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23 January 2008

Learning to listen

A spartan monastic experience took Catherine Wybourne into a world of silence, and closer to God

By Catherine Wybourne

Benedict asks only two things of the aspiring novice: that he should genuinely seek God and be zealous for the Work of God, obedience and things that humble him. The aspiring novice generally asks rather more of the monastery. In my own case, I knew I must join a community which valued everything I held dear; where music, poetry and thought were an intrinsic part of the search for God rather than an obstacle to it; where holiness was seen as the natural flowering of humanity; and where what I then thought of as the tackier side of Catholicism — delight in the marvellous, bad art and milksop “sanctity” — was mercifully absent.

Thus it was that I found myself at Stanbrook Abbey, Worcester, at that time the leading Benedictine monastery for women. The novitiate certainly “tested the spirits, to see whether they were of God.” Living conditions were spartan, novices were not allowed to use the library, and no one ever spoke about prayer. It was not necessary to speak about prayer because the monastery and everything in it was designed to lead one to God. The physical bleakness of our “cells” or rooms, the lack of books, the reticence about “the spiritual life” – none of it stemmed from indifference. Far from it. We were forced to confront ourselves with an honesty and rigour that none of us had ever experienced before. A kind of interior emptiness was created which God was supposed to fill.

Little by little, as the old self was stripped away, we did become more sensitive. We were taught to close doors quietly, to notice the changing seasons, the play of light and shade at different hours of the day. The beauty of the abbey church and its wonderful acoustics helped; the care lavished upon the liturgy, the singing of the psalms, day after day, according to the Greogrian modes, began to work upon us. Community life with its challenges and consolations rubbed away at the rough places. I began to discover the truth of the paradox, that withdrawing from some aspects of a “normal” life actually draws one closer to other people. Prayer has no frontiers, no boundaries of time or space; but it does require effort and perseverance on the part of one who prays, and a monastic community provides, or should provide, encouragement and support.

For me, an important part of the process was, and still is, learning the art of “lectio divina”, that slow, meditative reading which issues in prayer. The Gospels, the psalms, the Rule of St Benedict – all are gradually learned by heart and form a kind of interior treasury on which to draw throughout the day. It is no accident that the very first word of the Rule is “Listen!”, no accident either that monastic life is largely silent. To “hear” the pain of the world, to intercede for others, is impossible if one is filled with noise. Perhaps our iPod generation is in danger of losing more than its hearing.

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