The tradition of monastic hospitality goes back to the early Middle Ages. This hospitality was directed especially to pilgrims and the poor when visiting the great medieval shrines at Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostella (Spain). That, however, was a long time ago.
Paradoxically, while modern society is almost totally secular, visiting and spending a few days at monasteries throughout the Western world has regained popularity as more people feel a need to 'chill out' from the incessant action of urban life to spend time in a contemplative environment. Monasteries have a peaceful atmosphere and an aura of mystery; they are sources of spiritual refreshment and renewal.
In Australia and New Zealand there are contemplative convents and monasteries but with vast distances between them and some are not well known. Visitors have to make a substantial effort. However, the result is often faith strengthening.
Moreover, even committed Catholics - especially young adults in detox from the ravages of the anti- religious aggro of long years in the nominally 'Catholic' education system - can have an exhilarating experience observing the firm commit- ment of the monks or nuns and the daily round of prayer. The stay can be also a vital opportunity for young men and women considering a religious vocation.
One woman, a barrister, with a religious education but no longer an active Catholic wrote of her visit to a convent of contemplative nuns: 'A substantial chapel is attached to the house and rings its bell before each of the seven canonical hours of prayer commencing with Matins at 4am and ending with Compline at 8pm.
'We assisted in singing the Offices in quavering voices and were surprised how well we felt. The nuns were devout but not austere, pious without being proselytising. After Mass, everyone embraced and I felt keenly the contrast of this communal love with the harsh professional world I inhabit normally.
'The food was simple and unadorned. After every meal, we guests felt duty bound to do the washing-up.
'The combination of peace and spiritual atmosphere enabled me to reconsider things and shift my centre back into balance.
'The library was piled high with theological and devotional books. Easy chairs and window seats with views across the valley gave it the relaxed atmosphere of a rural library.'
This lady's experience echoes that of many others. Unsurprisingly, the contemplative convents and monasteries tend to have a small but regular flow of vocations in spite of the intense, demanding nature of their way-of-life.
There are three Australian monasteries or convents with a strong Benedictine way-of-life and good facilities for guests:
* Holy Trinity Benedictine Abbey, New Norcia, WA 6509. The Abbey is around one hundred kilometres from Perth on the main Northern Highway; tel (08) 9654-8067; fax (08) 9654- 8097; email: email@example.com. edu.au
* Tyburn Benedictine Priory, 325 Garfield Road East, Riverstone, NSW 2765; tel (02) 9627-5171. The convent has a guest house with eight rooms and facilities for male and female visitors.
* Cistercian monks, Tarrawarra Abbey, 685 Yarra Glen-Healesville Road, Yarra Glen, Vic 3775; tel (03) 9730-1306; fax (03) 9730-1749; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyone wishing to spend a few days in a monastery can ring, email, fax or write a letter to the Guest Master requesting accommodation and giving particulars. On the matter of costs, most monasteries accept donations but have no fixed charge for a stay.
Australians love international travel. At any time around a million are living or travelling overseas and most are in Britain or Western Europe. In view of the two millennia European Christian heritage, the roots of monastic life are deep in spite of the prevailing secular culture. Those who wish to experience monastic life have many places to go.
At the moment, one of the points of light in the Australia is the devotion of the Latin Mass communities around the country. In England, St Michael's Abbey, Farnborough, is a mecca for those who love the Latin liturgy in an exotic setting. Moreover, the abbey is easy to access, being some 50 kilometres south-east of London and close to a mainline station.
* St Michael's Abbey, Farnborough, Hants, GU14 7NQ; tel (01252) 546 105; fax (01252) 372-822; website: www. farnboroughabbey.org
In London, there are contemplative monasteries with guest houses. These are two of them easy to access for visitors with no cars:
* Ealing Abbey, Charlbury Grove, London W5 2DY; tel (0208) 862-2100; email: email@example.com
Ealing Abbey is close to central London and within walking distance of Ealing Broadway station on the Tube.
* Tyburn Convent, 8 Hyde Park Place, London W2 2LJ; tel (0207) 723- 7262. The website is www.tyburn convent.org.uk
This convent is close to Marble Arch in central London. The large community, assisted by their lay network, maintains perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. There is a small guest house and applications would need to be made well in advance of travel.
If a visitor enjoys the monastery stay, the Guest Mistress will usually assist in finding other convents near where the tourist or pilgrim is planning to travel. Paris is a popular destination and easy to access via the Channel tunnel. These are two well- organised Foyers Religieux where the writer has stayed on occasion.
* Foyer Friedland, 23, avenue de Friedland, 75008, Paris; tel: (33) (0140) 76-30-30; fax: (0140) 76-30-00. This house is near Charles-de-Gaulle Etoile on the Metro, a mere 300 metres walk from the station.
* Foyer Saint Jean Eudes, 1, rue Jean Dolent, 75014, Paris; tel: (0144) 08-70- 00; fax: (0143) 36-72-03, is near Glaciere station on the Metro.