The Story of the Rostrevor Benedictines: Book Review of Fresh Springs from an Ancient Well

image What’s the story of the Rostrevor Benedictines? In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that I had just returned from a retreat at the Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor, Co. Down.

Holy Cross is one of eight ‘case studies’ for the Irish School of Ecumenics’ Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism research project, for which I have been carrying out much of the empirical research.

So in a sense, over much of the past three years, I have been attempting to find out the story behind the Rostrevor Benedictines. They first arrived from France in 1998 and have been living out their faith in their purpose-built monastery since 2004. There are now six monks in the monastery: four from France, one from Northern Ireland, and one from Mexico.

Their story is documented in a delightful new book, Fresh Springs from an Ancient Well: The Story of the Rostrevor Benedictines.

The most striking feature of the book is its array of photographs, which illustrate the lives of the monks and the stunning landscape in which Holy Cross is situated.

The design and lay-out of the photographs, both black-and-white and colour, is appealing and expertly conveys the sense of beauty which many visitors to the monastery (myself included) experience there.

The text of the book is written by Dom Mark-Ephrem Nolan, a Belfast native and leader of the community. It is edited by Seth Linder and published by Octagon Design (NI) Ltd. Some of the photographs are attributed to Sean McAleenan and Marty Johnston.

The book is divided into five chapters:

The Story of the Rostrevor Benedictines: This chapter recounts how the monks found their way – or were led by God, to put it in more providential terms – from France to Northern Ireland. It situates their mission in the context of the Catholic Church’s call ‘to monasteries of contemplative life to engage themselves in the mission of spiritual ecumenism, rooted in prayer, conversion of heart and charity, in those corners of the world where Christians are divided.’

A Day in the Life of the Community: This chapter illustrates how the monks’ day is organised, hour by hour, featuring a balanced schedule of prayer, work, study and fellowship.

The Church: This chapter explains the design of the church, exploring how its various features symbolise the ideals of gathering, unity and harmony. I was fascinated by the account of how architect Brian Quinn of Rooney & McConville in Belfast sought to incorporate the natural features of the area into the chapel, including the trees of a nearby fairy ring fort.

Vocation: This chapter invites the reader to consider a vocation with the Benedictines, emphasising their vision for ecumenism and reconciliation.

Hospitality: This chapter essentially serves as an invitation for people to visit the monastery, as I have done, for a time of silent retreat and refreshment.

The voices of the Benedictines’ guests also speak throughout the text, as various visitors to the monastery share what it has meant to them. To quote just one example, from our head of school, Dr Geraldine Smyth, OP:

‘Holy Cross Community in Rostrevor has become for many a home away from home. The community welcomes all – whatever their church family or spiritual path, offering an oasis of depth and beauty for any who need some peace or quiet, or space to reorient their lives through reflection and prayer for the needs of the world and the Church. … It is a place of reconciliation because it has become a space of ecumenical trust and tact. The unintrusive Benedictine charism of hospitality pervades the place. Christ is at the heart and in the morning light and evening shadow of this beautiful monastery, the difference between hosts and guests disappears.’

And Linder, the book’s editor, shares a tantalising glimpse of his own story in his brief introduction:

‘For me personally it has become a very special place. Indeed I believe the Benedictine ethos and the deep sense of spirituality I encountered here was central to finding my way to faith. It was here that I took the first tentative steps on my journey, making my way to the monastery each Friday evening for two years to receive spiritual direction. From an agnostic background, still troubled by difficult questions and doubts, my path was made easier by the integrity, patience and insight with which those questions were answered. …’

The book is available for the bargain price of £6.50 at the shop in the monastery, where the monks also sell handmade candles and cards. It can also be ordered via amazon. Contact details for Holy Cross can be found here.

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