Swapping a tractor for a computer

Michael T R B Turnbull

An interview with Abbot Donald McGlynn, Sancta Maria Abbey, Nunraw, Garvald by Haddington

Tucked away on a plateau above the village of Garvald, East Lothian, is Nunraw monastery, home of the Cistercian Order. Abbot Donald McGlynn explained that building the new monastery began in 1952 and ended in 1969.

‘They were building when we moved in. During the summer holidays we had the workers’ camp – builders and students, coming to help with the labouring. For something like 20 years we worked away at the construction. Now, all the central community locations, the refectory, scriptorium, library, dormitory are present. We use the scriptorium as a community room for meetings and as a library. We’ve used one wing to improvise a space for the present Abbey church (we haven’t built the real church yet – that’ll come some day). We haven’t built the guesthouse either because the old Nunraw House serves that purpose.

The old house is used as a retreat-house. It could take up to 60 people but as we’re short-staffed we try to make the ceiling about 30. It’s for resident guests. There’s no limit on day-guests or coach-parties. We still get parish outings on a Sunday – on nothing like the scale of days gone by. All the sodalities [parish societies] used to come’.

Being a Cistercian monk involves manual labour, in Nunraw’s case, farming. ‘Our farm is 500 hectares’ added Abbot McGlynn ‘for the fattening of cattle. It’s all been simplified. When I came first there were beef, sheep, a dairy, potatoes, pigs, poultry. When I became Abbot in around 1970 numbers had diminished, the community was getting older. We had to rationalise. So gradually we shed a lot of the lesser departments and concentrated on the beef herd, rearing calves for the market. We’re self-sufficient only so far as the beef-fattening unit is able to finance the monastery. Another thriving department was the garden, a big walled garden. But we haven’t got the manpower to work it. Today it’s a question of buying whatever we need from the market.

The effect we’ve had on the people around the Abbey has been that of a friendly centre, creating a good neighbourly atmosphere. We’ve the best of relations with the Garvald village close by. When the monks first came in 1946 there were no Catholics at all in the area. The local villagers were warned about the terrible monks coming. When the monks came through, the villagers had all their doors shut and curtains drawn. They were frightened off.

That following Spring there was snow storm, the first for decades. The village was blocked off and snowed in for about six weeks. This meant supplies were short. At that point the monks had milk from the dairy herd and they had made bread. So they took milk and bread down to the villagers for the children. From that day forward it has never been forgotten and we’re the greatest of friends.

The ground plan of this monastery is the same as that of Melrose, Newbattle, Dundrennan and Sweetheart. Sometimes they shifted the foundations slightly to accommodate a local river, which was used for driving a mill, for the water-supply for the ablutions block, for the cookhouse. It usually flowed under the kitchen. Sometimes they even had a fish-pond’.

Unhappily, the community at Nunraw has declined in numbers over the years. ‘There are 17 monks here at present’, Abbot Donald admitted, facing reality. ‘In the 1960s the lay-brothers were incorporated with the monks. Now we’re all primarily monks and some happen also to be priests’. Things are not, however, as bad as they might seem. The Abbot has cause for confidence: ‘The international Orders such as ourselves have got an advantage over smaller orders. Vocations in Western Europe are very few in number. Looking at it from a UK point of view things look pretty dismal at the moment. Worldwide the Order is as healthy as it ever was. It’s just a matter of waiting for the turn of the tide. We’re at low-ebb at the moment but the low-ebb gives as much glory to the Lord as the full tide’.

The cloisters at Nunraw were built with voluntary labour. Much of the material used in its construction was second-hand. The plate-glass windows in the cloisters came from the demolition of big stores in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The marble steps came from Galbraith’s in Paisley. The outside stonework of the Abbey is random-pattern. There’s no continuous bed. The stone is volcanic ‘rattlebag’ from nearby Direlton. The monastery is not without decoration. A fine piece of sculpture on the refectory wall was roughed-out with a pneumatic drill by a Miss Henderson, a member of the Church of Scotland.

