Tag Archives: religiosity

Return to Sénanque: a summer retreat

In August I went back to Notre Dame de Sénanque to spend five days in silent retreat. This time, the valley was drenched in the scents of summer. It was also much more crowded in the abbey than when I was last there during the Christmas holidays. The hôtellerie monastique was full and every day hundreds of tourists toured one of the Provence’s most iconic places. In the evening, quietness would return to the valley and abbey. Only the chants of the monks occasionally filled the air. The silence was easy to bear and the pattern of the services now familiar. Yet I also found myself facing more profound concerns about taking the next step in my faith. Being raised in a secular and rational environment, it is not self-evident that that next step is adult baptism.

I was welcomed back heartily by Frère Jean, the hotelier, and quickly settled into the rhythm of monastic life. Every morning I was woken up early by the chants of the monks floating through the courtyard into my open windows. I’d have breakfast while the morning flavours started to stir. Then I’d head out on my morning walk, climbing 40 minutes to reach the village of Gordes, have my coffee and write my diary. I’d walk back just in time for mass, organise lunch and write my book in the afternoon. After a few hours, I’d climb up to my secret sunning spot, quickly covering up my bikini if I heard footsteps approaching. Dinner would follow, and evening service. With the last light and the heat disappearing from the valley, I finished every day with a run through the mountains.

When I arrived hitchhiking on the first day, I had to wait for two hours before Frère Jean had time to receive me, a good introduction into the different pace of time in the abbey. Then he remembered me and expressed his profound happiness to know that I was considering baptism. He had been very anxious over my soul. He was still puzzled that I hadn’t chosen a Catholic community  but an Anglican one and tried to steer me to the right faith. I was firmly resolved when explaining that it was very important to me to have found a church that was actively involved in the community where I live. Moreover, I feel much more comfortable in a faith that allows priests to have wives, and women to become bishops and priests too. Frère Jean settled the matter with a joke. He was looking forward to the day when he would receive me back at Sénanque as a Anglican bishop.

Meanwhile, I got a much more beautiful double room and Frère Jean put me in charge of coordinating lunch and dinner time food service. He often asked me to come into his office to translate some bits of English that he didn’t understand. ‘What does this word ‘hi’ mean?’ ‘Well, it’s like salut which isn’t perhaps the way you would expect people to address a monk but then the English written language is much less formal than the French.’ I asked him whether we could have a small performance for the Assumption of Virgin Mary day by a classical pianist who often comes to stay at Sénanque. Frère Jean had to ask the prior for permission. When we all gathered for the concert the next day, he said: ‘You see there is a French saying that whatever women want, that is what God wants.’

So we enjoyed a lovely private Liszt concert in the abbey. But Frère Jean later told me that those moments were rare. That life at the abbey is hard. I said that I had rather been struck by how animated and fulfilling their lives seemed with the rhythm of prayer, study, work on the fields and giving people spiritual guidance. He said, ‘Yes but the early morning hours after vigiles at 4.30am, they are the longest period of meditation. We never travel anywhere, the world only comes to us.’ We were conversing against the backdrop of a picture of the Alps covering the whole wall of the parlour. He continued, ‘Very few people nowadays can stand this type of life. We need more people in the abbey to manage all the work. Last year a monk joined us but he left after a month and we haven’t heard from him since. Now we’re expecting four new monks from Vietnam but God knows how difficult it will be for them to settle in such a different culture.’

It was harder for him to respond to my search to make sense of religion at a later stage in life. I had been struggling with British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s stance on religion: ‘When one can’t find out whether something is true or it isn’t, one should suspend judgement’. I was much impressed with his book ‘The conquest of happiness‘ which is a great example of a philosopher translating wisdom to a wider audience, and therefore thought I should carefully consider his opinion.

I find the church the perfect place to remember the ebb and flow of life and going to church for me is an existential touch point which I prefer to experience as part of a community in my own culture. As my parents didn’t have me baptised when I was a child, to become a true part of this community I have to negotiate my faith being an adult. And while many adult Christians may confront doubts time and again, they are already part of this community, whereas I have to consciously agree with all the teachings of the church to be baptised. So, for example, I find it hard to believe God is merciful. I perceive of God as a force field randomly distributing good and evil. Equanimity and faith are the key to maintain happiness in face of a world where many cruel things happen. Some of them turn to good, and others never do.

There is another very emotive strain of faith which I find even harder to negotiate. This is to have a dialogue with God when I pray. It’s not that I don’t have this dialogue, it is just that I’ve always mistrusted it. I remember when I was about 12 years old I decided that it was better to talk to Freya than to God because of some viking book I had been reading. When I was 16 and a hippie, I decided to address fairies instead. Philosopher A.C. Grayling made some great points about fairies in his book Against All Gods: “Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.” He explains that people up to the 19th century believed in fairies and thought that they were much more present in their lives than God was because things that would go missing, such as shoelaces or a teaspoon, were believed to have been stolen by them.

