Along the same lines, the Romans had a tradition of “otium”, a sort of philosophical retreat where gentlemen would spend time at a country estate discussing philosophy or law or matters of state. It was advocated in a Christianised form by St Augustine, whose endorsement was influenced by the Life of St. Anthony and other early Christian monastics.
Not all of us are suited to such an intensely ascetic and primitive life, although it has a certain romantic attraction. – Niall Gooch
There is a long tradition in Christianity of believers seeking solitude away from the distractions and temptations associated with cities. Early monasticism, inspired by figures like John the Baptist, stressed the necessity for fleeing to quiet, isolated places to devote oneself to contemplation, prayer and spiritual combat. This is reflected in the dramatic and lonely architecture of early monasteries, from the barren wastes of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts to the steep crags of Mount Athos and the gale-hammered west coasts of Ireland and Scotland.
Not all of us are suited to such an intensely ascetic and primitive life, although it has a certain romantic attraction, especially when I reflect on the fact that my smartphone currently enables me to be contacted by at least seven separate methods, not including phone calls and text messages. But we do all need opportunities to step aside from normal life, where we are constantly available, constantly absorbing information, constantly responding.
When I was a student, before becoming a Catholic, I more than once visited the Anglican Benedictine house at Burford Priory in Oxfordshire. They had a beautiful setting there, a wonderful Jacobean country house with expansive grounds running down to the River Windrush. My background was in Evangelicalism and low-church Anglicanism. Monks and nuns were something that appeared in history books and novels, and I had almost no experience of practices like contemplative prayer or the Liturgy of the Hours.
Closeness to creation and distance from the grandiose projects of man help us resist the temptation to constantly record and share and comment and react. – Niall Gooch
Encountering these was quite a revelation. Consecrated religious communities have a powerful atmosphere of peace and stability. The sense I always get from them is a life that is, as it were, properly aligned. It’s the closest I’ve come to a religious experience, this deep impression of what you might call “rightness” – by which I don’t mean personal vindication, but rather a feeling of having oriented oneself towards the way life ought to be: of having been in touch, briefly, with the underlying divine order or pattern.
Quiet and solitude are indispensable for this, as that great man of faith Cardinal Sarah suggests in his book The Power Of Silence. Sarah writes of going on lone retreats in deep and remote parts of rural Africa, where he prayers and fasts for several days. By his account, the absence of interruption and of distraction is a powerful aid to growing in holiness and in understanding God’s will and purpose. A fondness for the countryside need not be mere rural romanticism.
Closeness to creation and distance from the grandiose projects of man help us resist the temptation to constantly record and share and comment and react. The challenge is to simply be, to trust the moment, to listen, to rise above – even if only temporarily – those worldly things which may not be bad in themselves, but which undermine our capacity for serious reflection and devotion.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also writes for Unherd.
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