Treading on Catholic Ground: Monasticism in Britain

Who are the monks? Monastic life has existed in Britain since the landing of St. Augustine on the Kent Coast-line in AD 597, originating on the basis of a Rule-book, written by St. Benedict of Nursia, an Italian monk highly regarded as the Father of Western Monasticism. He fled the despotism of Rome under emperor Justinian, in his struggle to wrest the city from control of the Goths, and piously lived as a hermit until death c. AD 547. 

Saint Benedict’s The Rule was a triumph with those seeking spiritual guidance for its clear instructions on humility, silence and obedience, which form a treasury of wisdom for the Roman Catholic church. Secondly, it takes as truth not only that what motivates the committed Christian is the desire for eternal life, but also that the monastery delivers the best conditions in which to achieve complete fulfilment of those desires. This guaranteed monastic orders in England a strong position in Medieval society, home to great scholars, without whom a knowledge of feudal times would almost cease to exist. St. Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People was, and still is, instrumental in chronicling an early history of the middle ages in Britain.  

However, as sustainable as the Monastic Order became, it could not oust Henry VIII, who in 1536 began disbanding the monasteries, dissolving all rights of practicing Catholics in England as he parted from the Papacy in Rome. The Church of England as supreme ruler of the faith, under the Protestant jurisdiction, thus swept across the country, and Europe, with Martin Luther’s Ninenty-five Theses, which began in 1517, produced an onslaught of enlightenment-mode thought. Great anxiety poured out of the Vatican, and, therefore, many scientists and politicians were quick to be announced as heretics. For example, Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for Copernican theories, stating the sun to be the centre of the universe. 

English Catholics remained stubborn to God, persisting in their practice of faith, throughout the trials of martyrdom and exile; claiming glory in the face of death. Once the French revolution began in 1789, Catholics started to return home and campaign for the Roman Catholic Relief Act, winning the Parliamentary vote in 1829. Victorian architects, working in the neoclassical and gothic styles, pioneered new abbey churches, which emerged in most towns and cities as newly consecrated monastic cloisters attached to schools, becoming bastions of an inspired education. Monks could once again have the freedom to inspire others with their daily life of ritual and rhythmic prayer, serving as sacred places of peace during the trials of two World Wars; fought now over the powers of nations, rather than organised religion.

1471 years on from Saint Benedict’s revolutionary idea, the order remains a medallion of hope for Christian communities, and for any laity on retreat from life’s struggle. Buckfast Abbey in Devon, Belmont Abbey in Herefordshire, and Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire, all offer week-long pastoral programmes, open to everyone seeking peace and solitude, believer or non-believer. The stay is adjoined to a well-furnished guesthouse and the picturesque British countryside; monk are known to settle near the hills with fresh water and where local farmers could serve the entire valley. However, the long-standing tradition of Catholic worship is the bedrock of these activities, and whilst one hopes it can flourish with pious and good monastic reform, one cannot forget to say a prayer for the recent atrocities that have befallen the church, despite Pope Francis’s welcome apologies and ecclesiastical efforts – we know that punishment will be righteously given to those who are utterly corruptible; it will not change the faith that we have in our Saviour, Lord Jesus Christ. 

But has monastic life actually changed today? Remarkably, it hasn’t, and it continues in Britain largely unaffected by the outside world – The Rule is steadfast and meant to be lasting; with God’s command for sustaining a life of daily prayer. The British soil calls out for pilgrimage, the land is still here for Catholics, and these monasteries, in the name of the Lord, are open to guests; just remember not to tread too hard. Silence is mostly appreciated – in contemplation. 

Find out more about the English Benedictine Congregation by clicking HERE.