watch the midges and the pond skimmers dance and fritter in the setting sun. It is May, a week after submitting my final piece of coursework for university, and this is Buckfast Abbey – a nineteenth-century Cistercian abbey built on the site of a much older Cistercian abbey that was destroyed by King Henry VIII during the dissolution. That is to say his troops destroyed the original abbey: the King himself was busy fighting the French and impregnating various notables, then chopping off their heads. I think, as I listen to the birds and the far-off tumult of the River Dart winding its way to the sea, “God, I miss my family.”
Have you ever gone to a National Trust property – Chartwell, say, or Coleton Fishacre, both absolutely gorgeous houses – and thought, “I wish that screaming kid would fall in a pond and drown”, or “Christ, I wish those old buggers on the veranda would stop talking about Brexit and just piss off”? Me too. Well Buckfast Abbey feels rather like a dream in this regards: there are no bored children, no Conservative old biddies, no amateur historians declaring that they know this, that and the other: no, there is just peace. And it’s really pissing boring.
It’s my first night at Buckfast, the air is fresh and warm and filled with the sounds of birds and water, so why am I crying like a demented person? For the past three years Plymouth, with its hideous post-WWII architecture and myriads of overwhelming crazy people, has driven me almost to distraction. Couple this with two irritatingly masculine housemates, two rats and a leaking lead valley, and by the time I arrive at Buckfast I’m just about ready to drop. The monks’ gardens to the rear of the abbey church offer me a private sanctuary where I can shove off these mortal coils and get to grips with learning the names of birds and trees using the two Collins guidebooks I recently bought from Waterstones. The food, frugal but sufficient, is nice and filling: the window in my room is leaded so that when I peer longingly out over the wide drive leading from the abbey proper to the monks’ gardens, I feel like a Daphne Du Maurier heroine awaiting the return of her handsome piratical lover. And that’s precisely the problem. My boyfriend, Glenn, isn’t here.
Glenn and I have been together for two-and-a-bit years. Undeniably there are times when I wish he’d shut up and vice versa, but his absence from this place of peace and beauty is troubling to me, so troubling in fact that I start to violently weep. The reason: this place is like heaven, except its perfection is prohibited by the absence of my beautiful boyfriend and my lovely mum, Ria. A few days later, in the monks’ calefactory (or common room), I tell the administrator (interim abbot) who looks, incidentally, like a schoolmaster from a Kingsley Amis novel, “Surely a part of a thing’s wholeness, its perfection, is our capacity to share it with those we love”. I’m paraphrasing. The administer smiles knowingly, then says: “Sometimes even I miss turning to someone else and saying, ‘isn’t this beautiful?’”. That sums it up nicely. The gardens here are heavenly, Eden-like if you prefer, but the reason why Adam was not alone in The Garden was because perfection is attained through shared experiences, and because he needed to get a leg over in order to create the human race. Apparently. I love my boyfriend and my family, without whom even Eden seems… incomplete, imperfect. Incidentally one wonders how God – if he exists – could possibly oppose homosexuality when my first thought upon entering the monastery is: I miss my boyfriend. So there’s that.
Another reason why I went to Buckfast was because I thought that technology was having a negative effect on my mental health. I read a book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, and it got me thinking: maybe I should delete my social media right now, maybe just maybe Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are the reasons why everyone feels so depressed all the time. I think that’s a part of the reason, but I think there’s more to it than that. My bedroom at Buckfast had in it a walnut writing desk, a single, squishy bed, a wardrobe and that’s it. There were plug sockets, so I could charge my phone, but no Wi-Fi signal, so I was required to turn on my 4G, except when I was out and about. The accoutrements of most hotel bedrooms were noticeable by their absence: a TV, for example, and a clock radio. There wasn’t even a hairdryer: all the drawer of the bedside cabinet contained was a likeness of the Virgin Mary. Ditto the walnut writing desk and the mantel above the fire: the Virgin Mary, it seemed, was a common theme, to the chagrin of the trio of Anglican lay preachers who were also staying at the abbey. Apropos of my tearful revelation in the garden and contra to my misgivings about social media, my smart phone proved to be an invaluable bedfellow during the wee small hours when my enthusiasm was at its lowest ebb and I was beginning to wish I had brought something cheerier than John Wyndham’s The Chrysalidsto keep me entertained for the remaining six days of my stay. Social media, I determined, can be a problem, but it is also, first and foremost, a blessing. Without regular contact with Glenn and Mum, monastic life would’ve driven me quite loopy.
