Friendship in God – Dom Malachy Thompson

“Friendship in God”

Address to Clergy, Ministers of Pastoral Care, Catechesis, Adult Faith Formation

Dom Malachy Thompson, OCSO, Mount St. Joseph’s Abbey, Roscrea

Occasion of Chrism Mass, Diocese of Killaloe, Holy Week, Nenagh

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. I hope it doesn’t need be said what a huge joy and privilege it is to be among you all this evening, before we celebrate our Chrism Mass of 2024. As well as catching up with friends, this meal is a God-given opportunity to meet new people and to develop relationships, all within the wonderful economy of Christ’s love.

I’m truly blessed to have the opportunity to speak as we share this meal.

I must start, however, by admitting to a certain reluctance about sharing with you my personal thoughts on priestly life. When Fr Pat contacted me a little over two weeks ago I had just finished hosting the Regional Meeting of our Order in our guesthouse and was feeling very positive and upbeat as the meeting had been a success so I readily agreed to Pat’s request to speak this evening. It was only after a weekend of reflection that I questioned what could I as an enclosed contemplative share in relation to priestly ministry.

Looking out as I stand here, I see many collective years and decades of priestly ministry gathered, ready to hear my words. A great deal of passion and expertise, experience, and Christ-centred journeys. And here I am, not only a ‘worker of the eleventh hour’, having only been ordained on Pentecost Sunday 9th June 2019, but also a contemplative monk who does not share the busy – perhaps sometimes even frenetic – burden of parochial ministry in the same ways that you do. I mean, it’s true: we Cistercians can find ourselves snowed under with work, running around chasing our ministerial tails. But ours is not, primarily, a parochial ministry. God-centred: yes. Community-centred: definitely. But parochial: not in the truest sense. By point of fact, every one of our monasteries around the world is a guest within the diocese. Priesthood, though, is priesthood. And I think we can probably all agree that ours is a vocation of surprise, of unexpectedness, in which we have a responsibility to draw on various traditions to live as best as we may the vocation that has been bestowed on us.

I recall Cardinal Basil Hume once saying that: ‘The Rule of St Benedict makes it possible for ordinary folk to live lives of quite extraordinary value. The weak have a place to do their best.’ So, I beseech you, dear friends, to humour me as I speak, to bear in mind that I come to the priesthood perhaps from a different angle, a different charism, one that may be different to yours, but not that different. In the diocese, but not in it, just like our monasteries around the world.


We must remember that most early monks were not ordained. Priests emerged within these communities via necessity, and this gradually led to the current situation in which most monks are also priests.

I believe, and you may think it odd for a contemplative monk to say this, that the centre of my ministry is friendship. Friendship in God. This is what my early monk forebears learnt and passed down. We are called to know him better, to meet with his presence through the Sacraments and the Gospel, and to assimilate that presence into ourselves, to be at once better receptors of his love, and better broadcasters. It takes no difficult thought process to glean that this is a lifetime’s vocation. But that is Priesthood: acting in the name of the Church, and in the person of Christ, the Head of the Church.

A well-functioning monastery should be a microcosm of the world. And, of the world, St John Paul the Second wrote: ‘We are all one family in the world. Building a community that empowers everyone to attain their full potential through each of us respecting each other’s dignity, rights and responsibilities makes the world a better place to live.’ This is the work of a lifetime for the monk. There is a misnomer, though, within priestly life, that living as a contemplative takes away the stress and burden of human interactions, so that the monk can concentrate on other things. This is wholly wrong. In many ways, it is the opposite. A monk, by making a decision – through vows – to live in community is tying himself to a group of people whom he may otherwise never have come into contact with, never have become friends with. Living in such proximity to diverse people has it joys and its challenges. We can’t take time away from them; we can’t change those people for others. We are dedicated to living alongside them. We all understand from experience the comment of a dear departed monk from within our region who once said: “We are called to love our brothers and sisters. We don’t need to like them. But we should love them.” I would say that the harmony of any community is a good barometer for its Godliness.

