The three vows of the Benedictine monk are obedience, stability, and conversion of life. In our own ways, we can follow this example, making it real by paying attention to prayer, cracking the books in solid study, and rolling up our sleeves in the honest, hard work of rebuilding what has fallen into despair and disrepair…
I was a curate in the Church of England when a disabled priest asked me to help master his wheelchair on a visit to the Isle of Wight. The 14-by-7-mile island, just off the South coast is an idyllic and much overlooked corner of England. I hoisted the priest into the car and the chair into the trunk, and repeatedly as the priest and I drove from place to place around the island. One of the spots we visited was the Benedictine Quarr Abbey.
Quarr is a unique monastic community—one of only two English-speaking monasteries in the French Solesmes congregation (pronounced so-lem). For those not in the know, the Benedictine order is composed of various independent congregations, each with its own national, historical, and liturgical traditions and ministries. The English Benedictines, for example, are known for having boarding schools attached to their monasteries because when they were in exile during the penal times, the English recusant families sent their sons to the English Benedictines in France for their education.
The Solesmes congregation was founded by Dom Prosper Guéranger in the 1830s as a resurrection of Benedictine life after the French revolution. Guéranger not only restored Benedictine life but also brought Gregorian chant back to life after centuries of neglect and decline.
The violent vicissitudes of French politics brought continued conflict. Since its restoration, Solesmes has been dissolved by the French Government no fewer than four times. In 1880, 1882, and 1883, the monks were ejected by force but, sheltered by the locals, succeeded each time in reentering their abbey. Then during the third republic, the other members of religious orders were expelled from France.
As the Benedictines fled from English persecution to France during the Protestant Revolution, so also in the early years of the twentieth century the French monks went into exile in England. At first they settled at the country house of Appeldurcombe on the Isle of Wight, then moved to the North coast of the island where there were ruins of a medieval Cistercian abbey. There they built Quarr—named for the nearby limestone quarries and remained there until they were permitted to return to France after the First World War.
The buildings at Quarr were designed by one of the monks who was also an architect. Dom Paul Bellot pioneered a remarkable and unique style which can only be described as Byzantine-Gothic with an art-deco accent. The gentle warmth of the Flemish brick and the interplay of the patterned brickwork adds an almost Moorish exoticism to the mix, and yet such a description cannot convey the numinous quality Bellot (and decades of monastic worship) have imparted to the place. Quarr seems like a little Bethel—the threshold of heaven, where the veil between this world and the next is very thin indeed.
Enchanted by the place, I returned some months later to make my annual retreat. I took with me a rosary that a concerned parishioner gave me, and the Protestant boy that I was, felt dismay at such a Catholic devotion. The worship of Mary was a Catholic heresy! Should I really entertain such a practice? Remembering F.D. Maurice’s dictum that “a man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies,” I decided to give it a try.
Our Lady of Quarr opened a door into a new room of prayer and spirituality, and without going into details, I can say that the place and the prayers I learned there changed my life. Five years later, when looking for a parish, I applied to be the Vicar of Brading on the Isle of Wight—partially motivated by the desire to be near Quarr, and it was there that the final steps were taken to leave the Anglican Church; it was at Quarr in 1995 that we were received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
It was therefore with some curiosity that I regarded an inner urge earlier this summer to return to Quarr for a week of writing and retreat. I was working on a book about liturgy, so the monastic library at Quarr beckoned, but so did another voice. I could do the research at most any monastery. Why go to the trouble and expense of traveling all the way to England? Still, after an absence of over twenty years, the inner voice summoned me home to Quarr. So I went and spent a peaceful and challenging week with the monks—only eight of them now—at Quarr Abbey.
As the calendar would have it, a week after my return to the United States I was slated to visit the other English-speaking abbey in the Solesmes congregation—Clear Creek. The history of Clear Creek is as astounding as the traditional abbey church and monastery rising from the rugged hills of Eastern Oklahoma.
