Why Do People Want To Escape Modern Life?
BBC documentary The Monastery showed how five men were transformed by a Monastic way of life. Fr Rod Jones shares their stories and explains, as Lent begins, how we too might be inspired.
I once read an article about the inclusion of a ‘Silent Room’ for customers in the newly built Selfridges department store on Oxford Street. This pure white room, free of all distractions, was designed to help burned out shoppers recover a sense of equilibrium before heading back onto the shop floor. Interestingly, this still exists today, known as the “no noise” room.
Although we may be aware of the stresses of everyday life and the effect this can have on our relationships, we sometimes struggle to find an effective resolution. 1500 years ago, St Benedict established a ‘school for the Lord’s service’, the Rule of St Benedict, a way of life rooted in a relationship with Jesus: ‘Let us prefer nothing to Christ’.
St Benedict understood that, for a person to thrive spiritually, physiologically and physically, there needs to be a constructive tension between the various needs and responsibilities in our lives.
A Dynamic Balance
The Rule legislated for a life where competing demands would be held in a dynamic balance. Giving work, community living and prayer their proper place, those who give themselves generously to this way of life can grow and flourish: ‘As we progress in this way of life…our hearts overflow with the inexpressible delight of love’.
In a 2005 BBC 2 programme, ‘The Monastery’, five men from diverse backgrounds lived alongside the monastic community at Worth Abbey for several weeks. They took a full part in all aspects of Benedictine monastic life: prayer, work and communal living. Their challenge was to adapt and respond to an experience which was so different from their own lives.
The response to this programme was so overwhelming that a secretary had to be employed to deal with the thousands of letters and emails received. A common theme in the correspondence emerged: people wanted to share the same experience as the five men.
The monastery, in response, ran weekend retreats called ‘Finding Sanctuary’. The ‘sanctuary’ would be a place of encounter, with themselves and the Lord. The ‘building blocks’ needed to sustain sanctuary were explored: creating the time to listen and pray; the importance of physical place and space to enable silence; how to structure and use a time of prayer. Most importantly, the issue of motivation was addressed, specifically the question: why should I do this?
This would be an experience that could be built into a person’s everyday life. People with varying degrees of faith came from many different backgrounds, with one thing in common: they were all searching. Recognising that life was not all as it should be, they sensed that the wisdom of the monastic tradition could offer an effective response to the materialism, self-centeredness and alienation found in contemporary life.
Many acknowledged a need to listen to their heart, to the ‘still small voice’ calling them into a loving encounter. The noise and distractions, common to so many of their experiences, made this deep listening so difficult.
Creating “sanctuary” in our lives requires perseverance. This leads to a growing awareness that the real sanctuary is not an external place, but is found in our own heart-the place where the Holy Spirit dwells.
The experience of God’s overwhelming love for us draws away from all that is constricting us. It is a love that calls us onto that journey of transformation Benedict spoke of in his Rule: a transformation into love, by love itself.
Those who came on retreat did not want to escape from contemporary life; rather, they wished to find a path to follow which would enable them to be more fully alive. The words of Jesus speak clearly to a disorientated culture in a world that increasingly obscures the truth:
‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12)
- Fr Rod Jones OSB is a Benedictine Monk of Worth Abbey. Their retreat programme can be found at www.worthabbey.net/Retreat-Program