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The monks at Worth (again)

We’ve now had the third and final programme in the BBC’s series about a group of men spending 40 days in the Benedictine monastery at Worth. One of the advertised highlights was when a participant underwent a mystical experience of some kind in the presence of his personal mentor. This lasted several minutes with both men sitting motionless and in silence.

Filming this was a bold decision on the part of the programme director, given the general aversion in television circles to have nothing happening visually for more than a few minutes. I didn’t mind the silence, but I did have an uncomfortable feeling of intrusion. It was difficult to avoid remembering that this no doubt deeply personal experience was being witnessed by a filming crew. Can anyone be completely natural in such circumstances?

At the other end of the scale we had the “dramatic” personalilty conflict between Anthony and Garry. The monks went in for quite competent psychotherapy in an attempt to sort things out but I found this rather less interesting because it could have happened anywhere that people were cooped up together - there was no specific religious relevance.

The most thought-provoking sequence in the whole series for me was the group’s visit to a nearby Carthusian monastery. The Carthusians, unlike the Benedictines, have a largely solitary, hermetical, monastic existence and maintain silence most of the time. The group members were obviously deeply impressed and one of them, Nick, began to think seriously about becoming a C of E vicar. He commented that the Carthusian monks were either supremely sane or totally mad.

To shut oneself away from the world indefinitely certainly seems like a kind of madness and it is hardly surprising that, as the novice master told us, few of those who try the life continue in it. However, the novice master himself appeared entirely sane and also happy and this seems to be pretty general in such communities. (In fact, unless you were happy there you wouldn’t stay, I suppose.)

The programmes reinforced my pre-existing view that the monastic life is valid and indeed ideal for a certain kind of person. They did not, however, convince me of the truth of the monks’ “over-beliefs” - that is, of the truth of Christianity. Buddhist monks, for example, live quite a similar sort of life with a different set of over-beliefs, with equal success. Indeed, some years ago I saw a number of monks from Worth visiting Amaravati Buddhist monastery near Hemel Hempstead and they seemed to have a great deal in common.

The monastic life at its best, it seems to me, poses in a particularly vivid form the question: how can the values of the best forms of religion be reconciled with a secular world view? This is the dilemma expressed by Iris Murdoch when she said, “God does not and cannot exist. But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured.”


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