Here to return to
A MEDIEVAL BROTHERHOOD
ONE of my fellow-travellers on my return journey by the steam tramway to Cork was a stout, red-faced Catholic priest whose breath was odorous of whiskey. He got out his prayer-book as soon as he had seated himself, made the sign of the cross, and began to read. I presently spoke to him, though with diffidence, and doubtful of the propriety of interrupting his spiritual — or was it spirituous? — meditations. But he turned to me affably, put his thumb into his prayer-book, and entered on an extended conversation.
It appeared that his special hobby was the Irish language, than which he declared there was no finer in existence. Did I speak it? No? Ah! that was a pity, but I could learn it and I ought to begin at once! His hopes of making me a proselyte apparently ran high, for at parting he gave me copies of two papers printed in his beloved Irish, and a soiled visiting card, accompanied by a cordial invitation to visit him in his country parish, where we could consider this linguistic topic more at leisure. There are many enthusiasts like him in Ireland, who are desirous of saving the language from extinction. But it is probably doomed, though strenuous efforts are being made to have it adopted as a regular course in the government schools. Barely a sixth of the population is now able to speak the ancient vernacular, and even this small fraction can use English, too, in all save very exceptional cases.
HANGING OUT THE CLOTHES
The thing which interested me most in my talk with the priest was his mention of the fact that, not fifty miles distant, on one of the lower ridges of the Knockmealldown Mountains, overlooking the valley of the Blackwater, dwelt a community of Irish monks. They have separated themselves from the world with all its turmoil and jealousies and follies, and on the quiet of this lonely mountain-top they spend their allotted days in prayer and in peaceful pastoral employment. The priest said that many well-to-do persons resorted to the monastery annually to spend a few days and “be alone with their Creator,” and he added that the monks had a school there which was not surpassed anywhere. His regard for the monks was unbounded, and, attracted by his ardent description of their virtues and their peculiar habits of life, I determined to make a pilgrimage to this community among those curiously named mountains.
I reached Cappoquin, the railroad station nearest the monastery, in the middle of a warm May afternoon. Mt. Melleray, the home of the monks, was three miles back among the hills; and to fortify myself for the walk thither I went into one of the little Cappoquin shops to invest in a few sweet-cakes for a lunch. The woman behind the counter had my purchase partly wrapped up when another woman from the rear of the shop called out, “Stop! I will get the gentleman some that are clean.”
She took the place of the first woman in waiting on me, and her kindness moved me to increase my purchase to the extent of two pennies worth of chocolate.
“Ah, sir!” said she, regretfully, “my little boy has got at the chocolate and he has eaten it all — the gossoon! We cannot keep it, he eats that much of it. He would eat a box a day — he would, sir!”
But that I might not suffer in consequence of her boy’s inroads on her stock in trade, she insisted on trotting off to a shop up-street, whence she soon returned with my chocolate wrapped in half a sheet of an old letter.
From the village I went first across the fields by a footpath, then followed a narrow lane bordered much of the way by high banks and walls overgrown with furze full of yellow flower-clusters. Along the horizon, on ahead, loomed the blue, serrated ridges of the Knockmealldown Mountains, and presently, on one of their lesser, northern heights, I discerned the monastery. It consists of a good-sized group of substantial stone buildings with a slender-spired church in the midst. The quiet of the hamlet when I entered it savored of desertion, and I, recalling what I had heard of the strange opinions and life of its inhabitants, half fancied the place was bewitched, and was tempted to turn back. But the wide door of the main building stood open and I went in. One of the monks — “the brother porter” was his official title — greeted me pleasantly and was my guide in a leisurely ramble through the buildings, and my instructor as to the ways of the community. He was a gray, elderly man, in a coarse, black, hooded gown. About his waist he wore a leather girdle, and on his feet white stockings and rude, low shoes. All the other monks were dressed in the same general style, except that certain of them wore white gowns with black scapulas. These white-garbed monks were the elders, or, as they were called among themselves, the “fathers” of the order.
THE MONKS' BURIAL PLACE
The institution in its origin dates back to 1833, when a group of Irish monks was expelled for political reasons from the Cistercian monastery at Mt. Melleray in France. They returned penniless to their native country, and a nobleman living in the valley of the Blackwater took pity on them and gave them a tract of wild land here among the hills. They at once set to work with their own hands to reclaim it. For many years the community was so poverty-stricken that it had a hard struggle for existence, but in time it grew prosperous and independent. The land, as the monks found it, was a barren heath full of stones. They laboriously dug out the stones, carted them off to be used on the roads or for building purposes, and made the ground productive by subsoiling.
The task of reclaiming still goes on, and I saw one of the fields where the monks had been at work not long since. They had brought the stones to the surface in such quantities that the earth was hidden by them, and the field looked like a dumping-place of refuse from a quarry. It seemed impossible that such a field could be of any use for agriculture. Certainly, if the monks placed any value on their time, the labor involved must far exceed in cost the worth of the land when the process is completed. But I suppose they rejoice in difficulties to overcome, and the hardship brings heaven nearer.
