Monastic Order: In Particular Downside's Monasticism
The real meaning of a Benedictine Monastic formation centred upon Downside Abbey and School 1966-69.
I write of Monks not Nuns as I have little contact with Convents. I am not aware of the psychology of these Nuns presently or in my living memory. I know that Monks march together in unison and have the power of the Priesthood in their ranks. Their quality is the austere way of life and selfless approach with concentrated prayer over their whole lifetimes. Their raison d’etre is to offer up the sacrifice of the mass above all else. That places them at the heart of God’s thinking and Christian action.
2. Contemplative or Educational
I believe the Monastics, largely Benedictine in England, are both of these descriptions together in purpose. A Monk and Priest inevitably contemplates in prayer and reflection and then goes out to educate others, probably not school pupils where the Monasteries have been dragged through the mud, like it or not. The whole concept of Monastic is not inward looking – the true Monk Priest wishes to share his contemplation and those insights with those around him to educate and inform.
3. My own past experience of a Monastic education (1966-69) at Downside School
The essence lay in the hearts and minds of these Monk Priests and their self-sacrificial attitude to life and the Church. They were no ordinary men but men who had taken lifelong vows of obedience to the Abbot, Chastity, Stability and poverty. Thus they gave up everything for their Monastery and God Himself without qualification or limitation. To a young man as I was that, Monk’s sacrifice was truly inspiring, visible though it may be or not. The characters always beamed through and in those days they did truly and correctly educate school pupils (boys alone). We had not heard their vows pronounced but we knew they had been enunciated and almost without exception kept to death. We took our punishment – the beatings – in good spirit and no rancour. Our parents had sent us to Downside not to evade the disciplinary regime but to benefit from it. We duly did so and our education progressed as a result. The Monastic School was in charge not our parents. They had committed us to the care of the Monastic school advisedly and we boys did not quarrel with that decision. It was a case of here is my son, educate him in the Roman Catholic faith. The Monks in return welcomed us into their fraternal community and daily mass. We had become part of the monastic community which we would never leave behind on life’s long journey. No Old Gregorian (former Downside boys) will ever deny their faith of Downside School and Abbey in my experience. Sometimes Old Gregorians may become lapse Catholics but they will still support the Downside spirit and soul such is the seal left upon their forehead by Downside the Monastic Community.
4. The Fruits of Downside
For me a driving Roman Catholic even when under a cloud at university in 1971-72 and suffering an intensely extreme religious experience 10 plus years later. You can never shake off the Downside imprint upon your heart and soul. Thus Downside always strengthens Old Gregorians and never weakens them. We all (OG’s) rise to the challenge of Monasticism in our lives whether we be single, married, separated, divorced or Monks indeed. The Downside path is not a simple nor easy one but it is the way to the Father through Christ. Downside teaches generosity of spirit and good financial management not to mention courage in battle. The great range of current and past achievements of Old Gregorians is proof of Downside’s monastic worth transmitted to those pupils some years ago.
5. The Weakness of Downside
When I was at the school the Monks were in charge and someone said they forced religion down our throats. Vivid imagery and yes we did go to Mass (obligatory) everyday save Saturday but this was a top Catholic Public and Monastic school. We were privileged to have this Monastic education as time would quickly show. Downside school is now largely un-Monastic and the Monks have little to do with the school and the whole Monastic ethos of the school is lost. My generation were the true fruits of Downside. The present generation is impoverished by the non-Monastic ambience. Downside has lost its fierce aspect. That is a grave weakness whether required or forced upon the school and monastery. Downside is not what it was and never will be – nothing stays the same.
6. Conclusion and Downside’s future
I argue that the school should be uncoupled from the Monastery leaving the school free to proceed as it wishes. Currently the Chairman of School Governors is the Abbot and the Headmaster a Monk (retirement already announced). The Monastery would then concentrate on its own activities and not be impeded by the school’s imperatives. The essence of Downside is the pure Benedictinism of the Monks living and dead and the surviving and deceased Old Gregorians. We have nothing to be ashamed of in our history or now. Dwell not upon misdeeds- they are not the hallmark of the Downside Monastic community. Above all without the Monks the salt loses its task. The Monks will live on come what may – the spirit of the Post-war Monks and before will generate their lively faith – let no-one be down at heart. Downside commands the high ground by virtue of its Catholicism and Monasticism and its history – it’s very charisma is the education of non-Catholics and young Catholics but not in the Downside school anymore, which was almost entirely Catholic in my day. Even Catholics require formation.
We drink with the new wine to the Downside to come, past and present. That is my toast to all English Benedictines.