12 February 2009

Mount St. Bernard Abbey

This past January I went on an extended trip to Ireland and England. My main reason for this trip was to visit Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Coalville, Leicestershire, England. On January 12, 2009 I flew to East Midlands Airport. That must be the easiest airport in the world to get through. It took about 20 minutes from the plane touching down until I was at the abbey's guest-house door.

Mount St. Bernard Abbey was founded in 1835 in a old farmhouse. The buildings at the abbey were constructed from 1840 up until 1979. The abbey church was begun in the 1840's but was not completed until 1935.

The guest-house accommodations are nice and simple. They offer coffee (elevenses) in the morning and afternoon tea. Meals among the retreatants are taken in common. Clean-up and set-up for the next meal are also done in common. This fosters a community feel even though you are only together for a few days.

This was my first visit here. Being my first visit, my stay was in the guesthouse. While I felt a bit of angst about staying at that part of the abbey after traveling 4,000 miles to visit the community; I do understand that if every visitor was allowed in the cloister, it would be quite disruptive.

The first members of the community I met were the Guestmaster and Assistant Guestmaster. The Guestmaster had just returned from Nigeria. Poor fellow had left 95°F to come to 35°F weather. The Novice Master introduced me to a number of the other community members. Altogether I met about 10 members of the community: young and old. He also gave me the grand tour of the abbey, and we met every day. He answered all the questions that I had. One question that many people had for me was why was I looking at an abbey so far away. I have since reflected that the abbey in Wisconsin is a six hour drive away, and the abbey in England is a seven hour flight away. So in my mind, they are almost equidistant time-wise.

Mount St. Bernard Abbey has a few unfair advantages over Our Lady of Spring Bank Abbey. Mount St. Bernard is historical: it is the first abbey in England since the reformation and the abbey church was designed by A. W. N. Pugin. It is near the Charnwood National Forest, a truly beautiful a part of England. I think one of the most unfair advantages is that the day I left the abbey in was 45°F in Leicestershire, in Wisconsin it was -31°F. I must say while these things are nice, they are not core to my vocation. What is core is to me 1) Liturgy, 2) Community, 3) Authenticity to the Rule of St. Benedict.

I guess "number 3" is the most difficult to ascertain. "Number 3" has been the cause for every reform and renewal of Benedictine life. And of course there is "Spirit of the Rule" vs "Letter of the Rule". In Rule 55 we see: "Those who are sent on a journey shall receive drawers from the wardrobe...." I hope the community I choose (and the one that chooses me) follows the spirit and not the letter of this rule.

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