Two months as a monk

A Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight is now accepting interns

The Spectator, February 2 2013.

Quarr Abbey

Kieran Viljoen’s life sounds like a parable. Not long ago, back in South Africa, he spent his days in the depths of the ocean searching for diamonds. But for the past two months he has been living the life of a Benedictine monk.

He is one of two interns at Quarr Abbey, a monastery on the Isle of Wight. The internship scheme, the first of its kind, is billed as an abridged gap-year experience: two months of living, praying and working alongside the monks. When I arrive, the scheme has just finished. Kieran, 23, and Michael Edwards, 26, from Liverpool, are leaving the next day. That evening the monks are treating them to a farewell dinner. ‘It could range from fancy dress to a hardcore dance party,’ jokes Kieran.

Father Luke Bell, who is in charge of the scheme, meets me at the ferry. A former English lecturer, he has a way of not looking at you when he talks — something common among deep thinkers, I think. He hoicks up his habit as we walk through mud. We pass a piggery, and he explains that’s where a press photographer wants the interns to pose later, alongside the pigs. ‘The media like the pigs,’ he says dryly. Beyond that is the abbey itself, which is breathtaking: a masterpiece in red brick.

In the common room Kieran is making tea. He is wearing flip-flops, even though it’s freezing cold. He and Michael are tanned and bearded, like gap-year travellers, and seem very relaxed. The two of them worked at the abbey for four hours a day. They chopped wood, trimmed hedges, cleaned the cloister and picked apples. The autumn apple-picking, Michael says, was idyllic. ‘Everything was golden.’ Afterwards, inspired, they printed off Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’.

For another four or so hours a day, they joined the monks in worship. That is, seven offices, or services, in which the monks sing or chant words from scripture. They weren’t expected to keep entirely to the monastic schedule: the 5.30 a.m. office was optional. And unlike the monks, they were allowed to snack outside of meal times. They were, though, expected to observe the Great Silence, from 8.30 p.m. until morning.

Michael and Kieran arrived at the monastery by quite different means. Michael sent an application form and came for an interview. Kieran came to the Isle of Wight to go to a music festival, and ended up at Quarr because he was given a free bus ticket (though he did have to supply references and be interviewed, too). Each is at a similar, undecided stage of life. Michael was a trainee solicitor but left because he hadn’t felt fulfilled. Kieran, after giving up diamond diving, travelled around England for a year and a half, stopping off at monasteries and yoga centres. He was ‘on a pilgrimage’, he says, ‘not knowing where it was going’.

As we all sit down round a big wooden table, Father Luke says he thought the interns would be constantly distracted by their smartphones, unable to switch off. In reality, he says, that wasn’t a difficulty at all. ‘Do you want to explain your particular weakness, Michael?’ Michael looks a bit alarmed. ‘What they really liked doing,’ Father Luke explains, ‘was going to the sweet shop.’

One intern did not stay until the end. Father Luke says his problem had been too little solitude, rather than too much. ‘He is a very serious seeker and his normal practice was to spend seven hours a day reading on his own. That wasn’t very compatible with our way of life.’ The ‘final straw’, he says, was a reading from St Paul. (Father Luke declined to say any more about it. ‘It isn’t always helpful to open cans of worms,’ he said.)

Michael and Kieran, though, have lots of positive stuff to say about their two months. Michael says that, because of the strict routine, he felt ‘freed of existential bewilderment — having to constantly work out what I should be doing, when to do it, how to do it. It’s felt very healing.’ The repetition, he says, ‘lets you go into the deeper things’. They both feel more inclined to ‘engage with the present’ and let life unfold rather than always planning ahead.

They talk happily, too, about the long periods of silence — although to me it sounds quite unsettling. ‘Things from the back of your mind, from your subconscious, do work themselves forward, and it can be a real challenge to deal with these things,’ says Michael. In the end, he says, you benefit from being ‘at peace with them’.