A couple of weeks prior to my stay, I wandered phoneless through Plymouth Central Park: I was alone and unimpeded, save for two aforementioned Collins guidebooks on trees and birds respectively. I looked down from observing a squirrel in the branches above me and saw two young people walking towards me, their heads bowed in supplication to their glowing mobile phones. At the time, I remember, I smiled wryly: my smile, innocent though it seemed, was, underneath, mocking and superior, as though I had never walked underneath a tree while idly checking my emails, etc. They could have been twins awaiting news about an ill relative, or students waiting to hear back about a job, or they could just have been on their phones for no other reason than because that’s what they happened to be doing at that particular moment. Who cares? As I said, without my phone, monastic life would have driven me quite loopy. I enjoyed the monks’ gardens and the walk along the River Dart, and these experiences were not tinctured by my phone. It is not the presence of these technologies that causes anxiety, but rather an absence of nature and the outdoors: I was calmer at Buckfast than I had ever been before. Why? Was it because God was in that garden?
Ah, God. I went to Buckfast for two reasons: firstly I wanted some peace and quiet where I could get on with some creative writing away from the distractions of Plymouth, and modern life more broadly. And secondly, I wanted to connect with something Other. In the car on the way to the abbey I told Glenn and my chauffeur for the duration, Josh, that the trick with experiences like this was to go into them open-minded, but not too open-minded. The man who is too open-minded may never leave a place like Buckfast: he may get swept up in the Latin and the theology and attribute his feelings of peace and oneness to a benevolent higher power, like the monks. This is a fallacy, in my opinion. I should like to make this clear: unless a person’s religious beliefs threaten to negatively impact my life or the lives of people I love, I think people should feel free to believe what they like. I judge not the monks of Buckfast for committing their lives to a rigorous and immovable schedule of eat, pray, pray, eat, pray, sleep, but it is worth remembering that gentlemen like these have a vested interest in self-validation. This was the phrase that came into my head as I followed the swirling robes of Brother Daniel into the monks’ calefactory after lunch on the third day. Just because a man is old and dresses a certain way, that does not mean that everything he says is gospel. As the administrator administered me with a cup of too-pale tea, I recalled the notorious Milgram Experiment in which participants electrocute other participants on the orders of a malignant experimenter, dressed in a white lab coat. As in Milgram, so in Buckfast.
“I felt more spiritual as a walked towards the abbey doors yesterday evening and saw the setting sun through the trees than I did in the church itself,” I told the administrator sternly. He smiled warmly and told me this was symptomatic of spiritualism “with a small ‘s’”. People, he said, are attracted to spiritualism “with a small ‘s’” because it’s easy and doesn’t demand anything of them. This, I am afraid, is bollocks. My family are descended from the Cree tribe of Native Americans, wherefrom derives my own spirituality and many other things besides. Native American cultures demand, first and foremost, that people respect nature: on this account, Christianity has been scandalously lax. “If there is a God,” I told the administrator, and this is a bloody massive IF, “then he is in the trees, the shrubs, the plants – God is not white stone, or gold, or what have you. You can’t find him by sitting in a draughty church listening to ten old men singing in Latin. If you want to know peace and harmony, you have to get outside.” I didn’t say that in as many words, but it’s what I think. The monks at Buckfast attend six services each day. This means that each of the 152 psalms is consumed over a period of one week. Guests of the abbey are not required to attend any of these services, except midday prayer, which takes place in a small chapel in the abbey cloister. There is one monk, an old man who cannot walk except by using a walker or a stick, who suffers from acute arthritis and deafness. As a consequence, he often shouts, “Oh dear”, even though his is a mostly-silent order and sounds of any sort reverberate like gunshots in the heady stillness of the monks’ enclosure. On one occasion, another monk grimaced hatefully when his brother oh-deared during midday prayer, even though the service concerned love and charity and forgiveness, and I thought: what an absolute crock of crap. How can you preach love and kindness, then scorn an elderly gentleman for daring to exclaim during prayer-time? Bollocks to it. I looked at the crucifix on top of the altar and thought: that is nothing more or less than some metal, moulded to look like a cross. I was gripped, suddenly, by an unfamiliar clarity, as though a veil had been lifted and I could see the world clearly for the first time. One of the other guests, Keith, told me that the point of Latin mass was not to listen to the words, or to try and understand, but to allow the words and the melody to wash over you like a river. This, I reflected, was also bollocks. Some of the singing was relaxing, but not more than a song by Enya, or a ditty by Bieber, depending on your personal preference. And as for not understanding, it doesn’t work like that. If you represent an ideology and you want people to engage, then at the very least we should be able to understand what you’re saying, even if we are unable to understand what it means.
