Monks open a new chapter on life behind the Glenstal walls

Monks open a new chapter on life behind the Glenstal walls
Candlelight lights up Glenstal Abbey, benedictine Monastery, Murroe, Co Limerick, at the Easter Vigil ceremony. Pictures: Valerie O'Sullivan

We all have a healthy curiosity about how others live. It’s just one of the reasons we love to pore over property and interiors spreads — that peek behind someone else’s front door is just irresistible.

Every home has a tale to tell about the people who live there and now the daily routine of a Munster community of monks has been laid bare to the scrutiny of the world beyond those normally secretive monastery walls.

From bookbinders to beekeepers, the monks share their stories, which are captured on camera by award-winning photographerValerie O’Sullivan.

Valerie trained her lens on Glenstal Abbey and its residents for a year — in the process opening the gate and the door to a whole way of life, from baking bread to subliminal chanting and from solemn professions to whipping up porridge with “a hint” of alochol.

Since 1927, Glenstal Abbey, Murroe, Co Limerick, has provided the setting for the Benedictines to pursue their vocation of praise, work and hospitality in a place of natural beauty.

Now this monastic community reveals all in the exclusive, behind-the-scenes book Glenstal Abbey — Through the Seasons. Published by Columba Books, it is a collection of images and words that lets the monks share the mysticism and rhythm of their lives.

One intriguing chapter focuses on artist-turned-monk Brother Emmaus whose larger-than-life nude paintings adorn the monastery’s library wall. Brother Emmaus says he renders the human figure naked “to follow the naked Christ”.

Encouraged by former abbot Dom Mark Patrick Hederman to express his talents on large canvases, his extensive works transform the abbey library. Brother Emmaus, who trained as a graphic designer and worked as a caricaturist with the Irish Times, entered Glenstal Abbey in 2011. “Since entering Benedictine monastic life, painting has become a vital means of exploring the relevance of what the Incarnation suggests,” he says.

Br Ciaran Forbes is a celebrated woodturner. He joined Glenstal Abbey in 1961.
Br Ciaran Forbes is a celebrated woodturner. He joined Glenstal Abbey in 1961.

“The programme of studies in which I’m currently involved allows me to examine how art can be understood in terms of visual theology.

“For me, this begs the question of what change the Incarnation makes to our understanding of human flesh and blood.

Like musicians in their chanting and the monks in their daily ritual, painting offers both a creative and disciplined means of responding to this mystery.

Art lovers will also enjoy a glimpse of the priceless icons locked away in the crypt under the abbey church. The Icon Chapel contains Greek and Russian Orthodox icons, ranging in dates from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

As for the monks’ “room outside”, the terraced gardens date to the late 17th century. The orchard grass is kept short by the nibbling sheep and the woods have been planted since the 1800s with several giant redwoods from America towering over the monastic settlement.

Gardener Fr Brian lovingly restored the gardens at Glenstal Abbey.

In one of the terraces, a 300-year-old Italianate-style walled garden, Fr Brian created a Bible garden with steep terraces filled with a vast collection of shrubs, flowering perennials, grains, herbs and vegetables — selected because of their religious significance.

Keeping a watchful eye on all is Fr Placid, the oldest ordained monk in the world, who escaped from German occupied Rome through Vichy France to Portugal where he got a flying boat home to Glenstal.

As well as offering a rare insight into the daily life of the community of monks and their sacred liturgical celebrations, the book also captures the buzz of Glenstal Abbey school as well as the silence of the guesthouses and retreats.

In his foreword, Abbot Brendan Coffey invites you “to watch a year unfold in the life of the Glenstal community, to see for yourself the beauty of the changing seasons in nature and the unfolding of the Christian mystery in the annual cycle of the liturgy”.

Dom Mark Patrick Hederman, OSB, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, is a Benedictine monk, teacher, lecturer and writer.
Dom Mark Patrick Hederman, OSB, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, is a Benedictine monk, teacher, lecturer and writer.

“Witness also the different stages of the monastic journey from the first steps as a novice, through the lifelong commitment of solemn profession to the final conclusion in death. Human life in all its phases is to be found here and a wide variety of occupations,” he says.

The project editor of the book is renowned scholar Brother Colmán Ó Clabaigh OSB.

A medievalist specialising in the history of monastic and religious orders in late medieval Ireland, Brother Colmán gives insights into all the rhythms of the seasons as they intertwine with the liturgical and academic calendar of the monasteries prestigious boarding school.

Purposely the book begins with the changes and colours of autumn, heralding a time of new beginnings in the monastery.

“The boarding school re-opens for a new academic year and generates much excitement and energy,” says Valerie O’Sullivan. “The community has been involved with secondary education since 1927.”

September 14, meanwhile, is the feast of the cross and the traditional date for receiving novices and clothing them in monastic habit.

Artisans have always had a place in monastic tradition and Glenstal Abbey is no exception. The work of the late Brother Benedict Tutty’s work is featured in the abbey church in Glenstal and contains fine examples of his skill in enamel, terracotta metalwork and stained glass.

The crafts practised at the abbey today include bookbinding, carpentry, metalwork and painting.

Glenstal Abbey, Murroe, Co Limerick, has a community of almost 40 monks, who live according to the rule of St Benedict.
Glenstal Abbey, Murroe, Co Limerick, has a community of almost 40 monks, who live according to the rule of St Benedict.

Brother Ciarán has been a monk of Glenstal since 1961 and is one of Ireland’s best-known woodturners.

“His interest began when two boys in the abbey school brought a lathe to the carpentry workshop,” says Valerie.

The Glenstal woods provide abundant raw material for his craft.

Fr Senan, Prior of Glenstal Abbey, also works as a master craftsman bookbinder. “Bookbinding is an intrinsic and proud tradition of monastic craftsmanship.

It has been practised in monasteries from earliest times and many of the tedious techniques are still practiced today using the traditional methods – stacking, folding, glueing, cutting, binding and stitching the spine,” says Valerie.

- Glenstal Abbey — Through the Seasons is published by Columba Books

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