Rising to the hour of the wolf

14 September 2018

Erik Varden tells Madeleine Davies why ‘A monk is like a gutter’

Br Martin Horwath

THE monks at Mount St Bernard’s, a Cistercian abbey in Leicestershire, rise at 3 o’clock in the morning, to say prayers at 3.30.

Ingmar Bergman called this the “hour of the wolf”, the Abbot, Dr Erik Varden OCSO, says. “When the night is at its thickest and darkest and dawn still seems impossibly remote. The hour of despair.”

The intercessions offered at this time are “for all those who are suffering, who are in pain, who are afraid of the day about to dawn, who perhaps can see no possibility of tomorrow”. This is not a mere exercise of sympathy, he emphasises. “We can actually effectively hold that pain before God, and make it, remarkably, praise. . . Call down the mercy of God into these corners of darkness that it might not otherwise reach because the conduits didn’t exist.”

A monk, he explains, with a laugh, is “like a gutter. . . He’s got to try to keep himself uncluttered in order to be an effective conduit of the world’s necessities upwards and of divine mercy down.”

A willingness to stare down the darkness is at the heart of Dr Varden’s new book, The Shattering of Loneliness, which explores the most excruciating aspects of human existence. It begins with his learning, as a child in Norway, of the scars inflicted by torture during the Second World War (“It was as if all the world’s pain had entered, by them, into my protected universe”), and goes on to draw lessons from lives, both real and fictional, tormented by despair.

His own early intuition that human life carried “immense potential for pain” gave rise to a different response: compassion; and, at the age of 26 (via a teenage encounter with Mahler’s Resurrection), entrance to St Bernard’s.

But if acting as a conduit for pain is one element of the monastic life, so, too, he insists, is “the aspiration to be happy”.

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“Ultimately, when a young person looks at a monastic community, he or she will look around and say ‘Are these people happy? Are they grown up? Have they reached, in scriptural terms, full stature?”

He points to St Benedict’s depiction of Jesus calling his disciples by asking “Who is it who wants to see good days?” adding, “If you don’t want to be happy, don’t be a monk. Find some other way to be miserable!”

 

THE reference to visitors “looking around” is apt. While rich in theological reflections for those inside the Church, The Shattering urges the reader to look outwards. If the stories told are drawn from some of the most extreme frontiers of the human experience, the intent is not to chill or intimidate, it seems, but to remind the reader of the “deep longings” which animate and haunt those around us.

“If Christian claims are to impress, we must show that they are more than scaffolding rigged around the existential thirst of man; that in fact they correspond to this thirst and carry refreshment,” Dr Varden writes.

He fears that, too often, we start out from the wrong direction, using terms such as “grace” and “sin” that “have largely become meaningless to our world”, rather than working from the longing to its ultimate source. It’s not that these concepts are not crucial, he emphasises to me, “but you have got to understand what they mean”.

There are echoes, in his ordering of things, of Francis Spufford’s claim that “Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.”

“Christianity has extremely cogent answers to many of the great questions that we ask ourselves these days,” Dr Varden tells me. “Very often, we are not very good at presenting those answers — or, rather, perhaps, we tend to answer questions that no one is asking. . . We have got to have the courage to set out from the experiential.”

Among the questions he lists, when I invite him to give examples, are: “Why am I afraid? Why am I so difficult to satisfy? Why do I long to be loved and to love? Why am I frightened of dying?”

The deepest challenge of evangelisation today, he suggests, is “anthropological. It’s about what it is to be a human being, and what our potential is as human beings.” The greatest longing of many of the guests who come to Mount St Bernard’s is “an acknowledgement of their humanity,” he says.

In a work that explores loneliness, there is an intimacy, even cosiness, to some of the images that Dr Varden presents. Monks and nuns, he writes, “invite fellow seekers to look up, to find their hearts touched by a deep remembrance of God’s original caress”.

