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White Monks: A Life in Shadows

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Monasterio de La Oliva, Navarra, Spain

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Hiding in the long shadows of the pillars I waited while they prayed. I tried to imagine the scene: from where they might leave the church, whether together or individually, how the light would be. For a few minutes all went quiet and then slowly they started to come down the steps from the altar, processing past me towards the door. The whiteness of their robes shone against the old stone. And then the lights went out. In the eerie darkness, as I continued to press the shutter, one of the monks leaned out towards me from the ghostly group and whispered, ´The secret photographer`. And so began my experience with the monks of the Trappist Order.

Something like a fortress surrounds someone who has faith. It is an impenetrable conviction. More than three-quarters of people around the world believe in the power of prayer and yet there is little proof of its success. Intrigued by this thought, together with a curiosity to understand the legendary reputation of the Trappists, I set out to try and unravel the mystique of monastic life, the enigmatic otherness of monks. With the permission to photograph came several provisos that included, at first, showing no faces at all. Wandering around alone in public areas I was to be as inconspicuous and as sensitive as possible. If accompanied I could go to certain private quarters, but just for a few minutes, and there was to be no talking, as is the rule of the Order. The slightly clandestine nature of it was strangely liberating. At six o´clock in the morning, in the winter, in the darkness of a 12th Century church, thinking you are alone, only to slowly discover that you are surrounded by twenty, hooded, praying monks – it was a perfect moment of pure theatre.

The photographs live as a record for those who don´t have the opportunity to see for themselves the life that takes place inside a monastery. It was an extraordinary privilege to work in the communities, even more so as a woman, and during my time with them my questions grew. Above all, still, who is a monk? The times in which we live make it seem all the more remarkable that someone can renounce so much to enter a monastery, abstain from such great choice. But this is a secular thought. For those who hear the call to monastic life the ultimate desire is to concentrate on their faith. Their decision holds secrets and in them lies a poetic mystery.

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