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The runaway monk: Why I fled my monastery

Thomas Ward shares his fascinating story

The waste ground at Bingley train station is surprisingly comfortable. Once I have arranged my cardboard and wriggled into my sleeping bag, I feel pleasingly warm and am quickly asleep. Just after three in the morning I wake up and listen as something snuffles around my feet in the darkness. I lie with my hands behind my head looking at the stars and a line as uninvited as the snuffling thing pops into my head. It is from the parable of the prodigal son. Luke writes that when he is hungry and miserable, the prodigal “came to himself” (15:17, NKJV).

I feel like that while I am looking at the stars at Bingley station. My life has just collapsed around my ears but at the same time I think that I have come to myself. Finally, I am being honest. And now I can start to build again, from the ground up. I feel exhilarated lying there on the waste ground with the snuffling thing at my feet, even though everything is so awful.

The atheist monk

I get up early and catch a train to Bradford. There I make my way to the Salvation Army hostel and after a minute or two I summon the courage to press the bell.

“What do you want?”

“Well, in the first instance I would like somewhere to stay tonight, please. After that I am not really sure.”

For months afterwards I will cringe at that. Who says “in the first instance” when they are trying to get in to a hostel for the homeless? My voice sounds ridiculously middle class.

“You had better come in.” The lock clicks and I push the security door open. A man in a neat blue shirt greets me and leads me into a room where I dump my bag in the corner. He offers me a seat and settles himself opposite me with a clipboard.

“Just a few questions to ask you, before we can get you signed in.”

“Okay.”

“Where did you sleep last night?”

“Bingley station.”

“And the night before?”

“A Roman Catholic Monastery near Bedford.”

“Really? Why?”

“I used to be a monk.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I suppose that I still am one, technically.”

The man puts the clipboard down on his lap.

“Why did you leave?”

“I’m not sure that I believe in God anymore.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

The man picks up his clipboard again.

“Fair enough. Have you got HIV?”

There are quite a lot of questions, and I answer almost all of them negatively. Not only have I not got HIV, I also don’t have diabetes or scabies or any addiction problems. I don’t have a criminal record either, or a home or a job.

The man in the blue shirt then informs me that I will be admitted to the hostel on the condition that I sign on the following day and claim the housing benefit that will pay for my stay. I am handed over to a stout middle-aged woman in an identical blue shirt who issues me with soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, the cost of which will be added to my first week’s rent.

Finally she shows me to my room. It is very clean and smells of polish and stale cigarette smoke and it is furnished with a chair, a sink and a bed. The duvet on the bed is disappointingly thin. At the monastery I had a thick duvet. I slept so snuggly and soundly that I often found it difficult to drag myself up for first prayers on cold mornings. As the stout woman leaves me alone in my new room, it occurs to me that I will miss my monastery bed rather a lot.

Homeless, reading Marx

My life at the Salvation Army hostel quickly settles into a pattern. I get up early and eat a big cooked breakfast in the canteen, always quickly, always alone. Then I head straight into town. I spend my mornings and afternoons in the library, taking a short break at lunch time (even though I haven’t got any food) to visit the media museum next door. In the library I read mostly political theory and history.

Surrounded by all these books, the years that I have spent studying theology and learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew suddenly seem like the most dreadful waste of time and now I am determined to make up for it. I read bits of Marx, Nietzsche, Hayek: anyone who promises to explain how the world works without reference to anything supernatural.

At four o’clock I go back to the hostel for my dinner which I eat quickly and alone and then I lock myself in my room until morning. I have no desire to mix with the other residents. I am scared of most of them.

Each Friday I write a brief postcard to my mum and dad, assuring them that I am okay and asking them not to try to find me because I need time alone to sort myself out. I can’t bear to think of my mum and dad, and how worried they must be.

Occasionally I also go for job interviews. I have to or else my benefits will be stopped and I will be chucked out of the hostel. My career options as a homeless exmonk are limited but I manage to be interviewed for posts as a rat catcher, a person who picks up litter and a railway signaller.

I buy a suit for three quid from a charity shop for my interviews but the zip breaks before the railway one so I have to explain how my previous work experience fits me for an operational role on the railway, uncomfortably aware that the no-nonsense men asking the questions have seen my pants. The railwaymen are extremely kind; they tell me that my application form made them laugh, especially my answers to the questions about how much I was paid in my previous job and why I left it. I really want the railway job and I am as articulate and as persuasive as I think anyone could be with slightly visible pants. In the end I practically beg them for work.

