Page last updated at 04:24 GMT, Saturday, 7 February 2009

A monk's life... but just until Monday

By Yvonne Murray
BBC News

Brother Robert Verill
A former weekender, Brother Robert Verill, has become a Dominican friar

With Britain becoming an increasingly secular society, the number of people devoting themselves to the monastic life has been in freefall.

But now several monasteries and convents are fighting against the trend by offering taster weekends in the hope of bringing fresh members into the fold.

With little more than a crucifix on the wall and a Bible by the bed, the guestrooms at Worth Abbey are designed to resemble the monks' quarters.

"They have a comfortable bed, which they'll enjoy for the night," says the weekend co-ordinator, Fr Luke Jolly. "6:20am is our first monastic prayer," he says.

That is the first of five prayer services that visitors are asked to attend each day in the modern circular church, its interior bathed in natural light from the glass-domed ceiling.

At lunch the food is plentiful, with lasagne, tomato soup, cheese and salads.

No talking is allowed at any meals and instead the monks listen to a reading - today it is from a biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But there is plenty of time for a chat afterwards, over coffee and chocolates or while taking a walk.

A look inside one of Worth Abbey's 'cells'

The quiet garden is set amongst the rolling hills with a bridge over a reflective pool, where weekenders go to contemplate life in a religious order.

The Monastic Taster Weekend is designed for men who want to explore whether a life of obedience, stability, poverty and chastity could be for them. Meanwhile, both young men and women can come on the Compass Project - a series of nine weekends. Neither has a specific charge to attend, although donations of up to 70 are accepted.

Worth Abbey is one of a number of monasteries and convents which have decided to address the decline in their members by advertising their way of life - in the religious press, on the internet and even in in-flight magazines - and by inviting potential recruits to try it for themselves.

In 1982, there were 217 novices in the Catholic Church in England and Wales but by 2007 that figure had dropped to 29.

"Britain's become really a secular society... we advertise because we are aware that there are lots of options offered, particularly to young people," Fr Luke explains, "and the voice of God can get drowned out. So we're putting that option back before them."

Walking up to Worth Abbey
The visitors come to taste a 1,500-year-old tradition

One of the weekend visitors, Lisa Paget, is a Catholic convert. With her highlighted hair and facial piercing she perhaps looks like an unlikely candidate for convent life.

In fact, she spent some years as an atheist, dabbled with Hinduism and at one point was engaged to be married.

"When I first started coming on the weekends," she laughs, "the services seemed really boring and I couldn't wait to get through the booklet!

"But over time I really got into the rhythm of it and the idea of consecrating time which is a gift from God."

"I came to a crossroads in my life," she adds, "and decided I needed to explore where God was calling me to. And coming here is making me think more about becoming a nun."

A former weekender, Brother Robert Verill, has already taken the plunge and become a Dominican friar.

Why some people see the appeal of a weekend as a monk or a nun

For many years, he was interested in religious vocation but was not sure if he was quite ready to swap his career as a software engineer for a life in the church.

"I was rather frightened of approaching my parish priest," he says. "Somehow, I imagined he might present me with a form for me to sign on the dotted line and he'd snatch me up!"

Now he returns to Worth to talk to the new Compass members about the commitment he has made to a life of celibacy.

"It's try before you buy, isn't it?" says Ric Slatter, a recent media graduate who is wondering if the priesthood is his real calling.

"I still can't quite make my mind up," he says. "A lot of the preconceptions I had about how difficult obedience and celibacy would be are kind of being answered by these weekends. At the same time the idea of marriage and kids is still very attractive."

With the financial markets in turmoil and unemployment on the rise, Fr Luke wonders if they might see more inquiries from people considering religious vocation.

Monks eating
Abbott Jamison says there is a "pulsating" inner life at the monestry

He says: "I think they will be looking for a way of life that is different from the one the world's been offering so far."

For many who are used to the fast pace of modern life, the prospect of years of quiet contemplation could seem a little boring.

But the Abbott of Worth, Christopher Jamison, strongly disagrees.

"This is a rivetingly exciting life," he says. "I put it this way: modern life often looks very exciting from the outside but like some glitzy magazines there's not much in it. Whereas here in the monastery it's the opposite - the outside is very calm but what's going on inside is pulsating with life."

People might be convinced of that, the monks believe, if they come to stay and that, they hope, will help to prevent this 1,500-year-old tradition dying out.

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