The monks of Farnborough are ‘Benedictines’, living their life under the Rule of St Benedict, the father of Western monks.
Saint Benedict was born in the fifth century. He forsook the decadence of Rome and his student life for the cave of Subiaco. There he lived a balance of prayer, work, and study. Soon it attracted other men who desired the pax, the interior peace, he exemplified, and wished to live the life he lived, eventually codified into his ‘Rule for Monks’.
For prayer he consecrated each day with the daily round of the liturgy. ‘Seven times a day shall I praise Thee O Lord’ and ‘at night I rose to give thee thanks’ inspired him to divide the Book of Psalms over a single week — with seven offices in the day and one in the night.
For work he judged that ‘monks are truly monks when they live by the work of their hands, as our Fathers and the apostles did’.
The study of the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church were afforded time and space to cultivate a monastic heart.
The Farnborough Tradition
The monks of Farnborough draw from the two-fold tradition of our history. For our ‘doctrina’ or monastic spirit we look to Dom Guéranger of Solesmes, and to Dom Delatte — the Abbot of Solesmes who first established monastic life in our house in 1895. Juridically, we belong to the Subiaco-Cassinese Congregation of Benedictines. This is the largest of the congregations of the Benedictine Confederation and includes St Benedict’s own monasteries of Monte Cassino and Subiaco amongst its members. From these rich sources we try to live a strong monastic life; with a particular focus on what is essential to the monastic life, the beauty of the liturgy, the chanting of the office, and manual work within the enclosure of the monastery.
The monks sing the daily round of offices as laid out in the Rule. The only exception is that of the Office of Vigils, which they divide over two weeks on account of the small size of the community. The monastery has an excellent reputation for its liturgical tradition and its music. For this reason, many people travel a long way to share in the Sunday Conventual Mass. Both the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms of the Roman Rite are employed at the monastery. The community has an indult from the Holy See which regulates certain monastic usages of the 1962 missal.
The liturgy is, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, the ‘source and summit’ of the Christian life. We try to celebrate it at Farnborough with the great attention, simplicity, and beauty which are marks of the monastic tradition. Our liturgy is celebrated facing East, in Latin, and sung to Gregorian Chant. Our liturgical life goes hand in hand with our publishing and printing, which go back at Farnborough to our early French days.
Video recordings of some of our liturgical celebrations are available on our YouTube channel.
We do our best to live by the work of our hands, as St Benedict asks of us. In addition to cooking, cleaning and administration, the monks have a guesthouse, a small farm and apiary, a shop, an internet shop, a publishing and printing house, and a craft bookbindery.
The farm and beekeeping
The monks have a small farm with a flock of about thirty Wiltshire Horn sheep, a number of chickens, and about thirty colonies of honey bees. Products of the farm (including eggs, honey, skin balm, wax candles, and more) are available in our monastery shop.
The monastery has facilities for those who wish to benefit from the quiet of the monastery and the daily round of prayer. We can also provide accomodation for larger retreat groups. For more information see here.
The abbey has a small bookbindery where historic books and liturgical books are repaired and restored. We bound liturgical books for the use of Saint Pope John Paul II’s visit to England. In recent years a number of tomes have been bound and tooled in white leather for presentation to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to our shores.
In the 1990s the monastic community revived a work which had lain dormant since the 1950s, the Saint Michael’s Abbey Press. The Press produces an extensive range of greeting cards and books, all available from our shop site. See the Abbey Press section for more information.
Saint Benedict tells us that we should not give easy admittance to the newcomer. How do we ‘test the spirits’, as St Benedict put it, to see if an attraction to the monastic life is truly a call from God?
First, there are some fundamental questions to be asked. Is the candidate single, Catholic, unmarried, of reasonably good physical and psychological health, and free of responsibilities and financial constraints?
Our words to an enquirer are then those of the Lord himself, ‘Come and See!’
If our way of life continues to attract after an initial visit, then we encourage a candidate to foster more deeply a life of prayer, frequenting the sacraments, furthering his knowledge of the faith.
If the monastic community recognises in him the germ of a vocation and the degree of flexibility and elasticity needed to have the stamp of a Farnborough monk impressed on him, then he may be accepted to the first formal stage of entry. It is the one of postulancy – before entering the Noviciate.
Formation in a monastic community is primarily about taking on the ‘family likeness’ of the community, the character of a Farnborough monk. We expect to see a certain flexibility, a willingness to learn and to work hard, and to study and read diligently. Monastic formation — being formed in the likeness of Christ — is the work of a lifetime and is demanding.
Postulancy lasts about six months and involves living alongside the community and under its discipline. Afterwards, the noviciate begins with the taking of the monastic habit, and lasts one year. At the end of the noviciate come first profession and the monastic vows of Obedience, Stability, and Conversion of Life. These vows are professed for three years. After three years of monastic living a person may be admitted to Solemn Vows, binding for life. Some brothers will then proceed to ordination as deacons and priests.
Anyone considering a monastic vocation should write to Father Abbot.
Our monastery has a rich and multi-faceted history.
In 1880, the Empress Eugénie bought a house in Farnborough. Crushed by the loss of her husband Napoleon III in 1873 and the death in 1879 of her 23 year old son in the Zulu War, she built St Michael’s Abbey as a monastery and the Imperial Mausoleum.
Dom Fernand Cabrol, the prior of the French Abbey of Saint Pierre de Solesmes, had dreamed of a monastic foundation dedicated to liturgical studies. No suitable property or funding had been found, though the vicissitudes of the anti-clerical France of the 1890s made the thought of a house abroad increasingly attractive. Finally, in 1895, the Empress Eugénie invited these French Benedictines to England, and thus the daily round of work, prayer and study began.
Monsignor Ronald Knox was received into the Catholic Church here. In his memoirs he described the Abbey as a little corner of England which is forever France, irreclaimably French.
In 1947 a little band of monks came from Prinknash Abbey, near Gloucester. They were sent to anglicise the house, and ensure the continuity of the monastic life here. The last French monk, Dom Zerr, died in 1956.
The community today draws on the richness of more than a hundred years of monastic prayer and witness in this place, and more than 1500 years of Benedictine tradition.
The Shrine of Saint Joseph at St Michael’s Abbey is cared for by the monks. It receives a steady flow of pilgrims throughout the year. It is possible for individuals to come to pray at the shrine, and for groups to make pilgrimage here. Crowned by Cardinal Manning with a special permission granted by Bl. Pope Pius IX, the statue has been a focus for more than a century to that great silent saint, who is Patron of the universal Church.