His eyes are deep pools of pearly black; if it exists, his love must be infinitely patient. Fr. Gregory Collins puts it sweetly: “It simply suffers, but by suffering, it shines.”
It shines in two places. First of all, it is in a small, Russo-Byzantine chapel at Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, Co. Limerick. There, beneath swallows nests and heavy steel gates, is displayed a collection of Russian and Greek icons, given to the Glenstal monks in the 1950s by the Grattan-Esmonde family. Second, it peers from the fresh pages of a book Collins and his Benedictine colleagues have compiled as a follow-up to the successful “Glenstal Book of Prayer.”
Carrying 17 color reproductions, together with insights, meditations and prayers, the “Glenstal Book of Icons” aims to convey the unique experience of praying with the icons. Br. Mark Patrick contrasts the experience of a Constable or a Gainsborough. With them, you’re the person in charge; with the icons, you’re on the back foot. They are looking at you.
It sounds creepy, but it’s not. From their base at Glenstal Abbey, the Benedictine monks have, since 1927, managed a 500-acre estate where prayer and liturgical celebration combine with a boarding school for boys, a farm, and a guesthouse. Their particular brand of monastic worship emphasizes beauty and harmony, and they have certainly found the place for it.
Among the streams, lakes and woodland paths, Br. Anthony Keane, a forester, called out for us to meet him. Behind him was Capercullen Glen, a chasm cut by the River Clare when she came thundering through the foothills of Slieve Felim during last ice age. He provided another description: “Icons are seen as windows through which the next world shines.”
The enthusiasm was ubiquitous. Fr. Simon Sleeman, bursar at Glenstal, told the story of the conception of the “Book of Prayer”: “I was in the bookshop one day and picked up a prayer book,” he said. “Fr. Peter, who was 85 at the time, mentioned casually that the book was selling very well but that he wasn’t making much money on it, due to the sterling differential. ‘It’s an awful pity we haven’t got our own,’ he said.”
Little time was lost. “I picked it up and saw the ‘Our Father’ in Latin on one page and in English on another,” Sleeman said. “And I said I’m no literary genius, but I can certainly hack this. So he said to me, ‘Why don’t you do something useful for a change?’ And I said I might try.”
The short story has the book appearing on July 22, 2001. Before that date, as Fr. Dominic Johnson, a former prior at the abbey, had it: “I don’t think many people even knew we existed.” By the end of the year, the book had sold 110,000 copies, in the process topping the Irish bestseller list for four months.
The long story, meanwhile, starts in 480 AD, with the birth in Nursia, Italy, of St. Benedict. A determined and radical man largely responsible for the foundation of Western monasticism, Benedict’s routine, governed by the motto “to work and to play,” survives remarkably intact in Limerick.
Rising from their cells at 6:30 a.m., the monks assemble in church five times a day for the Divine Office and the Mass. There have been advances, of course: the monks have email addresses, listen to CDs of Brahms, Beethoven or Handel over supper at weekends and eat tagliatelle for lunch. But the core practices remain set in stone.
“There are set morning, midday and evening prayers,” Sleeman said. “The structure has lasted since 480 in our organization, so it’s fairly tried and tested. It has satisfied the spiritual needs of a huge number of generations.” So, the monks thought, why not use it to structure a book?
Sitting in a terraced garden at Glenstal, the monks were being granted an Indian summer. The place was resplendent: beside were the dilapidated remains of O’Mulryan Castle; before them an unbroken view of some 30 miles toward the Galtee Mountains. The Glenstal rhododendrons, Fr. Johnson had said earlier that day, were one of the reasons he chose to commit his life to God.
This serenity is deeply ingrained in the “Book of Prayer.” “Three weeks ago a very successful businessman came to visit,” Sleeman recalled. “He asked, ‘Do I need to make another million?’ He knew he could go on from here and really hit the big time. But he said, ‘No, I’m going to take three months out of my life, stop, and see where I’m going.’ “
While traditional forms of religion have less influence on Irish society than they once did, Sleeman believes spirituality remains as strong as ever. “There’s a tremendous hunger out there for some understanding of life that goes beyond the materialistic,” he said. “They don’t find it within the formal structures of Catholicism, in the way it’s being served up to them. So there is also a hunger out there for tools of the spiritual craft that people can use themselves.”
