It is a truism that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I have just published a book on monastic lessons, having visited ten monasteries round the world. The idea was based on a slim volume called A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor who sought what he called “clarity of spirit “in monastery sojourns.
I saw myself essentially as a travel writer and a reporter, encountering a way of life wonderfully antithetical to my own. Yet, now I am being interviewed about the book, The Interior Silence, and am asked if I have been changed by the experience of writing it.
I was asked this by Ed Stourton on the Sunday programme on Radio 4 and stammered in response. I spent so little time at the monasteries and those I spoke to had dedicated their lives to God. Who was I to speak of Epiphanies? I am not even Catholic, unlike Ed Stourton, who was schooled by monks and has written and broadcast about Catholicism.
Without realising it, I had experienced the communion of silence at a Cistercian monastery in France.
My friend Melanie McDonagh, contributor to this parish, has already scolded about my imperfect understanding of Ecclestiastical history. Usually, if you pronounce on anything in the media, the critics will come after you pretty fast. But in my case, my tentative thoughts about my experience, have been kindly received by experts on the subject. And in turn, I have found a monastic zeal for study. I have at least learned how little that I know and how much more wisdom is to be found among the monastic writers.
The celebrated Dominican Friar Timothy Radcliffe told me, in a study piled to the ceiling with books, that he tried to learn from everyone who he met. Listening is a monastic gift. I mention in the book visiting Tyburn Convent, in central London, and talking to two of the nuns over tea and biscuits. During our conversation, Mother Marilla turned to her fellow nun and suggested that she could leave if she had things to do.
There had been no exchange between them of words or expression, but Mother Marilla had divined that her companion was perturbed, so had found a way out for her. She was so subtly attuned to the inner life of the community of nuns that she knew how they felt. Because they spent so long in silence, they had a deeper understanding of each other.
Without realising it, I had experienced the communion of silence at a Cistercian monastery in France. Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in southern France is a simple stone and slate monastery set among fields of lavender. I sat rapturously through the services of Gregorian chants and then gingerly shared lunch with fellow guests. Since nobody was talking to me – or each other – I got up from the table when I had finished my plate, washed it up in the kitchen next door and went back to my room. The hotel frère stopped me on my way back from the cloisters in the later afternoon and asked in English if I was well. Taken aback to hear someone speaking, I gabbled back that I had found the experience of my stay spiritually nourishing.
I have found a monastic zeal for study. I have at least learned how little that I know and how much more wisdom is to be found among the monastic writers
He then said he had a request. Would I not leave the table at meals until everyone had finished. “It is more convivial.” At first I was perplexed. In what sense was a meal in silence convivial? Later, I understood the principle of Communion. Silent is an anagram for listen.
If I have learned a monastic lesson from my book, I pray that it is some humility. I certainly hope to apply this in my new role as chair of the Gender Equality Advisory Council for G7. This is a chance for the UK to project its values and we shall look for common aims and outcomes. Our remit covers three areas: violence against women, education and economic empowerment.
At first I brim with ideas and recommendations and then I remember the monastic lesson. Listen, study. So many women have fought these battles already and dedicated their lives to improving the lot of women round the world. Acknowledge the work of others and learn from them.
To quote St John of the Cross: “Speaking distracts one, while silence and work recollects and strengthens the spirit.”
The Interior Silence: 10 Lessons from Monastic Life is out now, published by Short Books-