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I punctuate my schedule with times of retreat, in solitude, on the edge of the Irish Atlantic. The weather oscillates between the blue Aegean and the grey Arctic. People speak about the day’s weather as a form of mutual therapy, not just for small talk. It reveals your mood and how you are handling things.
Bere Island once had strategic military importance - ironically for the defence of Britain - against the Spanish and then the French. The military base is now a ghostly ruin and, I am happy to say, that despite enormous expenditure over centuries, no gun was ever fired here in anger. When the soldiers left the wilderness remained.
Wilderness doesn’t need big expanses to reveal itself. You have to know where to find it, however, and how to recognise it. The island has a small but endless wilderness on its exposed seaward side that I frequent during my retreats. The sheep and I seem to appreciate it more than most of the other inhabitants.
But no man is an island. St Peter Damian, also an occasional hermit, once wrote (in the 11th century) about whether and why a hermit should say ‘dominus vobiscum’ when he said mass alone. His conclusion was that: No brother who lives alone in a cell be afraid to utter the words which are common to the whole Church; for although he is separated in space from the congregation of the faithful yet he is bound together with them all by love in the unity of faith; although they are absent in the flesh, they are near at hand in the mystical unity of the Church.
Conscious of this and thinking that solitude does not mean isolation, I sometimes listen to the BBC morning news. Today I heard Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor speaking from Rome. He had pluckily accepted an interview with a tough journalist on the ‘turmoil’ of the Catholic Church. He repeated the ancient formula of reassurance (who was being reassured?) that the Church, unlike any other human institution, would exist until the end of time. What was needed was not, as the journalist (and Cardinal Martini) insisted, radical reform but good governance. The questions of women, celibacy and sexuality and financial corruption were transparently avoided.
Why should this disappointing exchange have been so disturbing here on the edge of nowhere? Maybe the Church does have a mystical unity and is really present in each person, as each person exists in her. I felt sympathy for the retired Cardinal batting on such a sticky wicket. But I felt sorrier for the condition of the church at large that led Milton once to write that: The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw, Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread.
Soon the media will be entranced by the carefully orchestrated rituals of the conclave. Catholics will feel temporarily reassured by the pomp and the eccentric relics of earlier ages like the little chimney and its white or black smoke. Perhaps the flat world we have brought into existence does need a little re-enchanting by such things. But when the unsinkable Titanic hit the iceberg the cute rituals of seafaring needed to yield to good plain seamanship. (Of course, the analogy is wrong, as the Church is unsinkable - in time.)
People around the world really do carry a heavy heart and a sick stomach over the ecclesiastical turmoil and the hierarchical denial of reality. No doubt some of the crimson Cardinals and many great local bishops do as well. Such crises make one aware of what loving a dysfunctional or handicapped person really involves; as well as of the enormous, tragically unrealised potential of the Church for helping the planet and its six billion souls through its even larger global turmoil.
Perhaps what the leaders need is a little wilderness experience. It would remind them that the cure for the ‘individualism’ and the open speech they fear is not to batten down the hatches of orthodoxy but to rediscover the meaning of prayer. Not, first of all, the ‘prayer of the Church’ or ‘my private prayer’, but the prayer of Christ flowing through individuals and transforming them into community. This is what solitude refreshes as nothing else can.
For this reason I am willing to ask the two hundred inhabitants of Bere Island, many of whom still go to Church, especially on anniversaries, if they would consider hosting the papal election conclave. The small Church would do for the Sistine Chapel. And, for a modest charge, we would provide jeans and wellingtons for excursions into the adjoining wilderness during which, however, no talking would be allowed.
Laurence Freeman OSB
Laurence Freeman is a Benedictine and the Director of The World Community for Christian Mediation. His daily readings for Lent are available online: www.wccm.org