A Spiritual Feast for the Senses, or How a Monk Catches a Submarine on a Bicycle

Glenstal Abbey

If an old monk ever offers to take you on a walk through an enchanted forest, always say yes.

In April, we had the chance to visit Glenstal Abbey, a Benadictine monastery outside of Limerick. More than one former Mitchell scholar had told me that this was one of their favorite experiences from their year, and Trina had said that the Abbot Patrick Hederman is a true spiritual guru. As someone who finds much significance in spirituality and religious traditions, I was intrigued.

As our coach approached the Abbey, I saw what they had been talking about. Glenstal is set on a seventeenth century Italian-style wildlife sanctuary. Above the main stone archway is the bronze motto of the Abbey: “PAX,” meaning “peace.” According to their website, “A monastery is a place where peace reigns…a place apart, where all may find peace, quiet, recollection, and ultimately God Himself.” My kind of place.

Founded in 1927, the monastery now has a boy’s boarding school, a farm, a guest house, and hosts regular seminars. The 50 monks assemble in the church five times per day for prayer and chanting. Benedictine monks have been following this daily rhythm more or less since the sixth century.

We were greeted by Brother Anthony – with his walking stick but without his shoes. He has dedicated his life to studying horticulture and caring for the Abbey grounds. He led us on a forest hike and got us to experience the flora and fauna by encouraging us to touch the tree bark and smell the pinecones. He told us whimsical stories of past monks, such as Winsoc Mertens – the first soldier ever to capture a submarine on a bicycle.

Legend goes that before Winsoc was a monk at Glenstal, he was a part of the Army Corps of Cyclists. During the first World War, he was tasked to patrol the sea shore on his bicycle. One day, he spotted a submarine periscope in the water and cycled to alert the authorities. They were able to intercept the submarine off the coast, and Winsoc and his bike saved the day!

After our nature walk, we were introduced to Abbot Patrick Hederman and shared tea and the most beautiful cakes, handmade by the monks. Abbot Hederman and the other monks again surprised me with their pop culture savvy mixed with profound wisdom. They converse as if they have all the time in the world and as if everyone’s contributions are vital insights. If only we all actively listened like this.

We were then led into the vaulted cathedral, which I was (again) surprised to see is decorated in a style that Hederman described as “pop art meets 16th century gothic.” The garish primary colors contrast the serenity elsewhere in the Abbey, but somehow it works. We were treated to a concerto played on an ancient organ, and were enveloped by the most haunting Celtic spirituals, including a funeral dirge beyond words.

Glenstal Abbey

We were treated to an organ concert in the pop art-colored chapel at Glenstal Abbey.

The Abbot then took us into the crypt of Orthodox icons from around the world, and told us the miraculous and curious stories of how each icon came to rest there. We then attended vespers in Latin and I think I had shivers the whole time.  I only snapped out of this reverie when it was time to say goodbye.

I can barely put into words what a profoundly spiritual experience it was for me. At some point during the day, every single sense was engaged in with God. Seeing the beauty of nature. Smelling the pinecones and incense. Feeling the moss beneath my feet and the cool stillness of the crypt. Tasting the tea and cakes made with care. Hearing the music and the prayers that were truly otherworldly.

When we filed back onto the bus, I thought to myself, “what just happened?” Indeed, these sensory memories will stay with me, and Glenstal Abbey will go down as one of my favorite experiences on this island as well.

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