Another of the guests, Peter, told me that it was inevitable that the Holy Bible was replete with historical inaccuracies, after all the thing was put together piecemeal years after the fact. “What does it matter?” he asked. It does matter, of course it bloody matters, because if you can’t even get the facts right, then why the blazes should I entertain any of this other crap about angels and the devil, etc. And why oh why do all likenesses of Jesus resemble a hipster at a festival? He wasn’t white, he was from the Middle East. Peter tells me that Jesus’s likeness was borrowed from the Roman’s representation of the sea god Neptune, which reminds me: I’ve recently read Mythos and Heroes by Stephen Fry, and there are loads of similarities between Greek myth and Christian myth, Pandora’s box and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for example. Coincidence? Obviously bloody not. Brother Daniel related the sad tale of monasteries that had been ransacked for non-existent gold, monasteries that heretofore provided essential alms and other supplies to the poorest people of the parish. Poof! Gone. Sad, true, but sadder than the Native Americans who were slaughtered for being savages? Sadder than the so-called pagans whose temples and beliefs were supplanted by this new and truer way of thinking? Not to my mind. And who can forget the innumerable sexual assault charges brought against members of the Catholic faith? Not I, that’s for certainty. Theists will say, “But of course it’s not perfect, nothing’s perfect”, but there is such a thing as being too imperfect, and to invalidate Native American spirituality in the way of the administrator is tantamount to a religious hate crime.
I thought that monks possess a kind of secret cookbook, which helps to prolong their lives past the bounds of reason: this, of course, is not so. The food I ate at Buckfast – trifle, spaghetti Bolognese, soup – is no different to ours: the difference, insofar as there is one, lies in the way it is consumed, frugally and in silence. Guests of the abbey are permitted to get up only once during the course of a meal. They then have to keep pace with the monks, or risk being stared down for failing to masticate fast enough. Lunch, the main meal of the day, is served hot by one of the monks in a Jesus-like display of humility and supplication. The feeling of fullness I experienced at the end of each meal was not linked to magic or to God, but to science and the fact that you will feel fuller for longer if you concentrate on eating, thereby synergising mind and body in recognition of the fact. Likewise, regular mealtimes aid digestion: obvious, right? There is no ‘the secret’. I came away from Buckfast calmer than when I entered, not because of God or a lack of technology, but because of the garden and the Eden it provided for creatures of all kinds: birds, bees, foxes, even spiders. I believe in a higher power and the ability of friends and family to stay and look over us even after they are gone, but I do not believe that this power, this energy, is any more accessible inside a church than it is outside in the garden. More and more I find myself drawn back towards so-called paganism: indeed, one of the guests, another Peter, confessed that a former member of his congregation left after receiving the cold shoulder following the death of her pagan husband. She asked Peter how “those people” could preach love and tolerance, then turn their back en massewhen she needed them the most. Religion does not make you a good person, nor does atheism make you an immoral person. If you do your upmost to be good and kind and tolerant and open-minded, then that’s enough for me, and if you’re going to worship anything, worship the Earth as my ancestors did. People spend their lives wondering: is it just Earth that provides or God as well, and for what? Meanwhile our time on this beautiful planet passes swiftly by with scarcely a “thanks for dropping in, see ya!” So make the most of your time on this earth and treasure what’s important, because the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and nothing lasts forever. And, whether religious or not, be kind to each other, for who’s to say the kid on his phone isn’t anxious or depressed, or that that ditzy shop assistant hasn’t just lost a loved one. The monks are right about one thing: the world is indeed filled with cruelty and evil, but it’s worth putting up with these things for all the good in it, so make the most of it, and if you ever stay at a monastery take more than one bloody book!
Connor Hansford is a stage-three English with Publishing student at the University of Plymouth who aspires to become a professional book editor like his hero Maxwell Perkins. Additionally, Connor hopes to one day start a small press in his home town of Dorchester where he also hopes to work on his golf swing and angling skills. Connor runs the University of Plymouth Journal INK and a WordPress blog which he updates sporadically called Memoirs of a Snowflake. Connor is a Quaker who is descended from a long line of Cree Indians.