Journal of the virus year: Chapter 12

El Parral has finally become a hermitage

I spent such a long time thinking about it, over the years and have written about it here regularly, but the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic was responsible for the final implementation. Now it’s official: El Parral is a hermitage.

The gate is closed to the outside world except for a fortnightly shopping trip – to become monthly – and for donkey walking up the valley road. I cycled down to the coast for a last summer swim a few days ago. Last month I visited my friend and ex-teacher colleague Steve for a drink outside a bar. But most days I just see people driving past or sometimes wave to neighbours and I don’t speak to anyone.

I’m OK with that. In the 1980s I took to contemplative silence in Glasshampton monastery like a duck to water. Some of the most memorable times living in the Communauté des Beatitudes in the Pyrenean Abbaye de Saint Martin du Canigou in the 1990s were the silent days together with a couple of dozen others, doing everyday garden tasks with only the sound of the waterfall on the sheer rock face opposite cascading down the mountain. A decade ago, I was in hermitage “P” in the Great Cloister of St Hugh’s Charterhouse in Sussex and the only low points in the day usually came when having to join the rest of the Carthusian community in choir or take part in the regular panic around the kitchen, in my monastic porter role, delivering meal boxes to the hermitage hatches.

So, a hermitage in the Costa Blanca uncomplicated by other hermits is a luxury! I am fortunate.

I had all the life preparation needed for the Covid lock-down; but it was nevertheless interesting to learn that the very phrase “lock-down” comes from an Enlightenment-age prison system based on the solitary monastic life. For details, listen to last week’s episode of Thomas Dixon’s A Short History of Solitude, the excellent Radio 4 series which I thoroughly recommend. (Thomas Dixon is Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London, where he leads a research project entitled “Living With Feeling: Emotional Health in History, Philosophy and Experience”. )

The point of solitude is self-evident when you have spent years practising it in various forms, but I’m conscious that most people are always puzzled about it. The first thing to learn is that’s it’s far from anti-social! Professor Dixon packs a lot into his three programmes and for the first time taught me the contemplative connection in Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”.

Here in El Parral solitude is an established way of life now. The legal measures and Covid-19 impositions can come and go in the communities outside, but it makes little difference to the life here: I just need to keep up with the news on the latest regulations ready for the next time I go out shopping.

Spain has been out of full lock-down since May (or was it early June? It seems years ago!) Various barrios in Madrid are now going back into lock-down and I would not be surprised if this region is back in some sort of partial lock-down before too long. The short-lived mistake of opening Benidorm to tourism brought thousands of irresponsible people here from the UK and also from Madrid. Many of them will have cross-infected each other before travelling home again, going by the behaviour I saw on one socially distanced bike ride along the coast. Why anyone thought opening up to mass tourism in the summer was a good idea, I really do not know.

If you must come to Spain, you won’t find many hotels open in Benidorm now. So get yourself some donkeys and find a hermitage in the mountains, and that way we all stay safe. You might even see the shadow of the wind.

Morris listening to the wind on our walk up the valley. (El Parral, September 2020)

10 thoughts on “Journal of the virus year: Chapter 12

  1. Congratulations on the promotion of your home to “hermitage”. I hope it will bring you contentment. And what a lovely portrait of Morris!

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  2. Sounds like a very good plan these days Gareth! A completive photo together with a lovely photo of Morris completes the picture I am forming in my mind! Things in the U.K. seem to be just going from bad to worse, so I wish you good luck with your ‘hermitage’ plan. Who knows perhaps I’ll join you, I’d been in lockdown this year already for 140 days …
    Stay safe and give the Donks an extra bunch of carrots from me and a Rioja vino tinto from me to your goodself! Egészségedre! (¡Salud!)

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  3. Morris didn’t want to walk. Didn’t want to eat the roadside menu. He picked up the scent of the donkeys down in the next valley (they belong to a Belgian called Bart) and we had to stay there like statues for half an hour while he concentrated on the situation. He didn’t know whether a long-distance bray was a good idea. Then Rubí started bray-barking from El Parral. Morris didn’t quite solve the problem, and then he decided it was time to go home, as his mother was getting cross.

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  4. Enjoy the peace and solitude in the Hermitage de El Parral. Your beautiful donkeys for company and plenty of time for self enlightenment and true contentment once again, replicating your times in the past. All good wishes.

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  5. “I am a loner, so I understand the attractions”

    Now, in those nine words, you have encapsulated the most common misunderstanding of the solitary vocation, Jabba. And it quite often blends into the similar confusion about all types of monastic vocation (e.g. people often enquire of religious, what made them escape everyday life.)