He tells me about Mother Maria Gysi, one of the founders of the Monastery of the Assumption, Whitby, who dreamed that she was a “a big, square, rough old house; there was no glass in the windows, all very poor. But a lamp burning night and day for anyone who would come for a night or longer into one of the rooms — not to me. I would hardly know who was there. . . I was just the house, a place of welcome and warmth and infinite compassion — being one with each inwardly, demanding nothing, teaching nothing — above all no judging or categories or piousity of any kind, but the light every night showing the way.”

“I think we must ask ourselves: do we work like that? And are we the sort of people that people would want to get to know?” he laughs.

His own first experience of a religious community was as a 17-year-old. A Buddhist monk had visited his school offering meditation classes, and Dr Varden originally sought to visit a Buddhist monastery. Finding it closed, he decided to seek out a Christian one (“I had at that point seen The Sound of Music; so I had a reference”), and arrived at Caldey Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Wales.

“I thought it rather frightening,” he recalls. “But there was something about the coherence of the response of these men that impressed me. They had ascertained the truth of something, and they had taken the consequence of that, and that seemed to me estimable.”

 

WHILE guests continue to arrive in “mystifying” numbers at Mount St Bernard, the community at the abbey is experiencing a diminution. It is “something I think about a lot”, he says, when I ask him whether the anxiety about numbers animating the C of E strikes a chord.

Yet he remains calm: “A monastic community isn’t principally, as it were, a staff of people employed to animate a property. It is . . . an organic form of life. And it normally pertains to an organic form of life to be sown, to sprout, to grow, to bear fruit, to diminish, and to die. I think, as communities, we shouldn’t take it for granted that the Lord’s will is for us to be around until the Second Coming.

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“What matters is to try to be faithful and to keep the flame of dedication alive, and to try to practise what St Benedict puts in the rule as ‘good zeal’.”

He notes that present numbers correspond to the norm during the first century of the community’s existence (it was founded in 1835), but that “one of the key features of the Christian confession is that death has sense, that it isn’t just a matter of the Grim Reaper coming and harvesting. . . The more we take the future for granted, as if it belonged to us, the more anxious we will be.”

He has observed, in some churches, a “lead-weighted sadness”, which he traces to “the sense of not living up to what one used to be . . . of failing the past, of not being what one ought to be. Rather than assuming the present, however diminished it may be, as a task and perhaps even as a vocation.”

There is a gentleness to this analysis, but, while acknowledging the disenchanting forces of contemporary secular anthropology, and a society in which believers are “mocked as irrational, emotionally and metaphysically deluded”, the book also suggests that, “if the Christian position often fails to engage non-believers, is it not because, in projecting itself, it lacks incarnate credibility?” Christians, he writes, can “lack discretion in the way we use the vocabulary of faith”; they can “invoke tremendous notions casually”.

He tells me that he is unsure whether the Churches have “come to terms” with living in a “post-Christian world . . . and whether we embrace the challenge of difference. We can so easily think that, simply by virtue of being signed up to a parish or a community, or whatever it is, we are sort of doing our bit.”

In the beginning, he points out, “the Christian option stood out, because it was so radically different. It was people living and constructing societies on different terms, founded on forgiveness . . . of a sharing of goods, of compassion for those in need . . . and a sense of absolute truth that was so fully owned that people were prepared to offer all lesser goods for the sake of it, to the extent of giving their lives.”

The Shattering is an unapologetically challenging book; a work that belongs in what Philip Larkin respected as “a serious house on serious earth”. Among the observations is that “We often live as if God did not exist” (a diagnosis, Dr Varden says, that applies to him, too).

Being a monk entails inhabiting “a limitless universe”, allowing one’s heart to be crushed, opened, and healed, until it becomes wide enough to contain the world, “calling its plight to God’s mercy”.

Yet without denying the radical nature of the religious life — or, in fact, the Christian life — Dr Varden is chary of suggestions that young people today struggle to commit (“It’s always been difficult to make commitments”), and sees in those he meets “a high degree of idealism and generosity, and a desire for commitment”.

To live an embodied life while keeping eternity in sight is “a tremendous intellectual challenge, and also a great existential challenge”, he says. “But that’s why we simply have to practise.”

The Shattering of Loneliness is published by Bloomsbury on 20 September at £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90)

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