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The Diana Diaries – Harare, Africa and Sky TV

In 1995 Dad accompanied HRH to Africa, where in Harare, she made a speech before more than a thousand people and the world’s press and television about the work of the Leprosy Mission there.

The Diana Diaries by Dr Rev J A Lloyd – Story 3

“It was a good speech. When she sat down, the man announcing me up next to talk said ‘And now Dr Young will reply to Her Royal Highness’s Gracious Speech.’ Being caught off guard I said out of the corner of my mouth to the Princess next to me, ‘We have no Dr Young with us Ma’am.’ She said ‘You are Dr Young’. “No I’m not Ma’am. My name is Lloyd, you know it is”. Still from the side of her mouth she replied “Well you are now, get on with it”. And so I did.

Later on that evening, I heard that she had told the speaker my name was Dr Young, in order to calm me down. She obviously knew I was thrown by her lack of security earlier, when we had to form a chain around her, a little like a rugby scrum. I’ve never felt more scared in my life. Thousands wanting to get to her, and her security just wasn’t enough. Ken (bodyguard) was particularly incredible at this point and you really do see them go into their prime at this point. An immaculate operation, I just wasn’t used to it.

(I should add that when I returned to the office, I received a photograph of both the Princess and myself talking to each other through the sides of our mouths. On the picture was a post it, hand written with the words ‘We got it all on tape – Sky TV’. I had forgotten we were wired up to the cameras at this point.)

________________________

It’s the afternoon and we visit one of our rehabilitation centres for The Leprosy Mission. Remember, you can’t get a job once you’ve suffered from Leprosy, no one will employ you, so we explain to the Princess that we set up these centres so they can work for us, and we sell their products around the world, not just making them ex-patients, but our business partners.

At first I wasn’t sure what had gone on, but the Princess had gone to talk to one of the patients working on a sewing machine. The next minute I saw all the press start shuffling, writing on note pads. ‘What’s happened?’ I ask one reporter. ‘She’s crying, go get her’.

I found the Princess around the corner being consoled by her friend/make-up artist.

I later understood that the seamstress after being asked by the Princess if she felt better about life, replied ‘I came in a Leper, I’m leaving a seamstress’. That was it, something touched the Princess, I’m not sure whether it was the hope, the humility, the amazing optimism or just general recovery in this woman that affected the Princess so much. This job she does certainly isn’t an easy photo call. There are days where she clearly finds this hard, such is the strength of being a sensitive woman. This is why she does what she does. To be sensitive to others, you are normally sensitive yourself, it’s no weakness – that’s a strength.

Being the pro that she was, she only resigned behind a wall for two minutes. Eye make-up rectified, and out she walks, as if nothing happened. I don’t know how she does it but somehow she does.

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The Diana Diaries – Flight to Hong Kong

Diana Diary – Story 2.

“I have just spent three of the most astonishing days of my life visiting Hong Kong with the Princess of Wales for the Mission. The entire trip was funded by bigger powers that be, and no expense was spared.

[I have had to skip a good page of just check-in hilarity at the airport as I’m sure this won’t interest you but it was funny to read over again…ok here’s a paragraph]

Announcing myself at the check-in desk, I say I am with the Princess’ party and wonder whether there are any special arrangements. “I’ll be back in a minute sir” the stewardess replies. A few yards away the lady does lots of don’t-look-now-but-there’s-a-nutter-over-there-kind of body language. Lots of whispered phone calls, then a tentative pause and the first lady returns mentally curtsying all the way back from her colleagues.

“Of course there are special instructions for you Rev Lloyd. Here’s your clubhouse carnet we would like you to use. The study contains seven fax machines, fifteen telephones, a business centre, a library, four computers, a games area for your children, the bar is free and stocks a large variety of wines, spirits, liquors. The library contains over seven thousand volumes on subjects such as business, communication, holidays, law”. I cut her off rudely “Thank you very much Tracey. Thank you very much indeed.’ She is last heard reciting the remaining authors in the library on Zoanastrianism, no doubt then to launch into the authors on Zulus. I leave her smiling with her teeth alone.

——–

At last she comes on board with her aides, all of whom I know from previous meetings with the Princess and whom I am very pleased to see. I am not sure what it is about the Royals and their courtiers but centuries of tradition and breeding have given them superb manners, the essence of which is to make you feel like the royalty, and, without exception, always very warmly welcomed. She is a real star though. Even more beautiful than the media can convey, tall and immensely graceful and elegant and genuinely pleased to see her advisors. ( I am listed as an ‘Advisor” by the Palace. That makes me smile. What do I know about anything except random number theory and she doesn’t seem to be want to be advised about that, not recently anyway. Well not since I took twenty minutes to explain to her what it was).

