I have just returned from my summer holiday, and for a week of that holiday I was living in one of a small cluster of cottages, set in a clifftop woodland, that had no telephone, no mobile phone reception and no wifi.
The cold blast of digital wind would hit me only when I emerged from that shelter, at the crest of a cliff or a hill, or on the right spot somewhere in an old fishing village. Then the data would rush in, blowing away cobwebs as it refreshed email inboxes and social media feeds.
But every evening, once the bicycles were propped against the fence, the hiking boots unlaced and the heavy doors locked, the howling binary storm was silenced – not even muffled, but silenced – and the familiar winking green and white and blue blips that demand our attention so urgently were blackened, like a coastline without a lighthouse.
As it happens, I had been away from Twitter for a couple of weeks already. Not in response to anything in particular – just because I don’t like it much, and it feels like an assertion of my rational humanity to choose not to do something that I don’t much like. I had started to recognise that I would get a pleasurable feeling each time Twitter would email me with its increasingly desperate attempts to draw me back into its cacophony. Each time I saw its icon on my screen and refused to prod it, I got a tingle of satisfaction.
My week in the isolated cottage was a deeper version of that abstinence. But it was deeper to such an extent that it changed the experience: with even the possibility of opening the windows to the gales of the digital world absent, the pleasure was no longer that of being aware of the cold and pulling one’s collar up tight against it, but that of being warm enough to forget the cold and redirect one’s attention to other things, wholly, purely and without distraction.
Many Twitter users appear to reach a point at which they want or need to take a break from it. Strangely, a good number of them feel the need to announce this on Twitter.
For many years I was the only living journalist without a social media account. I wasn’t even on LinkedIn. In fact, I bought my first smartphone as recently as 2015, when I quit the magazine world. I joined LinkedIn a year or so later, in order to stay in touch with colleagues and other contacts from my time in journalism. I finally made it onto Twitter and Instagram in 2017, specifically to promote this “Pursuit of Abbeyness” blog.
If that seems back-to-front, I should point out that I did not primarily report news. I was a magazine section editor, and a writer of analytical feature articles.
For the reporter, Twitter is an essential tool: a lot of news breaks on Twitter long before it appears as a press release, and within seconds there is an archive of reaction to it. I always considered social media to be a dangerous place for the analyst, however. My preference was to talk to practitioners in my field unmediated by the noise. This was not about ignoring important trends. Rather, it was about not herding my contacts into addressing those trends. Instead, I wanted them to tell me what they really thought, and respond to questions that were genuinely my own.
Twitter has a peculiar effect on a majority of its users – I specify a majority because it is a community that self selects for the more-than-averagely opinionated and combative among us. It simultaneously makes its users more pliant (their views are shaped by what they read there, rather than by their own observation and reflection) and more strident (anonymity, distance and brevity are all more conducive to high-handed dismissals than to reasoning).
Does it also make them more informed? I suppose it depends upon what we understand by “informed”. It certainly tells you what’s going on, and it influences what its users do – indeed, that seems to be the entire basis of social media as a commercial enterprise. When we do things in a more “informed” way, are we still doing them authentically, in our own way? And if not, does that matter? By becoming more superficially “informed”, do we risk losing the possibility of becoming somehow more profoundly informed?
“Cistercians esteem the value of simplicity,” according to some words on the website of the Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire. “Simplicity doesn’t stand for a thing done simply, or cheaply, but rather represents a distillation of complexity. It is about processing and ordering a rich, varied reality in such a way that the result seems self-evident: ‘This is how it has to be!’”
Cistercians like this kind of paradox. I imagine that, for them, a paradox like this reflects something of the mystery of the Divine, and embracing it is part of what it means to be faithful.
“Despite living a life apart, monks are open to the world,” it says a little further down the page. “We carry the world’s anxieties and hopes in our prayers. We’re always glad to welcome guests who turn up on our doorstep. The monks of old had a saying: Patet porta, cor magis. ‘The door is open, the heart even more so.’”
Patet porta, cor magis.
This is a door that is open to allow the world in, rather than to allow the monks out. It is a passive sort of openness. It does not seek to impose. At the same time, however, it is assertive, in that it merely enables openness to co-exist with apartness.
The monks engage on their own terms: their hearts are open, but they also work with the assumption that those who come through their open door do so with their own hearts open to respect the unique identity of their vocation.
