Going on the retreat to Minster Abbey was an eye-opening experience. It was so interesting to learn about how monastic communities live, specifically Benedictine ones, and the impact that they have on the wider community. It was also refreshing to have time to focus on God, without the usual distractions of everyday life – the lack of Wi-Fi definitely did help.
The abbey is an amazing place, rich with history and full of things to do. Its original founding was in 670 AD by Saint Domneva. She was a cousin of the King of Kent, in whose name Domneva’s two brothers were murdered. Overcome by guilt, the king offered Domneva anything she wanted, to which she replied that she was going to need land to set up a monastery. She became the first leader of the community, followed by her daughter, Saint Mildred, who was subsequently followed by Saint Edburga. These three women are still remembered at the abbey, and you can find a small relic of Saint Mildred there, which we venerated on the last day. The abbey produced manuscripts that were used in the Christianisation of Germany.
Around the times of the Normans, possibly as a result the abbey being abandoned due to Viking raids on the Kentish coast, the abbey housed a community of brothers. This continued until the Reformation. The current community was established in 1937 by Benedictine nuns from Bavaria, who were being persecuted by the Nazis back home and hence set up another abbey in England in case something was to happen to the original – the day the letter came to the Mother Superior in Bavaria about the purchase of Minster Abbey, half of the community’s land in Bavaria was confiscated by the state.
During our visit, there were numerous services a day that allowed one to be flexible and attend as many as one pleased. Usually, I started the day off with Lauds at 8:30am, though on the last day (after having time to recuperate from Hilary Term), I attended the first service of the day, Vigils, at 5:30am. It was so relaxing to listen to the hymns sung by the nuns and it really helped set the prayerful mood for the day. Ending the day with Compline was wonderful and I found praying as a group blissful.
While staying at the abbey, I enjoyed talking with the nuns and learning about their lives and histories. One of the nuns had recently turned 95, and told stories of her time studying at St. Hilda’s, Oxford, as well as living in the basement of a lady in Paris who was part of the French Resistance. She was the first sister to be made a nun in the current community, and hence is a great source of information about the abbey and beyond. We also spoke to other nuns, and it was fascinating to learn about how they had found their calling and the difference between their lives before and after entering the abbey. It was also interesting to hear about how they help people, through initiatives such as providing housing and support – for example, the abbey has recently signed up to take in a Ukrainian family.
A lot of abbey life consists of outdoor activities such as gardening and lambing. I loved being useful to the abbey by helping plant lettuce, parsnips and onions, and I was amazed at how self-sufficient the abbey is. The Angelus bell rang each day, and it was extremely calming to pray outside in the garden. We also had the pleasure of meeting Belladonna, the abbey’s cat, who spends a lot of her time sunbathing in the greenhouse. The lambs were adorable, and we had many opportunities to feed them. They were all very young – the youngest being born hours before we arrived. The lambs followed us around, and one even tried to eat my shoelaces.
I loved learning about the Benedictine way of life, and our time at the abbey helped me better understand what an order is and how orders differ from one another. It is truly a special place, and really helped me focus on my relationship with God. I hope to return there in the summer.
1st year PPE, Oriel