There are seven of us. Diana, her two detectives, her dresser, a press secretary, her private secretary (Patrick, a man of immense charm and humour) and I complete the party.

The take off is very smooth but noisy and a baby in tourist class begins to cry with alarm.

As soon as the safety lights are off Diana comes and asks how the Mission is getting on. I never get over the fact she genuinely cares very much about people. It’s almost overwhelming and I think she has mistaken me for one of her closest friends. She asks me to be aware of XXXXX who is in her thirties and has lost her husband, father and brother in law in the last six months. The hint is that I exercise my pastoral training if I think it wise. The conversation turns to bereavement and I speak of my own near death experience and the immense fear of facing God…She says how like the symptoms of bereavement are to those of separation. A penetrating thought. I dare to ask if she has been able to forgive Charles. She says she has. That this is now behind her and it’s in the interest of her boys that she does.

[next part removed…skip to….]

One very interesting incident now happens. The baby who was frightened on take off is still crying. The Princess keeps turning around, clearly upset by the crying. She asks Patrick if she could go and help. Patrick is not sure. The Princess looks through the curtains which separate us from upper to tourist class looking for the baby. She spots it and its mother and two other children. The Princess is longing to take the baby off the mother to soothe it. “Shall I?” she asks Patrick. He is not sure. I say “Just do it Ma’am”. And she does, through the curtain she goes, only to reappear with the baby still crying. Within ten minutes it is sound asleep and the Princess returns it to its mother. Patrick says the mother will dine out on that for years.

________

More than a hundred photographers and three TV crews have their cameras trained on the door. Meanwhile HRH and the rest are making comments from further back about the press. The Princess asks Patrick how she should address the Governor of Hong Kong. More jokes at the expense of the press pour out. When I watch these kind of scenes on TV I always imagine that there would be an extremely disciplined routine. In fact no one is a bit nervous and some have to make a real effort to stop laughing before the door opens.

The Princess steps on the top of the step. A wall of white light comes from flash guns of the press. The rest of us wait until the Princess has reached the bottom of the steps and is greeted by the Governor. Patrick is keen to get us all down quickly and into the fleet of cars and away probably mindful of the Princess’ increasing distaste of the photographers. She calls it face rape.

The Diana Diaries – by Dr Rev J A Lloyd.

In 1991, HRH Princess Diana, visited Nepal and shook the hands of people suffering with Leprosy. This was huge. The following day, press coverage was over loading on the Leprosy Mission and the phones were ringing off the hook for a statement from my father who was the Executive Director of The Leprosy Mission.

The Daily Mirror’s front cover read ‘Don’t Do it Di’.

Dad called Kensington Palace, hope he might be able to speak with her private secretary, Patrick Jephson to pass on a message of thanks. As my father tried to send his gratitude for ‘being so brave and fighting against the stigma of Leprosy’. The next thing he knew, HRH came to the phone.

‘Your Royal Highness, I can not tell you what you’ve just done. In five minutes you’ve just delivered a message to millions around the globe, a message we’ve been trying to get across to people for the past 120 years.’

‘It was my pleasure Tony’ She replies.’Now where do I sign?’ I only wish I had seen Dad’s face when he heard her offer of patronage. But so began a lovely working friendship between my father, and HRH The Princess of Wales.

Over the years 1991 – 1997 they travelled on official trips, from Hong Kong to Harare in Africa. My father wrote diaries to me from when I was 11. Diaries to be kept and treasured forever.

I’ve never shared them before, and he never wrote anything that could have been stolen, or used for tabloid press. He had been asked to write books, but always point blank rejected them. To his death, any confidential information always remained between himself and her words. Nothing was ever written down. Too right.

She was a big practical joker, a incredible communicator and a woman who really did care. Her hardest of critics have snubbed her charity work and photographic moments, as PR stunts. But on the things I saw myself and the things I heard from Dad, I beg to differ…..

Some parts have had to be edited for privacy reasons, so forgive any paraphrasing here, but it’s pretty close to the genuine articles. I’ve got pages and pages of this stuff, along with stories he didn’t write down. The first being one of them, but I’ve decided to just take snippets.

