The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance by Erik Varden
(Bloomsbury, 192 PP, £10.99) Tablet Bookshop price £9.89 • Tel 020 7799 4064
It is not in the least surprising that this exquisitely tuned and perfectly timed meditation by Dom Erik Varden, the Abbot of England’s sole Cistercian monastery, Mount St Bernard in Leicestershire, is already Amazon’s bestselling book in its category. Intimately personal but never self-indulgent, it is at once arresting and challenging, uplifting and reassuring, and profoundly moving.
Its introduction is a confessio, in the sense of St Augustine’s Confessions, a disarmingly candid account of the author’s own coming to faith. Father Erik, born in Norway, movingly relates the deep and disturbing impression made on him, aged ten, by his father’s description of ugly, deep scars from whipping which he had seen on the back of a Norwegian farmer, savagely tortured during German captivity in the Second World War. “It was as if the world’s pain had entered, by them, into my protected universe, which remained disrupted ... The world, I came to see, was a place of menace; human life carried immense potential for pain; someone had to answer for it.” Until then, “faith’s ambassadors” had failed to impress him as he grappled with his own inner drama and ambivalence “far distant from the certainties of preachers”.
His moment of awakening, itself a remembrance, came while listening to Mahler’s Resurrection: hearing the words of the chorus, “Have faith, heart, have faith: nothing will be lost to you ... you were not born in vain. You have not lived or suffered in vain.” Something in him burst: “I knew I carried something within me that reached beyond the limits of me. I was aware of not being alone … I could no more doubt the truth of what I had found than I could doubt that I existed … I had remembered.”
Dom Erik describes what was borne in upon him in words all the more powerful for their measured modesty and restraint: “Mahler let me sense that one can face life without yielding to despondency or madness, since the anguish of the world is embraced by an infinite benevolence investing it with purpose. Having encountered – recalled – this benevolence, I recognised it as a personal presence. I wanted to pursue it, learn its name, discern its features.”
The Shattering of Loneliness is the fruit of that pursuit and learning: and there is much learning of a scholarly kind to be found in this former Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, all lightly worn and always helpfully serving the overall purpose of his book, offered to the reader “companionably, as an invitation to set out”.
It is structured around six biblical commandments to remember, the last being the inverse: beware lest you forget. These have been for the author personally “beacons to navigate by”. Each chapter is woven around insights drawn from the author’s own life and biblical and patristic texts: and each theme is illustrated and developed by reference to the life of remarkable individuals.
Reflecting on mortality, humility and glory, “Remember that you are Dust” takes its cue from the sombre imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, in which we declare “our readiness to abdicate pretensions to omnipotence” and divest ourselves of illusions as we begin the Easter pilgrimage. With eyes always set on Easter, we can “trust that what was lost has been restored and can be found again”.
The key is humility, which “stands for robust truthfulness … the seedbed of love, since love cannot grow from anything but truth”. Humility frees us “from the need to seem more than we are”, the antidote to the desire that lies deep in most of us “to soar by some engine of our own”. Humility is not, however, a “coward’s virtue” and, with a hard-headed but sensitive realism that pervades the whole book, we’re told that “we may have to fight terrible battles with ourselves to reconquer the guilelessness of childhood”. A refreshing aspect of this realism is Dom Erik’s dogged eschewal of an overly spiritualised, dualistic viewpoint: “spiritual growth presupposes rootedness in matter,” we are told. That growth engages our whole selves, “the depths of my soul and my flesh, where currents are strong”. We are dust called to glory, and as such must learn “to let glory, by grace, lay claim to [our] being even now, to make it resonant with the music of eternity”. We are to “find our hearts touched by a deep remembrance of God’s original caress … awaken to hope” and “find a comfort that does not deceive”.
