Sir Alec Guinness reminisced in his memoirs about a visit he made to Mount St Bernard Abbey in 1957, a year after his conversion to the Catholic faith. Entering Augustus Pugin’s “austere white chapel”, he recalled that as “the sun, a fiery red ball, was rising over the distant farmland; at each of the dozen or so side-altars a monk, finely vested but wearing heavy farmers’ boots to which cow dung still adhered, was saying his private Mass”.
It is a scene perhaps redolent of Merrie England before the Reformation, and it also suggests the notion of time and eternity intertwining romantically in so sacred a place.
Yet if Sir Alec were making his visit today he would surely note how times have changed. There are no longer 90 Cistercian monks at Mount St Bernard, for example, but 26. Nor would the stench of dairy cattle sting his nostrils. If he was astute he might, however, detect a different smell altogether – that of hops, and of beer brewing within the sheds that once gave shelter to up to 200 cows.
In a dramatic change of practice, the monks have given up dairy farming and revived an earlier, lost tradition of brewing beer on site. It was for them principally a matter of adapting to market forces as the price of milk fell over the last decade, while the replacement of a tractor and upgrading the milking parlour were just two of the maintenance problems that threatened to hit them hard in the pocket.
With 10 of the community over the age of 80, the Cistercians wanted to rethink how they might function on a smaller scale – yet one which today is the same size as that conceived in the 19th century by John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, when he agreed to build the monastery. This was after Ambrose De Lisle, his friend, assured him that Trappist monks would be “much cheaper to keep” than other Religious.
“We needed a sector of work commensurate with our present reality,” explained Dom Erik Varden, the 44-year-old abbot and a Norwegian convert to the Catholic faith. “Brewing was one of the options on the drawing board and ended up seeming the most attractive.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection