LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A monastery in the Charnwood Forest in the East Midlands of England is the subject of a new documentary that looks at the monks’ transition from farming to brewing, while asking deeper questions about the role of religious life in the modern world.
“Although we have had filming here a number of times over the years, this was quite different. Previous filming was concentrated to just a day or two and was carefully choreographed, but Nick was given unprecedented access to the monastery and community over a three-year period,” said Father Joseph, the prior of Mount St. Bernard Abbey, located just outside Coalville in North West Leicestershire.
Nick Hamer is the director of “Outside the City,” which is set to hit the festival circuit later this year. The filmmaker had visited the monastery on a retreat with his church and thought it would make a good subject for a documentary.
“At the heart of things, what I am primarily interested in is spirituality. That is the central theme in my work, and this is a place of deep spirituality,” Hamer told Crux.
He isn’t a Catholic – the monastery often hosts non-Catholic churches for spiritual retreats – and was given a reading list on Cistercian spirituality before taking up residence in the monastery for a short time.
“In preparation, he even spent a whole week living alongside us following exactly our monastic routines and timetable. Most of his filming was done with just him, without a crew, so it was always discrete and did not interfere with our life,” Father Joseph told Crux.
Established in 1835, Mount St. Bernard Abbey is the only Cistercian abbey in England after the order was wiped out in the country after the Reformation.
Originally the monks were farmers, but last year they began selling Tynt Meadow English Trappist Ale to provide an income.
“This film is set during the transition from their lifestyle as farmers to brewers,” explained Hamer.
“When I started filming, the farm was already closed and in a state of disrepair, and the question was, ‘Can we become brewers?’ We know the answer to that was yes, because obviously their beer is kind of world famous already, but we follow that journey,” he said.
Although originally convinced the story would provide the drama for “Outside the City,” Hamer said he discovered quite early that “the brewery was destined to succeed” and focused on the monks themselves.
Mount St. Bernard Abbey once had as many as 85 monks, although that number was down to 25 when the film was being made.
Some of the monks Hamer spoke to during filming have since died, and, as is true with religious houses across the country, they are not being replaced in the same numbers.
“Part of the attitude of many monks is that the order is not sacred, their order is their way of life, [and] if it so happened that God decided this order is no longer required, it wouldn’t matter. They don’t believe Cistercian monks are essential to Christian life. It’s their vocation,” the filmmaker said.
“They’re not that precious about the future, which is kind of a lovely thing. However, they are responsible for their community, and they’re responsible to steward what has been given them. So, it is incumbent to be open to the future,” he told Crux.
When asked about the popularity of films about monks – such as 2005’s “Into Great Silence” and 2010’s “Of Gods and Men” – Hamer said religion is less familiar to people in the modern world, so life in a monastery seems “new to most people.”
“On the other hand, there is an open-minded spirituality that these monks have – mysticism, you might say – that connects well with the post-modern mind,” he said.
“Certain things appeal to me about the life. But the life isn’t there to attract people by its qualities. You can have those qualities in any life. Many of the qualities that appeal to me about that life, I could replicate if I was willing and disciplined,” he said.
Hamer told Crux he discovered something when he spent seven days living the life of the monks in Mount. St. Bernard – that the contemplative life tells you something about yourself.
“There’s a common misconception that the monk is a man who has escaped the city and retreated to the monastery to find peace and solitude with God. Because really, the things going on in the city are a distraction to his relationship with God: Hate, anger, jealousy, discord, fighting, materialism, consumerism, lust. He’s escaped to this peaceful place so he can get away from that and he and God can commune,” he explained.
“The reality is [that] in the contemplative life the monk discovers all of those things, but on a much more profound level, in his own heart. When all those distractions are gone, he sees that all those things in the city are there on a deeper and more profound level, and he experiences them in his contemplation,” Hamer said.
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