BROTHER COLUMBA and his frail Abbot, the last two members of a rural monastic community, are faced with moving to a care home in Bethnal Green.
In a collection of random jottings, ostensibly edited by a local priest, Columba looks over his early life in an idyllic Australian coastal hamlet and the strange path that brought him, drunk and flecked with his own vomit, to wake up in the monastery’s hedge, rescued by two monks who put him to bed without question or judgement. He describes, in a distinctive kindly and erudite voice, the burgeoning of his own vocation, and how the stillness and silence bring healing to him and others.
This unusual and absorbing book has to be read slowly. The “priest-editor” describes it as a chronicle of “something of the dying landscape of the Church of England in the early part of the twenty-first century”, but it’s infinitely more than that.
Columba himself is a deeply engaging narrator. There are hints of a dark secret, but one for which confession and prayer has allowed him to forgive himself.
Able to love himself, as is proper, he exudes a great and clear-sighted affection for his neighbour, both the guests to whom he is Guestmaster during their retreat, and his fellow monks, whose varied talents deployed in the service of God — chef, gardener, academic, craftsman in wood — he appreciates and celebrates.
The charity and clarity of vision which illuminate his path extend to life in the care home, physical decay, and the death of his Abbot. And the reader gains a new perspective on how faith helps someone to deal with the circumstances God sends them.
His secret is revealed in the end, but it’s one of those books in which the journey is the destination, a gentle and thought-provoking account of a well-lived life finely imagined.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
The Rest is Silence
Dwyer Editions £8.99