The daily life that we Cistercians live is centred, of course, on fraternity. And I suppose, just as Parish life is the place where your priestly love and understanding of God is tested and – please God – bears fruit, so for us, living in community is the corresponding arena, the place where God asks us to sow his seed. An Abbot of Caldey Island once said that, whilst a new monk will have a good understanding of who he is and how he ticks, it is the monastic community that will show him – in time – his true character. I suppose what I’m trying to say, is that this arena of God’s love is a teacher: Our community is the place where we both sow and reap, it is the mirror that is held up before our face every day. It will present to us our strengths and our weaknesses, our successes and failures. And in community life, it is a mirror that is always there.

To quote Tomas Merton “The ultimate thing is that we build community not on our love but on God’s love…It puts us in a position where sometimes natural community is very difficult. People are sent here and there, and often very incompatible people are thrown together. Groups of people who would never have chosen to be together in an ordinary human way find themselves living together. This is a test of faith. This puts God’s love to the test, and it is meant to… It isn’t just a question of whether you are building community with people that you naturally like, it is also a question of building community with people that God has brought together.”


I think we all know that, left to our own devices, all of this would be a hopeless cause. Luckily, for us monastics, we feed into this undiluted community life by the work that we do through the day. To grow in community, we must learn to respect our differences.  I would like to look at this work with you now, to give you an insight into why it is I feel it is crucial to my priesthood – and indeed what it is.


At the header of our daily life is Conventual Mass. But we are going to return to this later.


For now, I wonder if you’re aware what the official primary work of a Cistercian monk is? Well, it is the Opus Dei, the Divine Office. We come together, not only in monastic community but are also joined by our friends and neighbours, our guests and college members, to recite the Official Prayer of the Church according to the Cistercian calendar. This comes before all else, whether it’s working on the farm tending to our calves, totting up numbers in the ledgers or pruning trees in the orchard. “Nothing’, reads our Constitutions, “is to be preferred to the Work of God.”

For us, it is the scaffold of the day onto which everything else hangs. Parish life I imagine can present difficulties when it comes to a parochial priest reciting the Office. But for the Cistercian, every other responsibility comes second to the Office, coming together as we do, in community, at certain times throughout the day and night to pray together. This is one of the great privileges of monastic life and one we do not take lightly. It demands fidelity on the part of all to be present for our communal prayer something we will touch on later.

For a seasoned monk, one of the beauties of this is that the words of the Office are reflected through the rest of or daily tasks. Not that this isn’t the case for a parish priest, too. But for the monk, the experience is immersive. Whatever we are doing, we are punctuated by psalms, canticles and hymns, words of petition and praise.

Most importantly, though, it is the pairing of our day with the fantastically human words of the Psalter that makes for such potency. They accompany us in our praise and sadness, joy and sorrow, success and failure, and we learn to become the voice of the psalmist. And when we return to the College or the farm, the library or the refectory, over months and years the Psalms begin to embed themselves into us: an assimilation so powerful that it becomes intrinsic, to the core. We realise that we have learnt the entire Psalter, that it is written in our heart.

To have this psalmic dialogue throughout the day is gift enough. But when we consider that it is done in community, it is greater still. We are making the community our closest companions, not only in work and study, in refectory and reading room, but in liturgy. Whether abbot or postulant, regardless of our job, we stop seven times each day to combine our voices in prayer. There is no doubt that this is one of the greatest joys of monastic life, to be accompanied – in community – in all things by the liturgy. We are holding each other in priesthood.

We all know that The Office is termed as a sacrifice of praise. And sometimes it IS a sacrifice! We must bear the burdens of others: the late, the sleepy, the musically untuned! But this teaches us lots about ourselves, because can we truly say that we come to the Office perfect? We see their brokenness, but through our own. That, too, is work for the monk. It is an opportunity to work on our own priesthood, to be as Christ in all things, regardless of our own insecurity.

