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May 26, 2005

Monasticism as self-help therapy - BBC2's The Monastery

Posted by Richard D. North

The Monastery
BBC2, 10th, 17th & 24th May 2005

The makers of BBC2 reality show The Monastery portray monastic life as if it were some kind of New Age self-help therapy. They also ask what the outside world can learn from monks. Monasticism, however, is not a form of self-help therapy, nor is it a model for the outside world. This is what Richard D. North - author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - learnt when spending a lot of time with monks researching a book on Christian monasticism, Fools for God.

Someone missed the point with The Monastery, which has just ended its short run on BBC2. Trouble is, I am not quite sure who. Was it the cod novices, the abbot of Worth Abbey who let them in, or Tiger Aspect (the independent production company which has specialised in religion) who set it all up?

The premise was strong. Take, with television's customary eye for the larky and the politically correct, five blokes, and make them live the time-honoured life of poverty, chastity and obedience as laid out by St Benedict. Hmm, who shall it be? Cocky black bloke, of course. Wafty, drifty spiritual tourist with long hair and longer shawls, kaftans, etc. Hey, what about an erstwhile Norn Iron paramilitary Prod, for preference? There's this chap who's an inoffensive retired somebody or other and writes poetry. Now: who else? Oh right, the soft-porn adman. I call that a full house, don't you?

But whose fault was it that we got a programme long on self-absorbed therapy sessions and short on the monk thing? Let's start with the senior monks who did the hands-on stuff with the "novices". They seemed keen on an endless series of one-on-one and all-hands-on-deck encounter sessions. This is problematic as an insight into monastic life, whose largest single penalty is that it frowns on self-analysis except when it's devoted to ousting the self. Yes, of course it's a knife edge: to make a profession of spirituality is to spend a lot of time considering the state of one's soul. But it is also to cast away the personal hang-ups that come between the soul and its maker.

It is reasonable to ask of grown men who seek spiritual enrichment in a monastic experience: are you working as hard as you might to get yourself out of the way? This is not easy to do when the men are indulged in hours of "me-first" discussions.

It's twenty years since I spent a lot of time with monks, and when I did I was struck by the manly, lonely, get-on-with-it toughness of the regime. A man who whittered on about his interior problems would I think have been presumed to be poor monastic fodder. He would, I think, have been presumed to lack the mental and emotional adulthood the reserves of toughness required for this game. He would be sent away to get himself sorted out, and invited to return when he'd done that work. I imagine that in the early days, a novice would be indulged in a certain amount of warming-up angst. In his maturity, a monk might be expected to have some pretty noisy lapses of confidence and well-being. But the tenor of the thing would not be therapeutic.

Of course, things may have changed. Senior monks are now of my generation rather than a war-time type. Real novices may now expect or even require a good deal of emotional repair work or tuning-up. And then of course, there is quite probably the evolution of the idea that modern monks can do something in the way of relating to the real world and its problems. Some have become something very like management consultants, working on team-values and all that.

They also seem to have a modern version of an old monastic problem. This is that some of them think the outside world is materialist, vulgar and stressed. Naturally, you might think, they take the view that their way of life is "better". But this is a very dangerous and even stupid notion. How could it be the case that small groups of men living without women or children and wholly dependent on the outside world for their sustenance can be in any very wide sense a superior model for the world?

The point about monks is that they are spiritual professionals of a very special tradition. The "real" world has always found it beautiful, tempting, and in a temporary and symbolic way deeply meaningful. Monks are people who have a fascinating perspective on life, and they offer sanctuary. They have some qualities it is worth imitating. But they are not role-models or anything like that. They are weird, and importantly so.

So The Monastery's monks seem to be prey to a sort of arrogance: they seem to believe that their eccentric community is a model for, and preferable to, the outside world. I should be careful here: whilst the abbot can certainly be accused of shallowness when he said that his model offers a solution for people suffering what he thought were the world's increasing dissatisfactions, he was out-classed in this sort of nonsense by the documentaries' authorial voice-over.

But the novices themselves seemed not to get the point, and perhaps were never really told it. The point of a monastery is that it imposes a very difficult discipline and the belief is that not much else is required. Take a God-seeking man, strip him down to the essentials, give him time and exercise and a certain amount of rather limited intellectual stimulation and a huge amount of silence, and Bob's your uncle. You've a got a person who is working flat-out and non-stop on getting into heaven. His is a hard bed to lie on but a soft bed to die on, as a peasant-monk once told me.

A modern secular man I am one such can learn things in a monastery, and I did. I learned how extraordinarily moving it is to conduct oneself for a while according to habits which are getting on for 2,000 years old. I learned to appreciate the idea that "the desert within" can sometimes seem very real, and troubling and comforting by turns. And I learned that monks are a very particular and peculiar sort of Christian. They are not the best sort, because there is no such thing: being a Christian takes many different forms.

They can indeed help Christians be better Christians, and may be able to help secular people be happier or whatever. But there is an important distinction between their offering their insights to the outside world, and even sharing their lives with the outside world in a limited and controlled way, and the fantasy that many outsiders could or should aim to be seriously like monks.

Indeed, the power of these propositions came when we went with the team to a nearby Charterhouse, where men really do silence and loneliness. None of your encounter groups and outreach here. These are the class of men who deeply resented it when Vatican II required them to start speaking to one another each week, for fear that they were becoming introverted. Their mission, the Charterhouse novice master explained, was to do good by the sheer fact of being prayerful. Being seen or heard at it was not remotely the point, he implied. After all, God and the whole Church knows what they are doing. But they couldn't both be wholly focussed on God and making, well, and making TV reality shows.

Where The Monastery's novices seemed to fail their mission was that they seemed to have no sense of the sheer historical weight of the work they were doing. They did not seem to feel that they needed to match up to the silent boldness of the armies of men who have done what they were doing. In short, they had no understanding of the traditions, the sheer institutional gravitas, of the world they were in. They had, it seemed, hardly any sense of history. And perhaps they had less interest: this is not an age which tells people that with luck they can be worthy of the traditions they have inherited.

So the heart of the difficulty is that the series sold us a pup. It seemed to promise an insight into what it would be like to be a (religious) novice going into a monastery. Actually, it offered us an insight into what happened when a monastery rented itself out as a (secular) therapy centre with monkish overtones.

Let's be kind. It may be that the programme-makers said to all concerned: we can do this, but history, tradition, institutions and silence are all potential no-no's. Religion is pretty tricky, too, actually. Prayer, likewise, though if there was a man who was into it and sufficiently yummy we might get over that. (No, no, it probably wouldn't matter if he was posy.) We want chaps talking about themselves and having personal crises. The odd row wouldn't go amiss. Any chance of a religious experience, any one? (Wow: Thank you, God!)

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence. His Fools for God is available as a free download at

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I am glad to read your perceptive analysis.

At last -- as an ex pupil who lived with these monks for years, I am gobsmacked by the sheer volume of over weening nonsense written about this Monkish programme. I am delighted that your response had far more insight. Great stuff!

Please go to Wikipedia for further comment --

I should also add, many of the "old boys" I am still in touch with are quite horrified at the total fraud and misrepresentation of the programme. It is phony. It should have been called, "Monks on a scam."

Posted by: GW. at June 16, 2006 06:58 AM
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