    I’d like to elaborate on this, if you’ll forgive me using your short point as a springboard, because I already intended writing something about these misunderstandings as a full blog post. (In fact I was going to do it in yesterday’s blog post but I was distracted by the joyous finale of the Tour de France!) I’ll briefly outline a response here and do something more detailed later.

    The most gregarious people make the best hermits. Jabba, you say in the same sentence “I couldn’t be a hermit” + “I am a loner” + “I understand the attractions”. A beautiful summary of why loners may enjoy the idea of eremitism but don’t make good hermits! Not many people have had opportunities to meet and converse with a range of hermits. I have. They are always very sociable people, quite often with a lively sense of humour; fully engaged with the society and world of which they are a part, and find social occasions enjoyable and stimulating. They would be – if they were in a social setting – at the centre of the conversation. They have gradually – sometimes over a period of years – moved deliberately to a solitary position. But they were not natural loners.

    Some, spend years trying to be hermits but always end up drawn back to the lively social life that animates them. Thomas Merton was the best known example of this. While his writings on Trappist life were an inspiration to many young men over the years, me included, if you look at his life (including his tragic accidental end, at an inter-religious gathering in the Far East), he never actually managed to stay in the hermitage for more than a few days before he was off to the next hermit symposium!

    Brother Ramon SSF at Glasshampton monastery in the 1980s was similar: he was also an inspiration. He was our monastic Guardian in the one-year Franciscan contemplative training we did (after inner city parish work in Liverpool), and he also was a gregarious extrovert who never stopped talking at the once-a-week break in the silence for Sunday tea! He went from Glasshampton into full hermit mode in a caravan alongside the sisters’ community at Tyn Mawr. And from that base he was soon hitch-hiking in habit (the usual Franciscan mission mode of travel) all over England and Wales to give talks on the hermit life to parish groups, or go to book signings in Waterstones for his frequent publications on the hermit life.

    At St Hugh’s Charterhouse – just as in the Grande Chartreuse in the Alps – there is a weekly walk outside the monastery. Twenty to thirty hermits go walking through the Sussex woods and fields. In pairs. Every thirty minutes the Prior halts the community and reassigns the monk-hermits into different pairings and you continue on the walk talking to a different hermit. This regular opportunity meant that I can claim to have talked to more hermits than most people ever have or will do! Gregarious? Yes. Extrovert? Sometimes. But the Novice Master was the best example of them all: the writer of the Carthusian spirituality series of books, Dom Cyril has all the impish humour of the playwright George Bernard Shaw, including an Irish bias that the English make the worst hermits! He remains my advisor in this hermit project at El Parral, (though not my director, therefore I can excuse him for being responsible for any errors in implementing my present rule!)

    So, this was probably a longer answer than you expected, Jabba; but as sometimes before, I am grateful for you providing an opportunity to clarify a point. If you are a loner you may understand the attractions but wouldn’t successfully live the hermit life. I am not a loner. The hermit life may be suitable for some loners, but I have never met such a hermit. At some point I will write a blog post about the kind of hermitage life I am actually living here, for already there are a few friends and readers of this blog who have a vague but false image in their mind of the hermit life that this is not.

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  6. If you are a loner you may understand the attractions but wouldn’t successfully live the hermit life.

    Well — that is kind of what I said — but thank you for the detailed and useful answer.

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  7. From a loner’s perspective, I think the spiritual reason why one couldn’t be a hermit is that there would be no real sacrifice nor change of circumstance in the life of an eremite, whereas all true Vocations from God demand such growth.

    So a loner could become a priest, where a bachelor’s life is made fertile through praesbyterium and parish. A loner could become a pilgrim, travelling alone into a world full of people and hopefully good companions along the Way. A loner could be successful in a monastic Order centred in community life, and in engagement into the world, and yet with a sufficient modicum of solitude.

    These take the loner out of himself and towards the other.

    Whereas the gregarious man might do well to turn into himself and seek his own Vocation towards God inside, instead the loner is already inside there, and so may need to seek for God in other places.

    In all cases, out of the overly familiar and into the unknown.

    An eremetic solitude is not the unknown for a loner ; and whilst the loner knows the attractions of it, God will typically call him elsewhere.

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  8. Yes. I think I can agree with all of that, Jabba. Notwithstanding the spiritual life is not a science. Mental reminder to self: I need to replace my old copy of Tanquerey’s “The Spiritual Life” – left in Rome among two dozen volumes donated to the Pontifical Beda College library when I left! Tanquerey is possibly the most traditionally accepted spiritual guide across all Catholic religious charisms.

    Your point about spiritual growth is an important one. I have known various monastic introverts who have been elected as superiors (or ‘guardians’ in Franciscan houses) and they quite often suffer enormous pressures. They are typicaly to be found in a darkened cell with a migraine, considering their vocation!

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