And the monks’ meals? ‘The monks eat a vegetarian diet’ points out the Abbot. ‘It’s not an ideological matter but a question of poverty and simplicity of life. St Benedict’s idea was that monks shouldn’t eat the flesh of four-footed animals but he seems to have allowed fish and chickens. In every monastery you would have had provision for guests. The community here, although vegetarians, has a table in the refectory for the Infirmary, for the aged and sick [who were allowed to eat meat]. On feast-days we have fish. Each place is set with a napkin, a plate, a cup and a jug of water. Most of the kitchen was equipped from scrap-yards.’

At one end of the refectory is a raised dias with a lectern and a microphone. ‘We always have reading at lunchtime. We start off with the Bible and then have some topical book. The week’s duties are pinned up above the reader’s desk – leading the Office, serving in the Church, serving the lunch, washing-up. ‘Our services are all in English now’, explained out the Abbot, ‘except for the ‘Salve Regina’ (Hail, Queen of Heaven).

‘Our once-flourishing book-bindery is no more. Now that we have the technology to print our Choir-books ourselves we reproduce the large letters with a computer’ said the Abbot. Today Abbot Donald has swapped his tractor for a computer with desktop publishing software, a scanner and a laser-printer.

What are monasteries for? Abbot Donald is quite clear on that point. ‘A monastery is a Catholic family writ large, the Church living the life of the Church. Every day we pray the seven hours of the Divine Office. The community represents the body of the faithful. We’re going back to the first Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles. When I came here there wasn’t a tree anywhere on the site. Just before he died, our first Abbot, Fr Columba Mulcachy planted shrubs and trees, so, when we had a large Marian Year pilgrimage here some years ago, we were able to put up an altar in the [shaded] enclosure’.

Life for the monks is not a bed of roses. Their daily routine would put off most urban ‘couch-potatoes’. Abbot Donald again: ‘We get up at 3.15 am and begin with the vigils followed by meditation for half an hour, then the community Mass at 4.45 and at 5.30 a light breakfast. Bedtime is around 8.00 pm’ said Fr Abbot, ‘One of the reasons for getting up so early in the morning is because at that time the human mind is truly open and receptive. It’s the best time to pray.’

Nunraw is the latest in a long line of Cistercian communities. Historically, the Cistercians were heavily involved in the surrounding areas. They introduced many new agricultural methods. They had big farms extended right across central Scotland from Newbattle to Monklands. They were great sheep-farmers, managing a large economy, even though they themselves lived in an enclosed monastery. King David I had founded the Scottish abbeys not only out of piety but also, in the Borders, as a protection against the English and to extend his own political influence. The monks employed lay people in their industries. Every monastery had its infirmary. The monasteries were the nearest things to the National Health Service.

Down at the old Nunraw House, Fr Raymond Jaconelli has been in charge of the guesthouse for many years. He points out that ‘It’s only possible to run this popular facility for the general public because the guests themselves do the washing-up and contribute what they can financially’.

In the guesthouse one lady from Glasgow was having lunch. ‘We’ve been coming here for twelve years. We’re here for seven days. It’s a very special place. It’s a place where you can have a week right out from the world, away from the TV, wireless, papers, the shops, the family pressures, to be peaceful, to deepen your spirituality. You can sit down, as I sat this morning for about an hour, talking to one of the monks. He’s a very wise monk. He’s been here for a long time. I ask him questions about my faith that I don’t understand. He can give you the answers that you’re looking for. If you have any kind of problems, they’re the people to ask to put you on the right road. You also meet all kinds of people from all walks of life. Something always draws you back. You come here for the spirituality. I think God brings you here for a reason.

People become monks not because it’s an easy life – it’s as hard as being married. They still have to live in community and cope with the irritations of their companions – just like a marriage. It’s not a running away from the world. They’re still in the world and they’re coping with the same pressures as we are’.