ALWAYS CALLING... Matt Austin
JUDI SPIERS meets the man at the head of Buckfast Abbey and learns about his own journey to the top and his plans for the culmination of a special year
“I was 16 at the time and I was standing where the tourists can still stand and look down at the Abbey…this is very clear in my mind…and I looked at the Abbey church and I said: ‘I could never be a monk there.’”
I hadn’t expected to hear that from the man who is now serving his second tenure as Abbot of Buckfast, Abbot David Charlesworth, OSB, and so I was keen to hear what happened to change his mind.
But I had to wait as 2018 is Buckfast Abbey’s Millennium Year and its Millennium Fund will raise thousands for Devon’s five hospices. In fact Abbot David was so keen that I should understand the philosophy behind the fundraising that I barely had time to turn on my tape recorder.
“I wanted to get across that this is a year of thanksgiving. How could it be otherwise when you look at the site and our lives as monks?
“So we look back over the 1,000 years to those who came here in Anglo Saxon times with the same idea that we have now. The principles that brought them here are the same principles that bring us here now and therefore I thought what could we do in thanksgiving? If you want to thank someone you give them a gift, so if you are thanking God for something you want to give God a gift.” In the gospels, he told me, Christ tells us what God wants and that is to look after those in need so in order to give something to Him you give something to the needy.
The idea of celebrating a Millennium year has also given
impetus to carry out much needed work like the cleaning of the outside of the church, putting down a new floor, getting an organ actually built for the Abbey and new lighting.
“It’s like having an Ofsted report in a school” he explained.
“You do a lot of things that are necessary because you are coming up to a point when you are going to be examined. Obviously we are not being examined but we are presenting ourselves this year more than ever before.”
So, that understood, I was keen to hear more about the Abbot’s journey.
“It’s a bit of a strange story,” he began.
As a young boy and “not very good academically” he used to read his grandfather’s history books.
“They were so big I had to lie on the floor to read them and I started to know about monasteries and monks through history.”
But then life changed when he became a teenager.
“You start looking at life differently and I dangerously started to read about what it was like from the inside and it sparked something inside me. The idea of Christian community life. So by the time I was 17-and-a-half I thought would like to explore it. But that didn’t mean I was going to be a monk.”
At 18 he came to Buckfast where he told the novice master that he didn’t want to be a teacher or a priest...but someone had other ideas.
It was a pretty manual start which involved digging trenches, driving a tractor on the farm and helping cows birth – all of which he looks back on with pleasure.
But what about the long periods of enforced silence? How did the teenage David cope with that?
“The biggest thing you have to face – even though you are living in a community – is that you are actually alone at certain times. But you learn about yourself. Silence is a great teacher and it can be a hard teacher. You learn how to do things…by learning something you change.”
Well quite a bit changed. “Not wanting to be a monk” he laughed, “I ended up at Buckfast. Not wanting to be a teacher I ended up in the Abbey school and not wanting to be a priest I ended up eventually as the Abbot!”
Abbot David was at great pains to point out that whatever has been achieved at Buckfast stems from a life of prayer with the Abbey Church spiritually and physically its centre. At the time of chatting several thousand pounds had already been raised from collections but more will be added at the end of the year.
“I have a number in my head that I want to give to each hospice” he said with a twinkle. But the Abbot is a man who can keep a secret and for the moment his lips are sealed.