• on 20th December, 2021



IN an ideal world this week is supposed to be all about peace and harmony as we move towards the biggest Christian celebration of the year. But those humble pleasures can be hard to find in a manic world of plastic Santas and the frantic hurly-burly of retail on steroids. That was until I found Glenstal Abbey, where tranquillity and devotion conjure the true spirit of Christmas.

With its mile-long driveway acting as an emotional decompression chamber after the honking dogfight that is the modern Irish highway in the final days of 2021, this red sandstone edifice dating back to the Normans evokes a Christmas Carol vibe straight from a Dickens novel. Driving through the entrance gates, the one-word motto in hammered bronze – ‘PAX’ – encapsulates the Benedictine ethos of hospitality toward the poor and the pilgrim traveller.

In the frosty silence of a December morning, the passionate intensity of a Gregorian chant rises from within – an ancient melody of the monastic experience, expressed from morning matins to evening vespers.

But far from the austere existence that might be the outside perception of life behind Glenstal’s high walls, Christmas carries its own weight in human desires for those lives devoted to quiet contemplation and spiritual reflection. Like us all, they yearn for the fellowship of family.

The last time I visited, more than 20 years ago, the then community prior, Father Andrew Nugent, reminded me that the lure of home is universal: “You miss your family at this time, and we all try to steal home at some stage of the holiday.”

And though many pleasures of the outside world may be beyond reach, the shared comforts of friendship and common purpose provide their own warmth in this secular place. “I always feel sorry for parochial clergy who must feel very lonely at Christmas. For those of us within the abbey, there is always the support and affection of one’s brothers – a true feeling of community.”

In the blizzard of counterfeit cheer and crass commercialism that marks so much of the modern Christmas, what chance of goodwill in an age of streaming selfies? Rather than grapple for sense amidst the myriad distractions without, the residents of Glenstal seek the truth within.

“It’s not that monks have more grey matter than anybody else, but we should never be too busy to remember that Christmas is the birth of life and of hope for all people.”

As the early morning mist dissolves around the spires and battlements, another working day of the monastic life unfolds. The ringing bell, the clack of sandals on pine floors, the chug of a farm tractor and the bustle of expectant classrooms.

Amidst the scenery of devotion, there is laughter and the chant of voices raised in musical joy. Father Andrew, who died in 2015, bade me farewell with these words: “It is part of our shared human wisdom to search for a life that is sensible and wise. Anybody who wants to embark on that search must learn to travel light.”

It is a message I haven’t forgotten.

(By courtesy of the Irish Independent)

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