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Interview with a writer: David Mitchell January 25 2013

David Mitchell slaps a big hand on his head. ‘I look back at that kid and think, what were you thinking! How dare you, idiot!’ He is talking about his recklessness as a young writer. ‘Yeah I’ll stop it halfway, five times, and start it again. I’ll pretend I’m a Chinese woman living up a mountain.’ He compares it to being a teenager ‘leaping off a 12-foot wall’ without fear. As writers get older, he says, the recklessness subsides, and ‘it needs to be replaced by technique. If you can do that, you’re still in business.’

One of his most madly structured books, Cloud Atlas, has just been made into a film. That’s why we are meeting. Made by the directors of The Matrix, it’s crammed with six stories, each set in a different world, from the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century to an Orwellian super-state in the future. All the worlds feature Tom Hanks.

Mitchell says the film ‘ticked all the boxes’ for him, though he was involved in its production and so can’t be impartial (he’s even in it, briefly). He loved being on set. For a writer, he says, ‘any chance to get an access all areas pass to a different world, a different tribe, is gold’.

He describes himself as a ‘journalist inside a novelist’, and I can see why. His curiosity is unsettling. He asks me about my recorders, my pencil (it’s shaped like a drumstick), my writerly ambitions and my prognosis for planet Earth. I fear I’ll end up as a character in his notebook.

He is finishing off his sixth novel at the moment. According to Wikipedia, it’s about a young girl growing up in Ireland. Mitchell laughs. ‘No no no no, that’s not true.’ He doesn’t want to give too much away – ‘it’s morphing quite quickly, and it shouldn’t be at this stage, it should be set’. He says it has ‘dollops of the fantastic in it’, though not of the hobbits-and-elves kind. ‘Stuff between life and death. And the soul.’ The fantasy material is ‘volatile’, he says. ‘It’s great as long as it’s off screen but the moment you show it or explain it then you can hear the hiss of deflating air. So it’s a bitch to handle… That’s not a particularly post-feminist phrase: it’s a swine to handle.’

Mitchell is, it’s pretty clear, totally consumed by his work. Being away from his laptop and notebook for a few days is like ‘oxygen starvation’. ‘It’s just awful,’ he says. ‘They’re wasted days.’ He says that his writing ‘is the very first thought of any day when I wake up and it’s the very last one as well’.

It sounds a bit extreme, I say. ‘Yes, but – isn’t that a form of happiness, to spend your life getting better and better at something that’s very difficult to do well?’ People who are really content, he suggests, generally ‘have some kind of a cause, some kind of a vocation, that they live in rather than do’.

Mitchell describes a ‘little throb of pleasure from a bloody perfect sentence’. He says: ‘People can hate you, they can hate what you write, they can despise your very soul, but they can’t alter the fact that this sentence is perfect.’

I ask him if writing gets any easier. ‘Well, you’ll find out. Um. Firstly, no… You see the swarm that is caused by reality and words more clearly, and because you’re seeing it more clearly you’re unable to write as superficially as you used to. And your prose can become unreadably dense.’ He says, looking at the snow falling outside the window, ‘it’s like staring into a snowstorm – what flakes are you going to leave out of this swirling mass and which ones are you going to take and use.’

Read the rest of the article here.

‘We rot. Don’t we?’

The Spectator, December 15 2012.

Joanna Lumley

Joanna Lumley and Sister Elizabeth Obbard are seated at the front of the church. Lumley is perched elegantly on the edge of her chair; Sister Elizabeth settles deep into hers, submerged under folds of habit. They are talking in front of an audience at the Carmelite church in Kensington, west London, about life as a nun. And Sister Elizabeth is being wonderfully honest. ‘The first six months were dreadful,’ she says. This was in the 1960s, when religious sisters did hard, physical work that was ‘supposed to make you humble’. Did it make her humble, asks Lumley. ‘No,’ says Sister Elizabeth, who is meek but steely. ‘It made me angry.’

