A Day in the Life of a Downside Monk
The Day in the Life of a Benedictine monk is clearly laid out by the Divine Office: Vigils, Lauds, Mass, Midday Office, Vespers, and Compline.
The Life of A Monk
The first bell rings at 5.40 am; Vigils starts at 6.00. The psalms we sing at Vigils often express our need for God, as we meditate on the work of God in history. After Vigils the monks pray silently for 30 minutes.
At 7.00 am, the Abbey bell rings the Angelus. This is a reminder, morning, noon and evening of the birth of Jesus, and of God’s invitation to human beings like Mary to work with Jesus for the salvation of all. The monks then return to the Choir for Lauds. This is the morning office of praise, traditionally at the hour of daybreak. In the light of the risen Christ, we celebrate his gift of new life and pray for the day ahead. Breakfast follows, and a time for sorting things (and ourselves) out for the work of the day.
The most important work of the day is the celebration of Mass at 8.35 am. We celebrate it with solemnity and continue to use the traditional Gregorian plainchant as the music. Everything we do flows from what we celebrate at Mass, and it is the time each day when we particularly bring our whole lives as an offering to God and find in Jesus’ gift of himself in Holy Communion the renewal of heart and soul to give ourselves more fully to the monastic life of our community. After Mass, the monks leave the Church to go to their work. St Benedict attaches great importance to monks having suitable work, given to each monk by the Prior Administrator. Some monks are teachers in the School, others are parish priests or work in the monastery itself.
Midday prayer is at 12:30pm, following the 12noon Angelus bell. A much shorter service, the Midday Office reminds us that the praise of God is central to our lives. We pray for spiritual strength for the rest of the day.
The monks then take lunch in the Monastic Refectory: meals are in silence, and usually with a reading. As we gather at the table we hear again the scripture that we heard at Mass, and give thanks to God who feeds our bodies as well as our souls. We then hear another reading, but this time from an ordinary book: sometimes it is has a religious interest, but we also read books of general interest to help broaden our minds with other subjects!
In the afternoon, there may be time for a short rest or some exercise, but otherwise, there will be more work to be done: some may do gardening or other practical work – a good monk tries to find a balance. Many monks find time for lectio divina, personal study, and spiritual reading. We also have time for tea, usually together at 4.15pm.
Daily Chapter Meeting
At the end of the working day, the monks gather for the daily chapter meeting. This is a time when the Abbot (or Prior) reads and comments on the Rule and we can share any information or news.
At 6 pm the Angelus rings again and the monks return to the Church for Vespers, our evening prayer. This is a time of thanksgiving for the day to Jesus who has given us so much, as well as a time for intercession for the world. Between Vespers and supper, we have another time of silence like that after Vigils. At Downside monks try to devote these two times to silent prayer, but it is also a good time for lectio divina.
Supper is again eaten in silence, at 7pm, while listening to a reading. Monks take it in turns to serve the community, and afterwards we clear the Refectory for breakfast and do the washing up. To end of the day after supper, there is a gathering of the whole community in the Calefactory (common room). This is a relaxed time, with coffee, a time to be together and catch up with events. But we end the day as we began, at prayer in the Church.
At 8.00 p.m. we sing Compline, the Night Prayer of the Church. It starts with a short time to look back over the day, with its sins and failures. St Benedict advises us not to let the sun go down on our anger! So it is a time to make peace in our hearts. We pray for God’s peace, his blessing and protection. It is sung in semi-darkness, and ends with a song to Mary, seeking her prayers on our behalf.
After Compline, the Prior blesses monks and guests with holy water and we retire in complete silence, which is kept until after Lauds next morning. The night is a privileged time to pray and reflect on the events of the day. Some may have pastoral duties in the school or parishes, but the monastery is a place of peace and quiet till the next day.