I have to write a document that will help a community of monks make public its case for support. The community needs money for its buildings and for its members’ work as teachers, priests, missionaries and providers of physical and spiritual succour. It also needs fresh blood; its population is ageing and new vocations come few and far between in this secular age.
This week I spent twenty-four hours as the monks’ guest, sharing food with them in their refectory, attending their services, and talking with them about the monastic life and its relevance in the twenty-first century. I would like to say that I arrived weary with the modern world and left refreshed by the warmth of their welcome and the calm and beauty of their surroundings. But I didn’t. I had hard work to do, chiefly in understanding the purpose of prayer and how to express it, to a largely lay audience, as something that is worthy of support.
Their leader, a charming, quietly dynamic man in his early fifties, spotted my dilemma quickly. ‘How can you tell our story if you are not a religious person?’ he asked, more in curiosity than judgment. I replied that I spend a lot of my time looking in at organisations from the outside and trying to capture something of their spirit and personality; then at once realised the glibness of my reply. For here, the spirit in question is nothing less than the Holy Spirit, a phenomenon with which I am not personally acquainted.
His question continued to bother me, because it seemed like a legitimate one; in his position I would have asked the same. Only later did it come to me that there was another way of answering it, which is that it’s the writer’s job to imagine, to put him or herself in other people’s shoes. I can’t share the monks’ faith any more than I can share a businessman’s conviction for his enterprise, but I can at least make an imaginative connection with that very human quality of belief.
The thing that makes this connection possible is the research, the process by which one experiences the warp and weft of a particular universe, even if one can’t experience its spiritual or emotional underpinnings. So the sunlight on the lawns, the simplicity and majesty of the church, the fine old faces of the silent monks at their meals, the contemplative calm of the cloisters, all feed into something which, through the action of imagination, becomes a form of empathic understanding, if not actually a shared belief.
And empathy, the ability to imagine oneself as another and suffer as they do, is something I suspect monks understand very well.