by Gordon Nary
Gordon: What was the most challenging course that you took when you were studying theology and why was it so challenging?
Father Martin: I had the wonderful opportunity of doing some of my theological studies alongside candidates for ordained ministry from other Christian denominations. I spent two years living and studying in St John’s College, Durham, England, which incorporated the Church of England (Anglican) Cranmer Hall and the Methodist Wesley Study Centre. And me!
We also had some courses taught jointly with the nearby Catholic seminary at Ushaw. My fellow students were mostly from the ‘Evangelical’ tradition, which is quite different to the monastic one that undergirds my life. And so, even though the courses weren’t especially difficult academically, our differing standpoints and perspectives on a whole range of topics like authority in the Church, the Eucharist, the interpretation of Scripture and so on brought me face to face with the reality of Christian disunity in ways that I had not experienced in such a personal way before. Despite all that, it was a wonderful time of learning and of fellowship and of growth in appreciation of both my own Catholic tradition and of the traditions of the Christians I was living with.
Gordon: Why did you decide to be a Benedictine?
Father Martin: Looking back, I often wonder how it took me so long to realize that a Benedictine monastic life was for me. Ideas about ordained ministry or religious life, or both, had come and gone at various stages from around the time I was finishing my secondary education. No matter how often I put them out of my mind, they always came back – but not with enough force or clarity to make me actually take the plunge. At various times over a number of years I had thought with varying levels of seriousness about diocesan priesthood and about one or two other orders. I knew Glenstal Abbey and some of the people in it for several years before I joined, but to me it had always been somewhere to visit rather than one that I considered joining. Then, quite suddenly, while spending a week in silence (apart from singing!) in the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé in France, it dawned on me quite forcefully that what I was being drawn to was a life in community with a regular rhythm of prayer in common. Within days of coming home from France I had made contact with the vocations director in Glenstal Abbey.
Gordon: When did you join Glenstal Abbey and what are some of you earliest memories there?
Father Martin: I joined in September 2001, just a few days after the 9/11 tragedy in the USA. I arrived on 14 September, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Just before leaving my home town for the monastery I attended a service in the Cathedral for the national day of mourning for 9/11. And so it was a day of great emotion on several different levels. I had visited the abbey several times over the previous year, and ‘lived in’ for a few weeks, so I knew the people already. But being there as a prospective candidate and being there as a novice are two very different things, and even though I knew the place and the people it all felt very strange for a while. While I was open to the possibility that it might not be for me and that I might not stay, I found myself wondering how would I actually know if it was for me or not. When everything is all so new and unusual it’s hard not to wonder sometimes if it’s not all too strange. For weeks, the experience of seeing myself in the monastic habit when passing a mirror was quite unsettling. I found myself asking, ‘who does he think he is going around like that, all dressed up like a monk?’ It took time to feel at home, but thanks be to God, I eventually did, and still do.
Gordon: When did you start working at Glenstal Abbey School and what were your initial responsibilities?
Father Martin: I had never worked in schools before and was clear when entering the monastery that I had no particular interest in working in a school then either. But monks don’t choose our own work, and I found myself immediately after the noviciate, as a newly-professed junior monk, working part-time in our abbey boarding school, as a teacher of Irish and as director of the school choir. (I had never directed a choir before either!)
After a year or two, I began teaching History and Religion as well, and also spent two years working as a Housemaster’ – an adult in charge of a section (‘house’) of the boarding department, living and eating in the school itself, acting in loco parentis for the students in the house.
Gordon: When were you appointed Headmaster at GlenstalAbbey School and what were your primary responsibilities? Father Martin: After four years working in the school, I went away to study Theology for three years. I didn’t know what work I would be assigned when I came back. One thing I was fairly clear about though was that I didn’t expect to be working in the school in any capacity whatsoever. But once again I was wrong… In the middle of my final year away, the new Abbot asked me to take on the role of Headmaster. With some trepidation, I agreed, and I started in that role in September 2009. At the time the Headmaster was responsible for all elements of school life – as the ‘Principal’ of the academic dimension of the school but also as the leader of the boarding and pastoral dimensions too. There were plenty of other people doing lots of very important work, and I had a lot of support from boards and the monastery administration and so on, but it was nonetheless a very weighty job indeed.
Ireland was in recession at the time, and a relatively expensive private education was completely outside the reach of many families, even those who might once have been interested in boarding. Simply keeping the show on the road was a challenge. During my term we made a number of significant changes in the school, the most important of which was the construction of a new academic block. It was the first modernization of our teaching facilities in a long time and it was wonderful to see the project come to fruition. After one year of working inside the new building, I relinquished the position in 2014 and moved to other responsibilities in the monastery.
For one who claimed to not have a lot of interest in working in the school when I joined the monastery, I have spent a very large amount of my time working in it! In early 2019, I was asked by the Abbot to take on the role of Headmaster once again. The responsibilities had changed since my previous stint. We now had a separate Principal, responsible for most academic matters, so my role was a little bit simpler than before.
Gordon: You now have the role of President of Glenstal Abbey School. What are some of the principal challenges of your position?
Father Martin: At the start of 2022, roles and responsibilities were re-configured again and a new Head was appointed to the school. He has all the executive responsibility, across the academic, boarding and pastoral areas of school life.
The school is still very much part of the abbey though and several monks are still working in it as teachers and chaplains and so it was felt that it would still be important to have a monk in a senior position in the school. For this reason, I have now moved to the rather exalted-sounding role of President of the school. It’s still very much a new job and we are still working out how exactly it should be exercised. My role is basically to act as the representative and guarantor of the school’s Benedictine tradition and as a link between the monastery and the school. We are lucky that the Head is very committed to the school being a living Benedictine community, with a tradition that is alive and that is not just an interesting part of our heritage.
Gordon: What may be an aspect of Saint Benedict’s life that some people may not be aware of?
Father Martin: He had a wise and crafty sister! According to the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Benedict had a twin sister, Saint Scholastica, who was also a monastic. The story of their final meeting, shortly before her death is a beautiful one. Once a year, Benedict would descend from Monte Cassino, to meet with Scholastica. On one occasion, as it was getting late, when he made to leave to return to his monastery, she tried to persuade him to stay the night so that they could continue talking about and praising God. He refused. So she prayed and a storm of such severity arose suddenly that Benedict couldn’t leave. She got her wish after all… While some might think the story a but fanciful, it carries a powerful message. Saint Gregory wrote: “She realized, according to the saying of Saint John, that ‘God is Love’. Therefore, as is right, she who loved more, did more.”
Benedict is rightly venerated as the greatest monastic law-giver, and his Rule is nearly always humane and moderate. But as she prepared to return to the Lord her Creator, Scholastica was the greater and wiser teacher, because, like Martha’s sister, she chose the better part, the one thing necessary – love.
Gordon: Thank you for an incisive and powerful interview.