Diana Diary – Story 1.

‘We were sitting at a rather important dinner tonight, with quite a few ‘important’ people around the table. Now this is where I can’t really name names. But lets just say that the host leading the dinner party was a bit of a talker, a sign of him trying hard to keep on going with an extreme attempt of not letting the nerves get the better of him.

In HRH’s true style, she spotted his nerves a mile off and was sitting directly next to him at the table. Before she ever meets anyone, she is de-briefed in the car, given notes of history, relationships, children, interests and current aims/objectives of their purpose of meeting. She’s also known to be given, ‘hidden gems’. In this particular case she was told ‘He has a penchant for taking his shoes off under the table ma’am’.

Throughout the dinner, all is well. People are laughing, joyous, yet it is formal chit chat, this is afterall an important dinner, with respectable black tie of course. Let’s face it, we all know when HRH is in the room, we’re all a little nervous and on our best behaviour.

It’s not until the end of the dinner, where everyone is ready to stand, HRH gets up from the table, apart from our host, who is in mid panic now, desperately trying not to show it, but he can’t find his shoes. They were there a while back, but oh no, someone has taken his shoes. His eyes widen and daren’t look to HRH, who has slided him a small folded up note.

He’s half in his chair and half of his legs are performing some sort of Michael Flatley dance as he begins to melt into his own sweat, all while he is opening this piece of paper

The note reads:

‘If you want your shoes back, it’s going to cost you a tenner. D.’

She looks under her fringe towards him, as she so often does with a wry smile, and the entire table begin to laugh, along with our host, who at that very fine moment, simply fell in love with her.’

The Problem with Faith

The benevolent meaning of my faith never gets me very far. Not these days. Not in the city. Not as a 30 year old female who has a penchant for Rupert Sandersons.  In fact, it never did. It didn’t before my attempts of panache or any form of style I might have wished to exude.

Despite my desire to love transcendence, something beyond the science or quantum mathematics of the universe, I’m left searching through the black holes of the society of which I’m placed. It’s called London. The so-called multi-cultural, home to Speakers Corner. If I should sit there on a fine sunny day, it’s not long ‘til a dark cloud covers me, and wishes the speakers would stop trying to represent me. Because I never asked them to. This need to preach the word and spread the love of God stops at their megaphone for me.

The need for subservient aggression against each others’ viewpoint, drains any living passion I might have for the very same people my God told me to love.

That’s all I’m trying to do with faith. I’m trying to love others. I’m trying to get over my bitterness, my need for revenge, my wish to ‘get back’, my search for apologies, my need for success and superficial love. I’m trying to get over the big I AM. My need for material items and the need for the 2 bed loft style apartment looking over the River Thames. It’s my way of averting away from the thing that we think about most of the day. Ourselves.

As the Alpha Course tag line suggests, ‘there must be something more to life than this?’ To twitter, to the amusements that end in OMG and the images of the perfect BFFs. To the round of applause for having over 1,000 friends on Facebook. To the look across the room from the tall, dark handsome you just spotted across the shabby-chic wine bar that Time-Out rated as the best in East London.

This is my need. No one else’s. My need to get out of myself, to be a much better me. Because somewhere early on, between the era when I was bullied for having a faith, to the time my moral high ground for not sleeping with casting directors possibly ruined my chance of big breaks, I found that it made more sense for me to have hope in something bigger than us. Not a crutch, not a need to rest on something when I was distraught. Because why would anyone go against their own logic for the sake of a get out clause? Smoking is my vice, not God.

People bee-line for the Christian in the corner, quite happily minding her own champagne, and question – why the hell do I believe in a God that causes suffering? They’re ready for any response, they too have possibly rehearsed this comeback, along with quotes from the rather uninspiring Richard Dawkins who contradicted his basic arguments alongside scientists who confessed they too believed there might be something phenomenal to have ‘triggered everything off’. But this is just my baboon like-thinking. Don’t forget, my sentiments mean nothing, because inside this Christian, Vivienne Westwood hugging exterior, there’s a normal person with ambivalent opinions, just screaming to get out.

I’m a scientist at heart. I tried to have no faith. I tried to not believe in God. I tried to run away from any form of hideous, ‘war-making’ religion that could lower the opinions of others towards me. I announced I was an atheist in 2005. I had hoped it would end in light relief. If nothing else I had hoped it would stop the wide-eyed stares from those that feared the thought. Something brewed in me now, to prove it’s NON-existence. It was from this moment that my atheist friends and my Christian friends, and all those that laid between, stood wide-eyed, subtlely looking for the closest exits, whilst I sat in pubs having rhetorical conversations about who the hell created the universe. No pun intended.

