In our noisy, addictive, 24-hour Digital Age, seeking “inner silence” seems to be a growing literary genre. The quest for our inner nun, or monk, seems to be hitting a chord with many. At least that is the message of Sarah Sands’s beautifully written, self-deprecating, self-doubting, and fortunately timed book about her journey to 10 monasteries in search of the secrets of what we can learn from the monastic life.
We’re never quite sure exactly what sort of spiritual quest Sands is embarking on as her choice of monasteries is so eclectic, plural and inter-faith. What we do know is that as Sands approaches 60, she itches to take a sabbatical from her adrenaline deadline junkie VIP life as producer of The Today Programme.
Despite rising at the same pre-dawn hours of a nun, or Buddhist monk, her BBC life is the opposite of a divinely ordered calm existence. She is under daily siege by email, day and night. She drinks, indulges herself with luxury face creams and bath oils, and her diary is filled not with the discipline of compline and vespers but rather the whirligig of daily attendance at the best tables of London’s chicest restaurants followed by parties until she flops into bed. It’s time for that new lockdown cliche: a life “reset”. The nagging question she asks herself is “what does it mean to live a full life?”
Sands turns the mirror on her inner Saint Augustine.
So Sands turns the mirror on her inner Saint Augustine. In her old life, she is invited to luxury house parties in Tuscany where her Russian media mogul’s host’s wolf-like dog eats Boris Johnson’s computer cord. But something is missing – a sense of inner calm, both with herself and the world around her. At the bottom of her garden is part of a monastic wall from 12th century Marham Abbey that serves as a more timeless reminder of another age.
Not far from her ruin of an abbey wall is Quidenham, the Norfolk nunnery where Britain’s celebrity art historian nun Sister Wendy Beckett used to live. When asked what the other nuns thought of her TV fame, Sister Wendy said “They feel sorry for me”. Holy Mary! thinks Sands. The very “values” that she upholds – and she is a high priestess of London’s media land with an Instagramfull of celebrity pal friends – are the very opposite of the Norfolk nunnery. “Silence and selflessness are their means to deepest joy”.
So she ditches her Hello! style Insta feed replacing it with pictures of cathedrals and churches.
When she was in the VIP seats at the Olympics, she felt she was at the “centre of the world”. As she travels to various monasteries, she begins to learn that the real centre of the world is not to be found in long-distance flights to Japan to touristy monasteries where she gets into a bad funk. One has to work on oneself, and the meaning of silence, not escape through the adrenaline deadline of boozy media life (travelling with her left-leaning daughter) when her iPhone battery dies as she doesn’t have the right charger. Rather it is to be found in her head; or in her relationship with herself, rather than being addicted to trying to please or out-do others.
The various monks and nuns we meet along the way have very different ideas as to what brings us closer to their God, and brings the “gift” of interior silence. From a Carmelite nun in Norfolk she learns the meaning “of being an integrated rather than a divided self”. Sands – a self-confessed politico and social media junkie, in charge of anointing the political heroes and villains of the Today show’s agenda – identifies with this idea of not eroding oneself or one’s mental wellbeing by “constantly creating, deleting and re-integrating themselves”.
It turns out that doing “God’s work” is pretty hard work.
It turns out that doing “God’s work” is pretty hard work. The phrase is both the mantra of a Carmelite nun she meets and the head of Goldman Sachs. One has to work on oneself, and the meaning of silence, not escape through the adrenaline deadline fix of boozy media life. I enjoyed the witty confessional tone of the book (“I was too attached to worldly pleasures after all…”) but I would have liked more on the internal drama of the Sands soul: her marriage, her ex-marriage, her own interior ‘troubles’ and insecurities that her old media-land VIP cocktail lifestyle seemed to be mere bandaging.
At the start, I wondered if it was a spiritually themed travel book – the monasteries range from Meteora in Greece to her own Norfolk back garden – or whether it was going to be something more interesting: a 12 month journey into the night into the interior of the former Today producer’s own soul. At the end, we never quite know. Perhaps that’s Sands’s point though: like Chaucer’s pilgrims (who never actually make it to Canterbury) we are always seeking, never arriving.
William Cash is the chairman of the Catholic Herald.