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Filming inside England’s only Trappist monastery changed my evangelical faith

Nick Hamer was given unprecedented access to film inside Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire. With Outside the City now showing in cinemas, Nick explains how making the documentary had a profound effect on his own faith

Why is the film called Outside the City?

At it’s most basic level, the monks are literally outside the city, they live in the countryside far away from the urban sprawl. The title is a metaphor too, it represents their counter-cultural way of life. But the deepest and the most important meaning is a theological idea, it’s actually referred to by a scripture that comes on screen at the beginning of the film: "Jesus suffered outside the city to make the people holy through his blood. So let us go out to him, and bear the disgrace he bore. For we do not have an enduring city, instead we seek the one to come." (Hebrews 13:12)

How long have the monks been there?

These men take a number of vows, one of which is the vow of stability, meaning, I promise to stay put in this place, for the rest of my life until I die. That’s a big commitment. And that’s at the heart of this film, we see two monks die during the film of old age, and those men lived in the monastery for 60 years or so. It’s remarkable.

Are there enough new monks joining to keep the monastery going?

That's anyone's guess, no one knows. Someone said to me recently that this film reminds them of a David Attenborough documentary, that it’s about observing a very precious, endangered species. And if we don’t capture it on camera no one will ever see it again.

Clearly the monastery is in decline, (from a certain point of view). But where does renewal take place? The absolute best place for new life is the seedbed of decay. Without something dying, we can’t have something new. And the monks recognise this. They are comfortable with the idea that the monastery could come to an end. Their attitude is, 'if that’s the way of things then that’s fine, because something will come up in it’s place'. They trust in the will of God.

What attracted you to making a film about a monastery?

My own religious background is in the protestant / evangelical / charismatic church. I’ve just turned 40, and over the last ten years I’ve become hungry for a different kind of spirituality, as some elements of my evangelical upbringing were very closed minded. The mysticism and contemplative life of these monks in many ways represents a counter cultural perspective to my own religious context: a busy, noisy, full of certainty way of expressing the faith.

I discovered Mount St Bernard Abbey during the production of my last film Dear Albert (2014), which is about recovery from addiction. Several of the characters in the Dear Albert were staying clean and sober by following the 12 step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, some of the members of these groups have retreats at Mount St Bernard Abbey. Whenever I find something interesting I wonder if this could be my next documentary. But it’s never my decision alone, making a documentary like this is always a collaborative decision between filmmaker and subject.

How did you go about persuading the monks to take part in the film?

I spent 18 months developing access with the monastery. These monks have a tradition of hospitality, so I was warmly received. Abbot Fr Erik gave me a lot of time, getting to know each other. He gave me a reading and watching list: Andre Louf, Thomas Merton, Philip Groning, among others.

Eventually I started drafting a treatment, which is a 7 page document describing the type of film I would like to make. We went through numerous drafts until we were both happy. This was shared with the community. I was then invited to spend 7 days living with the monks, not in the guesthouse, in the novitiate, something usually only reserved from priestly or monastic visitors. After my visit the community unanimously voted to allow me to film for 12 months.

What was the monks' reaction to the film?

They love the film! They laugh a lot. And in places where other audiences wouldn’t laugh. This is testament to my success in capturing their unique characters. They look at each other and say “oh Br Martin would say that” or “well of course Fr Hilary wants to talk on that subject.” They laugh with delight at each other.

What most impressed you most about the life of the monks?

I can see that their way of life, this 1500 year old rule, these spiritual disciplines, enable them to serve the world through prayer.

I once asked Fr Erik what was his true purpose for being here. He told me it is to encounter God. I asked him how it was going. He chuckled and told me, "yes, it is going." He went on to explain, there’s a tendency in our culture to imagine the spiritual life as a journey of acquisition, whereby we add to ourselves, virtues, knowledge, experience, but in fact it’s much more of a shedding, a stripping away.

If I ever doubt Fr Erik’s perspective on this, I just remind myself where we’re headed. We’re all on the same trajectory, to the grave. And we’re not taking anything with us. Either you’re ready for that or you’re not. I imagine myself waking up on the other side and wondering if I really exist, because of course I largely define my sense of self by my patterns of consumption, the things I own, what everyone else thinks of me. But who am I if all of this is stripped away, do I even exist? Well of course I do, there’s an essential me beneath it all, but do I ever encounter him? Not often. The monks understand this, and they believe that the direction to knowing yourself is the same direction as encountering the divine. They’re ready for the grave, and are ultimately buried without even a casket, just in their robe.

What has been the public’s reaction to the film?

The film is playing to sell out audiences at the best independent cinemas throughout the country. Like me, my audience is hungry for an authentic spirituality, and I’ve been told in watching Outside the City, they’re not disappointed.

What's next for you, spiritually?

That’s a big question. The easy answer is to say I’m working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

I’m not looking for the right answer anymore, rather an authentic experience, I’ve certainly found that at Mt St Bernard Abbey.

I’m happy to describe myself as progressive, and liberal, theologically speaking. Honestly, I’m very interested in Roman Catholicism, and I am committed to my own Anglican Church. I’m not sure I fit in very well anywhere right now, but people are always welcoming to me, I’m happy, growing and open.

Outside the City is now showing in selected cinemas. For screening details visit outsidethecityfilm.com

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