One dark and not so stormy night
A dark and cold night saw five of us head out of Edinburgh for the rolling hills to the east, the Lammermuir Hills. Tumbling out into the car park of the Sancta Maria Abbey at Nunraw we quietly entered the cool building. Sitting in the small chapel we wait. A door to the left creaks open and about 12 white robed Cistercian monks slip into their places. We are here for compline. Their web site asks the simple and direct question, which crosses my mind as the chants play out :
Is God calling you to a life of silence and solitude within a community of fellow seekers? With them you can praise God through the psalms and liturgy at set times during the day. You will have time to study the ways of God and to meet God in your lectio divina. And you will find work that will keep body and soul together.
Those words 'keep body and soul together' are interesting. Regularly accused of separation from the world such a community seeks to address a more fundamental separation, that of body and soul an accusation that can be levelled at our culture.
Waters and clouds
I had read, with not a little enjoyment, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor's short accounts of visiting three European monasteries. In his 'A time to keep silence' Fermor writes on his experience of staying, in this case, at the Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontalle outside Rouen in France. It's stunning stuff. He admitted he didn't want to go on retreat but to go 'somewhere quiet and cheap to stay while I continued to work on a book'. Here is part of his account of the transformation he underwent, as typed out by a fellow reader. He notes
'in the seclusion of a cell - an existence whose quiteness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the wood - the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away.'
After sitting in the cloud of song that has enveloped us we retreat in a calm albeit slightly stunned silence, emerging back into the arms of the night. We descend to the local cosy and hospitable pub in Garvald for beer and nibbles. We reflect. Gus recalls a film he saw, whose title escapes me, of life in a monastery. There are no words and the watching becomes a participation in the silence of the monk's lives. The next stage is a short drive deeper into the hills for a good viewing spot.
To the hills
The crispness and thinness of the monastery follows us and is mirrored in the stillness of the remote moors and the magnificent yet muted night sky. We find a generous layby, rescue all our extra winter layers and settle into a upward facing posture. We are craning our necks to catch meteorites that are predicted to be racing across the night sky. We wait. We shuffle. We lounge across the car bonnets, lie on our backs on lilo type mattresses that have been brought by some cunning devil. There is a slight sense of feeling lost in this remote place, or of being hidden perhaps. It's not an unpleasant feeling. Jan spots the first one, its tail blazing for a short spell. She sees the next two - has she got some secret remote control? Jan 'bags' the most, we all see one or two. It's not been the shower we had hoped for. Nonetheless we have also smelt moist turf and heather, felt chilled and alert and alive and stimulated by conversation and ale. And always there has been the silence.
Looking back there are strains of the Big Silence here and also connections with the film released in the Winter of 2010 of "Of Gods and Men" - The Story of the Atlas Martyrs, which looks intriguing. In fact, Nunraw have featured it on their web site.