With the atheist in me, life became colourless. I was no better or worse as a person. Just a little more focused on myself, and a little more empty, because to believe in no God meant I shouldn’t believe in a soul. Would I say that to my best friends? My atheist friends? No. No I wouldn’t. They probably experienced it differently. God shouldn’t be a secular choice, a ‘one size fits all’. It’s totally and utterly different to the Christian sitting next to me. But I didn’t want to be one of ‘those’, the stranger who runs from across the room because you’ve already been labeled by some numpty as a Christian. Apparently that means I’m an imbecile; I’m expected to be some deluded, ‘haven’t-thought-things-through-properly’, lesser than 110 IQ, weakling who can’t be responsible for her own life and actions.

But thank God  (literally) for some. The ones that are willing to question, just why I believe in that which is so out of fashion, and has been since Queen Victoria’s reign. Thank God for the willing atheist friends, the ones whom felt more comfortable in a dentist chair than that of church, the ones who sat down on a church pew, and listened to our prayers, our singing, our words of divine inspiration. My home, my community, my reason for living.

I didn’t want them to believe, I just wanted to be treated with the same nonchalant approach as I gave my non-believing friends. I wanted to be seen as normal. I taught myself out of those modern-day expectations. I’ve accepted my own individual right to be alone in my ideas. I’ve accepted it’s not a popular choice. I’ve accepted my life is confronted with less easy options because of it.

When a Joe Bloggs questions me these days as to why I would choose to believe. I often reply, ‘would you ask me the same question if you replaced the word God with love? Because that’s all it means to me. That’s all I’m trying to do.”

The Big Silence – Uncensored

Episode 2.

Suffering, I’ve been told, disappears when you let yourself go. The 8 days at St Beuno’s was certainly the facing up to and letting go that we all, in whatever capacity, needed to do.

Those that had dealt with silence for such a long time, or the ones that were able to have it in their everyday lives, knew all too well what was about to come. They had braced themselves with such high impact from the 5 of us (be it group discussions, prayer, their own mentors, or outside psychologists) they were about as ready as a child wearing a buoyancy aid to a paddling pool 2 inches deep. They were ready, because they had been there. We on the other hand felt like we were about to witness a hideous car crash, and there was nothing we could do about it.

Ok, we could pray. But 4 out of 5 of us, were not willing to do that either. If you don’t believe in a God at this point, why would you turn on your heels and seek for some sort of false comfort?

Apart from the expected the boredom, you then face irritation because you’re bored, then the crap books that we had on offer, (it became so limited I ended up reading letters between Churchill and Clementine his wife – which actually was an interesting read). Then follows the frustration after we’ve walked all the walks around the retreat, walked the labyrinth, the art work, clay work, the frustration that your clay butterfly looks like a tortoise all this, and it’s only 11am. On day 1.

For me boredom was unproductive and I felt I could be putting together better use of my time. The only consellation at this point was, well at least this is being filmed for TV and if anything we’re making a documentary to tell people not to bother coming on something this mind-blowingly dull. So yes, I’ve been productive. Although, I’m yet to see any cameras today. As I think this, there’s a ruffle in the bushes and a big lens watching me.

‘Ah how interesting, I think. They’ve decided to film us like wildlife.’

I think the production crew themselves, were waiting for someone to scream out loud or indeed run down the hill with no clothes on. I did a little cartwheel at one point with one europhic moment, but I fear Tiger Aspect may have felt this slightly contrived. ‘It wouldn’t work in the Christian’s favour’

Once we start to let go of our stubbornness and begin to accept that this silence is all we have, bar our one to one sessions, the boredom turns to silence. Or at least for me, the wanting of peace. The wish for the mind to stop chattering away and to let the peace overcome you. Rather than us try to overcome the silence.

I made one phone call the entire time to Will on his 30th birthday, but my need to have it there with me for security, was a sign I needed to get rid of it. So I did.