The evening has been organised by Grange Park Opera, in advance of its production of Les Carmélites, a spine-chilling opera about the French Revolution that culminates in the execution of 16 nuns. The connection to Lumley is that her husband, Stephen Barlow, is conducting.

Lumley says she wanted the evening to illustrate how ‘ordinary ordinary’ a nun could be — ‘kindly, well read, easy to talk to’. I meet her a few weeks later. In between she was in New York, filming The Wolf of Wall Street, in which she kisses Leonardo di Caprio. The paparazzi took lots of pictures. ‘It’s the sound, tsk, tsk, tsk, click, of the camera that’s horrible. It’s distracting.’ The kiss, she says, irritated, had to be done ‘again and again and again’.

Lumley (who is 66) is, of course, charming and courteous and lovely. By the end of our meeting, though, I worry things have turned a bit bleak.

The life of a nun is not entirely new to her: she was educated at an Anglo-Catholic convent in Sussex. She loved it, she says, and kept in touch with all her teachers. I ask, tentatively, because I think it might be bad manners, if she believed in God when she left. ‘Well, that kind of a God…’ She suddenly sits back in her chair. ‘Well, I’ve always believed in everything. I ought to put that on the cards immediately.’ She believes, she says, in ghosts, intuition, premonitions, being able to speak to animals. And, she says in a comic weedy voice, she believes in ‘the trees’. So she couldn’t not believe in a creator. ‘But I don’t think I’m a follower of religion, if that’s what you mean.’ She cites a new book by the Dalai Lama, called Beyond Religion, which says religion is just about kindness. ‘There’s nothing else to learn, nothing else to do. Once you realise that, maybe you don’t have to do religion at all.’

I ask her if she believes in reincarnation, only because newspapers in the past have said that she does. ‘Well, we can’t not!’ she says. ‘Nothing in this room is new. Everything’s been recycled because nothing’s left the planet and nothing’s come into the planet.’

I am not sure I follow, so I ask what the process is. ‘Well, we rot! Don’t we?’ If people are burnt and their ashes scattered, she explains, the ashes might feed into a plant, the plant might get eaten and so on. ‘Everything is re-used, which is the brilliance of life I think.’

So it’s not that our spirit latches on to a new being? ‘No. I’m not sure I believe in this. It’d be rather draining if the same people kept coming round and round again.’

The conversation begins to take a darker turn. ‘The truth is,’ Lumley says, ‘it doesn’t matter what we believe. What happens happens. People only think of things to make themselves happier. Religion is just to make you feel happier. It’s a comfort thing: if you believe that on the other side there’s going to be Elvis and your parents and Beethoven, it doesn’t matter. Nobody can prove it doesn’t happen.

‘If it makes you happy, and if it makes you peaceful about death, excellent,’ she says, lightly. ‘Because you’re going to die, one thing we do know is we’re going to die, we don’t know when or how and we all hope it doesn’t hurt, but no one can mind being dead.’

Read the rest of the article here.

Spiritual athletics

Sister Catherine Holum, nun and former Olympic speed-skater, on the connections between sport and the religious life

This article was first published in The Spectator on 23 June 2012.


Sister Catherine Holum remembers her first Olympic speed-skating race very clearly. The crowd, she says, was very loud. Three men with television cameras knelt in front of her as she tied her skates up. She felt the whole world was watching. And when she had finished the race, she burst into tears.

At the time — it was the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan — she was only 17. She had come from an Olympic family: her mother was a gold medallist and a US star coach. Sister Catherine — or Kirstin, as she was then — was hyped up as a prodigy, destined for greatness. Then she retired.

I meet her at a care home in north London, where she is staying briefly. She is a diminutive figure in a thick Franciscan habit. Her oval spectacles protrude under a smart black veil.

She is, like many young nuns, smiley and joyful and warm. She makes me feel like I am great company even if I am not saying anything. She laughs often, as sociable people do.