At the University of Kansas in the 1970s, John Senior and two other professors started a Great Books program. Through their integrated study of Western civilization, a number of these students became interested in monastic life. Thirty-one of the young men found their way to the abbey of Notre-Dame de Fontgombault in France, another monastery in the Solesmes congregation. Some entered the novitiate, hoping one day to be part of a new monastic foundation in America.
When the young Americans arrived, Fontgombault was flourishing with so many young monks they had to establish new monasteries, but as the American novices needed to get a solid formation, the project to build a traditionalist monastery in America was postponed.
Then in 1991, Dom Antoine Forgeot, abbot of Notre-Dame de Fontgombault, began to make exploratory trips to the United States, accompanied by one of the original Americans, Dom Francis Bethel. Eventually a property was found in the diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was a ranch located along Clear Creek. On September 15th, 1999, the main group of founders arrived from France and the little Priory of Our Lady of Clear Creek was established.
At first the monks lived in a large log cabin as well as an existing barn and stable. The horse stalls became monastic cells, and the barn became the first chapel. An architect from Notre Dame was commissioned to design the new monastery, and now, just about twenty years after its foundation, Clear Creek has fifty monks—most of them under the age of forty, and the Romanesque abbey church is rising slowly from the Ozark hills.
As it is at Fontgombault, the liturgy at Clear Creek is in Latin, with Masses celebrated according to the extraordinary form. Life is suitably austere, with the first office of the day at 5:15. The monks work not only to help build the abbey but also maintain an extensive sheep farm, welcome guests, and maintain the traditional Benedictine mixture of prayer, work, and reading.
I once commented to a Benedictine monk about the persistence of the Benedictines. Time and again, I observed, they have been uprooted by persecution, political upheavals, natural disasters, and religious wars, but they continue to appear, returning to the historic ruins to rebuild and restore the ancient way of life.
He smiled and said, “We’re like weeds. We come back.”
Quarr Abbey is an example. Persecuted by their own French government to the point of exile, they moved out, got land, rebuilt, and then eventually, when the storm had passed, went home. Quarr’s recent history is also troubled. Problems from within weakened the community, but now with a new abbot elected from Kergonan—another Solesmes community—the monks of Quarr are bouncing back. Dom Luke Bell OSB has initiated an intern program for young men to spend two months learning about the Benedictine life, and before long it is hoped that Quarr will also experience new life as young men continue to be drawn to the ancient challenge of following Jesus Christ in the way of St. Benedict.
Like Clear Creek, Quarr Abbey has the advantage of the beautiful liturgical traditions of the Solesmes congregation with its emphasis on Gregorian chant in a French spirit. But for those who speak English, and who may have been infected with Anglophilia, Quarr provides a way to follow that life in the beautiful countryside and historic culture of England.
T.S.Eliot was the first to predict that Western civilization would be rescued by a return to monasticism. More recently and extensively, Rod Dreher has promoted the possibility in The Benedict Option. What is it about Clear Creek and Quarr and the other Benedictine monasteries that keep bouncing back?
Very simply, it is a life that is obedient to the wisdom of the ages, deeply rooted in Western civilization and yet vitally alive. The three vows of the Benedictine monk—obedience, stability, and conversion of life—are put into gear by the three tools: reading, prayer, and work. In this way the monks do not merely study the tradition. They live it.
In the sixth century, when the empire was crumbling into violence, immorality, and anarchy, St. Benedict and his brothers planted seeds of worship, scholarship, and realistic hard work in what seemed barren soil. But those seeds grew slowly and eventually flowered into the Christendom of the Middle Ages.
Rod Dreher’s proposal is that others follow the same path, not only in monasteries like Quarr and Clear Creek, but also in families, schools, parishes, and dioceses. In all of these communities, in our own ways, we can follow Christ in obedience, stability, and conversion of life, making it real by paying attention to prayer, cracking the books in solid study, and rolling up our sleeves in the honest, hard work of rebuilding what has fallen into despair and disrepair.
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