‘Pax’- the Latin word for peace – is the first word that greets you as you enter the faux-19th Century Norman Castle that now serves as a monastery for the Benedictine Community in Glenstal Abbey near Murroe, Co. Limerick. The Benedictines bought the buildings and surrounding land in 1927 and set about creating the monastery, farm and boarding school that stands there today. The Monks live by the Rule of St Benedict, which sets out how they govern the abbey and run their day.
On arrival you are made instantly welcome at this place of peace by the staff and brothers, especially Guestmasters Fr Christopher and Fr Lino (who makes a fantastic porridge!)
After a short walk from the reception to the guesthouse I was met with warmth, both from the building itself and my fellow sojourners in the Abbey: a mix of laity and ordained, single and married, retired and working, Roman Catholic and Anglican.
So why did I go to Glenstal? I primarily went on retreat to disconnect from the online world and the demands of modern life, which is something that I am becoming more conscious of; I find myself more connected to my phone then to my surrounds at time. While my phone was on for my stay in the abbey, it was not connected to the internet, and phone signal wasn’t all that great. It was easy to stay disconnected and enjoy the peace and quiet. It was also to give me time to think without interruptions; to clear my head, and figure out my path forward, as I am a 30 year old man who still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.
I also went to read. I brought a number of books to read and study, and notes from a talk on ‘Religion and Homosexuality’ I had attended in University College Cork before travelling. The guest house and the grounds lent themselves wonderfully to this pursuit. I read, and was able to break and think about what I had read, something that everyday life does not always allow us to do.
As the Abbey’s church was being renovated, the school gym had been re-purposed to act as a Chapel for the community. Services were twice daily – a community Mass and Vespers. Normally there are four: Matins, Community Mass, Vespers and Compline. The Mass is no different from your parish church service, but vespers is something special: sung in Latin, this service exudes peace and contemplation as you listen to the psalms sung in the language they have been sung in for centuries.
Mealtimes are very different at Glenstal; Breakfast is self-service, eaten in the guesthouse with the other guests. If you do visit, make sure to try the aforementioned porridge made by Fr Lino. Lunch is eaten in the guest dining room of the Monastery, a great opportunity to get to know the other guests in the Abbey.
Supper was my favourite meal of the day. This meal is taken with the monks in the Monastery, and is eaten in silence. The tea is served in French-style coffee bowls. The atmosphere ensures that you take your time and give your full attention to what you are doing. During the meal, one of the brothers reads from a book. Now, when going into this, I was fully expecting a religious book, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear a book on history being read. As an avid reader and lover of history, I was in my element listening to Ben Wilson’s “Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age” as I slowly ate my supper alongside the other guests and some of the boys from the school.
Eating in silence is not something many of us are used to doing. We are normally surrounded by family or friends and are busy trying to catch up, find out the gossip, and keep everyone up to date with what is going on in life. With all the talk of mindfulness and ‘being in the moment’, these suppers were the easiest way I have ever found to actually do it. I felt relaxed, informed and connected to myself, my surroundings, and my food.
Outside of meal and service times, you are free to do as you please. The Abbey is set in 200 acres of wood and farmland, which is a great area to explore and be one with nature. I was lucky to observe a Red Squirrel bounding up a conifer and leap across the trees. Walking next to fields of cattle and donkeys, I was brought down to earth and reminded of the basic story of life and creation. There is a walled garden and a terraced garden and, for the adventurous who walk down trodden paths in the woods, you may find one of the old altar stones in the area.
There is also an Icon Chapel located in the crypt of the Church to explore. While Icons are more associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church, these give an opportunity to see great art and learn about what unites the Christian Churches, rather than what divides them.
Glenstal Abbey is an oasis of peace in an ever-hectic world; it gives an opportunity to step out of the race and recharge, to reconnect spiritually, whether as a Christian or otherwise. Glenstal does not discriminate based on faith, and you are never asked what your faith is.
Another way to stay at Glenstal is the God Pods – these hermitages are self-catering dwellings set 1km from the Monastery Church and surrounded by nature. Here you have the ability to really connect with the God within.