That afternoon I became incredibly irritable, angry, resentful and I began to panic. That night was the night of the, now witnessed by 1,000,000 people, dream. My big blubbery face needn’t remind me of that hideous night. I’ve never woken up with a soaking wet pillow from my tears. I actually asked the crew not to film me as I felt ‘too raw’. Of course they had to film it, I’d already signed the contract. The only blessing was the fact that I had Sister Renate there, who by day 3, was becoming a true inspiration to me. I asked her to give me poems, writings, pictures each day to learn about other people’s grief. Each night, like clockwork, she’d leave me postcards, poems, quotes.

Sister Renate had travelled to places in the world where there was nothing but intense suffering. She made herself a servant all her life for humanity. I needed to learn from this woman and so when I saw her that morning after my dream, I couldn’t help myself. Her soft, gentle compassion, made it even easier for me to breakdown. She was the friend I needed 6 years ago, when some of my other mates at age 23 couldn’t understand what I was going through, and were after 6 weeks, telling me to shut up.  This was the woman, that no matter what I said, no matter how faithful or faithless I was, she was still going to be on my side. Because her biggest interest was compassion, not conversion. That was important to all of us. Something that I think the critics of this programme don’t get.

It was this hour that made me open up to the ideas of angels and heaven. Something perhaps I hadn’t thought of before. I of course questioned the existence when I was an atheist, but as a woman of faith (if not haphazard faith) I hadn’t given it much thought.

That afternoon was spent doing nothing but crying. I mean serious, big belly cries. I had finally got to the pit of the hole that I felt linger for those 6 grieving years. I was finally there, and it was nothing than pure pain, pure gut wrenching-Dad’s- not- coming- back- is- he?-pain.

By 3 hours of moving from chapel to chapel and place to place, still uncomfortable with how I was feeling. I moved to Rock Chapel again and finally found some stillness. I was raw, empty, hungry. I had my eyes closed for a while. As I open my eyes again to the altar, I was reminded very quickly that this was for a documentary when one director was standing on tiptoes, a massive camera, tilting himself between the window ledge and the tiny table. All at the same time, trying despearatley to not disturb me.

I smiled to myself and was given a refreshing reminder, that I’m still here and still the world keeps turning, whether I’m blubbing or not.

The crew I have to say, were amazing that day. Clare, who I perhaps spent most of my time with, on our journeys, would come in and give me hugs, as did Elizabeth who had carried out the experiment herself with Sister Renate just before filming – to understand the process.

The most prominent moment to date was this. When I retorted back to my room, after the full day of lamentation. I sat completely still. Thinking – this was possibly the hardest day in my life. Ever.

A book I had been reading on Mother Teresa (a great woman in my eyes and without her, there would be no home for the destitute and dying. She’s one of the few woman who had the guts to touch lepers and care for them in their last living hours. A page opened to a quote from her saying ‘I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that he didn’t trust me so much’.

Well, Theresa, you hit the nail on the head there sister.

Then without warning – I wasn’t alone in my room. No human was there. But with profound clarity, I knew my Dad was there with me. Not for 7 years, had I got this experience of being in the same room as him. I always found myself saying for the last 6 years ‘what I wouldn’t give to have 1 final hour with my Dad – to say goodbye, to give him a hug, to tell him how much I adore him’. Of course I never got that hour. Not until now.

Whether you believe this or not, I just don’t care – because I was the only one in that room that night. I might have had a bad day, I might have felt vulnerable – but there’s no reason where this could have come from. To clarify, I wasn’t on acid.

I could smell him, his aftershave, I could feel him sitting in the chair that I sat in each night for video diaries. I had the strong sense that I was being told to go to the chair. I curled up in it. And tith that I felt the biggest hug, that only my dad could give. So now, I was really crying.

It was the hour I had wished for. Somewhere in the tears and the sorrow, I felt Dad’s comfort and i felt a true understanding that he was honestly ok. That I didn’t need to worry about him anymore. I felt a total belief that he couldn’t be happier.

The faithful would call that God, the sceptics would call that imagination. Whatever it was, it was the most healing moment in all my grief.

I walked to Woodland Chapel and knelt down and said the following:

‘Alright God? Good. Well as you may be aware – today was a pretty shit day. Worse than your favourite contestant on X Factor written off feeling….So anyway….hmmm. Dad. The one I loved more than life itself? Yes. Well……He’s yours now. You can have him. Look after him and give him everything he dreamed of having in Heaven, including his beloved motorbike workshop. Don’t let him get there and it’s some hideous rerun of changing rooms where you’ve given him a clapped out moped and some sort of shed to work in…..Make it good – make it you know, Easy Rider on crack good….In all seriousness though….Here ends the selfish part to my grief’

I told Dad that he needed to have some fun now, and that he deserves every happiness. I thanked him for being the best father a daughter could ask for. That I’d do everything to make this world a little better, in whatever small capacity I could.

