It was the 13th-century wall of a ruined Cistercian nunnery at the far end of her garden in Norfolk that turned Sarah Sands’s thoughts to exploring monasticism in her final year as the editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. She already had a soft spot for the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot — ‘an oasis of reflection’. But she was finding it increasingly hard to set aside any time for reflection in her busy, noisy, anxiety-filled ‘5G life’ — office meetings from pre-dawn to dusk and evenings of emailing with the phone beeping every few seconds.
In this charming and quirky homage to A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor, on whom she admits to developing an ‘unseemly crush, considering he is dead’, Sands takes us with her on her quest to discover how monks and nuns achieve ‘the interior silence’ that she’s beginning to yearn for.
So, seatbelts on for a global tour of ten living monasteries, at each of which Sands aims to enter briefly but deeply into its essence, sleeping in the uncomfortable bed, eating the plain breakfast, praying in the silent, holy building and, if possible, talking to an inmate about how to achieve any level of serenity.
She’s honest about craving a cappuccino and chocolate croissant on her first morning at a mountain monastery at Koyasan in Japan, a country she happens to be going to anyway for Today, ahead of the G20 summit. She arrives at the airport fretting that her phone is dead and she hasn’t brought the right adaptor.
I feared for her ability to find any serenity at all in the face of all this. Her 24-year-old political and woke daughter, with whom she longs to renew empathy, is flying in to meet her. They’re doing this monastic thing together, just for two nights. Over weak coffee in the village (during a short escape from the monastery) her daughter lectures her on the damage Mrs Thatcher caused. But they regain calm at the tea ceremony. Sands reads a little book of the sayings of the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, and quotes the ones that speak to her, such as: ‘I don’t claim to know worldly things. I just watch the moon and lie down beneath the pines.’
This is Sarah Sands, for goodness sake — the most impish, mischievous, journalistic, world-addicted person you could imagine. I found it hard to keep a straight face when she came over all monastic like that. But actually this pulling of her natural twinkling merriment against her genuine desire to explore spirituality and silence is what makes the book so lovable. And if Leigh Fermor (also very worldly; he was writing erotic letters to Joan while incarcerated at St Wandrille) could get away with coming over all monastic, why shouldn’t she?
Fermor did, though, spend many weeks at St Wandrille, gradually sloughing off his layers of worldliness, whereas Sands never spends more than two nights in any of the monasteries. Her visit to the Franciscan one at Assisi, where she’s booked a chat with Fr Daniel Quackenbush, is literally a day trip from the Tuscan farmhouse where she’s on holiday with her family, and where a chef is coming that very evening to cook a barbecue. It also happens to be very near Evgeny Lebedev’s opulent villa where she has often stayed, and to which she once escorted Boris Johnson. St Francis’s ‘wait for me, while I go to preach to my sisters the birds’ seems a far cry from this lifestyle. But Sands writes, really meaning it, that ‘we need much less than we think we do’. She fasts the next day, for the first time in her life.
She goes about her quest in an unashamedly journalistic way, fitting research into work and holidays, and booking appointments to interview a key person wherever she goes. At the Coptic monastery of St Pishoy near Alexandria she escapes an afternoon session on the teachings of St Mark and goes snooping round the back, in search of the tiny, coffin-like monks’ cells.
In Montserrat, the Benedictine monk Bro Xavier Caballe tells her he listens to Van Morrison for leisure. He also insists that monasticism is far from being an escape from life’s difficulties. Living in close proximity with a community of brothers, ‘you need to learn qualities of patience, consideration, concentration, selflessness, kindness’.
Spinning a prayer-wheel at a marvellous-sounding Buddhist monastery up in the hills of Bhutan (again, just one night here, this time with her husband), Sands prays first, ‘please, O Lord, let me have my own lavatory’ before remembering to pray for the protection of Bhutan.
Slightly too many air miles being clocked up here in the cause of monasticism? Perhaps. The place where Sands really regains serenity is back in her own garden in Norfolk, during last summer’s enforced stillness caused by the lockdown. Contemplating her beloved ruined wall (Marham Abbey, dissolved 1536, nuns signed deed of surrender), she describes the elation of listening properly to birdsong. All too soon, though, she’s off to Senanque and Meteora, in the brief window when restrictions are lifted.
Silent is an anagram of listen, she writes, in a final hushed paragraph. ‘It is how I shall try to live my life, as the monks have taught me.’ I really hope it’s going well.
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