Low life

The power of prayerful washing-up

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

My days pass largely in a state of inanition. The fit and able-bodied express their sympathy, claiming it’s much the same for them. ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m sleeping all the time.’ ‘Oh, but so are we in this terrible heat!’

Meanwhile the young get browner and more beautiful every day while going on with their energetic lives as if affected by the heat scarcely at all. For instance, I look at the cheerful lads digging up our road, putting in fibre broadband in 40 degrees of heat. I want to run up to them and implore them, with the fervour of a dying man preaching to dying men, to enjoy it while it lasts. When I was a binman elderly people used to come to the back door and say that to me often. I’d be standing there, balancing a skip full of ashes on my right shoulder while the elderly householder warmed to his or her theme of carpe diemand out in the road the driver hissed his brakes impatiently. Their longer perspective used to irritate me.

I’ve tried strong alcohol to cheer and animate myself. I’ve tried CBD and THC. I’ve tried speed. I’ve tried so-called smart drugs. I’ve tried reprising the steroid dose I took during chemotherapy. But the most cheering innovation I’ve tried with the slightest success so far are silk pyjamas.


As of now I have two things left up my sleeve to try to get myself out of this slough. One is magic mushrooms. I suppose that by now everybody has read that in the US advanced cancer patients are being treated with controlled psilocybin trips to cheer them up. During these trips the patients discover new and enlightening perspectives on the process of life and death, which make dying easier for them to contemplate. A good percentage of them remain cheerful. Not many go on to become stand-up comedians or TikTok sensations, but anything that severs that discouraging, occasionally paralysing thought loop has got to be worth a go and I’ve ordered a fortnight of microdoses and one full-blown trip from an internet seller in Amsterdam.

I was offered several different types of magic mushroom, some more potent than others. After reading the reviews I plumped for the second strongest, which guaranteed (said the vendor) a ‘mystical’ experience. One enthusiastic reviewer said he felt nothing for about an hour, vomited for half an hour, then wandered outside and had a long conversation with a nature spirit inhabiting the only tree in his suburban garden. Then his mind flew out of his body freeing his consciousness from the constraints of subjectivity and egotism and what he now knows to be the false distinction between mind and matter. ‘Very satisfied customer,’ he concluded.

The other is silent contemplation and prayer in a closed religious community. As an ignorant Protestant, I made no distinction between a nunnery and a monastery and applied via email to the local nunnery. The nuns there offer up to five days at their ‘retreat hotel’. Guests are expected to help with the domestic tasks of the community, to share meals, and to attend the various offices in the chapel. Payment is voluntary.

When I realised my mistake in choosing silent girls over silent boys, I wrote another email explaining to the technical nun that I was an idiot. It was because, I said, we occasionally sat in their chapel for the five o’clock show, and we had nothing to do with the goings-on of the unshaven old boys in the monastery down in the village, that I had impulsively applied to her.

Well, perhaps not quite impulsively. (I can’t help telling lies, even to nuns.) The nunnery is huge, old and remote and the seven gentle, smiling nuns – Argentinian –are like nothing on Earth. Now and again I read in the paper about the gradual suppression of Latin in the Catholic Church. I know nothing of the theological debate. All I do know is that it was a contributory cause of Evelyn Waugh’s early death. The poor man should have fled down here. Here the nuns sing and chant away in Latin as though unaware of any theological controversy more recent than the Council of Trent. Like Peter Cook, I never ’ad the Latin. But I do enjoy the ring of a Latin expression. For example, Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus – false in one thing, false in everything.

Then the nun rang me up on the telephone. She and the other sisters had prayed together and discussed whether an exception could be made for a single male to join the community, and they had concluded that yes it could. I check in next week for three nights and days of whispered Spanish, sung Latin and prayerful washing-up. And silence. If the magic mushrooms have arrived unaccompanied by a gendarme by then, I might be tempted to pack the microdoses.

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