Don's diary

October 6, 1995

FRIDAY. Arrive Compton Durville, Somerset, in good time for supper with the convent Sisters. Most meals used to be silent, now only breakfast is. Even that is a strangely moving experience but conversation is a blessing too.

Evening prayer, short, Sisters and visitors sitting on the floor, around a candle before the altar, is particularly accessible for the unfamiliar. Healing hilarity as some wrestle, intellectually, anatomically, with enigmatic prayer stools. Last year, we remembered, Quaker-style, an overseas student committed suicide just before our annual multi-faith gathering.

SATURDAY. Morning discussion, in the old manor house panelled parlour, islands (Matthew Arnold's "To Marguerite") and continents (John Donne, of course), and other relationship poems. A young New Zealander rejects Masefield's "Death rooms" sonnet - horrid man, such gloomy thoughts she had never before encountered. But in the small hours, listening to fellow-students, she realised they were discussing such rooms, inescapably part of the human condition. Long ago, we tried heavyweights, Augustine, Buber, Leach, Victor Turner: quite impractical, no time to read so much. After coffee, a Sister guides newcomers and the nostalgic through the manor house. At midday Eucharist a mature student, a devout North Country Catholic, receives Anglican Communion for the first time in her life: a tiny detail, touching the heart.

Afternoon: student volunteers scrub the chapel walls for redecorating. Others, take an elderly Sister to Lyme Regis for tea: a doctor, she had served in India through Partition, and then during the Pakistan/Bangladesh war. A small group are late home: calling at a pub, they were tempted into a quiz competition. School of Oriental and African Studies' glory: a chance to show countryfolk how these things are done. They finished third from bottom. A visitor, primed for sober orthodoxy, fetches our train-travelling Irish Muslim from the station: but finds her bare-headed, resplendent, for the occasion.

Conversation is our main occupation. Sometimes semi-formal. Once, our most fraught discussion, a young Asian Muslim contrasted the tone in two newspaper reports, one about Ramprakash the promising middle-order batsman, the other disability sport. Threatened with multiple sclerosis, she commanded our utmost sympathy - but her insistence on strictest Muslim distance, her manifest horror when, in the enthusiasm of discussion, a male student touched her arm reassuringly, most of us found hard to take. That course reduced a young, first-year, West Country girl to tears; an older Anglo-Japanese woman comforted her; the English lass was the first to register for next year. I recall animated argument between a young Englishman and a redoubtable, aristocratic, Sudanese, Muslim woman, on Buddha's motivation.

SUNDAY. Up early, I tiptoe towards the stairs to make myself a drink in the kitchenette. Voices from the sitting room. Shy to intrude, particularly in pyjamas, I tiptoe back again. It is past 5am.

At Eucharist, a Sri Lankan Hindu sings a Sanskrit hymn to the goddess Annapurna - a first, maybe, for the worldwide Franciscan community. Three Sisters attend the Sunday morning discussion, where we can question them. An East African Asian, herself a lay-preacher with the Aga Khan's people, steals the show, the Sisters fascinated by her account of remarkable Ismaili liberality towards women.

Another discussion, on an established theme, obedience: St Benedict and the Franciscan Brother Bernard pro, Erich Fromm and Stuart Sutherland anti. This afternoon the kitchen entrusted to the students, supervised by the Sri Lankan, Jeya, a born organiser. We intended a break for the kitchen-duty Sisters: in fact, the kitchen teems with as many Sisters as students, intrigued by the novelty. Supper is late, a marvellous Asian feast. An elderly, notably severe, Sister returns, like Oliver, for an unprecedented second helping. Tumultuous applause. Another Franciscan first.

MONDAY. Traditionally, three students read aloud Robert Frost's "Death of The Hired Man". Even after several hearings, and much discussion, I find this poem near heartbreak.

At lunch, a third-year overseas student says that, for the first time at SOAS, she feels communitas. For another, who transferred to SOAS last summer, from a Scottish university, her first experience of what university means. The devout North Countrywoman has not laughed so much since starting her MA. The old magic is working.

We leave after lunch. Not a religious exercise, not a retreat. Services are optional: some delight in them, most sample a few, some shun them abstemiously.

One vehicle visits Stonehenge. A Russian Jewess, recently become Muslim, has been busily sewing a modest head-to-toe garment in the Prophet's green - at once mistaken for a Druid by American visitors.

Back on the M3, in the minibus, Jeya sings, in Tamil, a devotional Hindu song. A Pakistani Muslim responds, chanting in Arabic a surah from the Quran. There must be another course. This year, as always, my wife agrees.

Humphrey J. Fisher

Reader in African history, and also a member of the study of religions department, School of Oriental & African Studies.

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