I said earlier that the way we celebrate the Office is a barometer for our Godliness. Here is another deep aspect of our priesthood in action. For, through the Office, we see the characters of all those present. We are part and parcel of their ups and downs. And, whilst it is sometimes incumbent on us to push through the darker, challenging times of life, our brethren will bring these times to our Office: we shall be part of them. In essence, through the liturgy we see the health – or not – of those we live alongside. And this gives us an opportunity to be Christ to them: to overlook when we think it is required; to have a chat when we feel it would help; to give a word of encouragement or act as an intermediary if there is a quarrel. Oh yes, the Divine Office is charged with the entire human condition – just as the Psalms are, and as a monk this is a seven-daily act of priesthood, of joyful sacrifice as we pray together. I think St Aelred of Rievaulx alludes to this when he says that, when we pray to Christ for a friend, it is easy, and almost inevitable, that our affection will pass from one to the other. ‘so that we might begin by an awareness of our friend in prayer before the Lord, and gradually understand that when we are with Christ we are also with our friend’.

Our Statutes have Lectio Divina as ‘A source of prayer and a school of contemplation’. The practice of Lectio Divina is crucial within my life and those of my brethren. The practice is a process of investigation, of concentration, as we place ourselves into a Gospel passage, making our own the reactions of the Disciples, listening to Christ’s words as though for the first time. We are trying to develop an encounter with God. The encounter, of course, is already there, we are simply doing all that we can to look with new eyes, to develop in wisdom under his gaze. A twelfth century Cistercian theologian, William of Saint Thierry, writes of the Holy Spirit thus: ‘The Spirit himself is the anxious quest of the one who truly seeks, he is the devotion of the one who adores in spirit and truth, he is the wisdom of the one who finds, the love of the one who possesses, the gladness of the one who enjoys.’ I would say that this epitomises the wonder and beauty of Lectio Divina. It is our aim as monks to make Lectio into a meeting place with Jesus. And, whilst we may not always have a fruitful Lectio session, the aim is to make it as fertile a ground as possible. The call addressed to us monks is a call to put Christ at the centre of everything. To understand everything in His light. If we want to know what God has to say to us and if we want to understand what God is like, we need to look to Jesus. Jesus is the key to life. As St Bonaventure put it: If we know only Jesus, then we know everything. All we really need to know to live.

Certainly, the key to understanding the Bible is Jesus. It is not just me who says that, Christ Himself proclaimed it and the Christian tradition has affirmed this to be true over and over again. This means that everything that we read and understand about God through the Bible needs to be through the lens of Jesus. Christ is, in His person, the very revelation of God.

The classic Gospel text which illustrates this truth is the story of the Emmaus Road travellers.

Christ continues to do for us what He did for the Emmaus Road travellers. This is why it is so important for us to have daily prayerful recourse to the Sacred Scriptures. What the Emmaus story reveals to us is that, reading events in the light of Sacred Scripture through the lens of the Risen Christ, even what is apparently the most terrible event can be seen in a new light – one that gives a certain meaning to the seemingly senseless. Even the post horrible atrocity (Jesus’ suffering) can be transformed, and hope renewed.

In the scene which follows on from the Emmaus Gospel in Luke 24 we are told how Jesus appeared to His disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. There too He explained the Sacred Scriptures to them, helping them to understand that everything written in the prophets and in the psalms was written about Him.

Once we grasp that Jesus is to be seen everywhere in the Bible we come to appreciate that He is to be seen not only in Scripture, but anywhere and everywhere… well over and beyond the boundaries of our Sacred Texts and the Sacraments of the Church. The Lord is alive and active in our lives right now.

There is a movement to bring monasticism to the lay world, and, by that, I mean it’s disciplines, its search for quiet in order to make prayer an hourly scaffold. This is difficult in monastic life, let alone in what some may call ‘the outside world’. But I think, whether we are monks or not, everyone of faith may benefit from the wisdom of monasticism. As with most practices, the trickiest part is setting aside the time and not succumbing to the ‘I’ll do it in a minute’ temptation. Without the monastery and its bell system, we would fall early on. But I still think that Lectio should be engaged by everyone of faith, because there is nothing quite like looking anew at something you thought you understood. Some parishes have group Lectio sessions, and I know that these aren’t for everyone. Many prefer to make this a private prayer. But in whatever way we find it best, Lectio offers us priests a powerhouse of grace.

