OPINION: Monk's ethics of tolerance and patience apt for post-lockdown

St. Botolph's Church Iken

St. Botolph's Church at Iken - Credit: citizenside.com

A friend of mine messaged me this week. I was expecting an invitation to a sumptuous meal in his garden or the suggestion of a pub lunch, or even a summons to drinks and nibbles.

But instead my friend pointed me into the direction of a forthcoming zoom group chat I might be interested in.

Would I like, my friend wondered, to investigate becoming a friar. Maybe it is my portly disposition, or my carriage in a cassock, or even my resemblance to high living and jolly friars of folklore that he thought I might like to don the habit.

To be honest I hadn’t realised friars still existed and I suspect my friend was enjoying a little joke but it did get me thinking. Not so much about friars – but more about the monastic life and how that might or might not appeal. And to be perfectly honest I did consider and explore it briefly but I’ve since ruled it out.

It seems to me in recent months there has been something for many of us – especially those of us who live alone – which has resembled the life of a hermit; with plenty of time to think.

But history show us that the hermit, though often considered a lone figure on some windswept rocky outcrop, are usually not alone for long, eventually attracting followers around which a community eventually grew.

Indeed it is out of these communities the early monastic movement grew and from that the development of Christianity in England.

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I’m not sure if he was a hermit but one of those early Christian figures in our area was a man named Botolph and, with my interest piqued I did a little research – well a scout round the internet - which I thought I might share with you today.

Botolph and his brother Adolph were young Saxon nobles living in the 7th century, and were sent for their education to a Benedictine Abbey in France. Adolph rose to be a Dutch Bishop, whilst Botolph came back to his native East Anglia.

He was given, by King Anna, a grant of land on which to build a monastery. This land was at Icanhoh, likely to have been Iken, near Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

Certainly Icanhoh was in a marshland area, for Botolph was said to have expelled the swamps of their “Devils” – in fact, he probably had the marshes drained and eliminated the “marsh gas” with its night glow.

St. Botolph died after a long life of Christian endeavour and teaching in 680.

The monastery lived on for two centuries more but in 870AD was destroyed by Danish invaders.

King Edgar (963-967AD) ordered that the remains of the saint be taken from the monastery ruins, and be divided into three parts: the head to be taken to Ely, the middle to be taken to Thorney, and the remainder to be taken to Westminster Abbey.

The relics were brought to London through various towns and eventually through the four City gates of Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Billingsgate.

It seems that as Botolph’s relics were conveyed from place to place, his name became associated with wayfarers and travellers.

There are about 70 churches, along with towns and villages, dedicated to him, with some, in Suffolk and Norfolk.

As we emerge from restrictions – and I note we are collectively gaining in confidence more and more, I can’t help thinking that the collective and communal life of a monastery – in which monks develop tolerance and understanding as well as patience and forgiveness of one another, might be a lesson for us all as we learn to live together once again.

This might seem a lofty ambition but if there is change in the air, let’s hope St Botolph and his ilk might inspire us once again.