by Marguerite Cook
“Now it happened in those days that He went up the mountain to pray; and He spent the whole night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6 v12)
Mount St. Bernard Abbey is situated in the heart of England in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire. The abbey was founded in 1835, and in 1844 became a permanent monastery. It was the first permanent monastery founded in England since the Reformation; its architect being the famous Augustus Welby Pugin. Mount St. Bernard Abbey is home to over 30 Cistercian monks, a contemplative order following the rule of St. Benedict [Trappists].
Last autumn I visited this fine abbey with Derek from my parish in Bedford. Derek has been visiting Mount St. Bernard Abbey for over fifty years, and is keen for other people to visit this beautiful and deeply spiritual place. Famous people who have visited this abbey include William Wordsworth, Florence Nightingale, and Blessed John Henry Newman, among many others.
Mount St. Bernard Abbey is set high on a hill amid lovely countryside, and this outstanding building feels very English. The architecture of the abbey is solemn and simple with deeply arched doorways. Glorious roses bloom along the pathways. The monastery is sheltered by a huge rock, on the top of which is erected a Calvary; Jesus on the Cross with Our Lady and St. John on either side. Whenever you step outside the monastery your eyes are instinctively drawn upwards to the figures.
“We surrender our lives into the hands of God and never take them back”
The monks’ life is one of prayer, work and reading. They wear a distinctive white habit covered by a black scapula. Mount St. Bernard Abbey is situated on over 200 acres of land. The monks do a variety of tasks, and they also welcome thousands of guests who are drawn to the monasteries peaceful and spiritual way of life.
“When guests arrive they should be led to prayer”
(Rule of St. Benedict)
Bells summon the monks to the large church for prayer. The prayers, which are sung, start during the night at 3:30am, and end in the evening with Compline at 7:30pm. The community Mass is at 8:00am; and during the day there are four other prayer times. Guests are free to join the monks in prayer, or enjoy walks in the enchanting surrounding countryside.
At Mount St. Bernard Abbey the changing seasons are a delight. The warm sun shone whilst I walked through pretty woodland; amidst falling autumn leaves. The abbey is a very quiet and restful place, where for a short time, you can leave the cares of the world behind.
I loved exploring the picturesque abbey grounds. I walked up the steps to the top of Calvary Hill. Looking down below you have an outstanding view of the monastery. I stood close to the figures and gazed at them for a long time. St. John’s face appeared to gaze back at me. As I walked down Calvary Hill I was fascinated to find a chapel set in the hillside. Calvary chapel has a large statue inside the building. This statue is of the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead body of Christ. Placed around the chapel were petitions from abbey guests. One open letter looked very sad, and reminded me how painful life can be. Faith does not take the suffering away, but I do feel it helps people cope with the anguish.
Mount St. Bernard Abbey helps many people to find God and deal with sorrow. I recently enjoyed reading a new novel by James Martin sj called “The Abbey”. The book tells the story of Anne, who is distraught over the death of her only son, Jeremiah. Anne turns to visiting the local Trappist monastery hoping to find peace of mind. The novel shows monks as very human people living saintly lives.
Mount St. Bernard Abbey has its own saint, Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, the first Nigerian Cistercian. Blessed Cyprian was a monk at the abbey from 1950 until his death in 1964. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on the 22nd March 1998 in Nigeria. My daughter’s Church in Northampton has a Blessed Cyprian prayer group each month. This prayer group, which is dedicated to this holy monk, is a wonderful idea.
There is a large bookshop in Mount St. Bernard Abbey where you can read about Blessed Cyprian. The abbey is very proud that Blessed Cyprian made Mount St. Bernard Abbey his home. A lasting home was given in 2005 to the human remains of over 600 men, women and children, which included a number of medieval Trappist monks. I was intrigued to visit the grave where the bones have been re-buried, which is a mass grave for their remains. Their skeletons had originally been found by workmen excavating an extension to London Underground’s Jubilee Line. The excavation site had once been the location of Stratford Langthorne Abbey. Here at Mount St. Bernard Abbey they can all now rest undisturbed.
All Cistercian monks and abbeys are dedicated to Our Blessed Lady. Our Lady in turn holds the abbey tenderly in her care. I was moved when at the last prayer of the day; which is Compline; the lights were extinguished in the church, and all the monks, with their guests, turned to look up high at a lovely white statue of Our Lady, looking radiant, with a crown upon her head and holding the Christ Child in her arms. The statue was bathed in a soft light while monks voices sang in perfect harmony.
All voices ascending towards heaven:
“Salve Regina Mater Misericordiae …”