About seventy members at present make up the Mt. Melleray brotherhood. It is not often there are so few, but the monastery has been depopulated by a recent exodus to establish a new colony. Several branches own this for their parent community, including one in the United States, at Dubuque, Iowa.
The Cistercians were a very powerful order during the Middle Ages, and in the thirteenth century they had nearly two thousand abbeys in the various countries of Europe. Among those in Britain were Tintern, Furness, and Melrose, familiar to tourists now as beautiful ruins. Prosperity proved fatal, for as the brotherhood waxed rich the monks became indolent and deteriorated morally, and the result was that the order speedily decayed and waned until only remnants were left.
These Irish monks, with their stony land to subdue, and with the memory of their former poverty and struggle for existence still fresh, seem to be trying to realize the order’s original simplicity. The main tenets of the religion, as exemplified by them, are a hermit-like separation from the rest of mankind, long-houred daily devotions, and strict habits of silence and humility. All personal wealth at the time of joining and all the products of the industry of individual members are turned into the community coffers. Henceforth they work for the common good, and their thoughts dwell on things eternal, or are supposed to. They never speak save when it is absolutely necessary, and even then the ordinary members must first get the permission of one of the three superiors — the abbot, the prior, or the sub-prior. The usual method of communication is by signs, and words are only employed as a last resort. The only two members not bound by the rules of silence are the brother porter, who communicates with visitors, and the “procurator,” or housekeeper, who is privileged to speak to any one when there is occasion.
The monks pay no attention to visitors. The weakness of the flesh may result in a sidelong glance or two; but, in theory, the world is naught to them, and so long as you do not actually interfere they go their appointed ways unconcerned whatever you may do.
Most members join the order between the ages of twenty and forty. Candidates beyond two score seldom meet with favor, because it is believed that a man is by then too old and fixed in his habits and ideas to learn the ways of the brotherhood. They accept no one rashly or in haste. To begin with, the applicant stays for three days at the monastery as a guest. If satisfied with what he sees and learns in these three days, he becomes a “postulant “for three months, and his partial adoption is symbolized by a cloak which he wears over his ordinary worldly garments. After three months’ experience, if he continues desirous to go on, he dons a special habit, more monkly than he has worn hitherto, and for two years is a “novice,” sharing much of the community life, but not yet taking part in all the exercises. At the end of that interval the man who still yearns for complete monkhood takes “simple vows” and enters on a final probationary period of three years. This completed, provided the monks are satisfied with the novitiate’s character, and are convinced of his sincerity, he may take solemn vows and enter on the full duties and joys of the order.
So far as possible the monks supply their own bodily needs — raise their own food, erect their own buildings, and do their own farmwork and housework, even to making bread and washing clothes. The last-named task is done by steam power, and is not as arduous an undertaking as it might be. The wash is hung out to dry on lines in a grassy area near the church. In one corner of this area is the monk’s burying-ground, where are several high stone crosses commemorating deceased abbots, and numerous low iron crosses marking the resting-places of the humbler members of the brotherhood.
The monks make their own clothing and shoes, and they grow on their own sheep all the wool used in their garments. The only process consigned to outsiders in the transformation of the wool into clothing is the weaving. This is done in a neighboring mill, but the monks hope soon to run a loom on their own premises. Their greatest lack is skilled mechanics, and they are always glad to have such join their number.
They have a large garden where they raise vegetables and small fruits, and in the fields they grow potatoes, oats, turnips, and mangels. For stock they own, in addition to the sheep already mentioned, a herd of cows and a number of horses. They are not able to do all the work of the place unaided, and they keep constantly employed about forty laborers whom they pay from nine to twelve shillings a week. Half a century ago wages in the region were only a sixpence a day; but conditions have much improved since, and the peasantry are decidedly better fed, better clothed, and better housed.
Practically everything raised is consumed on the place, and for income they depend on chance sums donated to them, on summer lodgers, and on their school, which rarely numbers less than one hundred, and which stands in high repute among such of the Catholic gentry as desire an ecclesiastical education for their sons. Besides these aristocratic pupils the monks teach the ragged, barefooted children of the mountain; but this is for charity, not gain.
A considerable amount conies to the brotherhood from pious persons, residing both near and far, who send ten shillings or a pound when a relative dies, with the request that the holy men of the monastery may say high mass for the repose of the lost one’s soul. Another source of income is reforming drunkards. The unfortunates are received into the monastery, and the salutary effect of the seclusion and the religious surroundings, together with the fact that their liquor is taken from them gradually, works a cure — at least for the time being.
