Twice a year, the Bernadine Cistercian Sisters at Hyning Hall (Carnforth) open up their doors to invite young people to experience monastic life. For those who are curious and brave enough, the experience is deeply rewarding as two of our young people – Patricia Benson and Ruth Baker – discovered…
“It was with much trepidation that we drove to Hyning Hall in January for a Monastic Experience Weekend. Having no idea what to expect, we worried that it would be an intense weekend of strict silence, a harsh timetable, bread and water and no technology. We arrived, and on pressing the doorbell, the heavens opened and we were soaked in the time it took for the several locks to be pulled back and the door opened. For a moment, we thought our fears were confirmed. But from the time we were welcomed into the house, the weekend took on a much different tone. I have never known such peace as I experienced at Hyning Hall. There were five of us on the retreat, and we were surprised to see a young man in the group as we had assumed that the weekend was all about becoming a nun. However, the aim of the weekend was simply to allow young people such as ourselves to have the time and space to learn how to pray and respond to God’s call in our lives, no matter what it might be. We followed the daily lives of the nuns at Hyning Hall, getting up and being in the chapel for 6.30am and praying with them 5 times a day. We were touched by the peace, warmth and generosity shown to us throughout the weekend. There is a very gentle pace of life at Hyning Hall; everything the sisters did they offered to God. They truly make God the centre of their lives. Although we had been anxious about the amount of time spent in silence and prayer, we came to find that we loved it. We felt a sense of stillness, an inner calm; a safety in the silence of just being ourselves without having to worry about who we were or what we had to do outside in our busy daily lives. The most poignant moment for us both was on our first night in the beautiful chapel praying Vigils. Towards the end of the prayers, the lights were switched off one by one until the whole chapel was in pitch darkness except for one candle by an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. In this comforting atmosphere of stillness we sang the Salve Regina, feeling the motherly protection of Our Lady. Even though they sang and we weren’t familiar with the tune, we still felt included and welcomed, listening to their angelic voices.
Eating meals in silence was a new experience – and nerve racking experience – but one that we wanted to take back to our daily lives! We dreaded an awkward silence, but instead found a caring atmosphere where other people’s needs were put first. We found that you don’t need to talk to communicate! Kindness was shown to everyone and there was no need to hurry or rush off during or after the meal. Throughout the meal we were read to – another surprise! We expected deeply theological reflections, but instead the nuns enjoyed the Biography of the Queen Mother at lunch times and Jonathon Sacks, Chief Rabbi, on “God, Science and the Search for Meaning” at dinner times. Although we didn’t understand all of it, it was enough to watch the nuns chuckle over it during their toad-in-the-hole! Washing up was also done in silence – a task that was over far quicker than when talked through! We expected the silence to feel lonely, but it was the exact opposite. Silence in a group is a shared activity; it takes everyone to hold and maintain that silence, so it becomes a shared experience. The nuns had a real sense of humour between themselves and moments not spent in silence were more often than not spent in laughing. We felt as though we’d had twelve mothers looking out for us during the weekend, such was the care and attention the nuns paid us.
Hyning Hall is in a stunning location and has a beautiful garden. It was so beautiful in fact, that we felt like we were in heaven with the sun rising and the birds singing when we were there. We were only there for a weekend, but on coming away from Hyning Hall we felt changed; refreshed and at peace. People remarked on the ‘glow’ that we had to us when we arrived home! Hyning Hall brought us closer to God and changed us in many ways. It is an experience we will always be grateful for.