The First Rejected
I’ve been kicked out. Dumped. Given the boot. Ditched. Stabbed in the back. Whatever. By Dom Michael, Abbot of Bolton Abbey, Co Kildare.
Not, I hasten to add, because of something I did or did not do. But because … the Abbot of Mount Melleray, Co Waterford was - How shall I say? - XXXXXXX the XXXXXXX XXXXXXXX XXX of a XXXXX XXXXXXXXXX in the XXXX XXXXXXX of the XXXXXXXXXX of his XXX XXXXXXXXX
How logical is that? Let alone, fair or even – Dare I say it? – Christian.
JUST THINKING ABOUT IT MAKES ME CRY BLOOD
Vocations are dangerously low. Religious orders are desperate for new members. But I’ve just been thrown out of Mount Mellery, which once famously included a Buddhist monk as a member of its community. The fact, he was called Rai Doh, Japanese for I love cleaning floors, may or may not have been a factor in making him an honorary Cistercian monk in the first place.
But the fact remains. I’ve been kicked out. Dumped. Given the boot. Ditched. Stabbed in the back. Whatever. By the holy, very reverend Dom Michael, Abbot of Bolton Abbey, Co Kildare.
“Sufficient to the day is the evil in it,” says The Imitation. Trouble is I didn’t expect the evil to be created in the monastery itself. What’s more, never in a million years did I expect that I would be the one to suffer because of it. Especially at the hands of a holy, very reverend Abbot.
Not, I hasten to add, because of something I did or did not do. But because of what the Abbot did.
How logical is that? Let alone, fair or even – Dare I say it? – Christian.
What makes it worse, is that for over 60-years, I have been trying to become a Cistercian monk. And I’m still trying.
I first discovered Thomas Merton, the world’s most famous Cistercian monk, when I was 16-years-old. I had just left school. I got a job as a reporter on a local newspaper in South London called The Merton and Morden News. The first morning I was there, the lady chief reporter said to me, “You’re useless to me unless you know something about Merton and Morden. Go to the local library. Read everything you can about the area.”
I went to the local library. I went to the filing cabinets. Remember filing cabinets? I flicked through the cards until I came to Merton. Not Merton and Morden. But Merton, Thomas – Autobiography. Elected Silence. I got the book and spent all day reading it. I was hooked. I wanted to become a Cistercian monk. Like Thomas Merton.
The following morning, I went back to the office. The lady chief reporter asked me if I had read everything about Merton. “Yes,” I told her. “Fascinating. Like to read more.” She sent me back to the library. I spent the rest of the day reading and re-reading the book. I was convinced. Silence. Solitude. Simplicity. Prayer. It was what I wanted.
I didn’t come from a particularly religious family. But I always wanted to be a priest. At 11/12-years old when other altar boys were going off to the junior seminary, I wanted to go with them. My father had just died. The priests told me, No. Stay at home and look after your mother. I did as the priests said. At 16 when other altar boys were going off to the senior seminary, I wanted to go with them. The priests said, No. Go out to work. Earn some money. Help support your mother. I did as the priests said.
Reading Thomas Merton changed everything. During weekends and holidays, I would hitchhike to Cistercian monasteries all over the country. When I first went to Mount St Bernard, the big Cistercian monastery in England, they wouldn’t let me in. Even to the guesthouse. They said I was too young. Instead, I spent the week living in the telephone box in the lane outside, going in and out to all the services.
I bought all the Thomas Merton books as they were published. I not only read and studied the books, I read and studied all the books Merton kept referring to. The Salesians taught me the basics. How to read, write and make wooden toothbrush holders. Merton introduced me to the world. This one and the next.
As I got older and travelled the world – I’ve been to over 200 countries. Most of them, many times over – I visited and stayed in monasteries whenever I had the chance. Gethsemani. Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. Solesmes, the famous Benedictine monastery in France. Abbaye de Keur Moussa, just outside Dakar, Senegal. I even drove 4,000 kms from Paris to Tammanrasset in the middle of the Sahara to visit the hermitage of the ex-Trappist monk, Charles de Foucauld.
Three years ago, I was suddenly free. No relatives. No ties. Nothing. What to do? Spend the rest of my life whooping it up with the saddle sniffers at the St Tropez Polo Club? Drag out my days in a penthouse suite at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin? Instead I thought I’d try once again to become a Cistercian monk. Spend the rest of my life in silence and solitude, praying, as Cassian says, with “ruthless self-disciplined determination without ceasing in preparation for that first direct encounter with God.”
