The Quiet Life? It’s ok for Some
On hearing an interview with Fr Christopher Jamieson, (Benedictine Monk from Douai Abbey), on BBC Radio, I was reminded of an article I wrote a few years ago, and have adapted it for today.
Many of you will know that we’re not far from Douai Abbey, a working monastery situated near Thatcham. The existence of the Abbey is a direct result of anti-clerical laws in France, brought in towards the end of the 19th Century which meant a move for the original Monastic community (founded in 1615), from Paris to Douai in Belgium, and finally to Woolhampton, which has been home to the Douai community of Benedictine monks since 1903.
You may not realise this, but becoming a monk or a nun is a form of voluntary isolation that paradoxically recognises the importance of community. Benedictine life is underpinned by the belief that God is present in everything! They take a disciplined approach to the solitary life with a continuous turning to God, founded on a daily rhythm of prayer, and further to that, hold to the understanding that practical work, such as washing dishes, keeping bees, or brewing beer, is understood as an act of prayer.
Over the past 20 years or so, I’ve been to Douai a few times and, on each of my visits, the atmosphere of calm and tranquillity has made an impact. Sometimes it’s taken a real effort of will and organisation to be able to carve out diary time to get there, but I can honestly say it’s been worth it.
For most of us, until the introduction of compulsory lockdown, finding time to retreat has been difficult, if not impossible; so I would argue that by not having to chase our tails quite so much, the past few months have given us the extraordinary gift of an opportunity to slow down, readjust our sights and be more reflective.
Of course, we’re not all cut out for the quiet life, and many will be hoping that, in some ways, life goes back to the way it was. The lockdown experience has brought with it many challenges, so I’m not suggesting that it’s been a totally positive experience. Concerns about finances and future employment are real issues that inevitably prey on the mind, and many relationships have been tested. In addition, those of you with young families and children not at school, will probably find the notion of creating quiet, reflective time a distant dream, and difficult to achieve whether in lockdown or not. The same could be said for those who care 24/7 for loved ones at home.
Personally, I’ve found that time to have personal space in lockdown is important. Getting out of the house, going for a walk, working in the garden, or even washing the car, (God is present in everything!) is rewarding, healing and refreshing. So, the ironic thing is that retreating from the pressures of life, whatever our ‘norms’ are, whether busy or not, it’s really quite important to take a break. To be reflective away from normal life really is in the best interests of personal wellbeing.
Another unexpected yet affirming consequence of lockdown has been the realisation that, in a way not dissimilar similar to the Benedictines, our sense of community and need of each other is proving to be important, and we’ve been made aware of this in many unexpected ways. The response of communities to need has been truly wonderful.
Jesus’ life of ministry was pretty full on, yet he recognised the necessity of finding space to be alone with his Father. He felt a real responsibility to his growing community, and enjoyed the company of his friends, but he made the time and space for retreat, always coming back to the busyness of life reinvigorated and refreshed. As ever, he gives us physical and spiritual human beings the model of how to live a balanced life alone, and also in community.
As we move towards whatever shape post-Covid 19 ‘new normal’ will be, we can almost guarantee that things will inevitably become busier, but should remember, that we owe it to ourselves and to each other to make time and space to pause for spiritual and physical refreshment, both together and alone. Creating space for the spiritual and recognising God in everything.
Revd Paul Willis
www.alonetogether.org.uk (A Benedictine guide to isolation and social distancing from those who know)