What can we learn from an Irish monk, living far away in the countryside in the south of Ireland? In an interview, Brother Seamus shares about what he has learned by choosing the monastic way of life, what he thinks really counts in life, and why even in our society today, monasteries are important.
I spent last weekend with my family in a Cistercian monastery in the south of Ireland. This was a monastery my father had been visiting for decades, a monastery he once thought about joining himself, and where he finally proposed to my mother. We arrived there after driving through boggy fields, seeing only sheep and cows and the occasional cottage for the last hour of driving. The weekend was quiet; we woke up early to join the monks in their morning prayer at 4.30am, went for walks in the hilly area, and enjoyed delicious meals with other guests. After one monk shared a bit about his life during one such meal, I asked him for an interview. The next morning, before leaving, we sat down together, and brother Seamus shared with me some insights on how and why he became a monk, and what he believes to be important in life.
Brother Seamus: First of all, can you share a bit about why you chose this special way of life and become a monk?
A question I am often very much asked is this, why did I become a monk? I tried here in 2002, and I left, and I came back again. The question ‘why’ is often put to me. To answer that question: a vocation to become a monk is a calling. You don’t hear audible voices. It is something you know within yourself, that the Lord is calling me. And it’s a feeling deep within the heart. The best way I can describe it is it’s like a magnet. It’s something you feel drawn to. It’s a profound, special calling. And I felt deep within my heart, this is what He, God, wants me to do. So, I had to surrender, I had to give up myself freely. I had to be open to that. And even though deep down, from a young age, I knew I was being called, did I want to do it? Was I ready for the sacrifices? Was I ready to give up my job, my car, apartment, detach myself from the world, from my family, and all of that? And, while I found myself in the world, I experienced an emptiness. Although I did very well materialistically, I worked in medical devices and did well in that, there was an interior emptiness. I just felt empty, and I felt lost out there. Like a fish without water. It was only when I really truly was true to myself, knowing myself, and knowing the closeness of God, I realized there was a calling there.
I could have gone to other orders, but it just wasn’t for me. I wanted the life whereby it was solitary, where I could live and serve in community. The Cistercian way of life, the way I am living now, just fitted me, was for me. So, I came back here, was back in 2002, made a rushed decision and went back into the world. Looking back it was all part of God’s plan, because God worked through me during a difficult situation within the family. So I went back in 2010, and here over nine years now. Totally at peace. I have gone through difficult times, but never questioned the decision. None whatsoever. There have been challenges and difficulties throughout the years. Trying to get vocations, and our numbers have dropped significantly, so there’s a great workload and demand. But I am here to serve, I am here knowing that this is where God has me. So I get up every morning for vigils and say Lord, use me for whatever capacity you can. So I come with a spirit of generosity, a spirit of Love, what can I give. Rather than receiving, what can I give? How can I use my talents to the best of my abilities? So I came in 2010, met solum profession in 2015. This means you make your final vows. You give yourself entirely to this way of life. The main vow is stability. This means, I will give my life to Christ as a Cistercian monk. So you take stability, you take obedience. You are obedient to your abbot.
For you personally, what are the most meaningful aspects of living as a monk?
Ultimately really, it’s a journey towards Christ. You are on a journey towards Christ, where Christ becomes the center of your life. And with that, peace and blessings come. And as a monk, I meet people on the way, as a guest master, I get to meet a lot of people. And my goal and my objective is to speak of the love, the kindness, and the mercy of God. So I speak that as sincerely and clearly as I can. And it’s to draw people to Christ. To draw people back to the church. And that’s important for me, important for me to talk about the silence. To talk about prayer, about solitude. To talk about peace, talk about the church, the sacraments, what the church has to offer. And to get that focus, to get people to focus on that. Living in community, helping, serving … one of the greatest changes I have seen, personally in my life, is: you come into a life here, as a monk, and you go from self to service. And when you read the scriptures, Christ came to serve, not to be served. As a monk you’re serving, but there is joy in that. And as you’re in community, you have to forgive. If you get angry, annoyed, frustrated, you must forgive. As a guest master. And St. Benedict said that every guest that you meet must be met as if he was Christ. So respect, love, tolerance, compassion, understanding: bring that truly. So, we spend a lot of time studying the scriptures. Reflecting on it. But you must live it. As a monk I must live it in the community. And I must live it as a guest master.
