I’m not entirely sure that posting this rather unflattering picture is a good idea but it illustrates the theme I’ve been worrying at – like a dog at a bone – for a few days now.
The problem about getting very cross is knowing what to do about your anger – aside from driving your closest friends around the bend by shouting about it constantly. I suppose we can just about tolerate our society being imperfect as long as the possibility exists – however faintly – of learning our lesson and moving on. The environmental crisis, for instance, is maddening – especially when the beneficiaries of our crazy exploitation of the earth. the corporations and governments – do everything they can to frustrate positive change. But if you add to the environmental crisis the fact that the economy is at the point of collapse and there is a world-changing pandemic going on and governments seem to have no idea what to do about it; then the sense of powerlessness can become overwhelming.
This is the time when the urge to withdraw starts to emerge, and I know all the arguments about hanging on in there, but when after decades, after a lifetime of struggle it becomes clear that the values you’ve tried to live to are being trashed relentlessly day by day and seemingly there’s nothing you can do to stop it, then perhaps there is a moment when a tactical withdrawal is justified – if only to give us mental and spiritual space to preserve all that’s important about the memories and dreams, the insights and the culture that are being eroded.
Our poisonous work ethic, our sociopathic narcissism, our spiritual deadness, our greed and materialism, our inability to love one another and our disconnection from the earth from whose dust we are formed have become so embedded in our culture that we are all becoming political prisoners of the way we do things round here.
You don’t need to be an expert in alternative therapies or martial arts to see that the key to a society that thrives and that allows us to thrive – is balance. We talk about work-life balance as if achieving some kind of equity in those two aspects would solve all our problems. But what kind of work? what kind of life? I always think at this point in the argument about the person who invented the terrible weapon of modern war called the flechette. This is a bomb that explodes into thousands of sharpened needles that pierce and rend the flesh of its victims. Would the people who worked on that weapon have been better people if they’d had longer holidays or worked a four day week? Is the destructiveness of weapons of war proportionate to the everyday stress of the working environment?
St Benedict – (don’t worry, this isn’t a sermon) – came up with his rule of life in 516 CE – at a time when withdrawal was on the agenda in the midst of the decline of the power of Rome. It was he that came up with a pattern for life that’s been the basis of almost every other rule since. What he was striving to do was to link three of the most essential features of a full human life in creative balance. The three factors were (are) work, prayer and study. The monastic life was an attempt to draw those three elements (there were more, but these were the central ones) into balance. They’re all important, but if any one of them becomes ascendant – let’s say you might want to spend your whole time studying, or maybe 24/7 praying floats your boat, or working without a break; any one of them worthy activities but when unbalanced become dangerous. One of Benedict’s famous sayings is – orare est labore, labore is orare. In the nature of these things it’s famous in spite of the fact it doesn’t appear in the Rule and he probably never said it in so many words. The closest he gets is describing the life of a monk as work, prayer and study.
I’m really attracted to that balance – I always have been, although notwithstanding my vocation I found work and study easy enough, but prayer? – that always seemed to me to correspond with standing alone and projecting the words WTF? into the darkness and silence.
Maybe that’s why I love the poetry of RS Thomas so much. This photo was taken inside a little upper room in the church at Llanfaelrys on Lleyn. It’s been converted to a pilgrim stop for those approaching Bardsey Island along the coast path. You can just see the humped outline of the island through the window in the middle left pane. RS could articulate those “WTF” thoughts more beautifully and more painfully than any other 20th century poet.
But is there some point in adopting a way of life that embodies the disciplines of monastic life without the stultifying culture that so often accompanies it. I was born, it seems, to search for the meaning and the practice of such a life. To work is to pray – and I understand that. The fork, the spade, the physical effort and the labour and joy of growing things, these are work of an altogether greater significance to fullness and thriving, than driving a bus – and I speak from experience of both! – and yet I look back on the bus driving days, after art school, as rewarding in their own way, and I think that there are many occasions when things go well and you fall so deeply into the rhythm of digging, or throwing a pot or even driving a bus, that you are overwhelmed by the sense of closeness to the heart of things. It’s a knowledge without language. So I get it – to work is to pray (whatever that means – but it absolutely means something!).
And I get that to pray is to work because putting yourself in that position of vulnerability and dependency; abandoning any hope of self sufficiency and demanding a blessing in the language of the gutter – WTF?! – that’s grim work – much harder than driving a bus ever could be. After all, Jacob broke his hip doing it!
So I suppose that living by a rule does have something to do with the Potwell Inn. Maybe the Potwell Inn is the perfect little monastic community of my mind. The allotment, baking bread day by day, cooking and sharing food, treasuring the books that remain and still finding silence, time and space to wonder what it’s all about? are these the components of monastic life, stripped of the ornamentation and clutter? Stripped even of any recognisable religion?