Saturday, 28 March 2015

Everybody needs a place to think…


For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
     So how should I presume?

In my last-but-one post, as is my wont, I snuck in many links (which I suspect no-one follows): one of which was to a glowing review of Saints and Sinners: Britain’s Millennium of Monasteries. Like most series on BBC Four – Scandiwegian or otherwise – it was erudite, fascinating, and expertly produced – and the photography was stunning. (So engrossing was it, indeed, that I watched all three parts back-to-back on iPlayer.)

However, the more I became immersed in the history, and intrigued by the skilfully-narrated stories of the people involved, the more it dawned on me that there are strong parallels to be found in the life of someone in permanent pain and that of a truly devout monk – for example: one of the first Irish anchorites (from sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries), on Skellig Michael, who Dr Janina Ramirez initiated the first programme with; or the intensely thoughtful Father Erik Varden, the current Superior of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, in Leicestershire, who she then interviewed – both demonstrating the deference and self-restraint one must have at one’s core to lead such an existence (and both of which characteristics I am certainly not naturally prone to…).

Serendipitously, at around the same time, an article appeared on the Chronic Pain section of HealthCentral’s website, entitled ‘How to Do More with Less Pain’, which captured this notion perfectly – advising that…

No one likes to live with pain or disabilities, but the fact of the matter is that there are those of us that have no choice but to continue living despite it. Contemplate about how these steps of being flexible, disciplined and humble will help you do more with less pain. Implement these concepts into your life in order to improve your quality of life.

…which could almost be an extract from the Rule of Benedict: more relevant than you may imagine to modern-day – even non-religious – life. My favourite section describes how “The vow of stability… speaks to our current environmental crisis – for when we remain committed to the earth we learn how to be good stewards of that which God has given us.”


The word ‘monk’ comes from the Old English munuc, based on the Greek monakhos: meaning ‘solitary’, from monos, or ‘alone’. (Combined with the Greek arkhein ‘to rule’, it is also – as Shakespeare obviously knew – at the root of ‘monarch’, which comes via late Latin, that is monarkhēs.) And one of the tribulations of constant pain can be that feeling of isolation (on top of the loneliness that may also come with any form of disability): because it is both extremely difficult for you to convey your experience clearly to anyone else (even those who know and who love you well); or for them to truly understand what you are going through. In brief: it is impossible to communicate the ordeal accurately; and it is similarly impossible for most people to empathize with you (which – although I keep parroting on about them – is why chronic pain management programmes (PMPs) are so bloody helpful).

There are also similarities in the contemplative and ordered aspects of both ways of living (particularly the unsocial schedules). The monks of Mount Saint Bernard, for example – rising at 03:15 each morning (although they do then retire each evening at 20:00) – have their practices of lectio divina (“some time every day reflecting on the words of Scripture”) and liturgical prayer (sometimes called opus dei – the work of god, or ‘divine office’) as core parts of their rigorous daily timetable.

My day, too, is governed by regular relaxation and other exercises (as much mental – some involving self-awareness, -acceptance and (attempted) transformation – as physical); and measured out, not with summoning bells, nor TS Eliot’s “coffee spoons” (although they come a close second); but with regular, changing chirrups, at all times of day, from my iPhone (which I think would not be welcomed in a Trappist environment), reminding me to take my various medications – on top of my various meditations (including this one). I also spend as much time as I can communing (in tinnitus-infused ‘silence’) with knowledge – but mostly of a non-divine nature (apart from my recent Wall of Separation series, of course: of which this is, I suppose, some form of postscript, or Compline) – carving frequent intermissions out of such an increasingly sedentary lifestyle: following the fine fissures of chapter and advertising breaks (when I am having a rest from watching television that, for a change, doesn’t impinge on my exhausted braincells; or reading Terry Pratchett, of course).


I have to say, apart from the overtly religious aspects, that (encouraged by these parallels – and perhaps prompted by my recent investigation of Who is my neighbour?) I do find much in the monastic way of life appealing (or, at least I understand some of its attractions); and I can see why those who seek “union with God” would find it compulsive. (Although, something like “The incredibly strict diet of a Jain monk” is definitely not for me!)