What did I get back? Not much. I didn’t need anything back, this wasn’t about me, and my grief was a pretty selfish thing if I were to believe in Heaven.

Oh wait, Dad did say one thing. Which was….

‘That’s my girl’

As I was going through my bit, so too were the others. I would walk passed them and we’d all want to hug each other, but we felt strong enough to know that everyone cared for us and the need to people please was ceasing.

I felt very close to so many of the people now, including the crew, and yet we said very little to each other. David had clearly had some epiphany when he posted a note under my door saying ‘The key to the secret of life, is love’.

When I saw David a few hours later, his face looked different. He’d ‘de-aged’ by about 5 years. Everyone began to look lighter. More happy. Even Jon was becoming more accepting of the food.

Once you get the pain out of the way, I forgave some people with those letters you see. One was an ex-boyfriend whom I had been going out with over the death of my father, some were friends, and one was to myself. I found myself being quite fearful in some aspects of relationships after being so badly burnt by these people. But as I was quickly learning, in order to walk on water, I needed to get out of the boat. In order to truly enjoy my relationship with boyfriend and my friendships with my girls, I needed to trust and let go that they wouldn’t hurt me like I had been hurt before.

By the end of the time here, I felt a huge weight lifted. I had found some acceptances, I had begun to forgive a couple of people I never thought I’d ever forgive, and realise my worth as a human being.

You see, when these people had hurt me, and royally stitched me up – half the time they hadn’t even noticed and if they had been given the information, they would be in sheer denial.

This is where I discovered total clarity. No matter how many people who told me I was in the right, these people had done something completely wrong, or their fabrications would not be believed by others, I still somehow thought it was my fault. The pain and the long term stress of their hurts, lost me in a wilderness where I wasn’t sure who the hell I was. Albeit a confident girl, I people pleased a lot, and often to my own detriment.

The silence bought clarity to make me realise I made the right decisions to break off those friendships. For they were incredibly damaging. They all had something in common with each other. Which was total and utter self denial. An inability to hold their hands up and say they were wrong.

When something happens, they sweep stuff under the carpet and pretend they haven’t just hurt you. The complete insecurity that makes them unable to look at themselves and say ‘i messed up, but that’s ok, I won’t do it again.’ This inability to apologise, was what broke my heart, because I always found saying sorry to be quite easy. It wasn’t until the silence, that I noted the only thing I did wrong in these few but very prominent friendships, was to keep them on for longer than I should have done. In some way, they got more from that friendship, than I did. Finally I was able to begin to notice they were like this because they don’t have this insight about themselves, they were struggling to find inner strength and so pretend they can’t go wrong, or indeed, were just plain bone idol. Either way – I needed to forgive them, because my main aim in this game now, was to have peace – for longer than just 8 days.

The process that we all put ourselves on, proved that I certainly didn’t sweep stuff under the carpet, even busying myself for 6 years didn’t mean I hid from the grief – because I talked about it all the time. I just didn’t know silence would be the thing to bring it out fully. I didn’t realise being still would resolve the discourse in my day to day discomfort of grief. Talking about it didn’t work. Ironically the exact opposite was needed. Being still, alone, without the noise or opinions of others was what was needed.  Finally, I had that chance to grieve fully and do it in a place of safety, and love.

Whether we were religious or not, which for this programme has seemed to get some backs up, it wasn’t about religion. It was about the encounters that everyone had in the silence. Helen poignantly says ‘I think I can handle the God stuff, I think I’ve got over myself with that’. Which to me was the perfect level headed approach of dealing with this subject. You’re not expected to necessarily believe in God, but it would be nice to not have your defences over practises that these people did. I hate rugby, but just because I hate it, doesn’t mean I won’t go to a match and embrace it as much as the fan next to me. In essence, it doesn’t hurt to try stuff out. No one is making you stay.

Once Helen found her own inner strength, the offense of religion that she first found herself in was no more.

We all ‘got over ourselves’ and started to look at the bigger picture. Whether that’s God or not, well that’s down to the individual who actually has the guts to go on these things. It’s about getting out of yourself and searching for the meaning of what our lives actually are.

