03 Oct October 2020
Saturday 3rd October – From page one of Tolstoy’s Diaries, ed. by R.F Christian: ‘It is easier to produce ten volumes of philosophical writings than to put one principle into practice’.
Tuesday 6th October – Each day I take notes from ‘Conference’, our morning meeting. Writing them up in the evening I often laugh at how prosaic they are – ‘Br X asked about the two large parsnips in the fridge’. I justify it to my bemused brothers and sisters by telling them that in a hundred years time historians will find such minutiae, which is not recorded anywhere else, invaluable.
Occasionally, when something more profound has has been shared, it makes for bathos. I was reminded of this when I read in Tolstoy’s diary for entry for 28 August 1852: ‘I’m now twenty-four, but have still done nothing. I feel that it’s not for nothing that I’ve been struggling with doubts and passions for eight years now. But what am I destined for? The future will disclose. Killed three snipe’.
And let me tell you that for the future author of the scholarly The Hunting of Game in Chechnya, 1850-1855, that last sentence is pure gold.
Saturday 10th October – Today the Church of England commemorates the clergyman, spiritual writer and poet Thomas Traherne (1637-1674).
“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world” – Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations
Sunday 11th – Yesterday was the last day of our week-long silent retreat. This year we had the privilege of being joined by the Revd Dr Frances Ward. Her dense, entangled and prophetic addresses, which wove together the Cloud of Unknowing with themes from her book Like There’s No Tomorrow, proved to be both challenging and encouraging. Br Stuart was also delighted to have someone join us from his home town of Workington, where Frances (or Frankie as she is known) is currently Priest in Charge of St Michael’s and St John’s Churches.
This morning I read the latest ‘How we stay together’ in the Guardian. This is a regular feature in which different couples discuss how they’ve managed to sustain their relationship over time. Mindful of the fact that these are the success stories, and that it is not for want of trying that some people end up going their separate ways, I often find them helpful in navigating my own vowed relationship.
In this week’s piece Greg, the husband, says that ‘the secret is just not leaving’. There are undoubtedly circumstances when it is right to leave, but toxic fidelity is not one of our society’s greatest problems. As the key to a vowed life compare it with the advice that was given to desert monks struggling with their logismoi (distracting, if not obsessive trains of thought – of desire and aversion – leading one away from reality as it is): whatever you do, stay in your cell. You can stop fasting and you can even stop praying, but don’t leave your cell.
Today I was distracted by an advert for socks on the right of the screen. A couple were standing facing each other in a pair of very warm looking socks – and not much else by the look of it – on a thick, fluffy carpet, and I realised that in ten years of living in institutional settings the one thing I really miss is soft furnishings. Surely, the siren voice of a cosy sitting-room will be my undoing. I might be accused of flippancy – I often am – but this is exactly the sort of day-dream that can snowball into an obsession, so that in the end I find myself saying: ‘Really, this setup is intolerable. My future happiness depends on mood lighting and a large, enveloping sofa’. Perhaps it’s never that explicit, but it’s the sort of stuff that goes to makes up – or upholster – fantasies of another, better life somewhere else.
As a monk the vow I struggle with the most (I struggle with them all) is stability. There are times – days and months – when I’d rather be anywhere else. But Benedict asks ‘Does the novice truly seek God?’. The value of stability is that it provides a still-point from which to observe the swirl of fantasies generated by our ego. In the monastery you realise that one of the most persistent and deceptive of these fantasies is ‘Yes, of course I seek God’.
Tuesday 13th – Today we celebrated the birthday of Br Ian, gathering mid-morning for some “proper coffee” and cake. The cake was decorated to resemble a football and had a model white van placed on top of it (Br Ian, as well as being a devoted Southampton FC fan, is our Clerk of Works).