It wasn’t easy. I had been staying at Mount Melleray Abbey off and on for over 30-years. I’ve spent some of the happiest days of my life there. But it took a year of near constant letter writing and e-mails before I even got a reply. I went and spent a month with them for, what they called, monastic experience. It took almost another year of also near non-stop letter-writing and e-mails before I got another reply. I drove over 600 miles there and back in two days from Eastbourne in the south of England to Mount Melleray for a brief 15-20 minute meeting with the Abbot. But it was worth it. He said, Yes. You can come and join the community. Again, it took almost another year to agree the date. The Abbot, obviously, had other things on his mind. XXXX XXXXXXX XXXXX XXXXXXXXXX
Finally, last May, after over 60-years of turmoil, I joined the community. I did as the Good Lord says. I sold everything I had and gave everything I could to the poor. Most of the stuff they gave back to me saying it wasn’t the right size, shape, colour etc. I even lost a fortune unscrambling book contracts in various countries because the Abbot lectured me – Oh. The irony - on the purity of monastic life and told me to do so. Which I did because, as I get further and further up the queue outside the cemetery gates, I wanted to spend the rest of my life there, and still do
But it was not to be. In a brief, icy, totally non-Christian 10-15 minute meeting, I was kicked out. Thrown out. Booted out. Dumped. Fired. Made Redundant. Told to pack my bags and go. Not because, again I hasten to add, of anything I did or did not do. Everybody there says I’ve been no trouble. I’ve fitted in very well. I counted as a member of the community. Especially on Monday mornings when I counted the Sunday collections. Largely, I think, because of my knowledge of foreign coins. But that’s not all. I performed all my monastic duties. I swept floors. I did the washing up. I emptied the rubbish. I even got the Prodigal Son job and looked after their two enormous pigs for them. In hail. In snow. In rain. Even in the occasional day of sunshine. I only wish now that I had been more prodigal and deserved the honour.
But I’m being kicked out because the Abbot was - How shall I say? - XXXXXXX the XXXXXX XXXXXXXX XXX of a XXXXX XXXXXXXXXX in the XXXX XXXXXXX of the XXXXXXXXXX of his XXX XXXXXXXXX
The logic seems to be:
- The Abbot was xxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xx x XXXXX xxxxxarian in the xxx xxxxxxxxxx of his XXX xxxxxxxxx
- The Abbot resigns. Is whisked away. In secret. Into the sun. In Australia. Where, no doubt, he will indulge his interest in things down under. But he still remains a priest. He even had time to up-date his CV on LinkedIn, which describes itself as “an American business and employment orientated online service for professional networking and career development”, where, incidentally, he says he has two jobs. Although why a religious, an Abbot, even a resigned ex-Abbot should feel he needs to be listed on such an on-line web-site, let alone claim he has two jobs, I have no idea.
- Biddlecombe is dumped. Rejected. Thrown out. In the cold. In Ireland. With nothing. Not even one job.
No. I don’t understand it either. All I know is I met Dom Michael just once. He was straight to the point. Brutal. Ruthless. Because the Abbot has resigned, the community is now too weak to support me. I’ve got to go.
But why should I be the one to suffer? I wasn’t the one XXXXXX XXXXXXXX with XXX XXXXX XXXXXXX in the XXXXXXXXXX XX XXXX XXX XXXXXXXXX.
I pleaded. I explained. I kept saying.
He didn’t bat an eyelid. He was ice cold. Skeletal. I kept asking him, How can you possibly, as St Paul says, strengthen a community by making it weaker still? Surely, if you don’t let people in, with or without formation, you’re never going to increase the numbers.
But he kept repeating. Coldly. The community is too weak to support me. But, I kept telling him, I haven’t had any support since I’ve been here? Why do I suddenly need support now?
Formation, he said. Formation.
But, I told him, I know about Formation. I wrote a book about Formation and about every book Thomas Merton ever read during his own Formation. But the previous Abbot told me not to publish it. I did as the Abbot said.
He still said NO.
In desperation, I contacted the big boss of all Cistercian monks worldwide, Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, who used to be Abbot of Mount Melleray and his successor, Dom Bernardus Peeters, who used to be Abbot of Tilburg in the Netherlands. Both of whom I’ve met. Both of whom I’ve spoken to in the past. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t even both to acknowledge my e-mails.
I haven’t come close to kicking in a stained glass window. Yet. Nearly did, when I heard that the ex-Abbot was telling people he was bored sitting in the sunshine in Australia with nothing to do and wanted his post sent on to him EXPRESS.
I was always taught that the Church exists to help people “know, love and serve God in this world and be happy with Him forever in the next.” Not kick them out in the street because of something they didn’t do.
Now, if you will excuse me, I’m off to Japan to become a Buddhist monk. It seems it’s the only way I can get into Mount Melleray. Even if it means spending the rest of my life cleaning floors.
Thomas Merton must be turning in his grave.
Peter Biddlecombe has published over 20 books including 11 travel books covering more than 200 countries he has visited. Most of them, many times over. He is now busy completing the final chapters of his autobiography, My Struggle to Follow Thomas Merton: 60 years of Turmoil.
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