What it's like to live in a monastery

Story highlights

  • Photographer Ashley Bourne spent weeks inside two monasteries in England
  • His work reflected the life there, he said: "slow and carefully considered"

(CNN)When Ashley Bourne was younger, he saw cloaked figures disappearing behind doors -- doors no outsiders were allowed to enter -- at a Cistercian monastery on the coast of Wales. Ever since Bourne saw those monks, he became curious about the monastic way of life.

"It really struck my imagination," the photographer said, adding that his family to this day still goes on little holidays to the little Welsh island where the monastery sits. "It was like visiting this almost medieval world that was both exciting and mysterious."
    When it was time to complete his final degree project at Falmouth University, Bourne thought back to those cloaked, contemplative memories and decided to make a photo series about it.
    Photographer Ashley Bourne
    But the Trappists at the Cistercian monastery are a strict order of monk, and Bourne wasn't allowed access there at the time he wanted to work on his project. So instead, he took photos at two Benedictine monasteries in England: Downside Abbey and Buckfast Abbey.
    Bourne's first trip to Downside Abbey was in the winter of last year.
    "I remember arriving at the monastery -- it was cold, foggy, getting dark and absolutely nobody was around," Bourne said over email. "I walked around for about 20-30 minutes, trying to find somebody to point me in the right direction. There were many restricted doors and I didn't want to start my visit by being found somewhere I shouldn't. It was a little imposing."
    Eventually Bourne was pointed in the right direction. Father Christopher, the monastery's guest master, showed Bourne to his guest room and invited him to the evening's vigils.
    "No sooner than I had laid down my bag I was to walk down into the main monastery building, through the dimly lit corridors and into the church," Bourne said. "There I sat by candlelight and listened to the chants of around eight cloaked monks. It was really quite beautiful and very welcoming."

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    Bourne began making his photo series "Benedict's House" in October 2015 and spent around five months working on it, visiting the two Benedictine monasteries multiple times. He would stay for up to a week each visit, living alongside the monastic communities and joining them during meals and prayers.
    Bourne said the work was enjoyable, but it was also posed with challenges.
    Falmouth, where he was based, is about a three- to four-hour drive from both Downside Abbey and Buckfast Abbey.
    Bourne also shot entirely on film. There were moments where, after a weeklong visit or particular portrait shoot at the monasteries, Bourne would drive back to Falmouth only to develop his film and find out it hadn't quite turned out the way he envisioned. He'd then have to re-shoot.
    And he adds that because the monasteries can be quite dark, he'd have to use a tripod nearly all of the time. This isn't how he usually works.
    Such challenges, though, turned out to be rather revelatory for Bourne.
    "I came to realize this way of working reflected the way of life I was focused on: slow and carefully considered," he said.
    Bourne met one monk, Father Dominic Mansi, who has a huge passion for magic. They sat in Mansi's private living space, discussing all things magic, before the monk went on to show Bourne his many tricks: card tricks, making things disappear, you name it.
    Another memorable moment for Bourne was sharing a glass of the famous Buckfast tonic -- a mixture of fortified wine and caffeine -- with Buckfast Abbey's oldest monk, Father Sebastien. He has been at the monastery for almost 65 years.
    Bourne's photograph of Father Sebastien -- No. 4 in the gallery above -- was made right before they sat down for their tonic. And after the photograph, Bourne says he then listened to Father Sebastien practice playing his organ in the church.
    None of the photographs in "Benedict's House" are necessarily about the Catholic Church, Bourne says. They're more so about one's devotion to a life of spirituality, or a higher power, that is present in almost every religion.
    "I wanted to portray religion in a positive light," Bourne said. "A monastic vocation or devotion of life to a spiritual service can be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., and so the work primarily aims to highlight the beauty of this service."