It was with sadness that I learnt the news of the recent death of Abbot Aldhelm Cameron-Brown, at 89. I met him probably fewer than 20 times but he had a profound impact on my formation. Prinknash Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in the west of England, was where I would escape periodically from the hurly-burly of student life, searching, as I thought, for the sanctuary of the cloister.
Abbot Aldhelm was too wise to buy into so simplistic an opposition. He challenged me in the most direct way possible to seek God rather than the pleasing sound the search for Him was making. He asked me the single most important question anyone had ever asked me, simply and disarmingly: “Is God real for you?”
In other words, do you have (or seek to acquire) a habit of mind and an attitude of the heart which assent to the presence of someone not visible and of realities which are not apparent in the same way that a Rolls-Royce or a significant other are real – a faith, therefore, which can be the motive force for your search for meaning and joy?
This is anterior to any high-sounding search for “my vocation”, because, as the Abbot said, “Your vocation is to do what you are doing at the moment.” If God isn’t real before you join a monastery, he won’t suddenly become so. He isn’t the object of the vocational search; he’s the motive for it. Vocation is recognising this and learning to live by its total implications. (That much I have now learned for myself.)
The other vital thing Abbot Aldhelm did was to try to teach me the difference between passion and intimacy. I say “try”, because at the time I was unready to appreciate it. I still confused passion with intimacy, so the prospect of celibacy was unnecessarily scary. I cast celibacy as the loss of true intimacy, whereas it is actually a way of integrating the passions by not elevating them to the Wagnerian status of runes which reveal life’s deepest meaning.
I was a (late) teenager who still assumed that passion ruled everything as it could rule me; that its highs were vital, not fatal. In a pithy letter Fr Aldhelm extolled the joys of the equal tempo of intimacy. When you truly love, he explained, it is the other-being-the-other which is your delight, not your possession of them or how this makes you feel, and this can be apprehended when you are just walking in the woods or discussing nuclear physics. (The last bit probably put me off the most, but he was a very cerebral man …)
At the time I was unwilling to hear it, but what wisdom he had in saying it. It was like laying down a vintage which would not mature for some years. In his obituary I read that he had a favourite verse from Psalm 118: “I have seen that all perfection has an end, but Thy command is boundless”. An eloquent credo for someone who has discovered God to be real.