Saving Downside – and helping to save the planet
I am now extremely distressed by the monks’ decision to leave Downside. They have a reservoir of great goodwill amongst OGs and the many friends of Downside who would be only too happy to help them, and I now think they are throwing away a most wonderful opportunity. I see this, as we should surely see pretty much everything else these days, in the context of climate change. The science is now indisputable and the scientists virtually unanimous. If we pass the tipping point of 2 degrees, and the scientists are now suggesting it could be nearer 1.5, we will be heading towards triggering the self-feeding runaway global warming that will fall upon our children, and might well end in the demise of the human race and most other forms of life. The scientists are telling us that we need to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. 2021 is already heading to be the second worst year on record for emissions and the International Energy Agency has recently released a report telling us that on present practices 2023 will break all previous records. There has never been a more urgent situation. The forecasts of the terrifying hurricanes, searing droughts, forest fires – the Amazon is already turning from the world’s great carbon sink into a carbon emitter – sea level rises that will drown much of the worlds’ most fertile land and coastal cities, hundreds of millions of climate refugees – the horror of all this passes beyond the imagination. You don’t believe it? Read the dire warnings from the scientists. Can it really be sensible not to heed them? But it doesn’t have to be like this. With a huge effort, we can still save the earth for our children. We have the technology we need but we don’t have the resolve. It is primarily a moral and spiritual question which is why monks are now so important.
Yes, the monks have grave problems, particularly lack of new recruits. I think they should consider offering six month courses to lay people. Some young people, at least, now understand the immense tragedy they will be facing if we fail to halt global warming, although many of their elders don’t quite seem to appreciate how grave this is If Downside were to offer courses in end of the world theology (eschatology), the theology of hope, climate science and especially Downside’s particular tradition of contemplative prayer, I’m sure they would come. If a renewed Downside were a dynamic place some of them might want to join the community. I was unhappy as a monk but what has stayed with me was the training I received in contemplation. Downside’s particular brand of it was especially abstract and imageless, and I suppose it derived from the rigours of the English mission in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the monks were living in great danger with no access to books and ritual. It didn’t mean much to me then, how it means everything. As somebody who was once a monk and is now married, I can attest that St Benedict’s principles are of the greatest help not only in monasteries but in marriages.
I believe the monks could solve their financial problems by allowing other people to run businesses for them, which is where OGs and their friends could help. I’m sure people with business experience could be found who would offer their service for free. There would be a huge captive market (if that is not too odious and misleading an expression). But I don’t think there will be enthusiastic support if the monks leave Downside because peoples’ emotional links are with the place, and once Downside is abandoned and the link broken interest will wither. A monastery that has owned up to its past faults, renewed itself and come back fighting would arouse much interest, with incidentally connected commercial appeal. I had in mind perhaps pants and socks because everybody needs them, honey and flowers because they could be produced in the monastery gardens, and doubtless other enterprises. My hope would be that the young people who came on the courses would undertake much of the care, sorting and packing such enterprises would involve, heeding St Benedict’ principle of the importance of manual labour.
Could this work? You can only try, but why not at least try before the monks irrevocably abandon Downside. But the monks won’t entertain it. I think I understand how they feel. They want a future and see no other way. But there could be another way. If you care about Downside and would support this idea, especially if you would like to take an active part in realising it even if only buying the stuff for sale, please write to me and if there is enough support I will write to the Abbot. My e mail is email@example.com and phone 07847108474 and address 3 Eagley Bank Shawforth Whitworth Rochdale OL12 8HE. You can also leave a comment on my website or message me @ThomjWriter. Wouldn’t it be great if Downside were really buzzing again, especially if it is doing its bit – and what influence it could have – to help save the planet.