Feature

Learning to listen to God’s call
Sophie Overall talks to Bro. Malachy Thompson about choosing to live a monastic life

Bro. Malachy Thompson with Fr Laurence Walsh.

Sophie Overall 

“I do not believe the term, ‘late vocation’ exists,” Bro. Malachy Thompson says when he looks back on how he came to join the Cistercian monks. “God calls people to the religious life when they are ready to truly experience it.”

Bro. Malachy is currently the Director of Vocations at Mount St Joseph Abbey in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, but his path to the monastic life was full of ups and downs.

Living in the monastery in Roscrea, which was founded in 1878, means living a life of contemplative religion. It is marked by intense prayer, cultivated in silence and solitude and the contemplation of God. It is underpinned by a desire to give oneself totally to God in all one does, and it is a life that is witness to the efficacy of prayer. It’s not an easy life, and it’s not one that anyone chooses to pursue on a whim. This was also true for Bro. Malachy.

Originally Christened Paul Thompson, Bro. Malachy began his life in a Catholic working class family in Dublin, where he lived for all of his formative years. He notes that back then, there were no “broken homes”, and he was surrounded by other, traditional Catholic families. After attending Catholic school, Bro. Malachy says that he felt he had “drifted away a bit” from his faith as he entered his teen and late teen years.

“My faith at this point was dwindling,” he says. “It was not central, but there was always a deep faith and sense of God in my life as it should have been.”

Workforce

At 21, Bro. Malachy entered the workforce with a job sweeping the main production floor for Kenilworth Products, Ltd., a packing company. He truly worked his way from the bottom up.

“I went from sweeping the floors to product development, then sales and marketing team, and ultimately I was the European Sales Manager,” he says. “This allowed me to attend night school for my college degree. I loved my job. It was a great company, progressive, with great people.”

However, in his late 20s and early 30s, Bro. Malachy began to seriously delve into his faith.

“At this point, religion still wasn’t central in my life,” he says. “I then began feeling as if I wanted to embrace it again, at a higher level. There was no major catastrophe that happened, as some people experience. It was very gradual and natural. I began to feel drawn back to the sacraments and prayer.”

Bro. Malachy recalls that depending on what time he got out of work, he would go to Mass at night. This occasional occurrence quickly transformed into a daily routine of attending Mass at St Mary’s Pro Cathedral in Dublin.

It was during this time that an extremely important event occurred in Bro. Malachy’s life, an act of fate that changed the trajectory of his life.

“I was 33, and one night I looked down at the pew I was in,” he says “There was a small leaflet that was advertising a ‘Young Adults Weekend in the Cistercian Monastery.’ At this point, I had no knowledge of the monastery, and had never before felt a pull toward living the religious life. However, as soon as I read the leaflet, something sparked within me, so I booked the retreat.”

This influential weekend started with an abrupt welcoming, one which shocked Bro. Malachy when he realised what monastic life was really like.

“When I got there, which was around nine or 10 at night since I was coming from work,” he says, “a nun was outside the guesthouse waiting for me. She said, ‘the monks get up at 4am to pray. You are welcome to join them if you wish.’ Immediately I thought, ‘what did I get myself into?’”

A normal day at Mount St Joseph still begins at four in the morning, and the monks pray together seven times a day to help solidify the important sense of community in the monastery. They find solace and inspiration from each other in working towards a unifying, yet personal, goal.

The seven canonical hours flow out from the Eucharistic celebration and back into it. Vigils and Lauds prepare for the Eucharist which follows. The “little hours” (tierce, sext, none), Vespers and Compline are a kind of continuation of and return to the Eucharist that precedes them each day. Vigils is the Night Office, when the monks and nuns rise to watch and pray during the hours of darkness. 

Despite his initial misgivings about getting up at 4am for morning prayer, Bro. Malachy did go to the early vigil that day.

“It was a vigils prayer with a silent ceremony directly following,” he says. “This was an extremely special moment for me. After the prayer, as I was sitting there in the silence and darkness, I felt something change in my heart. It was there, in that moment, that I first thought, ‘could I become a monk?’”

Bro. Malachy ended up listening to his heart and going back and visiting the monastery every weekend. It was on one of his visits that a seemingly unsuspecting interaction would tremendously shape his path to, and consequently within, the monastery.

“While I was at the monastery, a monk came up to me and asked if I would like him to show me around,” he says. “I said sure, completely unaware of who he was. When I got back, I was asked by a nun who had showed me around. I said I didn’t know who it was, but he had this big papal thing around his neck. She told me that was Fr Laurence Walsh, the abbot at the time. Eventually, every Saturday became a walk and talk around the grounds with Fr Laurence. I was absorbing everything and observing Cistercian life from someone who had lived it for 60 years.”

After around four years of meeting with Fr Laurence, Bro. Malachy knew he had to come to a final decision. In August 2005, he decided he needed to figure out if he truly had purity of motive in joining the monastic life. That Christmas, he attended a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While sitting in a church during the pilgrimage, Bro. Malachy finally knew that God really was calling him to the religious life, and this needed to be the next stage of his life.

“One of the best parts about this transition was the meaning behind the day I entered,” he says. “Usually people choose religiously important days, such as days devoted to specific saints. However, prior to entering the monastery, I had a great love for Dublin GAA football. So, July 17, 2006 was the last game of Dublin versus Leinster in GAA football, and the day I entered.”

Amidst commemorating Dublin GAA, Bro. Malachy proclaims the true impact that entering the monastery had on his life.

“It exceeded all my expectations,” he says. “Before I came to the monastery, I had thought my life was full. But after this slow realisation of God, and realising that this is what God is calling me to do, I have felt so much more fulfilled.”