COVID has given many of us a taste of a version of monastic life, hermetically shut up within four walls with an unchanging handful of others, cut off from our erstwhile busy lives and social circuits, with plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of this life and — thanks to the very real risk of infection — of what may lay beyond it.
So Sarah Sands, journalist and until recently editor of Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, finds out, when lockdown strands her in her north Norfolk home. This happens to be built in the precincts of a Cistercian convent that fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
A fragment of one of Marham Abbey’s walls is right next to her garden, and, in truth, she had become fascinated by it long before we all learnt about social distancing and the R number. The attraction of the silence and other-worldiness represented by this remnant of a monastery, such a stark contrast to her daily routine of news, news, news, plus networking, had already cast a spell over her. She had been to Japan, Assisi, the Egyptian desert, and the Black Madonna of Montserrat to explore further in the months before the pandemic’s arrival.
Her chosen subtitle suggests a contribution to the burgeoning self-help/spirituality market, but The Interior Silence is more accurately an elegant travelogue, an account of ten visits to monasteries. Her destinations and her encounters at them are all well described, her prose is light of touch, and her willingness to bare her soul is engagingly executed.
The result is a gently probing recce, apposite both in these times of Covid, and in that wider context in which those with no strong formal religious attachment are drawn in ever greater numbers to places where prayer is and has been valid. En route, Sands learns about humility, and about cultivating inner silence that allows her to listen to more than the morning’s news headlines.
Yet it is almost as if she is holding herself back from plunging in deeper. Her visits are usually brief, and she too often couches the insights that she has gained in terms of quotations from renowned spiritual writers rather than recording first-hand something that has emerged from within herself. This likeable book has the feel of a down payment on a bigger project. If it is, I look forward to reading about what comes next.
Peter Stanford is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster.
Sarah Sands is a speaker at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, to be held online tomorrow. Tickets are on sale now for £20, or £10 for a Church Times subscriber. faithandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk
The Interior Silence: 10 Lessons from monastic life
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