Lectio Divina is always a practice of humility, sometimes of sacrifice. It takes away – or certainly should – that authoritative edge in our voice, and brings us back to the heart of the message, as we wait to see what the Spirit is saying to us. And we may be surprised! Because, something may come out in the text that challenges us, that makes a little epiphany. How often did the Disciples think they knew it all, and Christ had to show them, over and again, how wrong they were. So, to listen, to listen in the prayer of Lectio Divina, is a dynamic aspect to priesthood in the monastery. We must discover Jesus’ vision and make it our own even against what our senses and reason tell us. It means trying to live our human lives as he lived his in obedience to the Father.

I find, and not through my own merits, that this prayerful scaffold of Opus Dei and Lectio Divina directly feeds back to my vocation. It allows to me preach in a way that means that I can hear myself in dialogue with Christ, speaking through my own experience of prayer rather than through the musty pages of a homily prompt. I think it was Cardinal Manning in “The Eternal Priesthood” said that preparation is required for preaching, and the most important preparation is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the man.   There is always the dangers of speaking about prayer rather than simply praying. And it is a danger indeed. With this scaffold of Opus Dei and Lectio Divina holding up the Cistercian, sustaining us, there is less chance of submitting to sloppy ways, but we still need to persevere in our commitment to our prayer.

In the Gospels Our Lord often speaks about fidelity:  He gives us the example of the faithful and prudent servant, the faithful steward, the valet who is good and loyal even in the smallest things..  The opposite of perseverance is inconstancy.  Among the most frequent obstacles to faithful perseverance, the first one of all is pride, which attacks the very foundation of fidelity and weakens the will to fight difficulties and temptations.  Without humility, perseverance becomes feeble and shaky.

Fidelity to the end of our life demands fidelity in the little things of every day and readiness to begin again whenever there has been any falling away through weakness.  Persevering in one’s vocation is a matter of responding to the calls that God makes in the course of a lifetime, even though obstacles and difficulties may arise. Christ’s call requires a firm and constant response and, at the same time, a deeper penetration into the meaning of the Cross and into the greatness and demands of one’s own particular vocation.

God himself continually supports our fidelity and always takes human weakness, defects and mistakes into account.  He is always ready to give us the necessary graces, as He did with the disciples of Emmaus, to keep going forward with constancy, provided there is sincerity of life and desire to struggle.  In this way, having persevered with God’s help in the little things of every day, at the end of our lives we will hear with unutterable joy those words of Our Lord:  Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master. 


I hope that we are beginning to see how different priestly life can be in monasticism, yet how it’s footprint is one that you know well. Love is obviously at the heart of all vocations. The love of God. ‘The reason for loving God is God himself’ wrote Bernard of Clairvaux. ‘As to how he is to be loved, there is only one measure: it is immeasurable!’ The way that we Cistercians love God is individual to each monk. We are far from being all the same, even if we dress the same! And the monastery is awash with work needing to be done. Monastic work is often hidden, humble, anonymous, even monotonous. We believe there can be great value in obeying God’s will by our daily fidelity to our assigned task.

Work and study is another part of finding God, of developing in his love, whether we are shelling peas, writing to an Abbot General, accompanying a Psalm or mending a cowl. All of our work pertains to the whole community, and in this sense it is priestly. We are tending to our flock, we are Christ at work in the midst of other Christs – our brethren, leaning on others just as they lean on us. Caring for the sick, teaching, encouraging, all fitted into the gaps between the Divine Office and Lectio Divina.


Officially speaking, ‘The Abbey’ of Mount St Joseph is not the building itself, but the people. At the very centre of daily life in the Monastery is Mass and the Sacraments. All the other aspects I spoke about have their source in this great Sacramental meeting place, when we come together as a community to receive Jesus. This is what has sustained The Abbey of Mount St Joseph for over a century, and will continue to do so, please God, for more. Everything we do is in the gaze of our Creator.

