Just as the monks and nuns rose at first light for prayer in the sixth century the unique tradition continues each morning at Camperdown’s St Mark’s Benedictine Abbey.
Sitting at the top of a hill overlooking farmland and Lake Bullen Merri, with a view to the Grampians and Red Rock near Colac, Sister Raphael Stone, together with Monks Dom Placid Lawson and Father Aidan Melder begin their vigils at 5am.
It’s the first of seven prayer services for the Anglican monks and nuns held in the Monastery’s Church each day.
The prayer services form the structure for the day with the psalms and prayers are sung.
Out of the three, Dom Placid has been at the Monastery the longest, arriving in 1982.
Raised in Brisbane, Dom Placid came to the newly established monastery in Camperdown from an English Abbey where he had been a monk for almost 17 years.
“I was loaned here for a couple of years and I’ve been here ever since,” he joked. “It just seemed to be the right place to be. And you can’t just pack up and clear off. You make a vow of stability, which is the most important vow a Benedictine monk takes.
“Stability binds you to the Monastery you entered, stability to the community and stability to your purpose of life. The second vow is Conversion of Life (or Conversatio Morum) which means living in a monastic manner, including celibacy and poverty. Obedience is the third vow. Our Obedience is to God and his ways.”
Life at the Monastery revolves around prayer and silence and the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist are the backbone of their day.
The monastics follow the rule of St Benedict which was written in the sixth century.
During the day there is also time spent doing work which supports the monastery including printing, gardening, mounting icons, making incense and other products sold at the Abbey’s shop and supply church shops in Melbourne, and other states of Australia.
“Our whole life is centred on prayer and prayer is the seeking of God,” Sr Raphael said. “So what ever we’re doing, whether we’re in church or working or in the garden, it’s all part of the prayer life. Most work is done in silence so one can be attuned to the voice of God throughout the day.”
Dom Placid said St Benedict’s rule had withstood the ups and downs of history because of its simplicity and its sound common sense.
“There’s nothing airy fairy about it, it’s just pure Christianity,” he said. He said everyday they tried to make the world their parish and not the other way around.
“You’ve got to have a big horizon and a big vision,” he said. “We’re just as interested in what is going on in Syria as we might be down in Peru.”
Like anyone who follows a faith they sometimes questioned the purpose of life and the injustices, tragedies and suffering in the world.
“We are normal people and we question things,” Dom Placid said.
“We are living this life and we struggle everyday with our reflections. What we see in the paper we question, what we hear on the radio we question.
“I think we question our faith but ultimately we know that we may not have all the answers but at least we live for that, struggle for that and gain an individual understanding.
“There are times when you can get fed up with it all and think what an earth is going on, or you can get to the point where you don't understand people anymore.
“You hear of four people murdered every night. People not caring and looking after young children and you think I cannot understand people anymore.”
Asked to describe heaven Fr Aidan said he didn’t think anyone could imagine what heaven was like.
“It is our faith and it is through our experiences that we realise heaven,” he said.
“It may be some kind of existence, it maybe some kind of experience, it is different to individuals. We believe when we die our soul has to go somewhere and we believe we’ll be in the presence of God, maybe not physically but spiritually.
“The most important thing I believe is even though we will have no physical body, it’s the assurance that we are going to be with God, that’s the most important thing.”
Dom Placid said if you believe the church’s teaching then death is not the end, but just the beginning.
“When you read the Bible and Jesus’s life it must be true,” he said.
“Because nothing anywhere else that’s been written can match the writing of the Bible, of which one never tires. You have to say to yourself this is not man-made. When the Gospel is sung that’s God’s speaking through the mouth of the deacon or the priest.”
Just as monasteries have done for centuries visitors are welcome to stay in the guest house and participate in day to day life.
“It was the only place for centuries where travellers could stay,” Dom Placid said. “There were no hotels or things of that nature, they stayed in monasteries.”
People now come to the guest house to have a time of quiet and a time to recharge spiritually.
The monastery continues to get phone calls for prayer requests with people seeking direction in life or rain for a struggling farm.
“We have people ringing up asking can you pray for rain in their district, or for people who are sick,” Dom Placid said.
“Intercession - prayer for others - is a big part of our work. We are not here for ourselves but to be before God for the world.”
The vocation for each was discerned differently but the calling remained as strong as ever and as Dom Placid said “God works in mysterious ways.”
“He’s not going to send you a fax or an email,” he said. “It could come about because of things you’ve read or sometimes it might be something a friend has said.”
For Fr Aidan, born in Sri Lanka, a lot of the church’s problems could be solved through a monastic life. He said he struggled with the path for seven years before he eventually came to Australia. “I believe you need to have a calling to live a monastic life and a lot of patience,” he said.
“Religious life and a monastic life is not the same thing. We are living in an enclosure. You need a lot of patience and perseverance to be here without thinking about the outside.
“It doesn’t mean we’re not living in this world, we are, we are living in this world for a purpose. That purpose is God’s purpose.”
Although the relevance of their chosen path maybe questioned by some in the wider community for Sr Raphael her vocation could not be more relevant in 2015.
“In fact it’s more relevant today than it ever was,” she said. “It’s a very radical life. It’s a counter cultural life.
“It’s simply responding to what God’s asking and I believe he’s asking more people to come and live this life.
“It surprises me that more people aren’t responding to that call, but chances are they haven’t got the basics to know that that’s their life's vocation.
“I mean it took me a very long time to find monastic life even though I was looking for it for many years.
“We don’t know what fruit this life is going to bear. It’s in God’s hands. We need to be faithful to what God’s called us to.”