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Prayers of connection and disconnection

  • 06 March 2019


Novelist E. M. Forster famously instructed people to 'only connect'. These days most of us spend large parts of our lives in an effort to obey him, but in ways he never dreamed of. He would be mightily amazed to know that many people have to make a conscious and disciplined effort to do without their iPhones for a day, let alone for a longer period.

I've recently been reading, however, about people who disconnect in radical ways, or else manage a balancing act between connection with society and disconnection. The recently deceased Sister Wendy Beckett was one such. From 1970 onwards, she lived in a caravan at the enclosed Carmelite monastery at Quidenham in Norfolk. Solitude and contemplation were the main focuses of her life, but she was also possessed of a formidable intellect and a passionate interest in art.

It was super-cook and devout Catholic Delia Smith who discovered her art notes and made sure the Catholic Herald knew about them. From there the BBC took an interest, and Sister Wendy became a star presenter of masterpieces and lesser-known works. She was also a natural for the telly: One-take Wendy, they called her.

But she always believed her time was for God, so her usual routine consisted of a 6pm bedtime, so she could wake at 1am, which she considered the best time for prayer and contemplation. She also believed that God is 'a total mystery'.

Contemporary with Sister Wendy is Brother Harold Palmer, who has lived on a hill in Northumberland, known as Shepherd's Law, since 1971. Like Sister Wendy, Brother Harold began his seclusion in a caravan; since then, however, donations have enabled the building of four monastic cells and a church. Nor has Brother Harold completely withdrawn from society, as he has visitors every couple of weeks and also possesses a mobile phone.

But it is a hard life, contending with the bitter winters and engaging in spiritual warfare, which he says he often feels as a heavy weight that he simply keeps carrying.

Brother Harold began his formal religious life as an Anglican friar, but converted to Catholicism in the 1990s. For many years his aim has been to heal the divisions in Christianity: he sees himself as sitting on the divide between Catholic and Anglican. Healing can take place, he believes, through prayer, and so he spends many hours both by day and by night in the recitation of