There could scarcely have been a more desolate site to build a monastery; smack bang on East Lothian’s bleak and barren Lammermuir Hills, a short distance above the picturesque village of Garvald.
I left my car on the Garvald side of the burbling Papana Water, crossed over on foot and trudged up the rutted trail that would lead me to this modern, trachyte stone building, which was quarried by the monks themselves. The foundation stone was laid by the then Archbishop Gray in 1954, but the long, hard slog had begun as early as 1952.
The remarkable colouring of the stone caught my attention as the winter sun struck it at a particular angle and spun forth a dazzling array of wonderful and varying colours; something I’d dwell on over the next few days, for I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime.
No, I was not about to become a Cistercian monk, but I did take up an invitation to visit Sancta Maria Abbey and obtain an insight into the life, work and prayer that takes place within these monastic confines.
I was greeted by the Guest Master, who is detailed to care for any visitors or strangers who might stay at, or visit, the Abbey, which can accommodate around 30 guests. He himself had been up since 3 a.m. that morning.
This particular family of Scottish Cistercians was founded in 1946 by monks who came from St. Joseph’s Abbey at Roscrea in Ireland. At one time, the monks were quartered in nearby Nunraw House, until the new Abbey was completed . In 1969, they moved into the Sancta Maria Abbey where their day begins with Vigils at 3.15 a.m. and ends with Compline at 7.30 p.m.
Cistercian monks prefer to live in out of the way, rugged, places and the Lammermuir Hills are perfect. They very rarely leave the monastery and have been known as the ‘White Monks’ because of their plain robes made of sheep’s wool. This attire is topped with a black scapular, a sort of apron which covers the white robes and is given to the Novice when he takes his final vows. A loose white cowl is usually worn when they are in choir, except for the very warm times of the year.
The monks spend a tremendous amount of time in prayer â€“ seven times each day at Vigils, Lauds, Mass, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline â€“ so the Abbey Church is the focal point of a Cistercian Monk’s day and the very heart of monastic life.
At 8.45 a.m., work and study commences, unless of course, you happen to care for cattle or sheep, in which case your working day starts at 7.30 a.m. Farming takes place under modern conditions and is very demanding work, which entails every type of technical skill that animal husbandry requires. It is this closeness to nature which leaves a man wide open to God.
It takes all sorts of skills to keep an Abbey running smoothly: bakers, cooks, carpenters and bricklayers are only some of the tradesmen which are needed for the community’s upkeep â€“ but there is always plenty of time left for study. Sancta Maria Abbey has a well stocked library, which is very light and airy, but the days when the monks were occupied copying and decorating books by hand are dead and gone.
Nowadays Cistercian monks are quite proficient in the use of the most advanced word processors, computer software and printing presses. They also bind their own books. Even although they rarely leave the sanctuary of the Abbey, they keep up to date with events through the internet, have their own website and communicate by email.
Some other things have changed, as the monks used to grow all their own vegetables but that is no longer the case. When it gets down to the nitty gritty of cooking, all the brothers pull together and this effort brings them closer together. Food is eaten communally in the Refectory. The monks are vegetarian and whilst the meal is in progress, the rules state that no monk is allowed to speak; instead one of the brothers will read from the Bible or other suitable passages.
During my brief stay, I met other guests. Some, like me, had been invited, others were relatives of residential monks but others had come to take a break from the rat-race, to unwind, perhaps to find out something more about their inner selves. Whatever their reasons, they were able to enjoy prayerful reading, quiet walks around the grounds, or private talks with a spiritual advisor.
It is not the custom of the Abbey to charge for your stay but offerings are accepted.
While I gave up a few days of my life to God in this way, each Cistercian monk at the Sancta Maria Abbey left his bag and coat at the entrance â€“ a sign to God that they were not required any more. My sacrifice, such as it was, was nothing compared to that of the monks but I still came away with the knowledge that if I was happy, they were happy and the only difference was that I picked up my coat and bag on the way out.