I was sent to boarding school at the age of seven, not, I continue to think, because I was a nuisance to my parents, but because they thought it a means to social advancement. Whether or not they were right, I took to it, and I can’t remember that I was ever homesick. I often claim that it was independence learnt the hard way, at an early age, that equipped me to conquer Eastern Europe.
It was a religious school, but of the Anglican rather than the Roman Catholic persuasion, so, though it was uncomfortable, it was not perhaps as religiously alarming as it might have been. Misdemeanours were discouraged by standing us in corners, where there was nothing to do but study the way paint cracks, rather than by the promise of eternal hellfire.
The school was attached to a cathedral and provided the boy choristers for the cathedral choir. I wasn’t one of them, but regardless of vocal talent, the entire school observed a religious life, all attending a daily service in the school’s chapel, and two services on Sunday – Matins and Evensong – in the cathedral. These services seemed interminable, but the music was an inspiration. The cathedral was literally the centre of our lives. Whether we had sinned or not, and in all weathers, we had to run all the way round it before breakfast.
Come Lent, and after the age of about 10, we were encouraged to give something up for 40 days so that we might come to understand Christ’s fasting in the wilderness, something he apparently did with us in mind, though I don’t get that, even now. In retrospect I’d rather Christ had empathised with me. I suspect that 40 days of fasting in the wilderness was a lot more fun than a British boys’ preparatory school in the 1960s, but I suppose Christ had fewer opportunities when it came to hardship. Why we had to learn to do without, by giving up sweets, or fish fingers, or baked beans, for nearly six weeks, I really can’t understand. What can the Reverends have been thinking, inflicting spiritual exercises on children barely ten years old? It seems as pointless to me now as that irritating question our teachers used to ask when we left some particularly revolting food uneaten on the plate.
‘What about those poor children starving in Africa?’
Well, what about them? I’d happily have offered them my portion of banana slop or green-tinged liver, but I couldn’t see how it could be got to them, or how eating everything on the plate instead could be of any help to them. I think, in any case, they would have turned up their noses at our school food, however hungry they might have been.
As for giving something up for Lent, I gave up sweets one year, and Doctor Who, another. As far as I can remember, there were few other pleasures to renounce. School food certainly wasn’t a candidate and we were made to eat it anyway. Doctor Who was then, and still is, my favourite sci-fi series, and giving it up was much more difficult than sweets. After a week or two I couldn’t resist peeking through a crack in the door. I could hear the Doctor and the Daleks, but I really wasn’t watching. ‘Watching’, I argued, thinking not as an Anglican but as a Jesuit on this occasion, meant sitting on the sofa in front of the telly with all the other boys. This was ‘peeking’.
I wonder now whether there is any point at all in making young children give things up. Weren’t we much too young for spiritual self-discipline? Weren’t they doing us enough harm already by sending us to school and making us do without our parents and the comforts of home?
I’ve been thinking about this since a former colleague, Martin Skalicka, popped in to our Prague office last week. He was our very best salesman in the early 2000s, a thoughtful, humorous, imaginative colleague of an admirably ‘alternative’ disposition. Value, for him, never meant only price. He’s also the tallest man I know. He was wearing a t-shirt with ‘Sri Lanka’ printed on it and I asked him if he’d just been there. It turns out that a year or two ago he’d visited a Czech friend who’d given everything up to become a Buddhist monk. It was a case of self-abnegation beyond even the wildest aspirations of the Reverends at my school, a rejection of personal relationships, property, sex, humour, love, and power, an abandoning even of want and need, and an acceptance of complete dependence on the kindness of others. A life of saffron robes, mediation and a begging bowl.
It also meant leaving behind his financial obligations, his wives, lovers and children.
We’re sometimes inclined to venerate such people. They make our worldly strivings seem shallow and illusionary. We envy them their impervious aloofness, at least if they reach the remote nirvana they seek. They can no longer be disappointed because they’ve simply stopped wanting things. The world, to them, is illusion.
But to me it’s not, and I’m not tempted in the least to board the flight to Colombo. It seems too harsh a path, too radical a solution to the twin demands of the body and the spirit, as is excessive indulgence, at the other end of the spectrum. Why demonstrate independence and freedom through complete abstinence? Isn’t moderation at least equally difficult and very much more sensible?
I give up alcohol from time to time. It’s not entirely easy, but I like to be in control rather than at the mercy of my cravings. But I’ve found it’s actually easier to be black and white about it, all or nothing, than very carefully moderate.
Augustine prayed, ‘Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.’ Of course it’s foolish to be led entirely by one’s desires, but why even wish to be entirely chaste?
As for spiritual self-improvement, isn’t it, at least when it becomes a complete retreat from the world, just a tiny bity self-regarding? Does our own spiritual well-being outweigh our worldly responsibilities?