Prime time coverage for monastic retreats

Prime time coverage for monastic retreats Katie Ascough featured on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk)

I once went on a retreat but found out only on arrival that it was a silent one! I survived the shock, and at the final meal, when everyone could talk, it felt rather grating.

That memory returned as I was watching Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery, last week on BBC Four, a separate episode on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night. Fair play to the BBC for giving over three prime time hours to such a counter cultural programme. It was sparse and minimalistic as the monks in the three abbeys in question went about their daily routine, tough going for modern attention spans.

On Tuesday night the location was Downside Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Somerset. There was no narration, just some occasional paragraphs onscreen to highlight the monastic rules of St Benedict.

There was no dialogue and no music apart from the chant of the monks during prayer. It wasn’t a silent order though there were specific periods of silence and the programme seemed to focus almost exclusively on these.

The Wednesday night featured another Benedictine monastery, Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, the only medieval British monastery still active.  This was a livelier episode (relatively!), there was more singing, and everything seemed somehow brighter. Maybe it was partly because the monks dressed in white, to symbolise strict adherence to the rule of St Benedict.

I thought they might include a convent, but on the Thursday night it was yet another Benedictine Monastery, this time Belmont Abbey in Hereford. I liked this episode most of all – we got an insight into the less well known aspects of monastic life.

Watching a visiting iconographer at work was fascinating (“every brush stroke is a prayer”), and watching another monk at work I think was the first time I’ve seen anyone on TV making rosary beads.

It’s hard to make a judgement on the show.  It wasn’t entertaining, but probably wasn’t intended to be. I struggled to find it inspiring, but maybe that’s more a problem with me than with the programme.

Being on retreat can be a meaningful experience, but watching others on retreat, especially a silent one, isn’t the same. Being immersed in the daily life of the monastery must be a strongly spiritual experience, but just watching it leaves something to be desired. That being said, after the third show I found it grew on me, and found a touch of the monastic ritual creeping in to my own daily routine, having more appreciation for moments of calm and silence.


The series was accompanied by a parallel and more accessible series on BBC Radio 3 – short nightly reflections, ‘soundcapes’ featuring meditations from the monks, interspersed with chant and the sounds of nature. Last Friday night’s episode, Love: Meditations from a Monastery, had insight into how being with God is like a human couple in love, and the concept of being ‘enveloped in God’s embrace’. These radio shows are available on the BBC Radio iPlayer and as podcasts.

Back in less serene territory, last week saw the impeachment of Katie Ascough as Students’ Union President in UCD. So, you might think, what corruption was going on here? Well it seems she was principled, following her conscience, refusing to break the law in relation to publishing illegal abortion information (which could get her a criminal record). So, impeached for NOT breaking the law? The student body in UCD must want low standards in high places, as if we hadn’t enough of that.

Ascough defended herself articulately and cheerfully on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk) last Friday. It was a robust but courteous interview, with Kenny challenging her on several fronts, suggesting at one stage that it was disingenuous of her not to put her pro-life stance into her election literature – but why would she if she was running on practical student issues?

When questioned during the campaign she was upfront about her principles. I don’t object to the tough questioning, but it was in stark contrast to the soft interview Kenny gave to Dr Peter Boylan recently, also on abortion-related matters.

The one issue raised that jarred, prompted by a texter, was her father’s involvement in the Iona Institute. This was too much like an attempt to stereotype, to label, to put Ascough in a neat box for the listener. I’ve heard this strategy used before on young pro-lifers, but never ever on pro-choice advocates.

Pick of the week

EWTN Monday, November 6, 8 pm, and Tues 2.30 pm

Sam Gregg of the Acton Institute on minimum wage laws and the Church’s teaching on a just wage.


RTE 1 Monday, November 6, 11.35  pm

American men of draft age face difficult decisions and wrenching moral choices.


BBC 1, Tuesday, November 7, 10.45 pm

The stories of Syrian refugees in a town in Ireland, discovering the role that faith has played in their journey and in the reception they receive.

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