Two large buildings are reserved for guests, one for men and one for women, and in the summer the lodgers frequently number fifty or more. The few days or weeks spent at the monastery, with the accompanying confessions and sacraments, the quiet, and the simple wholesome living, bring genuine spiritual refreshment to the devout Catholic, and many persons come year after year. There are Protestant visitors, too, but these usually are impelled by curiosity, though even among them are certain ones who have no other motive than the desire to retire from the world for a season. The monks make no charge for their services, and when guests go they pay for their board whatever they choose, be it little or much.
A SCHOOLROOM CORNER
Two in the morning is the monks’ time for rising, save on Sundays and holy days, when it is an hour earlier. As soon as they are up and dressed they file down from their dormitory to the church for matins. Religious exercises are held in the church at frequent intervals all day. Shortly after matins come lauds, at sunrise prime, at eight o’clock thirdst, at eleven sext, at two in the afternoon none, at five vespers, at eight compline, and then they retire. Not all can attend this whole list of eight services, for the monks are workers as well as prayers, and other duties keep some of them away from the church much of the day; but every one is present at the first three and the last.
Following the religious exercises in the small hours of the morning the monks pray privately and read and meditate until it is time for the sunrise service. After prime they listen to a chapter from the Bible and to an exhortation from the superior. At about seven o’clock they assemble for a “collation.” It seemed to me they must by then have sharp appetites, after being up since one or two in the morning. The dining room, like all the monks’ apartments, is immaculately clean and substantial in all its appointments, yet at the same time is severely plain. It is a high, pillared room, appropriately dim, with a crucifix on the wall at the far end. On one side a lofty pulpit, overhung by a sounding-board, rises well toward the ceiling, and around the borders of the apartment are lines of long, bare tables. When the monks have taken their places in the “refectory,” with the abbot superior at the head of the table, they in unison say grace. Then they sit down on the benches along the walls and at a signal from the superior begin eating. The pulpit during the silent meals of the day is occupied by one of the monks, who reads to his brethren from Scriptures or from some approved religious work — a book of sermons or the lives of the saints. When the superior observes that all have finished eating, he signals again and the gowned company rises, says grace, and leaves the room.
The morning collation consists of milk and six ounces of bread, brown or white as is preferred. Those who choose have butter with their bread, and, instead of milk, a few of the members substitute tea, cocoa, or even wine. The noon meal is the chief repast of the day. The allowance then is a pound of bread and a pint of milk, and there are potatoes and other vegetables, and frequently soup or macaroni. Indeed, except that the monks eat no meat, save when they are sick, they are free to partake of whatever their garden produces and whatever they can buy that is inexpensive. At six in the evening supper is served, the principal items in its bill of fare being oatmeal and a portion of bread saved from the dinner allowance. On occasion a relish is added in the shape of celery, rhubarb, or gooseberries from the garden, or perhaps some preserves that the monks themselves have put up. From September 14th to Easter, however, this evening collation is omitted, but as during this period they retire to rest at seven o’clock, I think the added hour of sleep may somewhat alleviate the inner vacancy.
Manual labor begins at half-past five in the morning, when certain of the monks go to the barn to feed the stock and milk the cows. All the brotherhood are fond of open-air exercise, and the teachers and the father abbot, as well as the others, try to get out for a time each day, even if for no more than a half-hour digging stones from the land that is being reclaimed. For the field work their skirts are not wholly convenient, and they usually take a reef in them, and with pins or strings fasten them up nearly to their knees.
After the noonday meal the monks go to their cells to spend twenty or thirty minutes in praying, reading, or sleeping. In warmer climates this interval would be taken for a siesta as a matter of course, but few of these Irish monks care to sleep in the middle of the day. Their cells, each containing a narrow couch, are in an upper story along the sides of a long, high hall. They are simply little doorless sections separated by slight partitions. There is just standing-room in them, no chair or surplus furniture; and all are exactly alike, the father superior’s being no better than those of the lesser members of the order.
For reading the monks have a library of twenty-two thousand volumes to draw from. It is largely a religious library, for they buy none of the current secular books. They, however, have all the classics and standard histories, poetry, and novels. They even admit infidel books that they may keep posted on the wiles of Satan, but such are kept under lock and key and are only read by special permission.
The monks rarely go outside the boundaries of their own estate. Trading transactions in neighboring towns are intrusted to their hired help, and they themselves travel only on ecclesiastical business and in obedience to orders. In short, the monks of Mt. Melleray are a community of religious recluses who are as unworldly as they well can be. I doubt if they take any newspapers or know anything about the movements of life outside their walls. But the brother porter was an exception. His connection with the world was kept up through his intercourse with visitors, and he took a lively interest in the affairs of the nations, and had many questions to ask.
Just how much the monastery helps its inmates toward godliness, I am uncertain. It is retired away from turmoil and many temptations; yet in what I saw of the monks it seemed to me they still had our common human nature with all its earthiness. Probably they, like the rest of us, fall far short of their ideals; for only the rarest natures, in monasteries or out of them, attain to anything approaching unsullied spirituality.