‘Philippa had discovered the tower in her second week at Brede… the high platform, where I can get away, she would have said. After only two weeks she had wanted to get away. Yes, it’s somewhere I can breathe, Philippa had thought of the tower… breathe before going on.’
– ‘In This House of Brede’ by Rumer Godden
‘In This House of Brede’ follows the story of fictional postulant Philippa, a widowed career woman, who after entering a Benedictine monastery and being confronted with her past and with herself, clambers to the furthest point of the enclosure… the bell-tower of the Abbey.
The theme of escapism is not exclusive to novels about enclosed monasteries- nor to the thoughts of only the newest members of the community! Countless songs, poems and love stories have captured something of the human compulsion to take flight, find refuge, seek sanctuary. Whatever terminology we apply, the search is the same: to run away from one another, from ourselves and from God. This is not a modern phenomenon- even the psalmist in psalm 138 praises a God who will not even ‘let darkness hide me’. Praises, or bemoans?
Now with the onset of Covid- 19 and the great restrictions surrounding each of us, we assume that our places of refuge are fewer, our hiding places are occupied, our hidden valleys are in plain sight. It may even seem that our ‘need’ to get away is heightened by our sudden inability to do exactly that.
Many of us remember a ‘Discover Ireland’ campaign from a few years ago featuring a Heathers’ song voicing the desire within:
‘I need to go, I need to get away from everything,
I’ll have to run to get away from here’.
This advertisement broadcast enthralling images of the Irish landscape with sprawling mountain ranges, rolling green fields and the far reach of the seas. This was where we could go ‘just for awhile’ to find refuge- to this, we could escape.
The question remains however as to whether these tranquil environs really offer true tranquility or if these places of peace really offer rest for the soul. Or are we losing our refuge of reality and our knowledge of the inner sanctuary of the heart?
Perhaps with our newfound isolation and solitude, we could invite God to inhabit the space around us. After all, God is the only One to whom we can go as close as we wish! Maybe this solitude and breadth could invite intrigue into our own depths, or like Philippa, we could climb to the heights, not of our monastery’s bell tower, but to the heights of God’s loving kindness. It could be a greater adventure than what Discover Ireland has on offer, or at least it promises fewer hikes.
In entering a monastery, we discover that our call is not a flight to refuge or a project of social distancing, but rather a call beyond: to seek God in the inherent fragility of our own humanity. It is always a risk to detach ourselves from places or imaginings that give us respite (or some light entertainment!), but it is an opportunity to cling to God and his presence in us. Covid-19- anxiety and worry, fear and threat notwithstanding- could invite similar liberty. There is no ‘getting away’; it seems that there is no ‘somewhere I can breathe’, but there always is as we cry out with the psalmist once again, ‘God is for us a refuge and strength’ (Psalm 45).
Emma Brady is a first year novice at Glencairn Abbey