Books

Sarah Sands found peace in some of the most isolated communities

Want to feel really rich? Live like a monk: As Editor of Today on Radio 4, Sarah Sands’ days were a whirl of breaking news and social demands. Then she walked away — and found true peace in some of the world’s most isolated communities

  • Sarah Sands was editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme from 2017 to 2020
  • She struggled to switch off at home or at night because her phone kept beeping
  • But she became drawn to the idea of a ‘spiritual retreat’ and visited monasteries
  • In her book The Interior Silence, she tells of her visits to monasteries worldwide
  • She has now peace at her Norfolk home, which is on the ruins of a monastery

SOCIETY 

The Interior Silence 

By Sarah Sands (Short Books £12.99, 256pp) 

Speed and judgment are the characteristics of our time,’ says Sarah Sands. 

And as editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme from 2017 to 2020, she found her life was dominated by both.

Listeners were divided over Brexit and she describes Today as a lightning rod for their anger. From 5am to 7pm she was immersed in noisy debate over ‘the drip feed of news, the superficiality of politics’.

She couldn’t switch off at home because her family, like most British families, was divided by those same politics. 

Sarah Sands (pictured), who was editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programmes from 2017 to 2020, struggled to switch off at home or at night because her phone kept beeping

Her 26-year-old daughter, Tilly, is Left-leaning, ‘impatient for social justice’ and accuses Right-leaning Sands of ‘political complacency’, ‘narrow privilege’ and inadequate feminism.

Sands couldn’t even switch off at night, she says, because: ‘My phone beeped incessantly. There were months when it buzzed hysterically between 3am and 5am, until I realised that I had somehow become the switchboard for all the taxis ordered by the news department.’

Sands tried many de-stressing methods, but found they often threatened to become exercises in self-absorption. Meditation only jolted her memory of emails she’d forgotten to send.

But then she picked up a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1957 book, A Time To Keep Silence. In it, the great adventurer and bon viveur reveals how his ‘worried mind’ had been soothed by sojourns at three French monasteries.

Sands envied the ‘clarity of spirit’ Leigh Fermor found in the peaceful routines of monastic life, and yearned for the deep, rejuvenating sleep he experienced in monks’ cells.

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.

But as she was approaching 60, Sarah became drawn to the idea of a ‘spiritual retreat’ and visited monasteries across the globe (stock image)

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.

Take the unforgettable tale of Abba Aaron, a sixth-century monk from Constantinople. Ancient accounts claim that he suffered from gangrene of the loins. 

But he ‘bore this affliction with great discretion’, praising God ‘until his penis … vanished down to its root’. 

At that point he sought treatment from his brothers. 

Her new book, The Interior Silence, tells of her visits to ten monasteries and explores the effects of fasting, prayer and silence

His ulcer was healed and he lived a further 18 uncomplaining years with ‘a lead tube in place for the necessity of passing water’.

More prettily, Sands reminds us of St Francis rejoicing in the company of birds. 

Larks were his favourites, although he dreamed of himself as a little black hen.

I did not know that St Francis — a rotund man in pictures I was shown at Sunday School — actually starved himself, believing voluntary self-abasement was the path to glory. (Although he requested cookies for his final meal.)

Sands loves her luxuries. She’s a sucker for swanky face creams, fine linen and spa treatments. She says her last meal would include spaghetti vongole and chocolate tart. And she’d want a wine list.

When she was editor of London’s Evening Standard, she says it was often part of her job to deliver Boris Johnson to long weekends of ‘feasting, dancing and boar hunting’ at the Umbrian castle of the newspaper’s proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev. 

She shares anecdotes of ‘a dishevelled Johnson chasing Evgeny’s wolf, also named Boris, because it had eaten his computer dongle’.

But she notes that the modern monks and nuns she meets appear more deeply ‘nourished’ than her rich and famous friends.

In the Carmelite nunnery at Quidenham, Norfolk, Sands meets 51-year-old Sister Stephanie who entered the monastic life aged 33. 

She left a job in HR at a building society when she found herself ‘fundamentally restless and lonely’ and under pressure to have ‘too many personalities’.

Today, the nun shudders at the thought of how social media would have put her under even more pressure. 

 While researching her book, Sarah (pictured) quit her job at the Today programme and has since found peace at her Norfolk home, which is built on the ruins of an old monastery

She has taken the opposite path: surrendering herself in a way that she found initially ‘painful and embarrassing, but ultimately liberating’.

During Sands’ stays in the monasteries, she finds herself calmed by the reliable, natural rhythms of dawn-to-dusk prayer, meals and quiet companionship.

Monks, she reminds us, had an understanding of what we now call ‘mental health’. They knew that illness was not always visible. 

She quotes early Egyptian monks who said: ‘Let us not speak insults to one another such as, ‘You are not sick.’ For who knows what is inside man other than the Lord.’

While researching this book, Sands quit her job at the Today programme and, during lockdown, she sought peace in Norfolk, where her family home is built on the ruins of an old monastery.

She doesn’t pretend she’ll be renouncing her cosmetics or her iPhone any time soon.

But she has resolved to live more like the monks she has met: ‘attentive to the interior silence’.

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