“Monks are just a joke,” sighs Father Stephen. “In the modern mind, it’s just fat friars in brown habits with white cords around their waists.” There’s some truth in the words of this slim Benedictine, who is sporting a white habit and brown leather belt. We don’t notice the jeans peeping out from underneath until he points them out, but they are the kind of trivial curiosity some secular visitors focus on when they come to the Subiaco Benedictine monastery of Prinknash Abbey, deep in the rolling green countryside of Gloucestershire. Yet in recent years, the comedy element has begun to subside and the outside world has started taking monasticism seriously again.
Organised religion has lost its central place in most European countries, but it has not necessarily been replaced by atheism. The confused majority is “spiritual but not religious”, hungry for alternatives to the perceived materialism of modern life. “The more we’re distracted by stuff,” suggests Father Stephen, “the more we’re also attracted by what we’re missing.”