Maybe there is something that you enjoy the most about this monastic way of life?
Only in the last year and a half I was assigned as guest master, and I never saw myself in this role. But I enjoy helping people, meeting people. In the past year and a half, beautiful graces, beautiful blessings. People come in, and sometimes are coming with addictions, and troubles, and burdens. And are sometimes lost. So you can sit down, and talk to them. And after a talk or an encounter with them, they say to you, brother, I want to go back to the church, or I want to go back to the sacraments. I had one man here last week, 25 years away from the church. So by sitting down, talking about the church, God’s mercy, reconciliation, the eucharist, that man was touched. And he decided to go back to the church. It’s not my doing, it’s the spirit of God working in and through me, to touch him or her. I’ve seen many come back to the church. You help them, you listen to them. Listening to them is so important. Listen to where they’re at, and help them in any possible way you can. Working in the guest house is demanding, you get a lot of guests coming in. It’s a greater degree of service. So, you reach out to serve and to respect. Benedict says, treat everybody you meet as if they were Christ. It’s a deep awareness for me that
the kingdom of God is within. God dwells within us. Our bodies are temples of the holy spirit. The holy spirit dwells within us. And I would say, truly, over the past year and a half, a greater emphasis on respect has come to me. So when I meet a person, that person is a child of God, the spirit of God is in that other person, as the spirit of God is within me. It’s a greater, greater awareness. And not to be judgmental, not to condemn. Because, when I am ministering to other people, and they come with their troubles, and addictions, and worries and so forth. Often I’ll say to myself, by the Grace of God, there goes me. So, my strengths could be their weakness, and their weakness could be my strength. So we help. It’s about serving, about loving, about reaching out. Being compassionate. In love, in mercy. Help and support in whatever way I can. But my goal is, bring them to Jesus.
You said, you want to draw people to Christ. Now if people hear or read this who are not Christian, is it maybe possible in a few words to describe what you mean by this?
Yes. I sometimes meet people who really don’t know much about Christ, who he was. And they tell me, how do I get to know him? I often say, the first thing is the scriptures. And I often refer them to the gospel of Mark. It’s the shortest gospel. But there, you will get to know the life of Christ. There, where he grows up, lives with his parents, works as a carpenter, and then takes on his ministry. All the things he did, all the miracles he performed. The healings, the laying of hands. Every time he touched, there was healing. […]. He forgave. So, you’re learning about this man, and the power of God. You are learning that this is extraordinary. And then you go on to know that he was condemned. He was crucified. But he did it for me, he did it for you. The gates of paradise were closed through our first parents, Adam and Eve. He restored that, opened the gates of paradise by taking our sin to the cross. He suffered and died for us, so we can have eternal life with him. And then, you get to know him, he will come into your life. But there must be this openness. Just being simple and open and honest, that prayer is well. That’s a connection. So, if I open myself to him, he can do great things. So, it’s getting familiar with the scriptures, particularly Mark’s gospel. And you get to know him, what his mission was, things he said, what he is asking and requiring of us. He wants us to live a good life. He wants us to be close to him. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, what do we get? We get eternal life with the father. Peace, joy, happiness, forever. And as a monk, that’s what I am aiming for. I am aiming to go home to the father, when my time comes. To eternal life. And to be with all my loved ones, and friends that have departed from this life. And ultimately, to be with the Lord, forever in the community in heaven. That is my aim and hope.
Is there anything you find difficult about the monastic life?