“Remember You were a Slave in Egypt” is woven round the Exodus, “a paradigm applicable to every Christian life”. The memory that they were freed from slavery, not by their own efforts but by God, is to be kept alive “to ensure that prosperity does not bring about the atrophy of charity”. This chapter meditates on gratitude and grace and the ease with which we forget the past in general and our own personal pasts in particular. “The smog of perceived entitlement obscures grateful retrospect ... we claim rights where grace is at work, and so are made ungracious. We inhale the chief intoxicant of the spiritual life: self-righteous ingratitude.” But only by remembering what we were can we acknowledge what by grace we have become. Again, the ultimate focus is on Easter. “In the light of Christ’s Easter victory, even our worst memories of freedom compromised can become occasions of praise. Our wilderness years reveal their redemptive meaning.” We must remember the wastelands through which we have passed and “learn to respond to grace with grace, to take nothing for granted, and so be able to receive all as gift”.
“Remember Lot’s Wife” is a meditation on the need to keep moving forward, resisting the temptation to turn back or be distracted by the pain of letting go. It is about the “difficult ascesis of not lingering. Those who wish to follow Christ must be ready to get up and go.” Lot’s wife stands for failing momentum. Dom Erik quotes his twelfth-century confrère, St Bernard of Clairvaux: “Not to move forwards on the path of life is to slide back.” But, again, in his approach to all his important themes, the positive always predominates: conversion is “an option for what is good, not against what is thought bad – or dangerous”.
“Do this in Memory of Me” offers a lucid and challenging meditation on the Eucharist that will enlarge the understanding of many readers and afford new and important perspectives even to the well-versed. This “medicine of immortality”, as St Ignatius of Antioch calls the Eucharist, speaking less than 60 years after it was instituted, is always “pristine”, never a repeat performance, always the “première”. Different but equally crucial aspects of this sacrament are dialectically emphasised and held together: “To say that he entrusted the Supper to the Church as a banquet of his love reveals the perennial newness of that love as a real presence.”
Without explicitly referring to it, Father Erik goes to the heart of the ongoing controversy about admission to Holy Communion: “To be worthy is not to be blameless: the Eucharist is not a prize for good behaviour. To be worthy is to assent to the realisation of Christ’s example in my life – to commit to the newness of it. The Lord does not seek instant perfection. But he requires coherence in the way we live.” God is present in the Eucharist “to let grace enter our veins”.
“The Counsellor will call Everything to Mind” refers to the Holy Spirit, who brings to us the remembrance of all that Christ has said: to remember this is to live in the Spirit, to become capable of commitment and communion. But this leads into a meditation on the meaning of truth: “light and remembrance belong together as functions of truth. Forgetfulness is of the night.” The whole of truth inevitably exceeds what any human mind can ever grasp. “To be consoling and complete, remembrance in truth has to be shared. The Spirit performs his consoling, illuminating work ecclesially” leading us to a “shared remembrance that sweetens even bitter memories with gratitude”.
“Beware lest you Forget” concludes with a reflection on the image of God in whose likeness we were originally fashioned, our fall from grace and its consequences; our recreation, not simply redemption, through the incarnation; and the foundation of all Christian life in the memoria Dei, the remembrance of God. As St Augustine spoke of the Christian life as a “holy longing”, Dom Erik speaks of longing as the “foundation of existence”. Our awareness of God is stamped on our being like “an operating system, waiting to launched” and our most intimate desires “carry messages from afar”, making us “homesick for a land we have not yet discovered”.
The richness of this remarkable book is impossible to convey adequately in so few words. No reader will remain unchanged. There are no glib platitudes or defensive deflections. The spiritual life, we are told, “is not, cannot be, a pious pastime”. The darkness must be acknowledged and confronted.
At a time when there is much in the life of the Church and the world to chip away at confidence and dent faith, this is an authentically spiritual and reassuringly humane reminder of the depths that remain undisturbed and the constants that remain unchanged, anchoring faith in reality’s source and goal – in God, that is: “the infinite benevolence that embraces the anguish of the world”. This extraordinary book is suffused throughout by much-needed light and hope and the memoria Dei.