Earlier too, Johnson had mentioned that when St. Benedict founded his first monasteries, at Subiaco and Monte Cassino, 6th century Europe was a war-torn and conflicted place. Monasteries were conceived as places of refuge, spiritual and stable oases in a rapacious age. The analogy doesn’t need laboring. The books of prayer and icons are themselves conceived, to a degree, as little portals, or vessels in which the reader may discover brief and spiritual asylum.
“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,” St. Benedict writes in his “Rule for Monks.” Where the brothers welcome homeless men and visitors with “a spiritual motivation,” however, sadly, there is no question of the general public praying with the icons themselves. Their vulnerability to progressive deterioration aside, as Johnson put it, without any tourist infrastructure, “you’d be run off your feet.”
This is an interesting dilemma. The “Book of Icons” would tend to suggest visits are welcome, and the monks do need cash. “Glenstal is an expensive place to run,” Sleeman admitted, and the signs are everywhere: the list of private donors in the library, the CDs of Gregorian Chant and the school, for which 200 students each pay an annual fee of euro 9,000. Tourism, Fr. Sleeman said, is inevitable. “It’s just a question of how to set it up,” he said. “We’re trying to organize it so that the experience is appropriate for us and them.”
The thought process is typical. After the success of the “Book of Prayer,” for instance, it was mentioned to the monks that an ideal follow-up would have been a book on how to pray. “Just think — the 12 steps to prayer — it would have been a guaranteed seller,” Sleeman said. Of course, the idea was quickly dismissed as presumptuous — “that we might actually know, and tell other people, how to pray.”
The result is the “Glenstal Book of Icons,” a document on a highly specific way of praying. Prefaced with a scholarly introduction on the theology of the Eastern church, icons, the reader learns, are much more than religious paintings. Instead, created by “servants of the church’s worship” whose education and asceticism enables them to see beyond the world’s “surface glitter,” they are sacramental media, meeting points between the divine light and the human heart.
In dwelling on the mysteries depicted in the icons, meditation is invoked in the reader, which in turn becomes a state of prayer. The aim is to reveal the spiritual through the material, “just as Christ brings together in his own person the two dimensions of the divine and human.” The work demanded in absorbing the imagery, the Benedictine monks believe, creates a prayer beyond images, ideas and acts — “a pearl of great price.”
Thankfully, icons such as the “Tender Mother of God” or “St. Nicholas,” which seem at first glance hopelessly obscure, are accompanied by more accessible meditations and prayers drawn from Fr. Collins’s personal experience of Eastern and Western Christian tradition. He suggests a number of practices to aid the reader, too, such as paying attention to heartbeat and breathing.
There are a number of agendas at work here, but, principally, the monks wish to awaken in the reader “a living sympathy with the contemplative ethos of the Christian East.” This is obviously geared to strike a chord in an increasingly multicultural society, but there is a nod to the increasing visualization of modern culture too. The icons, Collins believes, “with their symbolic language based on images, can speak powerfully to this modern situation.”
Personally, the value of the Book of Icons was revealed to me over a sumptuous plate of meatballs. Eating with Fr. Johnson and Br. Keane, I wondered just how integral the icons were to the daily rhythm of the monks’ lives. “It’s a matter for your own individual piety,” Johnson said. The icons were beautiful and holy, but there was no air of compulsion or subjection to them. As with so much else in Benedictine life, the monks simply made up their own minds.
That’s why, arcane though the book may seem, its fundamental message may indeed prove an attractive one in this complex and exciting 21st century society of ours. That message? “Prayer should flow from what one really feels.”
The Glenstal Book of Icons: Praying with the Glenstal Icons, by Gregory Collins OSB, is published by the Columba Press. Details at www.columba.ie.