In short, I find it very hard to acknowledge that this is anything more than an overactive imagination. Yet when I pray answers appear out of nowhere. Many Christians believe this is one’s personal dialogue with God. I’m still trying to figure out how to make sense of these questions, and reconcile a rational point of view with a spiritual one. It’s quite an adventure.


Turn! Turn! Turn! (January)

Tomorrow will be Monday 23rd January, aka Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. Cardiff University’s Dr Cliff Arnall empirically established that we collectively hit a low point because of the cold weather, fading Christmas memories and broken New Year’s resolutions. On top of this, more accidents happen than on any other day of the year, and more people are ill. On my part, I’ve tried hard to beat SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) by doing something fun at least once a day. Yet last night I caught myself cursing the chirping birds because they promise spring while there is no end in sight to this cold and dark season.

So for all these SAD people, I’d like to share two sermons that picked me up today. The first was a secular one by Lord Layard at the School of Life, and the second was at Southwark Cathedral during Evensong. Lord Layard, LSE Economics Professor, preached the start of a mass movement. He aspires to a happier society in which people get their happiness from helping others. After years of academic research into the origins of happiness Lord Layard has established ten keys to happier living: GREAT DREAM. The first letters stand for five things to do on each day, Giving – Relating – Exercising – Appreciating – Trying out. Giving not only makes you feel better, but others as well, which again reinforces your own happiness. Neuroscientists found that doing good stimulates the same part of your brain as eating chocolate. Relating and Exercising are further keys to happiness, so why not try out something new such as livening up a January birthday party by having your friends act out improvised themes as my friend Kelly did last night?

The last letters stand for five things to train our mind in, Direction – Resilience – Emotional positivity – Acceptance – Meaning. Viktor Frankl recounts in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Everyone experiences ups and downs, and while no one is happy all the time, it is your attitude that makes the difference between happiness and unhappiness. Linking back to Buddhist thinking, Layard stresses the importance of stepping outside yourself to find meaning in the long trail of human existence beyond your own self.

The sermon at Southwark Cathedral was based on a reading from the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes 3:1, which similarly expresses the long stretches of cyclical time spanning human experience.  The King James Bible’s elegant words give meaning and perspective to the greyness of this season and down points in life. They were written in 1611 and like many of the King James Bible’s verses still speak directly to us across the centuries. They were used almost verbatim in the Byrds’ 1965 song ‘Turn Turn Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)‘:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

A thing of beauty

As a secular-minded student at Cambridge University, I discovered the beauty of its chapels. The soothing rhythm of evensong and its perfect aesthetics – the choir’s hymns, the minister’s oratory, the spiralling arches of King’s College chapel – yield a contemplative liberty, and a pathway to peace and focus of mind. Sat on mahogany wooden benches and sheltered by candle light, I for the first time clearly sensed a unity with life’s ebb and flow, and humanity’s wider congregation.

Although initially I would not pray, or speak in cadence with other believers, there was no pressure to conform. The absence of dogma and theatrics in Anglican service allowed me to find my own meaning. So that now every once in a while when I go for evensong, I too kneel to pray, and recite the 1662 Common Book of Prayer’s elegant verses – ‘He shall come to judge the quick and the dead’. The meaning I found consists of three simple tenets.

One, in trusting in life’s swift and sometimes cruel moves, I relay my trust in god. I am aware that the spiritual starts where the limits of my cognitive understanding and control end. And, much as I relish the cognitive, I therefore find sustenance in my prayers, to feed the little flame in my heart while the wind tucks at it.

Two, I try to maintain an open and gentle heart to the world, to reduce unnecessary suffering. In short, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Three, in the church’s calendar, so closely linked with the seasons’ cycle and our culture, I find greater historical grounding in my society’s values and habits. I now understand a bit better that advent is an occasion to contemplate suffering before Christ was born, during the darkest time of the year. I now see why we bring light trees into our houses to defy that darkest time. Or why some fast while the land awaits Easter’s spring, the year’s bleakest time.

Some may challenge the individualism or simplicity of this point of view, yet I relish my evensong insights. If you’re curious too, go and explore London’s chapels and churches yourself. My top tips are:

  • St Paul’s Cathedral, Sunday choral evensong at 3.15pm – gorgeous architecture, sumptuous interiors and the sermons exhibit the best of English oratory;
  • St Bartholomew-the-Great Church, Sunday choral evensong at 6.30pm – dark and medieval interiors and beautiful voices in one of London’s oldest churches, and the décor for ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Four weddings and a funeral’;
  • The Round Church in Temple, special services such as today’s All Saints evensong – the Templars’ old church hidden in inner Temple, now an active lawyers’ parish with an excellent choir.

 Or in Amsterdam, there’s an Anglican evensong in St Nicholas’ Church right outside Central Station every Saturday at 5pm.