‘TIS the night before Christmas and all through God’s house, barely a creature is stirring, except…
Like most people, the staff of Ampleforth Abbey finish their work at Christmas and set off for home, to share this festive season with their families.
But as they depart, and with the school’s pupils also having picked their way home, the monks remain. For them, this is as busy a time of year as ever – more so, for once the staff has gone, the monks have to look after their own needs.
Those with an inclination towards cooking tiptoe into kitchens they aren’t normally seen to frequent and set to work with pots and pans which are normally under the exclusive ownership of seasoned chefs.
“At Christmas, we look after all our own catering,” says the Abbot of Ampleforth, Fr Timothy Wright. “The monastery has to provide its own cooks. Once you are an expert cook, you are always a cook. They do a very, very good job.”
For most people, Christmas is a time for being with family, for gathering around, enjoying a meal together to celebrate the day – and hopefully unwind some of the year’s tensions.
Within the walls of the abbey, the traditional cycle of vigils and devotions continues, added to by the extra services at this time of year.
But despite the monks having more to do at Christmas, the season creates its own special atmosphere.
Fr Wright said: “Our meals are no longer silent with reading. There’s talking throughout them, and the joyfulness of being together feeds off each other.
“It enables us to be family. In that way, we’re not unlike a normal family.”
Preparation for Christmas is as important as the day itself at the abbey.
“We always start on the evening before. That part of the feast is important as it is the build-up to the feast,” said Fr Wright. “The abbot presides. That brings in a lot of colour with different types of music and singing.”
Throughout the day, the traditional devotions remain, be it Lord’s at 8am, the midday devotion, the evening Vespers at 5.30pm or the night prayer of Compline at 8.30pm. With a late evening following the midnight mass at the abbey and the second mass held at 10.30am, the day seems quite crammed.
But there comes a time in the afternoon when each of the monks will have time to themselves, to share with friends, to listen to the Queen’s speech or, like the abbot, to perhaps go for a walk or enjoy a quiet read.
Fr Wright was born on April 13, 1942, and 20 years later became a novice at Ampleforth. He took his vows in 1966, and became a priest in 1972. His faith has taken him far and wide, carrying out pastoral work in Lourdes, Belfast, Texas, Alaska, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He became abbot in 1997.
He said: “I was born a Catholic and brought up a Catholic. People talk about a journey of faith. My journey has gone down one road – but faith itself transforms failure into success and darkness into light.
“The essence of this journey is discovering what belonging really means. My life and my identity is no longer just me battling against the odds. It is me battling, surrounded by this huge love which is Jesus, which has no end to it.”
For many, Christmas is the crux of the Christian calendar – and the abbot is no different. For him, it is a fundamental par tof how his faith came to be.
He said: “Christmas is special because it is a key moment in the year when the world changed and therefore my destiny changed.
“The moment when God became man changed everything. A future which looked bleak at best now had a sense of great optimism attached to it. If God can become man in Jesus, then God becomes man in me as well.”
There is a sureness in Fr Wright’s voice when he says this, a definite understanding of what this cycle of things means to him. It is a certainty that many others would be envious of – but Fr Wright doesn’t believe that everyone should follow his path.
He said: “I don’t say that everyone should want to become a monk, but the inspiration that led to my wanting to become a monk is what I want to communicate so that they can understand it.”
And with that – and the never-ceasing demands on his time in this season – Fr Wright sets off to meet a group of visitors, and continue his part in passing on that inspiration.
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