Penelope Wilcock is the author of the much-loved series of Christian books, 'The Hawk and the Dove', which are set in a medieval monastery. Penelope has also written a number of other books, both fiction and non-fiction, on Christian living and spirituality. She talks to James Stacey.
Thanks for giving us this opportunity to talk to you, Penelope. Your books, especially the Hawk and the Dove trilogy have meant a great deal to many people.
Last week, I had an email from a friend’s friend whose daughter has been depressed. For some months she’d been going downhill. She’d got to the point where she’d gone zombie-ish and they were concerned to get her restarted again, emotionally. They gave her the Hawk and the Dove trilogy. The woman who wrote to me said that her daughter’s “tears flowed for Peregrine” and that it unlocked her. I was just so pleased with that.
Your writing is full of insight into human realities; it has a feel of empathy – for instance, about dementia and death in The Long Fall. Did that come out of personal experience of losing somebody?
When I was researching The Long Fall, I took a job as a night nurse in a run-down nursing home in St Leonards. The hospice nearby, where I’d worked as a voluntary Free Church chaplain, had everything that money could buy to make people there more comfortable. But in this little nursing home where I was working, they had nothing.
I’ve never forgotten one occasion, sitting with a lady who died that night. Her body was disintegrating, all pressure sores, oozing diarrhoea. She would scream because she had so much pain. Sitting with her that night, there was a toilet roll and a washing up bowl – that was all there was to make her comfortable.
I remember thinking: this is what poverty is. I wanted to imagine it would be like caring for someone who was dying in the Middle Ages. And in 20th century St Leonards – I saw it.
That’s not just the kind of “research” that means looking at a computer screen!
I never write about anything that I haven’t lived in some way.
Tell us about your own story.
Important parts of my own story will come out in a book this summer – a rewrite of a book I wrote a long time ago called Spiritual Care of Dying and Bereaved People. In the last 15 years of my life there have been some significant losses and bereavements, things that have changed and shaped me; they’ll be in that book.
I never write about anything that I haven’t lived in some way
I grew up in Hertfordshire. When I was about 15, I came across Saint Francis and fell in love with his vision of simplicity – “Lady Poverty”. To live in simplicity has been something I’ve wanted all my life.
My first husband’s family was Methodist, and I became part of the Methodist Church. I became a Methodist “local preacher”, then a minister for about 12 years. But then my marriage came off its wheels, which was a Often life felt like trying to pull together what was falling apart, seemed complete chaos. As a result of it all, I thought, “I just need to stop – and draw back, take stock, find out who I am.”
As a church minister, you have a duty to the people to whom you are ministering to be the kind of person you should be as a minister. You represent the Church to them; you represent Christ. After everything that had happened, I needed to be, for a while, a person who didn’t represent anybody – so that I could be as angry as I wanted, and as upset as I wanted, for as long as I wanted. Then, when I’d processed it, I’d be ready for the next thing.
So I came out of the ministry and, after a while, went into full-time writing.
The original Hawk and the Dove trilogy was written before these painful episodes in your life, the more recent books, such as The Hardest Thing To Do after them?
That’s right. I learned that the hardest thing to do is to see things from the point of view of someone else. But I wanted to learn that because that way we can remain friends, even through pain and conflict.
Something that stood out for me in The Hardest Thing To Do was contrast between “head” and “heart”, represented in William and Tom. How do you find a balance between those two?
I think in community, actually. Some things in life are for individuals to process, but most are for communities. I think that the New Testament is very “community minded”. I don’t think its writers ever imagined a solitary Christian, trying to work things out on their own. It’s when we do things together and support each other, that we’re most fruitful.
Is that why you chose to write about a very deliberate form of community like a monastery?
I really love the monastic way. When I was young, I was very drawn to the idea of being a Poor Clare. And when I was first married, we lived in a very “community” kind of way – we used to have ex-prisoners living with us, someone lived with us to recover from a failed suicide attempt and people with nowhere to live would come and stay with us for a while. Nowadays, the four of us who live in our present house function as a community in a different way: we’re all artists and living together means we can support one another in those ministries.
What can communities today learn from ancient monastic wisdom such as the Rule of Benedict?
