Books

The epiphanies of a Norwegian Trappist

Cistercians visit the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire

The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance
by Erik Varden OCSO, Bloomsbury, 192pp £10.99

The Cistercian community of Mount St Bernard in Leicestershire has reinvented itself both by taking bold new steps and re-embracing its traditions. Electing the young Dom Erik Varden as abbot in 2015, the English Trappists also decided to close the dairy farm that had hitherto been their major work, and lately burden, and invest in the production of authentic Trappist beer. The beer, released this past summer, has been well received; this new book from Abbot Erik merits a similar welcome.

The Shattering of Loneliness is an extraordinary book: not too long but richly dense; profound in its insights and scholarship yet eminently readable; and though clearly written by a monk happy to be a monk, it has as much relevance to the ordinary Christian as to the Trappist monks in the author’s care.

The book is structured around six divine commandments or promises, touching on remembrance, which serve as “beacons to navigate by”. Abbot Erik shares the course of his own personal navigation by means of people he has encountered, books and poetry he has read, music he has heard and artworks he has savoured. He is Norwegian, and so it is no surprise that he has experienced languages, literature and culture beyond those of his native land and his adopted home. A great strength of this book is that he makes us privy to his multicultured experience, presenting people and works often unknown to this provincial reviewer. The book is threaded through with strands of scriptural exegesis, monastic and patristic tradition, the author’s personal reminiscence and spiritual reflection on the human condition. All of which makes the book rich fare for the reader, but never indigestible.

The book defies easy summary. Far better, it seems, to give a flavour of the work, and a whiff of its aroma, in order to entice the reader to sit at table. Suffice it to say that the book, as Abbot Erik puts it, “chronicles an apprenticeship of remembrance”. It is not a churchy book, but the Church is present. For Abbot Erik, the Church is “an inspirer of remembrance”, permitting him to “read my banal, sometimes squalid life into a narrative of redemption that not only reaches back to time’s beginning but remembers forwards, into eternity”, and an “environment that embraced my contradictions without compromising truth”.

These lyrical lines offer a fitting sample of the author’s delight in words and their capacity to convey, however imperfectly, matters of the spirit. By articulating his experience, direct or indirect, of suffering, music and literature – life, in short – Varden offers attentive readers a series of epiphanies that can illuminate their own experience.

Varden is not silent about monastic life and tradition, and anyone considering a monastic or religious vocation would do well to read this book. The monk of old sought memoria Dei, the constant recollection of God, an awareness of God which is in fact intrinsically human, “stamped on our being as an operating system installed, waiting to be launched”. The monastic life for the author is “a habitat of transformation” at the service of the fire of love that has come into the world, and “to be a monk is to offer one’s life as dry wood” to kindle this fire. Surely this self-offering of the monk is an emblem and spur to all Christians to make such self-oblation integral to their living.

Yet this book is not about monasticism but rather humanity and its Christian vocation. Varden considers the experience of Adam in the book of Genesis, which reveals that a “human being is dust called to glory … with a nostalgia for glory”, by nature mortal but with the God-given opportunity of eternity. Drawing from Athanasius, sin is seen as our preference for human nature before its divine vocation, resulting in our “soaring longing … [being] crushed by earthbound desire”. The Incarnation is more fundamentally about re-creation than redemption, as the real “problem crying out for solution was not sin but death”. When speaking of the Eucharist, Varden sees in Christ’s Real Presence a demand for “a present response. We must live differently now”, the key to our “worthy” communion in the mystery.

Towards the end, Varden offers insights that the missionary enterprise of the Church would do well to consider. Classic Christian discourse, he feels, starts from the wrong place in its encounter with modern humanity, which is “wary of words … [and] shuns dogmas”. However, as in every age, it longs for beauty and the Church needs to address this longing, which is really that longing for God hardwired into us all.

A great virtue of this book is that it seems to speak to me and of me. Far from being a product of my (alas, real) egocentricity, this quality emerges from Varden touching on universal human truths with fresh words and insights that will engage the modern reader, leaving one feeling spoken to, not written at. So for this monk, for whom memoria Dei remains an aspiration rather than an attainment, it was consoling to be reminded that “God remembers us before we remember God”. If that consoles you, then you will profit from this book.