In 1971, my transition within 24 hours from inner city living to the desolate, rural railway station at Takapau was stunning … and frightening. As my railcar cracked off into the distance and towards Gisborne, a terrible sensation of emptiness swirled around me, triggering a feeling not unlike panic. As advised, I crossed the village’s main street to its garage and petrol station, which also doubled as the district’s taxi service. There appeared to be nothing of any note at the end of the driveway up to the monastery, just a couple of modest wooden buildings. Some had been used in another place to shelter wartime refugee children.
Knowing virtually nothing about the monastic life, my first thoughts were that I had arrived too late, that the place was a ghost ship and the whole crew had vanished. Within a day or so, I had learnt that the community lived together, “hidden” in the enclosure behind the guest house, church and chapter room. They gathered together six times through each day and night to sing the Psalms and pray their Offices.
During my regulation week’s retreat, I was unusually isolated and left to my own devices. A renowned, Benedictine scholar and author was visiting. Dom Jean Leclercq3 impressed me as a speaker and a consumer of hot water. Morning and night this good monk beat me to the entire contents of the guest house’s hot-water cylinder. Eventually, I got crafty and started taking a shower in the middle of the day. Dom Jean took all his meals in the guest house and simultaneously hosted conversations with some of the abbey’s seniors. This meant I ate alone in my room, sat alone at the back of the church, and walked alone around the monastery’s pathways and fields.
But the community itself most graciously broke my enforced solitude by inviting me into their chapter room to listen to their visitor’s talks. Marvellous! Here I was, sitting in the same room and hearing from someone who had been a personal friend of my contemplative hero, Thomas Merton. My random reading of Merton’s best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain 4, in November 1968 (just before the author’s untimely death) had sparked a passion for the monastic life and inspired my journey to Takapau.
Nevertheless I continued to feel lonely and haunted by the sense of distance from home (more than 12 hours by train), and in the evenings had to battle sudden urges to “make a run” for the railway station. I’m glad I didn’t.
By my final evening at the abbey, the VIP was on his way and I was admitted (still alone) to take my evening meal in the guest house dining room. A relieving guest-master made his appearance. The gentle Father Basil5 sat with me during my meal, plying me with discreet enquiries and uncomplainingly and patiently answering my naïve and sometimes inane questions. Later we sat for a while on a bench on the veranda with its view east over rolling farmland and hills. Then out of the blue I was asked, “Why are you here?” At this point everything went into slow motion, because I had come with a very particular question that I doubted could ever be answered positively. But I thought, “This is the only chance you’ll ever have to ask. It’s now or never.”
“Father,” I replied, “I’m not a Catholic … or anything much really. But I would like to come and live here.”
Realistically I had expected at best a polite but firm demur, at worst a list of all the reasons why such a proposal was outlandish. Certainly the lull in our conversation was unpromisingly lengthy, but the reply was stunning. “Well … I don’t really see any great problem with that. Why don’t you go back to Auckland and give it some more thought. If you’re still of the same mind, then write to me, and I’ll see what’s to be done.”
I can still see the blue aerogramme with its fountain pen writing that reached me a couple of months later. “Come on down when you’re ready. Let us know when you’re to arrive.” I resigned my job as a radio station reporter immediately.