As we sit down Sister Catherine sips a glass of water while I help myself to tea and biscuits. I ask her when she started speed-skating and she explains about her mother, Dianne Holum, a champion skater who coached three US Olympic teams. ‘I was always at the rink with her,’ she says. ‘She took me everywhere.’ So she started skating when she was seven, and competed internationally at the age of 13.

The ‘turning point’, she says, came at 16, when she went on a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal. She was walking arm in arm with her cousin at the spot where, in 1917, three children apparently saw the Virgin Mary, and all of a sudden she heard the words, ‘You are going to be a sister.’ ‘And this peace and this joy came rushing through me,’ she recalls.

When she got home, she says, she asked the Virgin Mary to pray for her speed-­skating career. And it immediately took off. She became US national champion, junior world champion, and broke world records — ‘It surprised me, it surprised my mum, it surprised everybody,’ she says, laughing.

She was training four or five hours a day, six days a week. As well as skating she was weightlifting, running, cycling, doing drills.

That year, though, she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, and had to take a ‘ton of medication’. Preparing for the Olympics was tough, she says, and, in the middle of the trials, she announced that after the Nagano Games she was going to retire.

‘I really couldn’t see myself speed-skating my whole life,’ she says. ‘In the sport people focus everything on being a speed-skater — not getting an education, not moving on… I really felt there was more to life for me than sports.’

What she found instead was art. For four years she studied photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The art crowd, she says, were very different from the sports crowd. None of her friends was Catholic, or Christian. She prayed outside abortion clinics, which was not a popular activity. ‘I didn’t get any hostility because, honestly, in art school people are very accepting of other people’s views. It was more that I knew a lot of people didn’t agree with me.’

When she finished, she didn’t know what to do. She moved back in with her mum in Denver, Colorado. She had not thought much about her faith, or the call she felt to be a sister. But she continued to pray outside abortion clinics, and met a group of people who were about to walk across America to promote the pro-life cause. The next day she decided to join them. ‘It was crazy — I met them on a Friday and started walking with them on the Sunday.’ She says she had never before met people living their faith so joyfully. ‘I knew it was because of their love for Jesus and I knew, reflecting on my own life, that I wasn’t experiencing that same joy.’

That was only the start of the walking. The following year Sister Catherine walked for a month and a half to Toronto for a global gathering of young Catholics called World Youth Day. There, she met the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal.

After that, she felt ‘on fire’ with her faith. ‘All I wanted to do was be with nuns,’ she says. She helped out at different religious communities in Denver before she finally phoned the Franciscans and flew out to join them in New York.

The hardest moment in her life, she says, was leaving her family. ‘Even though I knew I wanted to do God’s will, it’s still a big step to dive into your vocation and really focus everything on the Lord, with no turning back.’

She served the homeless in the Bronx and then, in 2009, moved to Leeds, where she and a handful of other sisters give talks at schools, help at a care home and run a mothers’ group.

The Franciscans of the Renewal are, in many ways, the Olympians of religious life. They pray five hours a day — the amount of time that Sister Catherine used to train for. They are relatively new (they were founded in 1988) and, with their habits, sandals and rosary beads, seen as radical in a traditional kind of way.

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Read more, speak less

Marilynne Robinson, Obama’s favourite contemporary novelist, says we all have a duty to raise our intellectual game

This article was first published in The Spectator on May 26 2012


As a child Marilynne Robinson was enthralled by writing poetry. As an adult, she says, it has never been quite the same. ‘During a thunderstorm or something like that I would write some crazy poem and then hide it. It was wonderful.’ She hid the poetry under her mattress. ‘My mother would come in to change the sheets and all this poetry would fly out,’ she recalls. ‘She would say: “Why are you hiding your poetry?” I’ve never known why. But I’m still like that. I’m pretty secretive about anything I write.’

