Original article no longer available
Mar 19 2006
Matt Withers, Wales on Sunday
IT IS a mystery which could have come straight from the pages of the multi-million bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code.
The community surrounding historic Belmont Abbey in Herefordshire is awash with dark rumours linking the suicide of a celebrated Welsh monk with Dan Brown’s religious thriller, leaving some asking: Could The Da Vinci Code have driven Father Alan Rees to his death?
As the man who composed the music for the Pope’s only visit to Wales, Father Alan was one of the most respected men within Britain’s Catholic Church.
But only religious confidantes will have known the turmoil troubling the Swansea-born monk. For 12 years he had suffered from depression and anguish.
The 64-year-old had tried to kill himself in 2004 by putting a plastic bag over his head. But last October he succeeded in ending his troubled life, jumping from a balcony at the Abbey.
What is not in question is that the Welsh speaker’s fatal bout of depression was triggered by a novel he had been reading. The current Abbot at Belmont, Father Paul Stonham, told this month’s inquest as much.
But those around the Abbey say it was The Da Vinci Code, which tells of a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to cover up the true story of Jesus.
Had it made Father Alan question his beliefs? Could he have devoted his life to the Church only to struggle to come to terms with what he had read?
The book – which has sold 36 million copies – has created huge interest in the Holy Grail legend and the role of Mary Magdalene in the history of Christianity.
But its critics have attacked it as inaccurate and little more than an attack on the Catholic Church with its claim the Vatican knows it is living a lie.
Officially, nobody connected to the Abbey will talk about what troubled the popular former Abbot so much he felt forced to kill himself.
But one person close to the mystery said: “Everybody says he was reading the Da Vinci Code and it had this incredible effect on him, making him question everything.
“I don’t think anybody can say for definite what tipped him over the edge. But I have not heard any other book mentioned and everybody says, ‘It was The Da Vinci Code’, even those you suspect hadn’t heard of it before.”
Hereford coroner David Halpern would not reveal the book he was reading. And a senior figure in the Catholic Church in England warned the book was irrelevant as the priest had battled depression for 12 years.
“Depression is a very complicated thing and you cannot say one thing was the trigger. It could be a novel. It could be a headline in a newspaper, or just a word. The problem was already there,” he said. “None of us, if we have not suffered from it , can understand depression and it is too simple to say one book had been the key.”
Following his first, unsuccessful suicide bid, Father Alan was prescribed anti-depressants.
But in October last year, the former Vicar for Religious in the Archdiocese of Cardiff leapt from a two-storey landing.
Dr Ken Godbert, who had treated him, told the inquest: “There were difficulties because of his state of isolation and loneliness and he questioned his beliefs.”
In happier times, he composed the music for Pope John Paul II’s 1982 visit to Cardiff, and was well known in the Church, his compositions played worldwide.
But at his funeral Paul Stonham described his final days.
“He went through hell, convinced God had abandoned him, that his life was worth nothing, that he no longer deserved to live. Nothing could convince him otherwise,” he said.
“Ultimately, he took the only way out a troubled mind could think of, and nothing or no-one could stop him.”
Those who knew Father Alan say it is not inconceivable someone so emotionally fragile could find a book such as the Da Vinci Code – described on its jacket as factually accurate – a test of his deeply-held beliefs.
The book has generated deep passions, the controversy making its author a very rich man.
Indeed, the novel is at the centre of a court battle, over claims he copied the plot from 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and is set to become a box office film hit this spring starring Tom Hanks.
But never before has it been suggested it could have caused a reader’s suicide. In the absence of a suicide note, nobody will ever truly know. The secret, it seems, will be forever held within the Abbey’s silent stone walls.