A Year in the Life: Glencairn Abbey reviewed by Frank Conlisk
It is with great pleasure – and enthusiasm – that I recommend this month’s offering from the bookshelf: Glencairn Abbey – A Year in the Life. A truly beautiful publication, this book tracks daily life through the seasons at the first and only Cistercian monastery for women in Ireland since the Reformation.
Situated in the rich heartland of Co Waterford, the sisters at Glencairn follow the Rule of St Benedict whose motto ora et labora (prayer and work) is reflected in the rhythm of their daily lives. The seasons of nature and the liturgies of the year give shape to life at St Mary’s as it has to monastic life for centuries.
Sustainability, self-sufficiency and mindfulness may sound like twenty-first century lifestyle choices, as Mairead Lavery points out in the foreword, but “far from being contemporary, these practices perfectly reflect” how life has been lived at Glencairn Abbey since it was founded in 1932.
The journey through the year is beautifully documented by the photography of Valerie O’Sullivan. There are comments, reflections and testimonies from the sisters themselves. Sr Maria Thérèse, for example, explains why getting up so early in the morning is central to their daily prayer and work. “We rise at ten to four in the morning for Vigils, a very special time of the day. We keep the whole world in our prayers, especially those who may be suffering, those who can’t sleep and those who work at night, those who find it hard to face the new day for whatever reason, those we know and love and those who ask for our prayer.”
Prayer is central. Seven times each day – excluding the daily celebration of the Eucharist – the sisters are called to prayer. Preserving their ancient spiritual heritage, they work and pray through silence. This is a life of simplicity and order and one senses their deep-seated joy in and unfailing devotion to it. Abbess Mother Marie writes “Joy is a hallmark of the Christian life and especially of Cistercian life. Joy springs from the certainty that God is close…with us…within us, in times of joy and on the down days…and the joy endures even in difficulties, in disappointments, in suffering itself.”
Work is the other corner stone of monastic life and there is a lot to be attended to at the abbey. Self-sufficiency and sustainability are key and to these ends the sisters are involved in a wide variety of tasks from producing originally designed Christmas and memorial cards to tending the orchard and garden, to cutting lawns, managing the guest house or manufacturing Eucharist breads. Running the farm which specializes in dry stock and tillage, is a major responsibility and there is a wonderful photograph of Sr Lily on the tractor loading bales of miscanthus for the newly installed environmentally friendly and fuel efficient boiler used to heat the abbey. All of this keeps everybody very busy but “As soon as the signal for the Divine office is heard, they must leave whatever they have been engaged in doing and hasten with all speed; but with dignity…Nothing, therefore, is to be given preference over the Work of God.” (Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 43). Thus the balance between prayer and work, silence and activity, joy in togetherness and in solitude is maintained.
Glencairn Abbey – A Year in the Life is a fundraiser for St Mary’s Abbey building project. Many of the buildings have been in much need of repair. Re-roofing, the conservation of some of the windows of the listed buildings, the construction of new guest accommodation, a visitor centre and other facilities all are being attended to. It is hoped that the sale of this exceptional book will help meet the considerable costs involved.
I unreservedly recommend this publication for its gems of wisdom and insight, for its stunning photography but most of all for the unique glimpse it gives us into twenty-first century monastic life – timeless, inspiring and full of hope.
To get your own copy of A Year in the Life: Glencairn Abbey you can click here.