She says she’s two-thirds of the way through her fourth novel. When I ask more about it, she laughs and almost puts her head in her hands. ‘I can’t talk about it. I can’t… For some reason or another that just destroys fiction when you talk about it prematurely, at least for me.’

Robinson has never published any of her poems. ‘I grew up and my poetry really did not,’ she says. But her novels are the kind that a poet might write, representing fairly everyday moments as moving and sad and beautiful.

Her first, Housekeeping, came out in 1980; it took 24 years before she wrote a second, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer. In between the two she raised a family and taught creative writing in Iowa. More recently, she has been prolific, producing two collections of essays and another prize-winning novel, Home, over four years. She is divorced and her two children are grown up and married, so she is free to work; plus, she doesn’t do leisure time. ‘If I’m working on something I want to be working on, nothing could interest me less than leisure. My down time is basically when I don’t know what to write next.’

She has, in the past, spoken of herself as ‘a solitary’. She says longish periods of solitude are necessary for the concentration that’s required in her work. She also says that if she can’t ‘be by myself to think things through at length I get really unhappy’.

Her work, she says, is driven solely by interest. ‘It’s like something consuming… You get something on your mind and you just have to think about it and it amplifies itself. That’s motivation in itself, without any reference to the outside world.’

Robinson says, apologetically, that she doesn’t read anything light: her preference is for ‘hard, heavy old things’. ‘[Books] that don’t make that kind of demand on me bore me,’ she says. At the same time, she is gripped by contemporary debates, and keen to have her say in them. Her latest ­collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, includes an elegant attack on austerity, which she casts as an obsessive ideology nibbling away at America’s great institutions.

She is visiting England for a series of talks on her Pulitzer-winning Gilead. Later this month, she is setting off again, this time for Greece, to give a lecture about theology and the economic crisis. ‘My solitary life is not exclusively a solitary life,’ she says. ‘I like to come out and look at the world and talk with people and all that sort of thing… It’s just a matter of trying to find a liveable balance.’

She is worried about Greece, she says, and about the power of ‘jittery markets’ to topple elected governments. ‘The implications for all of us are pretty dark if this becomes how the world works,’ she says.

She does not believe the markets are wise — in fact, she says, they seem to require ‘no thought at all’. Their dominance is bad news in civilisation terms, too, she argues. ‘You can’t imagine [the market] as inspiring literature, no music is going to be composed around it and no one is going to pick it up in 200 years and say, “my goodness”. There will be no Sophocles of contemporary understanding insofar as it’s dominated by this kind of economic non-thinking.’

Robinson also has enormous interest in science and theology (an odd pairing, some might say). She subscribes to Scientific American and describes herself as a Calvinist, though she attends a Congregationalist church, like Obama (indeed, he once listed Gilead as his favourite book on Facebook). She is dismissive of the New Atheists, saying their arguments are ‘bad science’. When I ask about them, she compares them to ‘the mockers and scorners’ that theologians wrote about in the Middle Ages. ‘It seems to have been a continuous voice, [but] it has this funny way of bursting on the world as if, “Oh, we’re the first people to ever dare say this”.’

She says intelligent criticism of religion would do religious culture ‘a huge favour and ought to be listened to’. I ask if she has read any such critics and she sighs. ‘Let me think,’ she says. Pause. ‘No.’ She lets out a laugh. ‘But then perhaps I haven’t exhausted the literature.’

If Robinson is critical of New Atheists, she is critical, too, of much religion. I bring up same-sex marriage, and she says she finds the campaigns against it ‘absolutely bizarre’. In the Bible, she says, there are just two or three injunctions against gay relationships (which ‘can be interpreted as perhaps prohibitions of pagan religious behaviour’) while there are hundreds against the abuse of the poor. ‘Now, how does it happen that huge religious establishments are hung up on two or three verses, while the status of the poor declines and declines? It seems to me a perfect illustration of the tendency of religion to discredit itself by finding small opportunities to be mean when there are large opportunities to be generous.’

Read the rest of the article here.