Ohhh yes. Living in community can be difficult. You have different people, viewpoints. Different personalities. You can go to a community meeting, and you want to get something done, and think strongly about some implementation, some change. And others may not agree with you. And see things totally and absolutely differently. That can be difficult. Or being corrected or challenged by others. Not so much in the correction, but how it is said to me. So, living with others all the time. Some can annoy you, or frustrate you with what they say or by what they do. And you’re living with them all the time. And sometimes, there is no escape. And you just have to stay with it. That challenge can be difficult. Also, when you come into a monastery, you loose a certain sense of freedom. To do what you want to do, when you want to do it. Because there are rules, you are living in community. I have to discipline myself to be there for the prayers, seven times a day. So, my personal freedom is taken away to a certain degree, and that can be hard. Then the detachment from family and friends. Even though they come down every three or four months, you can get visits. So, it’s a strict way of life. Strict discipline. You truly must discipline yourself. To be up for vigils early in the morning, and to be in church seven times a day, seven days a week takes discipline. But after saying that, it’s given me peace and knowledge and the understanding that this is where God wants me and has me. And sometimes, obedience and submissiveness come in, which can be hard. And community, although I have experienced the love and support of the community, it can be hard. People’s attitudes and behaviors. It can hurt, but to be able to go back, to say I’m sorry and to reconcile happens.
Is there anything you personally believe you have experienced and/or learned by choosing the celibate and monastic life, that you otherwise would have missed?
You must also have a spirit of humility. Humility is so, so important. I have faults, I have failings. What I have said and done may at times have caused hurt and offense to others. And, to be able to come back and say, I am sorry. Forgiveness and reconciliation, knowing my faults and failings, and asking to be forgiven. That builds friendship. That builds community. That’s humbleness, that’s humility, when you confess your faults and failings. I put a lot of emphasis on this. Because you’re living with others. And sadly today, there’s so many tensions, and breakups in families. And I meet many guests, saying oh brother, I’m not talking to my son, not talking to my daughter. My parents. A husband not talking to his wife. And there’s a lot of breakups, because they won’t take the initiative to say, I’m sorry. And we all at times blame and point a finger at the other, and say the other is at fault. But we too have faults and failures. And sometimes we need to take initiative to go forward and say I’m sorry. And just these words bring again unity, love, and reconciliation. So, I would say, in the last year and a half, I have learned to put an emphasis on reconciliation. And more of an emphasis on love and service. Helping whatever way I can. I may not be able to complete a task. But what can I do? And often there is a problem, a task to be done. And sometimes we gather as a community and ask, what can we do? And sometimes, even if I don’t have a particular gift or talent for a particular project, I ask myself, what can I do to contribute? And I’ll find, yeah, there is something I can do here.
If you look at today’s society, you have said what you believe is most important. And if you look now at the secular world today: Do you think my generation should value the monastic life?
It’s difficult to put into words. It is a secular society. We are struggling with vocations. But, the absence of God creates crisis. The absence of God creates chaos. You see in people’s lives, unhappiness, no peace, upset, because God is not there. And if monasteries were to disappear, that would be so sad. These monasteries are oases of peace, of love. They are powerhouses. Houses of prayer, houses of the presence of God. If they were to go, it would create an even greater absence of God in society. The only way to restoring peace and unity, is God alone. But people nowadays, particularly in Ireland, are not responding.
And we as a community do ask ourselves, how do we reach the young people? Do we need to go out? Pope Francis is putting an emphasis on this. On going out to the sheep, and taking care of the sheep, getting out there. Getting your hands dirty. And I believe that needs to happen, the church needs to go out into the world more, in the whole line of service. Meeting, interacting and touching the lives of people. Being a witness. And live your vocation, put it into action. Let them see you, Christ within you. Touch the lives of others. Those that are broken, marginalized, those that are suffering. The church needs to move out, and really truly be a visible sign and witness to the people, especially the young people. So that people see something unique, special. The peace, and the joy, and the happiness that others have. It’s dependent on how you serve, how you love. That will touch the lives of others. Pope Francis, Mother Teresa, saints, people who have died have done heroic acts of virtue and of service. Have touched the hearts and lives of others. So, I think it’s a matter of getting out there. Even for us, to attract vocations. They used to come and knock on the door. That’s not happening anymore. Today, I think we need to go out, and talk about who we are. Talk about our vocation, about who we are, about what the place has to offer.