Life On A Monastery Island
Q. Fr. Michael Mary, you have recently returned home to your monastery, located on a remote island in Orkney.
Yes, sometimes when the “Stella Maris” — the monastery boat — arrives at the Papa Stronsay pier I am reminded of the old description that said the monastery was a ‘Safe Harbour,’ the ‘Felix Porta Caeli’ or ‘Happy Gate of Heaven.’
Q. Can you describe your island, this home of Scottish monks?
We live on one of the only monastery-islands left in the Church, Papa Stronsay, which from the Viking times, describes the Irish monks who once lived here before us.
There are only about seven minutes of sea crossing that separate us from the neighbouring island of Stronsay but it is a significant enough amount of water to give us the sense of having separated ourselves from the world in a very physical way and of having come into the Wilderness in search of God.
Q. What’s the weather like?
In the winter the climate is harsh with long periods of darkness, howling winds and rain which combine to express, in my opinion, an image of the Church in the world, the Ark of Peter persevering through the storms and powers of darkness; and an image of the soul too, hard pressed and calling on the Star of the Sea for direction, guidance and the joys of a soul possessed of firm faith and holy hope.
In the summer we live in the long days of light and for the greater part, the sea is still; the island is peaceful and the sea birds join their shrill voices to ours as we raise our hearts and minds to God from our Happy Gate of Heaven.
There is therefore a spiritual dimension to our every day that is tightly bound up with every day religious life on a wind-swept island.
All this, as well as the Holy Mass and Our Lord living sacramentally with us on the altars of our island; it is not difficult to see why the early monks favoured living just across the water from the world. We have built our monastery so as to make the most of the solitude of the place.
Q. We hear of so many young men attracted to the cloistered life these days. Have you seen evidence of this?
Because religious life is the gift of self to God there will always be souls called by God to the consecrated state. If we are to believe St John Bosco, many people have vocations and do not answer their call because he said that one in three had a vocation from God to the religious life.
In general the Church has suffered a tragic loss of the consecrated life. I grew up in small towns that had convents of nuns to teach the children. Vocations were everywhere.
St Alphonsus was a saint who wanted “few but good” vocations for his religious family. We are grateful that there are still some good vocations that come to the monastery; they may be few in number but they are good in that they desire to leave the world and to give themselves to God, and that, combined with the virtue of perseverance, is what counts.
Q. What do you think is drawing young men to strict forms of religious life today?
The call to religious life is to give one’s all to God. The vocation then seeks a place where he can give his All. He seeks a place that structurally reflects publicly what he, in the depths of his soul, feels called to do. This is reflected in traditional forms of religious life.
Q. Compared with the days of your youth, what do you think has changed in Catholic society in Scotland and around the world?
My experience as a Catholic was one of a stable Church where all Catholics believed the same and lived from that. The society was predominately non-Catholic. But Catholics all knew who they were and had a common identity. That has disappeared and we are the poorer for it.
Q. We saw a BBC video featuring a visit to your monastery several years ago by some rather worldly-type reporters. It was very affecting; in fact, the presenter actually cried at the end. What are your thoughts about this?
Our friend who visited had a grace while he was here. Doubtless the Happy Gate of Heaven, because it is a holy place, holds graces for everyone who will receive. Who knocks at such a gate must expect it to open and he will receive as God wills. A Happy Gate is a place of surprises.
THE TRANSALPINE REDEMPTORISTS in full regalia, in their chapel on the remote Orkney island of Papa Stronsay.
PAPA STRONSAY MONASTERY FROM THE AIR: “We each have individual cells built along a common pathway. This is an old form of monastic arrangement called a laura: separated cells in a little settlement reminds us of our life as both solitaries and community; called to live alone for part of our year and called to work together as a strong community for the other part of the year; to be strong in both directions.”
In 2003, Adam Nicolson came to Papa Stronsay to film one of the episodes of the channel 4 documentary “Atlantic Britain”. This is the half of that episode which concerned Papa Stronsay. In 2008, the Transalpine Redemptorists were reconciled with the Holy See and now enjoy full and undisputed communion with the Holy Catholic Church.
The Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer
Our Postal address is:
Golgotha Monastery Island
Orkney Islands KW17 2AR
Registered Charity Number 327968 – THE TRADITIONAL CONGREGATION OF THE MOST HOLY REDEEMER