In this charming and quirky homage to A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor, on whom she admits to developing an ‘unseemly crush, considering he is dead’, Sands takes us with her on her quest to discover how monks and nuns achieve ‘the interior silence’ that she’s beginning to yearn for.
So, seatbelts on for a global tour of ten living monasteries, at each of which Sands aims to enter briefly but deeply into its essence, sleeping in the uncomfortable bed, eating the plain breakfast, praying in the silent, holy building and, if possible, talking to an inmate about how to achieve any level of serenity.
She’s honest about craving a cappuccino and chocolate croissant on her first morning at a mountain monastery at Koyasan in Japan, a country she happens to be going to anyway for Today, ahead of the G20 summit. She arrives at the airport fretting that her phone is dead and she hasn’t brought the right adaptor.
These moments, though, are not heavily laboured. The pace is swift and the telling light, as names are dropped and anecdotes recounted that, because of who she is, somehow don’t sound ridiculous or affected — even when they involve Boris Johnson chasing a wolf called Boris around an oligarch’s castle near Assisi. She is refreshingly honest about her life and its soul-destroying hecticness, and that gives her quest for stillness serious credibility. Sands often seems to be looking to reinforce the credibility of this quest — perhaps most especially to herself.
Approaching 60, she was drawn to the idea of a 'spiritual retreat' and began visiting monasteries around the world to see what she could learn. Her inspirational new book describes her visits to ten monasteries, from a Coptic community in Egypt to a retreat in the Japanese mountains. In short bursts, she explores the powerful effects of fasting, prayer, silence, study, compassion, solitude, humility, hard work and communion with the natural world. She tells the extraordinary stories of celebrated historical monks and nuns who learned to exist with joy beyond normal, material concerns.