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Interview: Benedict Bowmaker, founder, Soil, Silence and Service

12 May 2017

‘When you let go, that’s when life begins’

Andrew Fox

I was working in a night shelter in London and offering meditation there in the early mornings; so I brought some of the people to the Monastery of Christ Our Saviour, Turvey, where I had spent some time.


It’s a community social enterprise committed to reducing society’s dividedness and personal disconnectedness, through a deep engagement with the land, with sustainable, biodiverse farming and gardening practices, and learning.


It’s been incubating over the past two years, thanks to the generosity and support of the Benedictine Brothers. We now meet for one long weekend a month. We’re hoping to run some week-long programmes next year.


We’re doctors, health-care providers, people living in supported accommodation, City traders, individuals with long-term and acute mental-health challenges, entrepreneurs, blue-collar executives, and people who want to work the land in a contemplative and supportive community. It’s a very healthily diverse group of people, who don’t all have a religious faith. One lady from one of the richest families in Spain flies in, and sits next to someone who sells The Big Issue.

The way we care and support each other’s humanity is shaped by our relationship to the soil, to ourselves, and to one another.


Ecological monasticism describes three principles that shape our way. We’re learning to become “gardeners of the heart”, and, as St Benedict says, “to listen with the ear of your heart”. If the earth is experienced as a sanctuary, not a commodity, then our sense of place, identity, and sacred belonging can deepen and be transformative.


The first principle is to live sustainably from food grown biodynamically. The second is to create community around a common home that brings the powerful and poor together in service. The third is to live simply and in sacred union from a point of stillness. Ecological monasticism views service as being to all life. God is all life, and life began in the soil.


This all came about when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. My company had been valued at £15.5 million, and I was the majority shareholder, but, within six months of Lehman’s collapsing, I had been forced to place the company into voluntary administration. My life as I had known it began to unravel. My father died from cancer, my marriage fell apart, and with it, many of my securities.


Hitting the bottom brought about the beginning of a journey I’m still on. On an impulse, I began a cycle journey from London to Santiago de Compostela, with just a tent, a change of clothes, and a few torn-out pages from a road map of Europe. Nine weeks later, my life had changed irreversibly. My survival and my current work stem directly from those nine weeks.


The beauty of the world flooded my despair. A way was revealed that asked only that I follow what cannot be seen, yet connects us to everything. I was cycling into silence. The further I cycled, the deeper the silence. By my journey’s end, something inside of me had shifted. I had let go of everything. What was left was love. I still find it hard to talk or write about this period.


I’d owned a 15th-century timber-framed five-bedroomed hall in a rural Suffolk village, with three acres of garden, some woods, and a river running through it. I live now in a rented house in Kent with my wonderful Portuguese wife, whom I met at a lecture on Julian of Norwich, and our nine-month-old daughter. I run a small car that was a gift to me, possess a few pieces of furniture, keep a select number of books only, and I work for a local charity.


I’m grateful for much that I had, and for the wonderful people whom I’ve loved and who’ve loved me. Accepting loss has been an important process in preparing me for a different life.


As I discovered for myself, many of us are as broken at the top of modern society as those of us at the bottom. The margins at both extremes draw people like a rip tide into emotional and psychological isolation, spiritual poverty, and profound disconnection. People from the margins represent the majority [of those suffering mental ill-health], but they’re as likely to be working in the City on high incomes as someone living in sheltered accommodation. Mental health doesn’t discern whether you’re rich or poor.


Rich and poor are very closely connected — more closely than anyone might think. That sense of not knowing you’re broken is the greatest tragedy, when you’re so manifestly broken. It’s OK to be a fantastically successful banker — we need them — but you mustn’t delude yourself that you’re more important than anyone else.


From my own experience of falling, I realise that no government policy or charity can stop this happening to people. It’s about relationships. I’d lived and projected a narrative of success, but what lies behind that façade is just an illusion. It can give people a sense of security, but it’s a skin-deep security.


When you let go, that’s when life begins. We can learn so much from people who’ve been forced to let go, or are struggling and are isolated from society.


I do feel strongly that we mustn’t become a charity. Land ownership exemplifies how divided we have become, particularly in the West. We’re currently developing a series of programmes that individuals can support financially, but money’s kept very simple. We help the monks with their kitchen garden, and they provide accommodation free of charge to Soil, Silence and Service. Donations we receive support the cost of preparing food, gardening materials, equipment, and the basic administrative overheads of running the programmes. We know that soon we shall be needing to find our own plot of land: ideally, suited to biodynamic farming, with outbuildings and an old monastery attached needing renovation or rehabitation. But, for now, we try to keep all money-related issues as simple as possible.


There are always dangers in success. Managing the practicalities of organising the weekend programmes in conjunction with my full-time day job can be difficult. Meditation, prayer, and trying to keep my life as simple as possible help me to remain attentive to the effects of these inevitable distractions. Of course, most days, I fail terribly, but this is also where I discover I’m at peace.


As we live in an outcomes culture, there’s a growing disconnect between NHS policy-makers and projects such as ours. Mental ill-health is on the rise in England, but attitudes are changing. A report published by Natural England in 2016 revealed that taking part in nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental ill-health, and can contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.


I was an average child at school, encouraged to be exceptional. Family life, though loving and supportive, wasn’t easy. I began the violin at six, and attended the specialist music school of Wells Cathedral.


I was 14 years old when I experienced my first awakening. Though it was intense and dramatic, I wasn’t able to respond, or perhaps I wasn’t ready. I reflect on it now, and wonder whether things had been developing whilst I was asleep. My conversion to Catholicism, in 2014, was part of my response to my second awakening.


Corporate concentration in commercial food, farming, health, and their continual strategic push to commodify the planet’s remaining natural resources make me angry. Monsanto accounts for almost one quarter of the global proprietary seed market. This is palpably nonsensical.


I’m happiest when I’m cycling and making time to observe the little gifts in each day.


St Benedict has been the greatest influence on my life.

Prayer for me, and the call to meditation, is, as the Benedictine monk John Main describes it, “a call to grow up, to leave the ego-centred irresponsibility of childishness behind, and to become ourselves by finding ourselves beyond ourselves in union with the All”.


In the silence, I pray for the courage to follow, steadfastly and with a pure heart.


The most reassuring sound is my daughter sleeping in my arms. She and my wife bring me hope. The world is full of kindness. The majority of the world’s peoples are good, kind, and loving. This gives me great hope.


If I was locked in a church for a few hours, and could have anyone as my companion, I’d choose the man with bags who had been sitting outside the church. I would sit with him and listen to his story.


Benedict Bowmaker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. soilsilenceandservice@gmail.com www.facebook.com/soilsilenceservice

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