Katy Hounsell-Robert meets Fr Luke Bell, a Benedictine monk who sees profound Christian themes in the Harry Potter series Baptising Harry Potter: that’s not the title of a new Harry Potter, but a book written by a Benedictine monk who, like millions, has read and enjoyed the books and been dedicated enough to write an in-depth Christian reading of J K Rowling’s bestselling series.
It all began in 1999 when Fr Luke Bell, a monk at Downside Abbey, was staying with a friend for whom he was going to be best man. While wedding preparations were going on he was left to his own devices and to pass the time picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from the bookshelf and became hooked. Of course, a monk has no money to buy books but he has friends and as word got around when the books came out he was dutifully presented with the new title. Sometimes he got so many he had to give the surplus to the charity shop. He admired them not only because they were “really good stories and accomplished pieces of writing very good on adolescent psychology” but also because they reflected New Testament events and Christian references. After reading the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, he wrote an article about Harry Potter for the Downside School magazine The Raven. Just one of the parallels he noted was that Potter’s arch-enemy Lord Voldemort sought out Harry as a baby so that he could dispatch him, which mirrors the persecution of the innocents by Herod who believed that a new royal baby had been born to threaten his position.
Potter’s mother, Lily, sacrifices her life to protect him so that he escapes only with a scar marking him out as special and protected, and when the time is right Harry is called to “claim his inheritance”.
Fr Luke also notes that early on in the books socalled “normal” people – muggles – like Harry’s aunt and uncle are limited in their imagination and that what is beyond is actually more real. No matter how much messages from the world of magic are suppressed (by his uncle nailing up the letter box) they will get through. Symbolically an owl, representing wisdom, flies in with them.
Fr Luke rejects the notion that parents shouldn’t let their children read Harry Potter because the books show that magic can be good and also bad depending on who possesses it. There is a comforting realism about the Weasley family who are very ordinary people but practise [good] magic as a daily routine.
Fr Luke notes that the mood changes after book four. Harry is no longer the little boy enjoying playing with magic with his chums. He is now a young adult taking on the responsibility of his life’s mission. The last three books mirror the first four in reverse, so the actions taken in the early books are repeated in reverse but seen no longer as a child but in an enlightened way. Fr Luke quotes St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” “This reflects J K Rowling’s description of the enlightened knowledge which comes with resurrection,” he explains. “In this divine glass they see face to face.” Evil becomes more sinister and real throughout the series. Harry’s deadly enemy Voldemort no longer uses agents but takes shape in a live body. Harry has to face the tragedy and tears of losing some of his closest friends when they choose to support his noble purpose to do right and are killed by Voldemort. Harry himself has to confront death and show himself, in Fr Luke’s words, “master of death in the sense of not letting the prospect of apparently certain death intimidate him into failing to carry out his heroic task of confronting Voldemort”. Voldemort, on the other hand, is afraid of death and by clinging to life loses it.
In the spirit of the Gospel teaching in the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry rejects the pleasant life offered to him by the Hallows to find his true life through sacrifice. But he does not die and is revived, reflecting the death and resurrection of Christ. Fr Luke makes it clear that Harry is not “a Christ figure” but simply that the books reflect a Christian message.
Fr Luke is a meticulous wordsmith and eminently qualified to undertake such an exegesis, for long before becoming a monk he read English at Cambridge University and taught at various levels including four years teaching English Literature at the University of AlKaraouine in Fez, Morocco, where they called him “Shakespeare”. When teaching at the Jesuit College in Wimbledon in the 1980s he says that the Holy Spirit inspired him to become Catholic. His family were not Catholic but his younger brother, also a teacher, had already converted. In 1987 he left Wimbledon to enter Downside Abbey, but after being ordained he worked in the parish of St Michael’s, Shepton Mallet, in Somerset, as priest in charge. Among his roles there was celebrating Mass at the Glastonbury Festival every year in the churches tent and working as chaplain at Shepton Mallet prison where, among other things, he was known as Luke Skywalker.
He really enjoyed prison work because, as he says, “as a priest it’s easy to be flattered. Because of the office you hold what you say is taken seriously. Like being a chaplain in the Navy there are all sorts of backgrounds and it’s a cross section of humanity. It was very raw and it has to be real. It doesn’t work if it isn’t real.” There were a number of Catholics there – the Scots being probably the most devout – but many men wanted to know about the faith and converted, gaining considerable comfort from it. The prison also had a drug rehabilitation wing and he found working with the unit a great privilege.
In 2003 Fr Luke reached a point where he wanted to lead a more contemplative life and asked to move to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. As a child he had come with his parents and two brothers on holiday every summer and knew how magical and peaceful the abbey was with its grounds stretching down to the sea.
The monks at Quarr follow the Solesmes tradi tion of the Benedictine rule as opposed to the English Benedictine Congregation of Downside. The Benedictine presence goes back to 1132 when Baldwin de Redvers founded the monastery and invited Savigny monks from France to live there as they followed a stricter life with the emphasis on worship, contemplation and close attention to the ancient liturgy. After the dissolution of the monasteries the abbot chose for the monks to return quietly to France rather than cause bloodshed and the abbey was sold and fell into ruins and became farm land. But in the early 20th century a Law of Intolerance to Religious Communities was passed in France and monks from Solesmes came over to the Isle of Wight hoping to recreate the monastery. They bought a Victorian house near the old ruins and built the new abbey, unusually in Belgian brick, on to the south side. Since arriving at Quarr Fr Luke has, like all the monks, been allotted various duties by the abbot. He helps in the orchards and serves as novice master and guest master, as well as celebrating Mass at the neighbouring convent of St Cecilia’s in Ryde. He presently guides groups around the abbey and runs the bookshop and orders the books – which understandably he enjoys very much. “It’s a bit like putting an alcoholic in charge of a brewery,” he says.
Fr Luke has written other books on Christian themes: A Deep and Subtle Joy, about his life at Quarr Abbey, Joy in Heaven about his prison work, and is currently writing a guide to the abbey where he has now been a monk for eight years, part of his duties there.
“I am happy,” he says. “It’s a balanced life. You have the advantage of fellowship – people doing the same thing – but you can also go off on your own to seek God. You do a variety of things both manual and intellectual, centred on God which is the most important thing – and meaning makes one happy.” He would like more men to be encouraged to become monks. “It is a gradual process,” he said. “It’s two years before taking your first vows and five before the final ones. So there is plenty of time to realise if one is suited. And people can always come on retreats or visit for the day.” Baptising Harry Potter is published by HiddenSpring (Hiddenspringbooks.com). A Deep and Subtle Joy is published by Gracewing (Gracewing.co.uk, 01568 616835)