What I envied him was his courage
Brother Paul saw me off, repeating his assurance that it had been an honour. On the road in the bright sunshine, I found myself envying him. But precisely what was it that I was envying? The warmth of the cocoon that surrounded him? His certainty? The joy that peeped out again as we shook hands? His faith itself? To some extent, of course, all of these, but there was something else: his courage.The incomparable Bernard Levin reflects on his stay in the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame d'Aiguebelle in his book Hannibal's Footsteps. I took the header photo at the monastery of Chartreuse du Val-de-Bénédiction in Villeneuve les Avignons, which Bernard Levin passed on the walk he describes in Hannibal's Footsteps. The old monastery in Villeneuve les Avignons is now a performing arts centre and has hosted Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain among others. Read more in Happy new ears in an ancient monastery.
The truth is that I am unable to believe that when Christ said: 'My Kingdom is not of this world' he meant that it was. Among the fifty monks of Notre Dame d'Aiguebelle, it was possible to see, misty but unmistakeable, the point. The enclosing shell of the monastery becomes a symbol of what must be the ultimate truth not only of Christianity but of all religions: the Kingdom of Heaven is within. For the monks within the walls, for the rest of us, within the human heart, which has room enough for all the walls there are. We all carry within our hearts a Notre Dame d'Aiguebelle, where we can find, though only if we seek diligently enough, the things of the spirit that alone make sense of the things of the world. Brother Paul seeks diligently enough; I don't. But the reason I don't can only be that I fear to find what I am seeking. That is why I said that what I envied him was, in the end, his courage.
Those reflections by Bernard Levin on the things of the spirit are particularly poignant. They were published in 1985 and three years later he experienced the first balance problems that heralded the onset of the Alzheimer's Disease that was to take him from us in 2004. He was one of the great journalists, broadcasters and commentators of the twentieth-century, as well as sometime partner of Arianna Huffington (née Stassinopoulos). Bernard Levin's writings roved, in his own words, across -
... injustice, the totalitarian mind abroad and at home, politics and economics, the follies and misdeneamours of those set in authority above us ("Dost thou know my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?), the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune among our leaders, the truths of history and its more numerous falsehoods, the cultural developments that, at first hailed as of eternal significance, proved as easily disposable as cheap ball-point pens ...Bernard Levin's love of the English language, and above all its correct usage, died with him: to be replaced by text messages, Twitter and blogs. Bernard Levin wrote sublime prose, but he was also opinionated and controversial. How many critics have you wanted to do this to?
The obverse of conflict can be found in Bernard Levin's TV interview with Krishnamurti, which reminds us that in times past BBC TV and other networks did not worship solely at the altar of entertainment. Shakespeare, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner were his gods, and he wrote passionately and eloquently of them. But his writing could surprise as well as affirm. I am on the road myself for a while, and below are quotes from a column by Bernard Levin in the Times from the 1980s.
Those last minutes are as profoundly affecting as anything I have ever seen in the cinema, a theatre or even an opera-house, and I shall return to them in a moment. But long before they are reached, the audience has been pierced by the effect of this ravishing masterpiece and the poetic imagination that informs it throughout ... But then, in that sense to be a child is the noblest ambition to which we can apire ... Whether we take it or not is up to us.What is the work Bernard Levin is writing about? I will reveal the answer when I return, unless someone posts it elsewhere first! Incidentally, you won't find the answer by Googling.
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