Saturday, 26 January 2013

Seeking Sanctuary

Where do you go when life gets too much for you?   

When everything’s getting on top of us, when we just can’t take it all any more, we need to escape to somewhere safe.  A refuge, a bolt-hole, an asylum, a shelter - a sanctuary.

In the Middle Ages a sanctuary was a place – often a church or monastery - where safety was guaranteed for people fleeing from arrest or prosecution. By the law of the medieval church, a fugitive from justice or a debtor was immune from arrest. If you’ve ever watched Derek Jacobi in Cadfael (or read Ellis Peters’ stories) you’ll know how that worked.  
If you were seeking sanctuary in those days, getting your hand on the door knocker was enough. You were safe and your pursuers couldn’t touch you. Next time you’re in Durham, grab hold of the sanctuary knocker on the main door (complete with protective gargoyle to ward off evil spirits) and breath a huge sigh of relief.

We don’t always have to go to such extremes. It is good to have our own personal sanctuaries, for those times when we just need to get away from it all.  You might find yours in the shed at the bottom of the garden, or on your allotment. Or jogging round the park, with your favourite tunes on your iPod. Or soaking in a hot bath with music and candles, and the bathroom door firmly locked.

When I was growing up in Dublin, family life was often stressful. To escape from all the hassle, I created a little library for myself in the outside toilet. I loved sitting there and reading. My brother Nick found a different refuge (usually from us older brothers wanting to beat him up!) in the branches of an old apple tree. Going through major life changes in my late 20s, the main place I felt safe was in my car, driving up and down the M6 between Manchester and Worcester.

Sadly, sanctuaries can become prisons. Lots of people use booze or drugs as a means of escape. They work for a while, giving that warm glow of comfort and forgetting. But too much for too long and they cause more problems than they solve.

If things are really, really bad – if you’re experiencing abuse or violence at home and don’t know how to get away from it - you may seek sanctuary inside your own head[1].  You find ways to watch what’s happening to you as if you’re outside the situation. It’s safer and easier than experiencing the pain or terror directly. But you risk losing touch with the rest of the world. As a GP, a lot of people with problems like this find ten minutes of sanctuary in my consulting room.  

How do you find sanctuary, when life gets too much for you?  

[1] I’ve touched on this before, a year or so ago in a post called What if you don’t feel at home?