The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance is a Roman Catholic contemplative, enclosed order of monks and nuns that evolved from a succession of reforms to return to the true spirit of the Benedictines. Driven by a desire for greater simplicity, Robert of Molesme, Albéric and Stephen Harding founded the Abbey of Cîteaux in 1098 — from whose Latin name Cistercian originates — with a professed intention to restore a perfect balance of prayer, the meditative reading of Scripture, and manual labour, as set out in Saint Benedict's Rule.

Under the abbacy of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian charism flourished, but by the seventeenth century its essential qualities once again seemed lost. The Order´s spiritual restlessness was severely quieted by Armand-Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, abbot of La Grande Trappe, who imposed an austere reform that focused on penitence.

Today, their spiritual descendants, both monks and nuns, number nearly four thousand in forty-four countries. They take vows of stability, conversion — which constitutes fidelity to monastic life — and obedience, and live in solitude in an atmosphere of silence.

Intrigued by the life of a monk, and drawn by the legend surrounding the Trappists, Francesca Phillips set out to try and unravel the mystique of monastic life, the enigmatic otherness of monks.

Made over a period of three years in monasteries across Spain — Monasterio de La Oliva in Navarra, Monasterio de San Pedro de Cardeña in Burgos, and Abadía San Isidro de Dueñas in Palencia — the photographs offer an intimate glimpse into an ancient way of life that is rarely seen by others; a testament to lives devoted to spiritual service, in extraordinary counterpoint to the modern world.

The exhibition of 43 black and white photographs, White Monks: A Life in Shadows, runs at Wolfson College from May 6th - 24th.

All photographs © Francesca Phillips

A Life in Shadows

A Life in Shadows

A Life in Shadows

A Life in Shadows