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Spirituality without platitudes

Maggie Fergusson-The Tablet - Mon, Sep 24th 2018

 The Tablet Interview: Erik Varden

Ever since he was a boy in Norway, the son of a country vet, Erik Varden has felt a sense of longing – of homesickness “for a homeland I recall but have not seen”. There were decades of “rudderlessness, pain and questions” before he discovered where this was leading him: before, 17 years ago, aged 26, he arrived at the enclosed Cistercian monastery of Mount Saint Bernard in Leicestershire, where he is now Abbot, and where he hopes to die.

The Shattering of Loneliness, shortly to be published by Bloomsbury Continuum, is the fruit of his years of searching. It is that rare thing: a book that had to be written. It could change lives.

“Must I have personal experience of something to say, in truth, that I remember it?” Varden asks in his introduction. It is a question he has pondered all his life. The six chapters in his book dwell on six biblical exhortations to remember – remember you are dust, for example, remember you were a slave in Egypt, the disciples remembering the Last Supper on the road to Emmaus. He presents these not simply as invitations to learn about things that happened long ago, but also as invitations to live them and be personally involved in them. He weaves them into “a narrative of redemption that not only reaches back to time’s beginning, but remembers forward, into eternity”.

His frame of reference is formidable: he draws with ease on the Old and the New Testaments, as well as writers from Virgil to  Stig Dagerman. And he explores the lives of remarkable men and women; some of faith, some of none. If this suggests a weighty tome, take heart. The book is just 164 pages long, written in short, clear sentences of exceptional sensibility. And the difficulties and temptations it explores are startlingly contemporary – sexual addiction; “disposable selfhood”; inertia.

Varden is slim, his close-cropped hair giving way to a frosting of grey. His slight accent gives his words precision, and he speaks, and listens, with concentration. It is as if he is constantly travelling between this world and his world of prayer, carrying messages. Yet there is a lightness about him, too; he is quick to laugh.

Sitting on a bench in the monastery garden, we begin by talking about an intriguing problem he dwells upon in the book – the problem of “getting stuck”. “Not to move forwards on the path of life is to move back,” wrote St Bernard of Clairvaux, an exponent of a reform movement in Benedictine monasticism that resulted in the Cistercian order, and Varden warns that “the fearful possibility of stalling should motivate us until our last breath”. “Stalling”, or “lingering”, is, he believes, “a professional hazard for monks”.

“You’re in this place, you know you’ll be here till you die, you have a view of the cemetery, the horarium is the same day after day, and the temptation is to think, ‘Now I’m here I’ve just got to stay put and wait.’ Whereas I like to think there is a dialectic tension intrinsic to monastic life. Benedictines take three vows: of obedience, of stability and of conversatio morum. I see this last as precisely a vow not to get stuck.”

What are the signs that one is stuck?
“A loss of joy.”
And how do you get unstuck?
“It’s said about St Anthony of Egypt, often thought of as the first monk, that he started each day by saying, ‘Today I begin.’ When you endeavour to live life seriously, and zestfully, it is constantly new: every day is a bit like the first day of creation. We start our day, at 3.20am, with Vigils, and the first psalm St Benedict would have us sing is Psalm 95 – ‘Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts’. Today! When monastic life works, you recognise it in a sort of energy, an ebullience.”

And what about when it doesn’t work? What about the unravelling of sexual misconduct in the Church? In The Shattering of Loneliness Varden links the Desert Fathers with Freud in suggesting that libidinal passion is very often a symptom of spiritual malady.

“I think in a lot of cases it is. We must not spiritualise or psychologise away terrible misdeeds; and certainly there are recognisable pathologies that pertain to medical diagnosis. But this surely can’t answer for everything. I think that monastic tradition sits on, as steward, such a tremendous wealth of insight and wisdom – practical wisdom – that the Church and the world has not just forgotten but has probably never known about,” says Varden.

Part of this wisdom is the need for every monk to have a spiritual guide, or confessor, with whom he must talk freely and regularly about the darkest recesses of his heart or mind.

Meantime we – perhaps particularly journalists – must not wallow in evil. As an adolescent, Varden was for a time obsessed with the Holocaust. Now, he says, “I see the darkness still … but it has lost its fascination”.

What about the victims of evil? “The anguish of the world”, he writes, “is embraced by an infinite benevolence investing it with purpose.” How to communicate that to someone suffering acutely without enraging them? “One can only try to communicate it by trying to embody the benevolence without naming it. As St Francis is said to have said, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.’”

From evil, we shift to goodness. In his book, Varden quotes St Seraphim of Sarov as saying, “Only a good deed performed in the name of Christ brings the fruits of the Holy Spirit” – and this has unsettled me. I tell him of a friend of mine – one among many possible examples – who is married to a banker, and could live a life of luxury. Instead, she spends her days helping single mothers in tower blocks. She has no faith. Are her deeds therefore futile?

