This week I’ve been on a writing retreat, sent by my academic institution as a way of encouraging me to finish writing a journal article. I had no say over where I was sent, and my employer knows nothing of my religious proclivities, so it was for purely practical reasons that I ended up being booked into an Anglican priory. I had no great expectations of my stay, beyond the fact that I’d be spending three days sitting in a room, tapping away at my computer keyboard and hoping that the peace and quiet would enable me to finally succeed in turning a conference paper into something publishable.
But then, on my first day, the prior came and introduced himself, and there the synchronicities began. Not only does Brother A. turn out to be a former academic, who used to teach and research in areas very similar to my own, but we soon realised that we have a remarkable number of contacts and intellectual influences in common. Moreover, when the conversation turned to A’s current role, it emerged that he’s one of the main organisers of the UK branch of the Thomas Merton Society. Now, in my pious youth, Merton was a huge influence on me, his Seven Storey Mountain not only confirming me in my decision to become a Catholic, but also leading me to seriously consider (for a time, anyway) a vocation as a Cistercian. And Merton’s writings on Buddhism engendered in me a lifelong interest in Eastern spirituality.
My faith has been rather wobbly of late, to say the least, and as often happens I’ve been struggling to reconcile my secular, intellectual interests with my rekindled Christian faith. When I first began to feel stirrings of re-awakened belief a few years ago, and went to see a priest, he encouraged me not to reject everything that I’d thought and believed in the intervening years, but to bring it with me as I moved forward in faith. I’ve not found that an easy trick to pull off, but when I meet someone like A., who has managed to embrace belief without rejecting everything he’s been before, it reminds me that it’s possible. It’s not so much how it’s done that helps me, but simply the fact that someone else has managed to succeed in doing it.
A. kindly made time to talk to me at length, about matters both secular and spiritual, and to show me the priory’s unrivalled collection of books by and about Merton, including a couple signed by the great man himself. So my three days at the priory turned out to be something of a spiritual as well as an academic retreat – an unexpected gift and an unforeseen blessing.