Forester monk leads landscape campaigns

Brother Anthony believes his defence of Glenstal Abbey’s woodlands brings him closer to God, writes Jimmy Woulfe.

BROTHER ANTHONY seems to draw his strength from the land.

He has been caring for the 200 acres of woodland that surround Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, Co Limerick, since he joined the Benedictines at the tender age of 15 almost 40 years ago. Spending his time in prayer and tending to ancient trees, it is no wonder the forester monk believes cherishing and protecting nature brings you closer to God.

Brother Anthony has become an environmental crusader, spearheading local campaigns that threaten to spoil the landscape. Four years ago he led local opposition against Limerick County Council’s plans to open a landfill dump in the Slieve Felim mountains, and won, and last week he started a campaign to oppose a proposal to erect a transmission mast on Coillte land overlooking the Clare Glens in Murroe.

Environmentalists did not set out to be cantankerous, he said, but to speak the truth on how humans relate to nature and the environment.

“It is very close to religion, because God gave us this world,” he said.

He believes fringe activists such as Greenpeace are very close to God.

“When trying to disarm nuclear submarines they are very close to the spirit of Christ in the world today,” he said.

Brother Anthony, a native of Ballyshannon, Co Leitrim, joined the Benedictines in 1965 and became a forester by command of the Abbot.

“The more I hear and learn about forestry, the more I am happy to leave the trees by themselves. We take a very easy approach and I would recommend Coillte should do the same and allow trees to fully mature,” he said.

Trees mature, he said, in their second hundred years.

“We work on a tree rotation of 500 years. Some of our older trees would be 700 years old. I feel very much at one with them and they are a great communicator between the present and the past,” said Brother Anthony.

Daily life for the 45 monks at Glenstal begins at 6am each day with morning prayer. After breakfast, there are readings of scripture and meditation and after that each embarks on the chore which he has been given responsibility for.

Many teach in the boys’ boarding school at the Abbey.

Mass is at midday followed by lunch, while Vespers and evening prayer at 6pm are the most beautiful part of the day, Brother Anthony believes.

“We sing in the old Gregorian chant as St Benedict would have done in the 6th century. I am in the choir which has done quite a number of recordings,” he said.

After vespers and meditation the monks sit down to evening supper which is eaten in silence while they listen to readings from scripture.

While vocations are falling, more young men are turning to monastic life, the 53-year-old monk said.

“Our numbers have been growing over the past few years, with more young men joining,” he said.

“This is very encouraging. It can be a culture shock when you have been living outside and then enter a monastery. But they come here because they feel their lives outside the monastery are not leading them to the truth,” he said.

Twelve of the monks at Glenstal are former students.

He said the Benedictines were always very close to the Irish monastic belief that Christ is everywhere “speaking through nature and people through the priests and poets”.

Brother Anthony tries to adhere to this belief by protecting the natural beauty of the world that surrounds him.

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