The prodigal

I am reading in my usual place on the first floor at Bradford library. On the table in front of me I have a letter from Network Rail offering me a job as a signaller at Hebden Bridge, a small town in the Pennines and, next to it, a huge bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk. The chocolate is the first luxury I have allowed myself since I left the monastery. I am snapping off a piece when my dad walks up to my table and says hello. He looks old, drained and grey. He is very calm. He needs to ring my mum to tell her that he has found me, but he can’t get a signal.

“I’m going to go outside,” Dad says.

“Please don’t run off again.”

“I won’t, Dad,” I say. And I am as good as my word.

My dad doesn’t slaughter a fatted calf, but he does buy me a date and walnut slice and a cup of tea in the Waterstones’ café. It turns out that the library is the first place he looked for me. He knew that I was in Bradford from the postmarks on the cards and he guessed that I would be spending my time reading. We talk for an hour and then Dad hugs me and goes home to look after my mum who is ill in bed, I suspect partly through worry.

As I trudge back up Leeds Road to the hostel that afternoon, I am sharply aware of three things. First, I have made an utter pig’s ear of leaving the monastery. Second, I desperately want to see my friends and family again (and the monks who feel as if they fit into both categories). Finally, although I don’t like the term ‘unconditional love’ because it is overused to the point of banality, it’s actually a very real thing and, at the moment, it is jolly painful to be on the receiving end of it.

Moving out

I move out of the hostel on Christmas day, just over three months after I moved in. My new home is a bedsit in a predominantly Asian area of town. There are mosques and curry houses all over the place, and a Salafi bookshop across the street which sells bags of halal sweets and glossy booklets about the evil eye and the power of the jinn. I already love my new area but there is no denying that it has a bit of a reputation. The two friends that I have finally made at the hostel insist on escorting me to my new home.

The three of us make our way through the quiet Christmas streets, carrying a shopping bag each full of my clothes and bedding. When we get to my bedsit, we discover that the electricity hasn’t been connected yet so we sit in the dark, drinking cheap cider and chatting until the time comes for them to leave. At the front door we shake hands formally.

“Keep in touch, yeah?” they say.

“Definitely.” I’m lying.

While we were drinking in the dark it had occurred to me for the first time how slight my own problems are compared with the pair of them. I have managed to get out of the hostel relatively quickly because my only real issue was that I didn’t have anywhere to live. Like most of the other residents, however, my two friends have much more complex problems. One is a heroin addict, the other is an alcoholic. Both have no contact with their families and both have criminal records for petty crimes. Although both of them are kind and decent people, they have a sense of chaos about them; their lives spinning between hostels, the streets and prison.

I’m different. With my bedsit and job offer I have a finger-hold on normal life. I don’t want my friends turning up drunk. I don’t want their chaos anywhere near me; I’m not strong enough yet. I’m not proud of myself for lying but I am going to make sure that we lose touch.

Inside the signal box

Life as a railway signaller turns out to be more monkish than life as a monk, especially on night shifts. There aren’t many trains after midnight so, when I have fed the signal box cat and cooked my tea, I am free to read until the morning shift man arrives at six o’clock. Unexpectedly, I find that odd lines from the Psalms drift around my head in the strange dreamy hours when the railway is quiet and the black hulks of the Pennines are just traceable against the lesser black of the sky.

My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning…

He neither slumbers nor sleeps who guards Israel.

Lord, if you should mark our transgressions who can stand?

I will lift up my eyes to the hills...

Being alone in a signal box in the early hours of the morning feels exposed, and the psalms fit the mood.

My mind is too slow at this time of night for complicated thoughts about whether there is or isn’t a God. All I can really do is sit quietly with the cat on my lap and wait for the day to come. Sitting there, I can hear my own breath and even feel my own heartbeat. I am very aware of my limits and frailties, and of the various mistakes of the previous months. But I am also aware of a wild kind of hope which begins with limits and frailties but which reaches beyond them, beyond the signal box and the Pennine valley and out into the darkness. I don’t know where this hope ends, because I am not sure that it has an end at all, humanly speaking.

I don’t know what I hope but I hope it anyway. I don’t claim that it’s much of an insight and I am certainly not ready to use the terms ‘God’ or ‘faith’ to describe what I am thinking about. The words seem too big and too small for my wandering thoughts. I am no sort of mystic. But I can’t deny that sometimes, when I think about these things during night shifts in my signal box, with the cat on my lap and the psalms drifting around me in the silence, it feels a bit like I am praying.

Thomas Ward lives near Leeds and works as a trainer for Network Rail. He was previously a Benedictine monk for eight years and before that he was an RE teacher.


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