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This Britain

The habits of a lifetime: When you've already committed to the ascetic life of a monk, is there anything left to give up for Lent?

Emily Jupp entered the cloistered world of Ampleforth Abbey to find out

By giving things up, you lighten your load." Father Luke Beckett's sermon echoes through the crypt at Ampleforth Abbey. It's Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and I'm going to take communion for the first time.

The crypt is warm and comforting, filled with polite schoolboys from the adjoining Catholic school. The light is low and the smell is homely; melted wax and dust. But my heart is racing, I don't know the protocol. Do I drink first or eat? Is it like a wine-tasting? Too late to think; I've reached the pulpit, hovering just one stride away from Father Luke, who smiles.

"Do you wish to take communion?" He asks. I give him a deer-in-headlights stare, so he repeats himself, before I finally reply, "Er... Yes?"

The Christian faith is still the largest in the UK, with the 2011 Census showing that 59 per cent (33.2 million) of the UK population counted themselves as Christian. But regardless of our religion, Christian festivals are embedded in British culture. Putting up Christmas trees, sharing Easter eggs, and giving things up at Lent are habits most of us take part in without analysing them.

The monks at Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire put a bit more thought into Lent, which is all about preparing for Easter. Monks will do more praying and reading during this time. Their diet is restricted, too. "Lunch was soup with a roll, dinner will be one course, no pudding," says Father Terence Richardson, slightly mournfully.

The monks make a list of all their possessions at Lent and deliver it to the Abbot, making notes on what they can afford to give away. They also have to submit a request to the Abbot when they need new things. "Anything we own is shared," says Father Terence. "That's not to say that we interchange underpants, but the principle is there."

Presumably to save on the washing bill, Father Terence also informs me he doesn't wear trousers under his habit in the warmer months. "It does feel different if I'm away from here and not wearing the habit," he muses. "It's the way everything hangs."


Father Luke has taken note of the World Health Organisation's recent advice to reduce our sugar intake. He's giving it up for Lent. "It's not so much a sugar binge at Easter that I'm preparing for, I'm a bit more grown up than that... it's about travelling a little more lightly through Lent and that brings us freedom."

Down on the orchard, sugar is essential for one of Ampleforth's most important income streams: cider. Cameron Smith joined four years ago as the orchard manager. He takes ripe offerings from trees, blending 40 different varieties of apple to get the flavour just right. Even though he's a Humanist, he says he's learnt a lot from working with the monks. "It's made me convinced that the values the monks live by are good values." The Benedictine values are attentiveness, hospitality, stewardship, respect, integrity and equilibrium.

As I head to the exit, a monk rides past on a scooter. It's Father Henry Wansbrough who joined Ampleforth when he was 19. He's now 80. Joining at a young age is, "extremely dangerous" he says; now young men are encouraged to see the world first before choosing to dedicate their life to God. "I've never regretted it," he smiles. "There are always new things to discover." It may not be for everyone, but the sprightly octogenarian makes a good poster boy for the life he's chosen. Maybe we could all afford to think a bit more deeply about Lent.