I do wonder, though, what contributions such a community would expect from those who, like myself, are disabled; or simply, through age, infirm. I can well imagine that such ‘elders’ are treated with great respect and love for the sanctity and knowledge they have amassed through their long lives of devotions – and in a way (by the ‘infirmerer’) that is very different to that of the much less protective world outside. But what if you arrive as an oblate, at a young age, on crutches, or in a wheelchair…? Or, like me, frequently have isolation imposed on you by your poor health: and are constrained not by vows, nor spiritual devotion, but by the cell walls erected by the photo- and phonophobia of a severe migraine…?

There has been some research comparing levels of disability and mortality in monks and the general population: but it is difficult to draw conclusions from such a small sample – although “The authors hypothesize that [the monks’] prudent lifestyle may prolong life, but at the expense of a higher prevalence of disability.” Those with religious faith are supposed to live longer, anyway: but it really isn’t that simple – and if your life consists of (self-)imposed harshness or deprivation, is it really worth it? I accept this is very much an atheist’s question: but I have to add to my insult by asking is it then also worth it if there is no reward for your devotion – i.e. there is no eternal life with God, in heaven? And isn’t this a selfish quest, anyway: wanting to live for ever, ‘up there’? (Although, if you take Cardinal Newman’s portrayal of Gerontius, and his soul’s ineffable moment, his “approaching agony” – below – then, personally, I’d rather not, thank you: however beautiful Elgar’s music.) I am more than content – well, as much as anyone can be – with my struggles to find whatever utopian moments I can through nature, art, and companionship.

And these two pains, so counter and so keen,—
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,—
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.


There is a strong history, in early monastic tradition (certainly pre-Dissolution), though, of integrated care (albeit usually for the hoi polloi): many monasteries having started as – or with – ‘hospitals’ or ‘infirmaries’ on their sites (as well as having herbalists amongst their members, such as the legendary Brother Cadfael, of course). Locally, for instance, just across the M40, is Clattercote Priory (although the nearest ‘dissolved’ standalone monastery was probably Wroxton Abbey):

[Clattercote Priory] was founded for Gilbertine canons to run a hospital in the mid-twelfth century, possibly by Robert de Chesney. The hospital ceased before 1262. The priory was refounded 1251-62. It was dissolved in 1538 and granted to Thomas Lee around 1559. The site is now occupied by a private house.

Such a “hospital” – sometimes known as a ‘Maison Dieu’ (literally, ‘House of God’); and sometimes even separate from the main monastic buildings – is at Dunwich: and this featured in a Time Team dig in 2011:

English Heritage has for many years been involved in coastal erosion issues at Dunwich. Although little remains of the once thriving town and Medieval port a few houses remain as well as scheduled ancient monuments, the Maison Dieu – a monastic hospital of the Holy Trinity and Greyfriars – a Franciscan Friary and St James Hospital – a former leper hospital. These monastic ruins are all that remains of the religious houses of the former town, with at least 8 churches and 3 chapels having been lost between 1086 and the present day.

Although it has an educational bias, rather than a medical one (“founded in 1615 in Paris by exiled English monks scattered abroad in the wake of the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries”), one of my favourite monasteries is Douai Abbey, a Benedictine house re-established in this country in 1903. You do not need to believe in God to discover that sitting peacefully in such a space as the main church – especially with the awesome filtered light that its radical design promotes – brings a healing peace and contentment all of its own. (This is why Quaker practices and ‘rules’ – encapsulated in their Advices and queries – so attract me. The silent hour of Quaker meditation – or worship – results in similar physiological and psychological relief to the relaxation and breathing programmes of pain relief: although with an emphasis on the spiritual – which, in my case, is countered by the physical torture of sitting still for such a long time.)


Of course, should a monk lose his religion, his devotion, his faith, he could return to that “world outside”: to what most of us think as ‘normality’ (although I can only imagine how intensely wrenching that must be: similar, in a way, to a combat-experienced soldier after demobilization) – and this, I think, is where the “strong parallels” between our lives would also end. There is no such living ‘escape’ from chronic pain. (Nor can you refuse your ‘calling’, in the first place.)

However, were I to wake up pain-free, tomorrow morning (were I actually to get any sleep, tonight…), I think I would feel a similar, major absence – the hurt has become, after over seventeen years, such a major part of my being (both physically, existentially; and metaphyscially, ontologically) – and I would always be concerned, of course, that it would, at some stage, come back to haunt me. It is almost as if I have developed not just a truce with my affliction, after much negotiation; but a synergistic, almost symbiotic (although not really beneficial) bond, after years of sharing the same space – perhaps, indeed, a warped reflection of the affinity the monks seek with their contemplation of, and union with, God…?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

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