Monks mark a special year

It is lunchtime in the refectory of the New Norcia monastery.

Visitors stand by chairs at a long wooden table in the centre of the room and monks at tables around the perimeter, until the Abbot completes a prayer and all take their seats.

A monk seated a short distance away starts a reading from the scriptures and after the Abbot has rung a small bell a second time, two monks serve the meal.

On the day The Weekend West was invited to lunch, it was a tangy pumpkin soup and bread, followed by sausage, mashed potato and carrot, and a variety of fruit.

Each dish was placed on the right of each diner to serve themselves before the dish was offered on. The meal was eaten in silence between diners and a simple shake of the head was all that was needed to decline any of the courses offered.

About halfway through, the scriptures reading was replaced by a chapter from a biography of WA's first governor James Stirling.

With no chat, the meal did not take long and after the dishes were cleared, diners stood for a prayer of thanks and followed the monks out of the room.

It was a simple shared experience and seemed indicative of an approach to life that values reflection, contemplation, learning and service.

They are values which are reinforced through the day as the monks go about their schedule.

Interspersed with Mass and six prayer sessions between 5.15am and 8.15pm is church work divided into morning and afternoon blocks, meals, a social gathering after lunch followed by an optional short siesta, some free time and time for meditative reading.

The Benedictine community which lines the Great Northern Highway 130km north of Perth was founded in 1847 and is Australia's only monastic town.

This year it commemorates the bicentenary of the birth of founder Dom Rosendo Salvado. At its peak in 1870 the community was home to 70 monks, many from Spain, but that has dwindled to nine from around Australia.

Among them is Father Bernard Rooney, 79, a former abbot who was born in Sydney and joined the community in 1957.

Father Bernard said he was from a practising Catholic family, had studied law for a while at Sydney University, done national service and was "ready to think about other things" when his life changed in an instant in 1953 through a serious road accident.

"I wasn't driving but we hit a telegraph pole and one of my friends was killed," he said.

"I thought 'well, I have been preserved for something' because I had just vacated the seat that was crushed in by the telegraph pole. I started thinking about being a monk then," he said.

Father Bernard said after moving to New Norcia he also spent three years studying in Rome and worked for the Church in Moora, but the community was his home.

After his time as abbot he focused his work on reviving contact with the Aboriginal people of the area and published works on indigenous language and place names.

He had also set up an education centre which told the story of the local Aboriginal people.

The centre features interpretive displays and audio visual presentations, and is visited by school and community groups which use the former college buildings for educational and recreational camps.

The community runs a farm, hotel, guesthouse, museum and art gallery and hosts tour groups.

The monks are heavily involved in the operation of various facilities and it is this balance between work and prayer which has an ongoing appeal to Dom Brian.

Dom Brian, 61, originally from Hobart, said he had spent the past 15 years of his working life in Sydney working in aged care with Wesley Mission.

"I decided to retire at 55 because there is more to life than work," he said.

He had read about New Norcia many years ago and in 2009 finally visited the town.

"The afternoon I drove in here I knew with absolute certainty that this was the place," he said.

Two weeks ago he made a lifelong commitment to the monastery and community.

"The thing that struck me when I first came here was the balance between prayer and work," he said.

"That has remained with me. I find that interspersing your work with prayer re-centres you."

Father Bernard said to become a monk required having a vocation.

"You have to really feel that God is calling you to this work," he said. "Prayer and work, it is work for God and for the Church."

He had faith in the community's future. "People come with all different stories about why they came but we say God brings them here," he said. "We believe if we are meant to carry on, we will."

A wide-ranging program will celebrate the Salvado bicentenary, including an exhibition of photos, art, maps and books, to run for a year from March 1.

On March 4, Ecumenical Vespers will be held at St Mary's Cathedral. Penrhos College chorale will lead the congregation in chanting with the monks.

The West Australian

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