The Monastery Revisited

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You may remember last year, the BBC screened a programme called The Monastery, that followed a group of five men spending forty days at Worth Abbey, living with a community of Benedictine Monks. I blogged about the programme when it was shown last year, but as a prelude to a new series, called The Convent, essentially a similar concept but with women, last night the BBC showed The Monastery Revisited where the five men met again with the brothers at Worth Abbey to explore how they had been changed.

The first half of the programme recapped some of the main events of the original forty days, partly to introduce new viewers to what had happened, and also to highlight key events that had importance for what has happened since. The second half of the programme then covered each of the five men in turn, interviewing them about what they had been doing in the subsequent eighteen months.

It is fair to say that everybody had been affected by their participation in some way. Four out of the five had either changed their job, or were going to change their job soon, and all it seems had changed the focus of their lives.

Peter, the retired teacher and poet, had maybe changed the least, although in some ways had still made a big step going from rejecting organised religion totally, to at least admitting some belief in God, and in Jesus.

One surprise though was that Anthony, a high-earning, fast living bachelor when we last saw him had totally changed his life. In the programme he struggled most to open up to the group, which caused a good deal of friction. Whilst he had problems with the group during the programme, the experience had caused him to re-evalutate his life. He said he had returned to his previous job after the programme, and it seems, just not settled. As a result of his experiences, he had the confidence to strike out on his own, and is now composing his own music and working as an independent record producer.

Gary had one of the hardest journeys through life before the programme. As a teenager he had become involved with Protestant terrorism in Northern Ireland, had got involved with drugs, and ended up in prison. He came to the monastery wanting to deal with his past and move on. The unconditional love and friendship that he received from the monks helped him move forward, and in last nights programme we learned that following the programme he has been giving a series of talks about his faith to prisoners, and has also moved on to work for a charity in Bristol, away from all his friends and his former life as a painter and decorator in Cornwall.

Nick had been brought up as a Christian, but was struggling with his faith. Having looked at Buddhism, and been studying for a PhD on the religion at Cambridge University, he was trying to return to his Anglican roots, but struggling to resolve his faith with his thoughts. The programme repeated a memorable clip where one of the brothers asks him “Do you believe in God?â€?, to which he answered “That depends what you mean by ‘you’, ‘believe’ and ‘God’!â€?. His time at the Monastery had helped him to rediscover his faith, such that he has now put himself forward for, and been accepted into training to be an Anglican priest.

Tony maybe had the biggest faith journey of all the participants. He came to the Monastery having been working in the porn industry, and been struggling with alcoholism, but with no religious background. During the programme you saw him make the first steps in his faith. What is interesting is that of all the participants, he has spent most time with the monks following the programme, indeed he has made pretty well monthly visits back. The reason he has returned most often is because although he has found faith, he has struggled to find a church in London where he fits in. He said in the programme that of the churches he visited, he has seemed to find them un-welcoming, and fake, so he continues to return to the monastery where he feels welcome and comfortable.

The changes have not only been in the five men. The programme also talked to the abbot, who was surprised by the attention that the programme brought to the abbey. He keeps a scrap book with all the press cuttings about the series, but he also said that their website received a significant increase in traffic following the programme, and that they have received a large number of letters from people who have either found faith, or gone back to the church as a result of seeing the programme. They also now have a whole area of their website devoted to the programme, including what they have done to respond to the programme, plus more from Tony and Nick. The abbot has even written a book and accompanying website exploring how to bring monastic practices into everyday life.

Certainly it was great to see how the lives of the five men have changed, and how, when often people say what a negative effect reality TV has, to see a programme that has had such a positive effect on all the participants. I will definitely look forward to seeing how the women deal with their time in the convent next week.

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