In The Cloud of Unknowing, one of the greatest works of Christian mysticism, the art of contemplation is especially prized as a route to wisdom. For hundreds of years, this anonymous medieval text inspired those seeking a more perfect relationship with God by transcending the concerns of the everyday. In his own copy of the book, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge underscored the lines: “Active life is troubled and travailed about many things; but contemplative sitteth in peace with one thing.”
For those attending the Labour party conference this week, there is unlikely to be much space for meditative solitude of this kind. But for the next month or so, options are newly available for those looking to decompress and clear out the clutter in their mind. In an experimental, countercultural move that deserves to succeed, English Heritage is trialling a daily “hour of contemplation” at 16 monastic sites in England, including Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island and Battle Abbey in Hastings. Between now and late October, it is intended that silence will descend on the ruined cloisters, dormitories and transepts during the last hour of opening. Mobile phones should be placed in pockets; concerns about the level of traffic on the way home put to one side, and the troubles of tomorrow left to tomorrow to sort out. If the project is a success, it will perhaps become a permanent feature at some of the country’s most beautiful and evocative religious sites.
The booming secular interest in various forms of meditation suggests that the “contemplation hour” may well catch on. Deriving originally from Buddhist practice, “mindfulness” has these days become an industry, spawning apps, online training programmes and other forms of “wellness intervention”. But the author of The Cloud of Unknowing would recognise the original spiritual principle at work: stepping out of the quotidian flow allows a different, deeper attention to be paid to the experience of life itself. The cloistered existence has also become an object of fascination in its own right, with a series of documentaries chronicling the exacting demands of modern monastic life. The daily grind of a largely secular and materialist age – and a digital revolution which has made it far harder to switch off from the world – seems to have conferred a certain cachet on silence, spirituality and solitude.
The star of one of those documentaries, Brotherhood: The Inner Life of Monks, was Father Erik Varden, the abbot of Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire. “There is a tendency in our culture”, Fr Erik has said, “to imagine the spiritual life as a journey of acquisition … but it’s much more of a shedding, a stripping away.” This is similar to what mystics described as the via negativa – a route to God through forsaking worldly perspectives and comforts. The vast majority of us, whether believers in some sense or not, would not be cut out for this kind of contemplative life. But a peaceful hour at the end of the day, surrounded by the ravaged splendour of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, or on Holy Island, sounds like an altogether more doable – and highly attractive – proposition.