A meaning beyond, your TVs and your mobiles, your friendships and loved ones. A meaning beyond even your own purpose. Beyond, dare I say, being the domestic Goddess is something more knicker tingling than we realise. Whatever that is it’s hard to find in a world of noise and opinion.

I don’t believe there’s one person on this planet, that would be so arrogant to say – there’s no such thing to a meaningful life. Surely we can do more than just exist.

Take a moment of silence and ask yourself, when was the last time you gave a moment for reflection?

In the reflection, you build clarity. In clarity, you make wiser decisions. Trust me. You do. In wisdom you find rationality and a better strength to handle overwhelming moments.

Anyway you look at this, I see no harm in wisdom.

The Big Silence – uncensored

Episode 1.

‘I may spontaneously combust if I sit in silence for more than a day’ was my comment to Dollan, the series producer. He laughed on the phone, but I was being quite serious.

The Big Silence was part of the BBC’s religious programming for this season. So yes, it’s got religious connotations. But it wasn’t based in the sense that all of us liked the idea of religion. Jon in particular was very ‘anti-religion’. Trish was bitter towards any existence of God after her father died. Something I could easily relate to. I had been an atheist two years after Dad died for a year. I knew only too well how easy it was to fall out of love with God and how hounded I was by the question of it’s existence.

The producers would only take on people that were willing to be open-minded, those who are closed minded don’t gain much from these exercises.

But let me make this clear, we were not pushovers. We all had a strong sense of self. We liked who we were for the most part. I’m a northern Baptist girl born and bred, I had no plans to convert to Catholicism teaching and just because I was in their environment, didn’t mean we were brainwashed, coerced or thrown into the high brow of religious secularism.

It might have been in a spiritual environment, but I find God mostly outside of today’s religious constraints. Most of my ‘mountain top experiences’, have not been, on top of a mountain. I’ve had one on a plane before, and not because it was plummeting thousands of feet a second. But talking of plane crashes, I’ve had a friend who’s flight was about to have a questionable landing, they were circling around a runway that now had more paramedics, ambulances, fire engines beyond the horizon, she said, and I quote ‘I’ve never seen the spirit of atheism fly from a space of people quicker. People were praying to Buddha, Mohammed, a donkey and a dog called Jester. Suddenly the end of our lives, were in front of us (so we thought) and we began questioning the real stuff.’

That’s what this retreat did for us, in a much more ‘health and safety approved’ kind of way. When you find yourself in intense lengths of silence, you’re left with nothing to distract you, there’s nothing else to do than ask yourself the big ‘head-fucking’ questions. I use that word on purpose, as this is how it felt.

Because there’s no noise, the answers come to you a lot easier. You begin to think with real clarity. There’s no soul mate to get you through, no fantasy book that helps you bury the reality of your day, no music to help you do a little dance, no drink to alter that brain, and no hug to comfort you. You are totally and utterly alone.

Does the silence make you begin to imagine things that aren’t really there? Is this in some way a way of breaking us down and converting us at our most weak? Is this a tactic for ‘those religious types’ to surround you with spiritual paraphernalia?

In a word. No. No it’s not. Because true faith (the non-power-trippy kind of faith), doesn’t push or promote, it merely tries to love. The silent retreat was built by people that wanted to help and heal, not push, scold or persuade. Lets please get that straight.

I didn’t have to pick up any books, unless I wanted to read them. I know how my imagination works, and I know the different between my voice and someone else’s.  In my sessions with Sister Renate, I have to say I’ve never experienced compassion like it. I never known understanding on the scale she showed to me. For those 8 days, she’s was the love of my life. For reasons I’ll explain for episode 2. This post focuses on episode 1.

On first sight of St Beuno’s, I looked at the others and we all made comments about their dress. I subliminally compared my Choos to their sandals, and thought, I wonder if we’ll get on? Believe it or not, I don’t believe shoes make the world go around, I’m not shallow, but having asked such a shallow question, I had already questioned who the hell I thought I was. And so from here, the questions never stopped.

I made one phonecall in the entire retreat. I called Will, my boyfriend, on his 30th Birthday. Of course they cut out the ‘happy birthday bit’ for the show. But that’s okay, I don’t mind the rebellious label, because to be fair, I was texting twice a day to make sure my mum was okay. So another question arose – I’ve not been out of touch with my mother for more than 2 days in my entire life. More so after my father died. The realization of the anger I had towards feeling responsible towards her as an only child and also, the fear of something happening to me, leaving my mother alone was intense. I needed to know if anything happened to mum whilst I was away, that Will could call me immediately – or the production team and I can get in my car and go. I refused to rely on trains or anyone else for that matter.

