O Brother

One of my favorite aspects of working with Scriberia is the wonderful diversity of our clients. From the biggest multi-nationals to tiny local charities, I’ve enjoyed getting to grips with the idiosyncrasies and challenges faced in all kinds of sectors. But every now and then, a job comes along that’s a little more unusual.

Worth Abbey is a Benedictine Monastery in East Sussex with sweeping views over woods, valleys and farmland managed by the monks themselves. It’s a peaceful, timeless setting, but I was arriving in a rare period of change. The Monastery community were preparing themselves for the delicate and important process of electing a new Abbot. Ordinarily, this happens every eight years, but the incumbent Abbot Kevin felt that due to his age, it was right for him to step down early and hand over to someone younger.

The process called for open and frank conversation, and while the monks are used to sharing all possessions they’re perhaps less practiced at sharing their thoughts and feelings. So sensibly, they’d called in some external help. Caryn Vanstone of Lacerta Consulting, who has a long relationship with Worth Abbey, had organised a three-day conference before the beginning of the abbatial election process, and asked us to come and scribe the final day.

The evening I arrived, the monks were having a day of silent prayer and contemplation. At seven, Caryn and I joined them for a hearty supper of pork chops, boiled veg and gravy. After grace, the brothers served each other and ate without speaking, while Caryn directed my etiquette in a low voice. After dinner, the monks presented Caryn and I with a bottle of wine, over which I was enlightened on the realities of monastic life, the mechanics and intricacies of abbatial elections and the social dynamics of the Worth Abbey community.

The next morning over breakfast the monks were talking again, and I was a little taken aback by the sparky and convivial chat that flowed. Maybe I was surprised at how engaged they all were with the wider world as we discussed current events and trends. But I shouldn’t have been - the monks don’t live in a bubble. The monastery has strong ties with communities across the world, and while they receive their vocation from God, they’re aware that the challenges they face are often similar to problems facing any organisation striving towards a goal.

Speaking of which, it was time to get scribing. The monks filed into a high-ceiled room and sat in a circle. They seemed a little skeptical of the ‘fishbowl’ discussion format at first, but they soon warmed up. They talked about the progress they had made, their individual vocations and their purpose as a monastery. It is amazing how so many important things can go unsaid (silent contemplation isn’t always the answer!) and the monks really opened up to each other, which was very rare for them.

They discussed the role of the Abbot and the fine balance of leadership styles it requires, and considered the challenges faced by the Monastery in an increasingly secular world, where the life of a monk is no longer an obvious vocation for young Catholic men, and in which economic and technological changes are upsetting old certainties and challenging orthodoxies. Meanwhile, I was busy capturing the conversation as it evolved, trying to capture the essence of what was being said in a way that I hope did justice to this honest and wide-reaching conversation. For the second half of the day, the monks broke into groups to imagine the ideal future for the monastery, walking around the grounds and talking about each aspect of Worth Abbey as they did so. This was a great opportunity for me to work up some of my illustrations and typography (I tried my hand at medieval style illumination).

At the end of the day, the former Abbot Kevin gave me a lift back to the station. As he explained to me how a life without property worked, I realised that for these earnest and passionate men, the decision they were about to make wasn’t just about their careers, or their work, it was about their entire life, and the lives of their monastic family.