What is a priest but one who makes Christ visible? Gathered around our Tabernacle is the Monastery, the farm, the College, the gardens and pathways, and all of the life that we and our forebears have created. And whilst we are religious of the twenty-first century, nothing is much different from those days of yore, apart from John Deeres and the inevitable smartphones – yet even those are part of our work, part of our priestly ministry. And as we stand at the Altar in persona Christi, we have the same work as you here tonight, to bring Christ into this world, to be Christ. That is our identity.


A wise monk once said that joy is the identifying mark of a spiritually mature person. Since I entered the monastery, this piece of wisdom has taken on new and profound meaning for me. On my monastic journey with the help of guidance of brethren I have come to discover the immense peace and joy as the layers of all that keeps me from God are peeled away. Joy, even in the midst of challenging situations, has become my source of strength and grounding.  We all yearn for deeper union with God. We yearn to find our truest selves: selves that we do not fully know, yet whose potential we have glimpsed. We begin to see the shadow of possibilities and hints of what God might want for us. God wants to share with us the fullness of his joy. That is what God wants for each one of us: complete joy. joy is the disposition that emerges abundantly as we deepen in unity with God. We come to delight in the unexpected surprises God sends our way. We come to anticipate and appreciate the broad vision God would have us risk. Having tasted God’s inheritance for us, we develop a heartfelt longing for the things and ways of God. We start to view life through a lens of abundance rather than scarcity.

In his Rule, Benedict tells his monks that as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love! To the extent that we dwell in joy, we know Christ. Joy is internalising the resurrection. Our monastic observance helps us shed everything that keep us from joy.


To be happy is a form of giving thanks to God for the innumerable gifts He gives us.  Joy is the first tribute we owe him, the simplest, most sincere way of showing that we are aware of the gifts of nature and grace He showers upon us, and which we thank him for.  God the Father is pleased with us when he sees us happy and joyful with true gladness in our vocation.

We do great good around us with our joy, for this brings others to God.  Joy is frequently the best example of charity for those around us.  Many people will find God behind our optimism, in the customary smile, in a cordial attitude.

The world is apprehensive and anxious.  It is in need, above all, the peace and joy the Lord has given us.  So many people have found the road to God in the cordial, smiling conduct of a good Priest!  Joy is an enormous help in our ministry because is leads us to give Christ’s message in a cheerfully benevolent and positive way, as the Apostles did after the Resurrection.  We need it for ourselves too, in order to grow internally.  St Thomas Aquinas says expressly that everyone who wants to make progress in the spiritual life needs to have joySadness debilitates us.  It is like the heavy clay accumulating on the boots of a walker which, as well as befouling them, makes each step more difficult for him.  This interior joy is also the state of mind necessary for perfectly complying with our priestly obligations.  And the greater these are the greater must be our joy.  The greater our responsibility (priests – ministers – superiors – Bishops …), the greater also our obligation to have this peace and joy to give to others, and the greater the urgency of recovering it when its habitual possession has been interrupted or disturbed.

I’m sure that we have all heard the quote of St John Vianney: ‘The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.’ We often hanker, in our respective vocations, for a pastoral munch on the grass that is over the water. We contemplatives might sometimes daydream about visiting schools and hospitals, having perhaps a more ‘outward’ ministry. And I have no doubt that some of you here this evening enjoy coming on retreat to monasteries: you possibly do this to find a calmer gear, to identify with that elusive, still, small voice of calm that might be difficult to discern in a busy parish church. But, whatever our respective angle, the heart of Jesus is the same, we are just standing from a different vantage point. The oil we use is the same, whether monastic or parochial. And the love: as many ways as there are to show God’s love, it is the same love.

So, whilst we are gathered here together, perhaps we may pray for our own vocations, that we may serve and bless, that we may bring into this world the heart of Jesus, sustaining each other’s priesthoods so that we can make a bigger difference towards the Kingdom of God.