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The White Stone: The art of letting go by Esther de Waal

04 March 2022

Peter McGeary reviews reflections on ageing

THE person who asked me to review this book is making me feel my age. There comes a time to all of us when the body and the mind are not entirely in agreement with one another, when (if you are a member of the clergy, at any rate) you have to give up that seven-bedroomed pile next to the church that you serve for a small flat on the edge of town, when all those things that seemed to give you position and status are no longer there.

Esther de Waal has written much in the past about the Benedictine and Celtic traditions of Christianity. Her latest work is, perhaps, her most personal yet. It comes out of the time for reflection forced on so many of us by the pandemic of 2020-21, and it coincides with a significant shift in her life.

During decades of marriage to a clergyman, with all the changes in location and circumstance that this can involve, a cottage in the Welsh Marches provided a degree of stability. Now this has had to be given up for a more urban existence in Oxford, as advancing age and the pandemic force change. The white stone of the title is a memento of the “old” place which she keeps in her pocket.

One of the Benedictine vows is to do with stability, of staying in a place and finding God there. Another is perhaps in tension with this: the monk must make a commitment to what is called conversatio morum — a kind of transformation of life. Faithfulness to the monastic life involves movement, a commitment to life wherever it may lead. This dialectic between movement and stasis is vital, cultivating both a sense of faithfulness and a willingness to renounce and change.

De Waal’s book is an extended meditation on this tension and what it entails. I don’t know whether she has read Marcel Proust — I imagine that she has — but her little book, like his gigantic novel, is crammed with observation and remembrance, little things or views provoking memories of events or people. She is a great walker, observing the world around her and being thankful for it. The sadness of renouncing possessions and places and people is tempered by memory and thankfulness for them. As with the Benedictine, the Psalms and the Rule that structure them are central in this, sustaining the author and giving form and order.

De Waal’s experience is not ours — I do not own a cottage in the middle of the countryside — but we can all learn lessons from her reflections here, about the importance of thankfulness, the acceptance of what is, and the readiness to be open to change.

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.


The White Stone: The art of letting go
Esther de Waal
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.40

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