Meal times, well they were something else. Jon took a particular disliking to the food, and with the facial expressions that came with every meal placed in front of him, so did my outburst of giggles and laughter. A few times I had to move to someone else’s table because I was uncontrollable.

Trish, at Worth Abbey for one meal time had dropped a strawberry on the floor, the word ‘shit’ came out, followed by the word ‘bugger’. Because she had just said the word ‘shit’. She then covered her mouth with her hands and mouthed to the Benedictine Monk holding the silver platter, ‘sorry’. Father Andrew merely smiled. Surprisingly. I guess they were quite good at living up to the Rembrandt picture of the Prodigal Son hanging on their wall.

With St Beunos, don’t forget, we’re here with about 40 other people doing their own silence. Some were doing silence for 30 days. For those bad with numbers, that’s a whole month. I’ve known some cheeses to have a shorter expiry date. That’s almost as long as Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights, but lets face it – that’s Jesus. I’m no genius, but I’d like to guess there’s a difference between my soul, and his. My penchant for designer shoes has some sort of inner demon. Jesus, was thinking about his ministry and crucifixion. My respect for that man trebled over this time. I don’t believe He had to question whether he was perhaps spending too much money on Rupert Sandersons, and should be using the money elsewhere. My problems were pretty menial in comparison.

Like Jesus, I’ve wondered off into the desert here. How have I made silence about shoes?

The rooms were basic, for a reason. Once you get deeper into the silence, you don’t need the fluffy pillows. Room service is the least of your worries. I questioned my shoe addiction one more time. I swiftly moved onto my next thought.

Ironically there was a telephone in my room. I hadn’t even noticed this until Day 7. How many thoughts were flying through my mind, that I hadn’t noticed the telephone next to all my journals?

My sessions with Sister Renate began. Previously a German nun, she had a waiting list of people to see her, ones that fly from across the world to meet her. The producers/directors and myself would listen to her talk. She’d leave us open mouthed, stunned with her poetic articulation and I remember Dollan saying ‘whatever is it that a faithful person has, she’s got it’.

Renate was in fact so softly spoken,  we had to turn up the mic on her due to volume. She seemed shy, quite introverted, almost breathless and not a jokey type, like I had hoped. I had secretly wanted Michael McIntyre to be counselling me. I wanted someone who could make me laugh, just so I didn’t have to sit with any particular emotion for too long. It makes sense.  Like most of us, I like laughing.

The first session was a little tense. A little strange knowing that over the next ten days, this woman would hear some of my darkest secrets, and soul sucking hurdles that I was to face.

The people who lived here, like Sister Renate, had something I didn’t have. It wasn’t just serenity or some form of calm, it was an inner strength that you so rarely see with people these days. Because the worry of our busy world, often crushes their peace. Here, they were completely honest and had no shame, because everything they could ever have once been shameful for, was already dealt with, discussed, ventured, and forgiven. They were the types I imagined I’d one day meet in heaven. If there is one. No ego. No competition. Pure acceptance of the 5 of us, production crew and all. The giggles in the dining room were pleasantly ignored, not scowled upon. Whispering between the 4 of us, (Helen was the only one who began as she meant to go on, and stayed in total silence for 8 days) would be smiled at by a passer by. We were never punished.

Trish and I decided to go on a silent jog. I’ve never done anything so amusing in my life. Trish trying to teach me how to breath properly with sign language and role play. After my shower, a note wafted under my door saying ‘WASN’T THAT JUST AMAZING! DON’T YOU FEEL ALIVE?!’ (Can I borrow your tweezers please?)xxx’

And so the first person of the 4 I fell in love with, was Trish.

Aside from the odd notes, and the meal times with others, I still had a lot of time to think. By day two, the boredom began to cease and the emotions began to rise.

This wasn’t about a sponsored silence, and the reactions of  ‘ooo I’d find that so boring’. That’s the surface level way of looking at this. It’s the uneducated way of judging it.

With silence, you begin conversations with you and your mind. That my friends, is far from boring.  Because in those conversations you start learning things about yourself. Things that you were never prepared for. The experience starts to become priceless….

…more priceless than those Manolo Blahniks you stopped breathing over last week.

Episode 2 shows at 7pm, Friday 29th October, on BBC2.