When Fr Mark Caira arrived at Nunraw Abbey for the first time in 1960, there were 60 monks there.
Fr Mark, now the Abbot of Nunraw, said that back then, ‘it was the done thing to go to seminary or join monasteries.’
“But the world in general started wondering. There were more marriage breakdowns, there was the drug scene, people were travelling a lot more. People were doing their own thing.”
It was around 11 years before Fr Mark was ordained into the priesthood.
“There was no hurry, we were living the monastic life.
“We had maybe a few classes a week. We were out working in the woods. We had a big property in the woodland.
“My first seven years when I was working, I was in the woods. Then I was on a farm. I loved it, all the heavy work you have to do. We did a lot of work on the farm between the harvest.
“That was supposed to be our vocation. Most monks would be [doing this]. Nowadays, you only have one or two men running the farm. Even now, we’ve had to lease the farm, and so we can’t run it ourselves.”
Nunraw is a Cistercian Monastery. When they broke from the Benedictines in 1098, they did so in order to reinstate an austere lifestyle.
But now there are only a handful of monks left, the leasing of the farm, and innovations in farming technology mean that what was once a vocation of hard-work is no longer possible in the same way.
Fr Aelred Jones also entered the monastic life during the 1960’s when he was in his 20’s.
“Most occasions we get now are guys in their middle age,” he said.
“The last two who stayed would be about fifty when they started getting interested. One time they probably wouldn’t take you at fifty, or they would be very slow to take you… because the thinking was that you’re so formed in your habits in your life, you’d find it very difficult to fit into a community.
“Which is true. But we just don’t get young guys now. They wouldn’t stand a chance in here. They wouldn’t last five minutes.
“For one thing, the community is quite old. Most of us are seventies, eighties, and nineties. So, if there was a twenty-one-year-old coming in he’s got no peers, he’s got no people to relate to.”
Fr Jones also noted that now ‘the aestheticism is more difficult for people, without a doubt.’
“The need is there. I think there will always be people that want to live a monastic life of some description. It’s not just a Christian phenomenon.
“However, whereas in the Middle Ages or in Thailand it would be integral to the culture and education, that doesn’t exist here.”
Until the end of the Second World War, there was not much in the way of British monasteries. After the war, though, there was a large influx of people seeking the monastic life.
“They were a part of a wave of people looking for an alternative for all the mayhem they’d been through,” he said.
“After Vatican II, people started reassessing things. There was a great wave coming in the 50’s. In the 60’s it started going the other way. People started leaving in big numbers. It’s been in decline since then, from about 1965 to the present day there’s been a decline.
“When numbers started falling away, there was a great agitation: ‘Why is our community shrinking?’ I think, gradually, people came to terms that its not an era of big communities, and you can live and adapt in a small community, and it has benefits.
“So, most monasteries have asked themselves: ‘Will we survive?’ I think the monastic life will survive. But a lot of monasteries, I believe, will close.
“We might be one of them, we don’t know.
“But really we’re just going back to what it was 100 years ago when there wasn’t many monasteries.”
In 1967, Malcolm Muggeridge visited Nunraw Abbey for his documentary ‘A Hard Bed to Lie’.
“He made a lot of friends when he was doing it,” Fr Aelred said.
“But at the very end of the film he is standing and looking at the monastery, musing on what he learned in the last week or two he’d been there.
“He said: ‘But will there be any future? Where will the next generation of monks come from?’ And it was a pertinent question. The next generation of monks didn’t come.”
Fr Aelread noted that for all the young people with a vocation for the monastic or priestly life, the Cistercians are only one of many orders.
There is both a calm and frank disposition in the way the two men discuss the future of Nunraw and monasticism, leaving in the hands of God as it’s all one can do.
As Fr Mark appreciated, “Pope Francis made his famous remark that we’re not in an epoch of change, but a change of epochs. I thought that was very profound, and so we still don’t know where we’re going.”