Reality TV in a Benedictine Monastery

Finally, something worth watching!

Five men, ranging from an atheist in the pornography trade to a former Protestant paramilitary, have found their lives unexpectedly transformed in the latest incarnation of reality television – the monastery.

More Oh Brother! than Big Brother, the five underwent a spiritual makeover by spending 40 days and 40 nights living with Roman Catholic monks in Worth Abbey, West Sussex.

The experiment, which will be shown on BBC 2 this month, was designed to test whether the monastic tradition begun by St Benedict 1,500 years ago still has any relevance to the modern world.

Although participants were not required to vote each other out, they faced the challenge of living together in a community and following a disciplined regime of work and prayer. By the end, the atheist, Tony Burke, 29, became a believer and gave up his job producing trailers for a sex chat line after having what he described as a “religious experience”.

Gary McCormick, 36, the former Ulster Defence Association member, who spent much of his early life in prison, began to overcome his inner demons.

Peter Gruffydd, a retired teacher, regained the faith he had rejected in his youth and Nick Buxton, 37, a Cambridge undergraduate, edged closer to becoming an Anglican priest.

The fifth “novice”, 32-year-old Anthony Wright, who works for a London legal publishing company, started to come to terms with his childhood traumas.

The three-part series called The Monastery shows the five abiding by the monastery rules, with a strict timetable of instruction, study, prayer, reflection and work duties. They are also shown holding intense and often painful sessions with their religious mentors, individual monks assigned to guide each of them on their spiritual journeys.

At the end of one of these sessions, Mr Burke, his voicing breaking with emotion, confessed his feelings in a video-diary entry. “I didn’t want this to happen,” he said.

“But something touched me, something spoke to me very deeply. It was a religious experience.

If something like this can be shown in England – a much more secular place than the USA, then perhaps we are seeing – again – the workings of the very clever, up-to-date Holy Spirit who is displaying an impressive savvy about the use of modern technology in getting out the message. First the stunning and moving visual/aural testimonies surrounding the death and funeral of John Paul the Great, and now this! A leading pop-cultural concept, the “reality program” is become the vehicle for something finer. I bet MTV never had this in mind when it started the genre.

The Anchoress is still very sick – much too sick to stay up and play online – but when my little brother Thom told me about this, I just had to blog it. I thank you for your prayers. I’m on a new antibiotic and am hoping the thing will kick in, soon, because this bed-bound routine is not for me. I hate watching television, but if I try to read, I just fall asleep. I guess today would be a good day to have a book on tape! Instead I have something else kind of interesting going on in my head – maybe I got sick so that my mind would be forced off news for a little while, and opened to this other book idea.

Or maybe I am just so sick I am delusional, and not making much sense. That’s quite possible.

I hope to be back on the job as soon as the Lord wants to get me back there. Unless, you know…he’s trying to tell me that he prefers I shut up! :-)

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Gracie


    My nephew, who is at a Benedictine seminary college has decided to stay at the abbey instead of coming back to our diocese in Texas. He was just voted on and approved and thus, at the end of the summer, will become a novice. A very worldly young man, after a two year association with the monastery and the monks, has concluded that this life is the one for him. He has matured and seems centered, focused, and totally in love with the Lord and Our Blessed Mother.

    We, as his family, are most blessed. I know his mother, a convert to the faith, is receiving many blessings for encouraging her oldest child to follow in the footsteps of the apostles.

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  • peggy

    Praise be to God for the powerful witness of an atheist having a religious experience.

    Now, how is it that this got on TV? Its nothing short of a miracle.

  • Petra

    Though I have rather…erm… mixed feelings about the (very liberal Catholic) British magazine The Tablet, they have a pretty interesting article on this one. A quote (from the paper edition):

    A visit to the Carthusian abbey at Parkminster and an introduction to the austere regime of the monks there (“It makes Wort seem like Center Parcs”) forces another of the men, Nick, the Cambride PhD student, towards his moment of crisis: “The degree to which the religious life is either truly sane or absolutely bonkers is pushed up to the absolute limit and you really have to decide what’s what. And what isn’t. And the scary thing is that place made a lot of sense.”

    The striking thing about The Monastery is that the genius of the Benedictione tradition gives shape and coherence to the programme. Although life at Worth is refracted through the prism of reality TV, it is not distorted and the programme is not the calculated exercise in humiliation of a Big Brother but instead an honest journey, an experience of the psychology of grace, wich affirms and makes whole its participants.

  • Darrell

    I may have gotten too cynical, but I doubt whether the BBC ever intended anyone to come away wuth anything positive from this program when they “greenlighted” it. They probably didn’t believe that anyone would be drawn to the monastic life after seeing the finished product either.

    I’m reminded of a story told to me by a Chinese mathematician at work. During the 1960′s, the Left put together a documentary intending to show how cruelly America treats its minority population. It was filmed in public housing projects in our major cities. The filmakers believed they had captured the squalor and hopelessness of America’s poor and their living conditions perfectly. They even travelled to watch audiences view their film. A funny thing happened though. In every Chinese village they showed the film, people had a totally different reaction than what the filmakers intended. After the film ended there was silence. When people spoke they all commented about what the poor had (cars, spacious apartments, electricity, lights, televisions, stereos, nice clothes, plenty of food, etc.)– instead of what they didn’t have. Many wanted to know if it was still possible to go to America. The filmakers couldn’t get the people to stop talking like this, and eventually they decided to stop showing the film entirely. The fellow I talked with said he was inspired to come here by that film.

    The Lord sure knows how to move in mysterious ways…

  • me2ewe

    Hi Anchoress,

    Terrific story – wow, I hope American TV can get something like that going.

    Hope you feel better soon! For books on tape, I definitely recommend the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings books (unabridged) – both are terrific to listen to. Your public library probably has them.

  • karen

    Hello, Anchoress!!! New meds, eh? Hope they work better for you. Thanks for this article, Monastaries are kinda close to my heart since I got to watch one grow up in a vacant meadow in my hometown. Darrell, I KNEW that was you in #5 :) My Spud problems are not over yet. They never will be as long as he’s a flaming “L”-word. I told him I would stop using Liberal as a bad word, so it’s “L”, now!! How can one admit the unborn are living humans, not agree with over-turning Roe V Wade, not like labels like Pro-choice ( I don’t like that one either, of course)or pro-life and refuse to vote for pro-life politicians? Oh, and not believe abortion is murder? And, to top that, whenever you say how immoral it is for Christians to vote against teachings of, well, Chistianity… you’re accused of being self-righteous. Ghandi says, “show me a Christian and I’ll be one”. That’s Spud. “You can say Pat Leahy isn’t a good Chrisian, but don’t tell me Tom DeLay is.” I can’t get through to him, so I keep mailing him links I find in BlogHeaven. Blogs are the coolest thing since M&M’s. :)

  • Darrell


    If you don’t see a definite improvement in three days on the new antibiotic, please insist on a culture. Why guess? The colored sputum confirms an infection. I would collect my “best efforts” to take with for the test. And don’t forget to eat some yogurt with active cultures. It’ll prevent some nasty secondary infections, and other problems. You don’t want to know…

    I’m afraid you have to call a truce with “Spud,” for both your sakes. No more articles for him if he promises to do the same. No sense banging your head against a wall. Secret prayers will have to do. M&M’s are good…but watch out for the new “Dark Side” variety. You never know…

  • Mir

    If I weren’t sickly and could participate in a Reality Show, this is my kind of show (the female versin, naturally). Instead of debauchery and greed, watching people come to terms with discipline and virtue and spirituality. I hope they broadcast it on BBC America or PBS. I’d watch!

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