I have always loved October.
Yes, true, it is the month in which I was born but I don’t think that is the main reason, or indeed any reason. After all, once my mother and great-aunt died that day sank without trace!
No, it is I think a combination of (in England) the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ — though of course by mid-September the swallows have flown, and most fruit has been harvested — and the beginning of the new university term. For much of my life I have either been a student of one sort or another or a teacher in Universities and so my year has always been divided up by these Terms, and indeed mentally by these academic year categories. By May I expect to be winding down and by the end of June consider myself quite definitely ‘on holiday’ and then by this time of year I am usually thinking about lectures, digging out books from happily abandoned (and now rather dusty) piles.
So many of my formative life experiences began in October. Back to school (bad). Up to University (good). Joining the monastery (an adventure!). Working for the BBC and then later for the UK’s DDCMS — Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport — (Good and Bad!), etc. So for me new ventures always seem to begin now in October. And then I suppose there is a sense that October is leading inevitably to November and thence to Christmas. Gosh, even to write the word reminds us that another year — and what a year! — has almost past. How can this be? Time — how have you fooled us again? Time — how you persecute and trap us! Like Marvel, all those centuries ago,
I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
And yet as a Christian I should not, I know, be so caught up with time and its demands. I am ‘meant’ to be living for and indeed ‘in’ eternity — or at least in its perspective. I think that is why I wanted to be a monk. To somehow get outside ‘the world’s’ time and escape, not in the sense of running away (though that is what most people would say I was doing) but in the sense of throwing off, releasing myself from the shackles of time and living in God’s dimension. That was a rare and wonderful privilege I assure you, a bit like going to the South Pole or into the jungle (are there any true jungles left now?).
People often ask me, what was the point of being a monk? What did I gain from the experience? In truth I gained so much. It laid down the foundations of my adult beliefs, of the theological and ecclesiological kind. Not faith exactly, that I had from a very young age, but ‘my way’, my language, for expressing it, being it. There is something about being a member of a large functioning religious community that you never get out of your system — and if you want to understand more of what that is like, read the Journals of Thomas Merton. I suppose it was a sort of religious national service. Of course I had already been softened up to institutions at school, some might say I was institutionalized, and for a boy whose father had died almost as soon as I was born, there was some psycho-babble to be explored later in life. Nonetheless, this was certainly not how I was thinking about things at the time. It was more like falling in love. I knew that this was the most exciting, fulfilling and passionately charged experience of my life so far – from which I could never part (though, in body, I later did!).
A community sung High Mass, for example, when done properly, is partly an effort of the will, partly skills exercised; and it requires the brain engaged and the body drilled, as well as the senses heightened. To do it every day could be overkill. You might get sick of it. But in community, when everyone works together, there is a feeling of collaborative effort and achievement which eradicates rivalry, rewards your hard work and brings deep satisfaction. You could sleep at night sure of a job well done.
[There are many online monastic masses to give you a flavour of what I am talking about. I join the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland most days as they do things well in a modern, unfussy, God-focused, biblical way: https://www.churchservices.tv/glenstal ]
Routine — the essence of monastic life — is a great healer and a wonderful framework in and through which to find your ‘self’, especially in the company of the like-minded. Monasteries are places of routine, with just the most parsimonious sprinkling of variation to enliven the passing months. Even these variations are linked to the liturgical year, to major feasts and fasts with their differing menus, and half-day holidays (‘dies non’) for big feasts, with treats of chocolates in the common room and cake at afternoon tea. I loved this re-configuration of the world to express The Faith – not the shoe-horning of one’s religion into a secular round of work, weekends and holidays. You were really ‘living out the faith’ in a way that is rarely possible, even for a priest in a parish, school or hospital. And of course it was happening at a formative time so that the monastery served as a sort of spiritual and psychological assault course where you came face to face with yourself. Beginning that process in an environment which protected and supported me is something for which I will always be grateful.
I have spent over a decade of my three-score years (and ten!) in the religious life. What a privilege it has been – and a rare one today – to be fed and watered for ‘doing nothing’. To explore oneself, the world, the great thinkers and writers of our civilization; to contemplate life’s meaning, to ask the big questions: and all for a helping hand with the housework and those regular, daily trips to church. But there too I found rewards and great joy: reciting the whole of that ancient poetic miscellany, the Psalter, every week; reading all through the Scriptures every year, together with the Fathers (and occasionally Mothers) of the Church. Being so often surprised at the wisdom of the gospels, the passion of the psalms, the down-to-earth insights and homely illustrations of Jesus; the compelling passion of Paul. The glory of the ancient Office hymns, the strange sublime of plainsong masses — all these combined over years into a complex and incomparable life-symphony that few experience and to which nothing can compare. That rich music is still swirling around somewhere inside me: sometimes it comes to the surface, often it remains in the depths — but always it is there. It is a mystery: a magnificent, marvelous mystery; incomparable, sublime. If you have not experienced it, as I did, then yes, that life could seem like a mirage or a dream. But for me it was very, truly, real.
And every October these mysteries and memories come back to challenge and refresh me — they are my personal à la recherche du temps perdu.
I wonder — what are yours?