“to frequently look with love on the friend within” - my memories of a Carthusian
by Rt Revd Dom Alistair Bate OSBA (2015)
In my teens I discovered Anglican religious communities and joined one of them when I was nineteen. Here the works of Thomas Merton and Peter Anson became my staple spiritual food and a romantic image of the Charterhouse continued to enchant me. The memories of Fr Colin Stephenson in his autobiography “Merrily on High” also made a huge impression as he recalled childhood excursions into St Hugh’s Charterhouse where he was permitted to listen to the Night Office.
I treasured my name in religion too, Br Hugh, which I assumed to be in honour of St Hugh of Lincoln, the Carthusian, when in fact I think my superior had St Hugh of Cluny in mind. I remain profoundly grateful to the community who took me in and gave me a chance to experience the monastic life at such a young age, but sadly after two years of noviciate I could no longer deal with the loneliness, despite the fact that I yearned to be alone! It is not unusual of course for a young man to be spiritually conflicted and for some of us, regrettably, that conflict lasts a lifetime!
I shall call him Dom "Columba", as this was the alias given to him in the book “An Infinity of Little Hours” and it is to that book I would direct any reader whose curiosity may be aroused. He was one of two or three people to whom I have been close, whom I would consider to be saints. A well-educated and cultured Dubliner, former medical doctor and Irish Cistercian monk, we shared a similar cultural background as well as similar devotional and liturgical tastes. He radiated warmth and fraternal affection and was a man so totally conformed to the Gospel that for me he became a living icon of Christ. Of course, I am viewing him retrospectively now, and at the time I could hardly have articulated my feelings. I just knew that I liked and trusted him.
He was a man of his generation and a product of old fashioned Irish Catholicism, which to be honest is not known for its kindness or tolerance, but in those days I was prepared to tow the party line of the church on sexuality and if you tow the party line it doesn’t matter how often you fall as long as you admit your failure to live up to the ideals. So, in a sense I was one of Dom Columba’s “penitents”. He genuinely believed in my vocation and said that he would have loved to receive me at Parkminster as a postulant. Had that happened I doubt whether I might have lasted more than a month or two, however, I did have the rare privilege of spending a few days in the guesthouse on one occasion.
After this visit, Dom Columba and I continued to write periodically and he always had some good advice, such as the following in 1989: … “All of us, in the history of our vocation have had some sacrifice to make in following God’s call. I remember feeling it painful to give up the possibility of intimate human love. Looking back I see how fortunate I was to be called by God. How happy a life devoted to him really is. You notice this especially in old age. Looking back you see how God has led you by a safe path, protecting you all the time. The important thing Alistair is to be faithful to prayer, even if it is difficult and may seem useless. God will always hear your prayer. He will have His own way of answering - He knows what is best for each of us. .. And never be discouraged. If you fall get up again and call out to Jesus to heal you.”
I have indeed found peace and happiness in the long run through a form of monastic inspired living which works for me and others like me, and it is still an inspiration to read these old letters which are so full of fraternal warmth, monastic fervour and good advice; ...
"I am sure that God who loves the whole human race (for whom Christ died), draws individuals together so that they may have the joy of helping one another to salvation and Beatitude with Him for all eternity. This world is an exile. Heaven is our true home. I pray for you and hope you pray for me, that we may be together there, with all we love, for all eternity, embraced in the infinite love of God.
The Holy Spirit is our loving friend all through our life. May he guide you to all truths. The important thing is to keep faithful to prayer. Cassian says that there is one thing that we can always do, and that is to keep at it. We may believe that our prayer is poor and lacking in power. But we can always keep at it. And God has promised to answer important prayer. ..." (Letters, 1994)
Rest in peace dear friend and pray for us!