With the recent scandal that’s come to light about acts of sexual abuse in two English monasteries over the last forty years, it’s made me think about my own experiences at a certain Benedictine monastery. Ampleforth Abbey, to be precise, tucked deep into the sweeping hills, yawning valleys and mythical forests of North Yorkshire, as if deliberately hiding itself from the big bad world at large. And yet now, to many people, places like Ampleforth will themselves represent the big bad world at large.
But before any of you start getting tuned into your schadenfreude radar waves about all the salacious details you think I am about to embark upon, I have to warn you to STOP! This post is not going to be about any of that. I really don’t want to talk about that. The press has done more than enough of it, so who needs to hear yet more? I certainly don’t, because I personally never came across any of that in all my many, many times at Ampleforth Abbey. When I read about it recently in The Guardian, I myself was shocked. Wondering, for instance, which of the countless numbers of monks and priests I had met over the years might have secretly been up to all those unsavoury deeds. I just can’t believe that any of them would have been capable of that. Uugh! No, surely not …
And especially one particular priest by the name of Brother Matthew Haddon, who is now at the forefront of my mind. A priest I have often have thought about over the years. A priest who inadvertently inspired me to write a novel based on our experience – his and mine – not that he was aware of it! A priest who I know for a fact was not capable of any of those recent accusations explicitly outlined in The Guardian. Maybe he was guilty of other, smaller things, like breaking a naïve girl’s heart after having unwittingly wrapped her into his forbiddingly seductive world … But no, not that.
The memories I covet of Ampleforth Abbey, starting when I was sweet seventeen and continuing to this day, have left me with a bitter-sweet glow that still fills me with longing. Even now, whenever I think of Ampleforth, I think of him. Or at least the shining memory of what I once felt for him. My very own Brother Matthew, whose name of course isn’t really Brother Matthew; and the divine Greystones Abbey in North Yorkshire, which of course isn’t really called Greystones Abbey. And neither is Leah Cavanagh really called Leah. She is, of course, moi, with some convenient amendments in order to disguise how foolish I was. I mean honestly, falling in love with a monk? Just look at what’s happening to them now! Their reputation, I mean. Right down there in the mud. And there was I, innocent little 17-year-old me, I mean Leah, right up there in the celestial clouds of romantic love. As opposed to the celestial clouds of spiritual love, which was what the Catholic school Retreat was supposed to be about. That’s where I first met him.
So now I’d like to take you on a journey to Ampleforth Abbey, far away in those beautiful rolling North Yorkshire hills, and introduce you to Leah Cavanagh and Brother Matthew. I posted the first chapter of For Some We Loved some months ago. This, now, is a section from the following chapter, where she first meets her drop-dead gorgeous monk while on a Retreat with Lark Mount Catholic School. Are you ready?
For Some We Loved
The three of us were seated in silence on the back pew of the Abbey church, which was built into the central part of the monastery. In front of us sat all the other sixth formers from the Lark Mount contingent, as well as our two supervising nuns. I was perched at the edge of the pew, right next to the central aisle, with Jenny and Francesca on my left. It was still dark. No bloody wonder, at 5.20 in the morning! The monastic church was coated in a thick silence, awaiting the entry of the Benedictine community and the first Divine Office of the day. Not that there was any sign of day yet. Nothing but darkness filtered in through the narrow windows carved high into cold monastic stone. Only the red candle flame that nestled below the central crucifix provided any source of light. The light of God. Except that I couldn’t quite manage to get my head round His existence, which made my entire presence on this Lark Mount sixth form retreat something of a paradox.
A shiver of electric light rippled into previously hidden corners of the domed room, taking away the brunt of darkness and providing just enough glow to read the words in our psalm books – or antiphonals, as I soon learned to call them. A hollow knocking sound echoed from the far end of the sanctified cavern. As though on cue, a long procession of black-robed monks filed in theatrical solemnity down the central aisle of the hushed church. One by one, with hoods lowered over bowed heads, they passed within inches of the secular pews to their left before dispersing amid the choir stalls to their right, where the Benedictine community chanted their devotional psalms five times a days, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
The stately procession came to an end. Two of the medieval figures separated themselves from their brethren and glided over to a podium opposite the high altar, on which stood a lectern that displayed a fearsome-looking tome. The Handbook of God, as Jenny whispered to me in a muffled giggle. Clearing his throat, the taller of the two monks launched into the opening line of the first psalm, presently joined by his companion and then by the rest of the community. Lord, open my lips …
I riffled through the pages of my own black-bound book, searching in vain for a helpful title: ‘Matins’, for instance, or ‘First psalm of the day’, or perhaps ‘Psalms for Idiots’. But there was none.