What we might not be looking for: common sense. We tend to think of Benedict’s Rule as being about rarefied spirituality, but it’s got plenty of hardnosed, practical wisdom to it. Take “the great silence”, the rule that from evening prayers until after first prayers the next day the community goes into silence. When are people most likely to fall out with each other? When they’re overtired – they should shut up, but keep picking away at something they should drop – or first thing in the morning when that irritating person insists on being bright and cheerful!
The celibate people that I know – people who are intentionally celibate – can particularly offer two things: freedom – to serve and to pray – and an open heart.
If you’ve got, say, a toddler and a husband, your first duty is to them: if there’s someone who has got a problem at 10pm, well, that’s a shame, but you probably can’t go and deal with it. Not that celibates should be at everybody’s beck and call. I think that can be a danger, in fact. I think that in celibacy it’s quite important to be clear about establishing your boundaries and making sure that other people respect them – otherwise burn-out is a danger.
But part of the freedom of living with an open heart is that you are available. One of the things that celibate people offer to any community is friendship. It’s a great gift, friendship, and single people can be wonderful friends (they don’t always want to “bring my husband along” or “have to go because the kids are coming home from school”). This gift of friendship, someone who is free to be your friend, is a brilliant thing.
Your blog says quite a bit about simple living. Tell us about that.
I wrote a book about living simply, In Celebration of Simplicity. I believe that it is not possible to make any progress along any spiritual path without adopting a discipline of simplicity. Spirituality – of any kind – cannot flourish without simplicity.
For me, simplicity is about not having a cluttered mind. Not having all sorts of obligations. Not having a cluttered schedule. Not owning a lot of possessions.
People tend to define you by your stuff, but if you don’t have much you’re freer to be who you are, irrespective of what you’ve got
I find that “things” kind of take on a life of their own. Not only do they need dusting, repairing, tidying up and all the obvious things – but also I find that objects witter at you. It’s like they have personality, as if they draw energy from you somehow. The more “things” you have, the more your energy drains away into them.
Also, the more “stuff” I have, the more people can get a handle on me. If I don’t own very much I am freer – people can’t define me so readily. People tend to define you by your stuff, but if you don’t have much you’re freer to be who you are, irrespective of what you’ve got.
You also write about silence. How might a busy person work silence into their life?
Go and sit in the park! Being in nature is a start. How can a busy person write silence into their life? They can look at their relationship with their car. If you can walk to places, at least some of the time, or park the car a little further away and walk the last bit, you create space for quietness.
Silence is very important to me. I like music, but I very rarely listen to it, just because I like silence.
I learnt something from the Quakers. A Quaker meeting starts when the first person walks into the room – from then on, until the end of the meeting, only intentional things are said to break the silence. If you are a busy community, how about saying about a particular meeting – for prayer or whatever – “the meeting starts when the first person walks into the room”? That way you can build silence into community life.
A last word? What would you want to say to the Church, the whole Church?
I would say: deconstruct. We’ve got our feet tangled. All the nuts and bolts of the external structure of “church” can keep us busy, so that we never have to engage with the inner reality we’re called to. We can allow our discipleship to degenerate into maintaining the structure of large organisations.
I was really privileged to hear, in 1986, John Wimber talking about when he was first converted. He went along to church every Sunday for a while, clutching his Bible. Eventually he couldn’t bear it any longer and he sidled up to one of the elders and said, “When do we get to do the stuff?” “What stuff?” came the reply. John pointed at his Bible: “You know: the stuff in this book”. The answer was sad: “We don’t ‘do’ it. We read about it, we pray about it, we study it, but we don’t actually do it anymore.”
John Wimber wasn’t satisfied with that. Neither am I. All I’m interested in, really, is “doing the stuff” – God’s stuff, the real stuff. Let’s clear away what gets in the way of that.
Penelope Wilcock’s series of novels, The Hawk and the Dove, are set in a medieval monastery. The first trilogy – The Hawk and the Dove, The Wounds of God and The Long Fall – focus on the monastery’s abbot, Father Peregrine. In describing Peregrine’s own brokenness and healing, and his compassionate dealings with many of the other monks, Penelope explores questions of suffering and faith. Later novels in the Hawk and the Dove series, such as The Hardest Thing To Do, The Hour Before Dawn and Remember Me tell the ongoing story of the monastery after Peregrine’s death. Penelope has also written a number of other books, both fiction and non-fiction, on Christian living and spirituality. Details of her books can be found at her blog: kindredofthequietway.blogspot.co.uk