As Others See Us

Yesterday brought yet another request from the media to explore aspects of our monastic life with them. We shall think and pray about it, but given our small numbers and our desire to live a truly contemplative life, I suspect we’ll decide not to agree. We’ve done a lot of T.V. and radio in the past, but I’m not sure that we would be as receptive to the idea now. Having said that, I’m quite certain that Quietnun, for example, could provide people with some deep and beautiful reflections on what it means to be a Benedictine nun; and I daresay people would be fascinated to see how we live (Gosh! They get their washing-up liquid from Aldi! Ooh! That’s a magnificent Wenham on the wall! Ah! What a sweet dog they have!) but to convey the reality, the substance of our life, to someone who has never lived it is much harder than one might suppose. To observe is not necessarily to understand because the inner motivation, the personal response to God’s call, is so individual. How does one explain how the daily search for God encompasses much that is routine, boring, even unpleasant — because God has taken one that way? And does anyone really gain anything from seeing a nun change a washer on a tap or sit at a computer and code?

At the moment British T.V. and radio seem to be awash with monastic subjects. I hope and pray that they will be helpful to those who hear or watch them, and that the communities that have welcomed the media into their monasteries will not feel drained by the experience. But I am still left wondering whether, if we take away the grand buildings of the monks (nuns’ buildings in this country are usually not grand) and the funny clothes we wear (habits), monks and nuns are not as interesting to the general public as media types tend to assume. Our most important work remains prayer; and that, by definition, is something that cannot be captured digitally. In fact, it cannot be captured at all, because it takes us into the realm of God, into a place we must go humbly, darkly, and often apparently alone.

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23 thoughts on “As Others See Us”

  1. I go sometimes to the Anglican Benedictine Community at West Malling, and have been on retreat there as well. You rightly point out that we are observers of their life of contemplative prayer, although we are invited to join in their worship times as they sing the Psalms 8 times daily.

    They have shared their community now with St Benedicts Library and St Augustines College and Training Centre for Clergy and Laity, which has been a huge imposition on the Order, but it really bring more people to that place than ever before to enjoy the quiet and contemplative nature of the place.

    I recall their hospitality in their guest house from the past, which has been sacrificed for the college to use. But they retain Guest space for individual retreats, but now self-catering. What a wonderful space it is.

    • Prayer is always made in union with the rest of Christ’s Body, the Church; so although we may be praying in solitude, we are not alone. We are one with the rest of the Church — and, of course, with God. Does that make sense to you? However, especially as we go deeper into prayer, we can feel very alone, very unsure of what is happening.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your post. Yesterday evening I watched the current series on BBC 4 – this one from Pluscarden. Couldn’t get what the producers were trying to say – and at times it all felt very vaguely voyeuristic. So I’m left with a question – and would value your reflections: why is it that at a point in history when, in the west/developed countries the Church is many ways (often from within!) is perceived as dying out that we suddenly have this surge of fascination? I suspect we’re seeing something similar in more secular and Anglican terms with the fascination of discovering that a Vicar can cook or even dance or was once member of a pop group. What is really going on?

    • I wish I knew. Could it be that we have exhausted most other subjects and the monastic life remains a mystery to many so is worth tackling? It is always nice to feel we have some sort of privileged access to something that is normally hidden, isn’t it?

  3. I stumbled on the Pluscarden tv programme and then listened to the Radio 3 programme at 22.45 and know just what you mean. There were a few ‘gosh’ moments, but it didn’t say anything REAL about what life as a monk means. You are right, it cannot do that.
    So, thank you for sharing all you do and for keeping the ‘real’ bits hidden with God.

  4. May I encourage you to think, and pray that the Holy Spirit guides you to make the correct decision on this. My vote would be: Yes, go along with the Media – but only with a written Code of Procedure agreed beforehand.

    • I have already said that we shall think and pray. Quite apart from the enormous amount of time such things take, there are practical considerations: my illness means that I must sometimes struggle with sickness and tiredness and am always vulnerable to infection — and the amount of electricity all those lights consume can be horrifying!

  5. I enjoyed watching the daily life at the two monasteries. I don’t belong to that worship tradition so found it really interesting to observe. The monks came across as normal people who spent a lot of their time getting on with normal things. I enjoyed the snatches of worship and I was left with a sense of peace. I do know that prayer doesn’t make for good television, but because I’m a Christian I didn’t need that aspect spelled out. Not so for non-believers of course.

  6. I also enjoyed watching daily life at the two monasteries. The pace of life seemed peaceful and appealing. I too like to have order to my day. I am not able to go away on retreat at present so it was nice to spend an hour with the monks.

  7. Dear Sister Catherine, your welcome blog gives us occasional insights into monastic life in your house of God. It would be very intrusive and unnecessarily exhausting for your community to be invaded by TV for the ‘entertainment’ of the masses. But if God wills it….

  8. I’ve found this week’s programmes and C5 Bad Habits to be profoundly helpful. They speak volumes to a world ignorant of the faith. They are truly evangelical in outreach. That’s not to say you should do it. But it is great way of sharing the faith in the current age.

  9. Praying with you God’s will be done. Thank you for your blog and sharing your wisdom. It is a consolation to know we are one in the Body of Christ, His Church and don’t just pray in solitude but with and for one another.

  10. God guide you in your decision Sister C ,but I hear what you are saying re. the odd attire and grand(or not so grand)surroundings.A few days ago I watched a monk make bread in a simple kitchen;it would not have been so fascinating if it had been a teenager in an ordinary home.I also wonder if these programmes feed desires of voyeurism?

    • I’m not knocking them. Some people are genuinely inspired by them. For many, however, I think they work principally as entertainment and I don’t think we have the time or energy for that here.

  11. I was once at a talk given by a flower arranger on monastic gardens – at the time I lived in Cardiff- which was interesting mainly because the speaker referred to them as something in the distant past. She had based her talk on Tewkesbury Abbey, so afterwards, when we were “circulating”, I mentioned to her that there still was an abbot of Tewkesbury, albeit a courtesy title. She reacted as though stung and said “So where does he hang out?”.
    Maybe these programmes – I have recorded them and seen one so far – will at least remind people outside the church that there are other ways of seeing life?

  12. Matters of prayer, the idea of spending enduring time in seeking God’s presence, as the three visits to Benedictine Monasteries hoped to show – all offer help in realising there is something other than ourselves, which it seems from Neil McGregor’s radio 4 talks, humans have done for at least 40,000 years.
    It cannot be captured, as you say, because it takes us into another realm, another landscape – only offered as a possibility.

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