Kieran Viljoen’s life sounds like a parable. Not long ago, back in South Africa, he spent his days in the depths of the ocean searching for diamonds. But for the past two months he has been living the life of a Benedictine monk.
He is one of two interns at Quarr Abbey, a monastery on the Isle of Wight. The internship scheme, the first of its kind, is billed as an abridged gap-year experience: two months of living, praying and working alongside the monks. When I arrive, the scheme has just finished. Kieran, 23, and Michael Edwards, 26, from Liverpool, are leaving the next day. That evening the monks are treating them to a farewell dinner. ‘It could range from fancy dress to a hardcore dance party,’ jokes Kieran.
Father Luke Bell, who is in charge of the scheme, meets me at the ferry. A former English lecturer, he has a way of not looking at you when he talks — something common among deep thinkers, I think. He hoicks up his habit as we walk through mud. We pass a piggery, and he explains that’s where a press photographer wants the interns to pose later, alongside the pigs. ‘The media like the pigs,’ he says dryly. Beyond that is the abbey itself, which is breathtaking: a masterpiece in red brick.
In the common room Kieran is making tea. He is wearing flip-flops, even though it’s freezing cold. He and Michael are tanned and bearded, like gap-year travellers, and seem very relaxed. The two of them worked at the abbey for four hours a day. They chopped wood, trimmed hedges, cleaned the cloister and picked apples. The autumn apple-picking, Michael says, was idyllic. ‘Everything was golden.’ Afterwards, inspired, they printed off Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’.
For another four or so hours a day, they joined the monks in worship. That is, seven offices, or services, in which the monks sing or chant words from scripture. They weren’t expected to keep entirely to the monastic schedule: the 5.30 a.m. office was optional. And unlike the monks, they were allowed to snack outside of meal times. They were, though, expected to observe the Great Silence, from 8.30 p.m. until morning.
Michael and Kieran arrived at the monastery by quite different means. Michael sent an application form and came for an interview. Kieran came to the Isle of Wight to go to a music festival, and ended up at Quarr because he was given a free bus ticket (though he did have to supply references and be interviewed, too). Each is at a similar, undecided stage of life. Michael was a trainee solicitor but left because he hadn’t felt fulfilled. Kieran, after giving up diamond diving, travelled around England for a year and a half, stopping off at monasteries and yoga centres. He was ‘on a pilgrimage’, he says, ‘not knowing where it was going’.
As we all sit down round a big wooden table, Father Luke says he thought the interns would be constantly distracted by their smartphones, unable to switch off. In reality, he says, that wasn’t a difficulty at all. ‘Do you want to explain your particular weakness, Michael?’ Michael looks a bit alarmed. ‘What they really liked doing,’ Father Luke explains, ‘was going to the sweet shop.’
One intern did not stay until the end. Father Luke says his problem had been too little solitude, rather than too much. ‘He is a very serious seeker and his normal practice was to spend seven hours a day reading on his own. That wasn’t very compatible with our way of life.’ The ‘final straw’, he says, was a reading from St Paul. (Father Luke declined to say any more about it. ‘It isn’t always helpful to open cans of worms,’ he said.)
Michael and Kieran, though, have lots of positive stuff to say about their two months. Michael says that, because of the strict routine, he felt ‘freed of existential bewilderment — having to constantly work out what I should be doing, when to do it, how to do it. It’s felt very healing.’ The repetition, he says, ‘lets you go into the deeper things’. They both feel more inclined to ‘engage with the present’ and let life unfold rather than always planning ahead.
They talk happily, too, about the long periods of silence — although to me it sounds quite unsettling. ‘Things from the back of your mind, from your subconscious, do work themselves forward, and it can be a real challenge to deal with these things,’ says Michael. In the end, he says, you benefit from being ‘at peace with them’.
Neither Michael nor Kieran has any fixed plans for the future. Michael says he feels ‘anything is possible’ and that he’d be able to deal better with ‘many of the things I struggled with in the past’. But the most important thing, he says, is to ‘keep up regular times of prayer and reading scripture’.
Prayer ‘is the heart of it’, says Father Luke. ‘I believe the most important thing anybody can do is pray. The world only carries on because of people praying — its existence is dependent on God and on people who keep in touch with God.’
Later, Michael and Kieran walk me down to the sea. It feels brilliantly isolated: just flocks of birds and an expanse of wet sand. I ask what the hardest part of the two months was. Michael says he missed the company of women, and found the enclosed atmosphere difficult. In the world outside, he says, ‘new people float across your day’, even if all that means is seeing them on a train.
Both he and Kieran speak highly of the monks. ‘They’ve been so generous,’ says Michael. ‘How big a risk have they taken, opening up their lives to us?’
We head back and I go for dinner with the monastery’s guests while Michael and Kieran attend their farewell party. One guest, in his eighties, has been visiting Quarr for 50 years. Back then, he says, there were 30 monks. Now there are nine. He sees the internships as a way of encouraging new members. ‘They had to do something,’ he says. Father Luke, though, says the aim is to make the Benedictine tradition available to people who do not want to ‘take the very big step of … a lifelong commitment’. Previously, you only stayed for a long period at a monastery if you were thinking of becoming a monk.
Next year Quarr will take on four interns in March and another four in July. Father Luke says the experience is not a way to ‘find out what you want’ from life. ‘It is about something deeper than desire. It is about our rootedness in the eternal.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 February 2013