A hissing sound rang in my ears. ‘What page are we supposed to be on?’ It was Jenny’s urgent whisper. She was clearly as lost as I was.
‘You’re asking me? The only non-Catholic in the school?’ An irreverent giggle erupted from my throat and immediately spread to Jenny. But our girlish twitters were promptly halted by a swishing sound coming from the aisle behind us, accompanied by the soft padding of footsteps. One of the monks was approaching our pew!
We held our breath in terrified anticipation. What was the penalty for giggling during Divine Office? Would we be marched off to the Abbot’s office, severely reprimanded and sent back to Lyneham-on-Sea forthwith? Or worse – would they interrupt Matins in order to call us to the lectern and rebuke us in public? The mind boggled at the possibilities – titillating ones inclusive!
The anonymous monk at last halted by our pew. As I was seated right next to the aisle, it crossed my petrified mind that I would be the one to get the brunt of whatever Benedictine wrath awaited us.
No such fear!
Leaning down towards me, the monk whispered, ‘Here, let me show you.’ There wasn’t a trace of anger in his voice. He went about thumbing through the pages of the antiphonal until he found the desired psalm. His deft fingers pulled a thin ribbon out of the spine of the book and tucked it into the newfound page; then he continued his mission until locating another psalm, and another, marking each one with a new, differently coloured ribbon. ‘There you are, that’s all the psalms you’ll be needing for today’s Matins.’
As I looked up to thank the owner of such perfectly enunciated vowels, my gaze was rewarded with a close-up of the most dazzling flash of smile I had ever seen – blue-eyed, sparkling, crinkling and every other ocular description that ever existed to describe such a perfect view, coupled with a primordial spark of recognition. It was him – the monk I’d seen from my bedroom window the previous night! I was so jolted by the lurch to my heart, I didn’t even manage to smile back at him. Not that it mattered, anyway. The very next moment, he straightened up and was on his way again, striding down the remainder of the aisle towards the monks’ choir stalls in their own, segregated section. I lowered my eyes and tried to concentrate on the words of the psalm.
By 6.00 am all twenty-four sixth form girls from Lark Mount School, plus our two nunly benefactresses, were seated in the Abbey Church awaiting the commencement of Lauds. That was the second Office of the day. I can see it now in my mind’s eye. There we all were: demurely positioned upon four neat rows of pews, heads bowed, antiphonals resting upon penitential laps. Except for one girl, that is, whose hazel irises swam upwards at the familiar swishing sound of a monk’s habit making a steady crescendo down the aisle. She turned her head as he approached her pew, and was once again rewarded with that blue-crinkled smile. Oh – that girl was me. Sometimes, when I think back to those days, it’s as if I was another person entirely.
The young monk lowered his head closer to mine and whispered, ‘Need any help?’
I nodded apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, but I haven’t got a clue how to follow where we are in the book.’
He laughed – softly, charmingly. ‘No problem. Here, allow me.’ Again his deft fingers pulled out various coloured ribbons and inserted them into matching pages of the antiphonal.
But this time, before straightening his back and gliding away down the aisle to join his brethren, I quickly whispered, ‘Excuse me, Father – erm – what should I call you?’
Yet again the shadowed face broke into that dazzling smile, though this time I detected a spark of something else in it – something vaguely akin to nervousness. ‘I’m not a priest, actually,’ he whispered back. ‘I’m a monk. You can call me Brother Matthew.’
He glanced away for a moment, his attention caught by a hollow knocking sound that echoed right across the choir stalls. It sounded as though God’s right hand had struck a celestial gong in order to announce the imminent doom of all present. As I was soon to find out, the sound was in fact caused by the Abbot striking his knuckles upon the wood, and it merely signified the commencement of the Divine Office.
In those couple of moments while the monk looked away, I risked a slightly more detailed glance at his profile: the straight sculpted nose, the strong jawline, the dark brown hair with a slight kink to it … and then he suddenly turned back to me, catching me out in my sneaky appraisal. However, I needn’t have felt embarrassed, because his own clear blue gaze was filled with a matching appreciation that was unmistakable. But it was also tinged with something else. There was a certain disquietude in his expression; a fleeting defencelessness that was only partially disguised by his easy laughter lines. Then he straightened up, turned round and walked away, back to his other side of the aisle. His other world.
My head reverberated under the after-shock of the look which had exploded between us. I knew then, with a flash of maturity beyond my seventeen years, that although he was a monk, he was a man first and foremost. His long black habit and scary medieval hood could only partially cover up such an unmistakeable fact.
If you’d like to read the first chapter of For Some We Loved, here’s the link: https://wendyskorupski.com/2018/06/01/when-love-is-forbidden/