“There’s an important categorical distinction here. Seraphim certainly doesn’t say that a good deed not done in the name of Christ doesn’t do any good. Goodness is always a participation in the source of all good, whether you recognise it or not. But what Seraphim talks about is the conscious breaking open of the heart in order to embrace that in-dwelling of the Spirit and make it personal.

“And this is one of the great paradoxes: the Lord exercises immense courtesy. He never imposes himself, never forces himself upon anyone. If I don’t let him in, he’s not going to force his way in. But that is not to say that someone who does good blindly, but who’s open to that imperative of goodness, isn’t vulnerable to a sort of propaedeutic of the spirit – an inward preparation of the heart that, whether in this world or the next, will bear fruit. Good is always good.”

In the Same vein, I wonder what Varden feels about people of non-Christian faiths. He responds without hesitation: “One can certainly and obviously learn from them.”

His Shia Muslim room-mate at Atlantic College in Wales was to be an important influence on his journey. It was a Buddhist monk who introduced him to “silence as a possible mode of expression for spiritual yearning – my awakening to prayer, in a way”.

And as he prepared to become a Catholic, the Second Vatican Council document that impressed him more than any other was Nostra Aetate – “I thought to myself, ‘Gosh! A faith that can express in a dogmatic statement such a clear statement of what it holds to be true and yet extend a hand of friendship to what are apparently rival truth claims – that faith has something going for it’.”

The Catholic Church’s claim to be the steward of the fullness of truth, he goes on, “isn’t the same as claiming a monopoly on truth. The truth is always greater. As monks, we’re prepared to extend a hand of friendship to any hand prepared to extend itself in our direction. This holds for the way we relate to people who believe differently.”

He speaks of his admiration for the monks at Tibhirine in Algeria, whose story is told in the film Of Gods and Men, who lived in harmony with the largely Muslim population, increasingly realising that they were risking their lives for the sake of that friendship.

To encounter such clear and rock-like faith as Varden’s, coupled with a complete absence of spiritual pride, is rare and moving. He talks in his book about the need to grow in humility, but how can we do this? How does it work? In the Benedictine sense, he says, “humility is a function of the truth”; and in the monastery “we try to live a preferential option for the truth”.

Embracing the truth can be “as I know only too well, deeply unpleasant. There are so many things one wants to try to dress up, even to oneself.” But St Benedict “outlines a way to self-knowledge. His concern is to free us from the need to seem more than we are. He would root us in the real, rescue us from self-elevation.”

It strikes me, listening to him, that humility is a kind of liberation; that the feeling of freedom Varden emanates, despite the apparent constraints of his life, has its roots in his not needing to prove himself in any way at all. I think of Etty Hillesum, staring through the slats of a cattle truck at a strutting Nazi soldier, and asking, “Which of us is free?”

It is tempting, visiting a community so apparently vital as Mount Saint Bernard, to think one can leave the spiritual heavy-lifting to the monks. But Varden is clear the call to holiness “is addressed to all of us. It’s a matter of having an ear to hear that call, a will to heed it.”

Occasionally in The Shattering of Loneliness there’s a bat squeak of frustration about the way some of us – monks and nuns included – seem to regard our faith “as if Christianity were some sickly sweet glaze you smear on life, rather than an invitation to transformation”. He talks, for example, of “the atrophy of charity” – what does that mean?

“There is always a risk that we reduce charity to an observance, putting a Cafod envelope in a tray, or whatever it is, and forgetting to actually try to live and embody charity – though I’m not saying I succeed in this,” he says. “To live charity is dangerous: it involves an investment of self, and a shedding of self, that is heroic.”

And when he says that “Christian life fails to convince because it lacks ‘incarnate credibility’”, what does that mean? “We Religious, for example, we moan and moan about the vocations crisis, when really what we need to ask is, ‘What do people see when they look at us? Do they see men and women fired with good zeal and energy and a life in movement? Or do they see something stagnant and lifeless?’”

And what is “platitudinous spirituality”? He laughs heartily – “I have a bit of a quarrel with the word ‘spirituality’. I occasionally use it as an abstract noun, spirituality being a human being’s capacity for life in the spirit. But I find the word spirituality with an adjective attached to it just nauseous. If someone asks me to give a talk about ‘Cistercian spirituality’, I say I don’t know what that is.”

Our time is up. Varden fetches two bottles of dark, loamy Mount Saint Bernard beer before we climb into the monastery Ford Fiesta and head for Loughborough. Varden has told me that during his years of searching he visited Caldey Abbey in Wales where he met a monk who made a deep impression: “We talked about nothing at all, but there was something about him that was just luminous. I thought, ‘Whatever it is he has, I want.’”

My meeting with Varden has made a similar impression on me. As the train chugs south, I dwell on the words spoken by Jesus to the Samaritan woman in the heat of the midday sun – “If you but knew the gift of God”.

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