In July this year, Mount Saint Bernard became the latest Cistercian abbey, and the first in the UK, to brew a commercially-available beer certified as a Trappist product. It joined six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, one in France, one in Austria, one in Italy, one in Spain and one in the US. The words above were written to describe this new Trappist Ale, which is called Tynt Meadow, after the local landscape in which their quiet work is done, and the only tweeting is done by the birds.
The value that Cistercians place upon work done in quietness is well-known. They regard it as a form of prayer or devotion. There is a certain hard-headedness about it, too. Work is not done for work’s sake, or even just for God’s sake. The monks receive no subsidy or stipend to support their day-to-day living and therefore commercial work and trade is necessary for sustenance. That abbey door is open for reasons other than good fellowship.
The monks of Mount Saint Bernard know this as well as any. Some work in carpentry, some in ceramics, others in bookbinding, candlemaking and miscellaneous lower-skilled crafts, still others in the guesthouse that welcomes pilgrims or retreatants. The most economically-significant work, however, used to be done in agriculture and dairy farming. Modern farming methods and low milk prices mean that this work is no longer profitable enough to support the abbey’s “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” economy. The decision to establish a brewery followed an urgent search for a more suitable source of income.
The door was kept open as the monks set about creating experimental recipes with a homebrewing kit.
“The monks of Norcia, Saint-Wandrille, and Zundert have taught us a lot, and were generous in sharing their own brewing experience,” they write. “We’ve received invaluable advice from the eleven other Trappist breweries, and from the International Trappist Association. We’ve also benefited from the kindness and counsel of several local brewers.”
They describe the beer they came up with as “a strong dark ale”, at 7.4% ABV, brewed in a nod to the “great Trappist tradition”. We would recognise it as a Belgian abbey Dubbel.
The monks need not have brewed a beer like this. The tradition the brewers refer to is not particularly old. The abbey ale styles of Belgium date from the early 20th century. Moreover, Mount Saint Bernard appears to have its own brewing tradition: while there are no documented recipes for the modern brewery to draw upon, the monks report that 19th-century visitors wrote about drinking the abbey’s table beer.
And yet it would have been unsatisfying, somehow, had they chosen to make a modern version of that table beer, or some traditional English ale style – let alone something current like a hop-forward cloudy IPA. To be commercially viable the brewery needs to differentiate itself from the crowded modern beer market. The Trappist brand is its most valuable asset with which to do so, and the traditional Belgian abbey styles resonate most with that brand.
Most of the other Trappist breweries outside of the Low Countries at least allude to these styles in their range, despite their being no requirement to do so and no particularly long tradition of it. Even the most distinctive, the Spencer Brewery of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in the US, backs up its range of “American Trappist Craft Beers” – including an Imperial Stout, an IPA and a Lager – with a Patersbier, a Christmas Spiced Ale and a Strong Dark Abbey Ale.
Still, the Monks of Saint Bernard are right to say that they have created an ale “with a clearly English character”.
My first taste came in the estimable little bar run by the Six°North brewery in Aberdeen.
Tynt Meadow has more dark malt character than a Belgian Dubbel, whose colour would come almost exclusively from candi sugar. It is sweeter and correspondingly less dry and “digestible”, while staying just the right side of cloying or heavy. The brewers note flavours of dark chocolate, liquorice, “rich fruit”, pepper and fig. I would agree, and add that the dark chocolate malt character is complemented by a certain smokiness in the finish, as well as other malt flavours on the palate such as biscuit and vanilla.
More notably, it was immediately obvious to me that this beer had been fermented with an English, rather than a Belgian strain of yeast. The shock of the high-gravity wort, and possibly a high fermentation temperature, has brought forth some very strong esters and fusels characteristic of English ales: particularly the rose aroma of phenethyl alcohol and a touch of the solvent-like bite of ethyl acetate.
I think this beer may need a few more batches before the fermentation temperature is exactly right to capture the signal Englishness of the yeast without unbalancing the overall flavour. At that point, the monks of Mount Saint Bernard will have created a Belgian abbey ale that speaks with a true English accent.
There is an alternative, however. The fresh beer could retain these rough edges and the brewers could instead call upon their consumers to learn the patience of the cenobite and allow those esters and fusels to soften and mellow with age and oxidation.
Indeed, perhaps the Mount Saint Bernard monks have already hinted at precisely this – and more besides. They tell us that their Tynt Meadow ale should be “stored in a cool, dark, quiet place”. There is science behind those first two conditions, coolness and darkness. I do not know of the science behind storing an ale in a quiet place.
But it does seem right, somehow.