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?


  1. loose myself in one of my hobbies be it cooking a new recipe to share with others, creating an object of art from vintage textiles, sitting in my poetry class where i am not a mother of 3 but just a listener contributer( i dont have to thnk about making chicken dippers for tea) loosing myself in laughter at taking the mick out of myself and my husband. but most of all cherish my time alonelistening to gregorian chant. if all these fail i will reach out to my gp and say hey "I am drowning here" "throw me a lifeline"

  2. I have a happy place in my mind, sometimes it takes a while to fully get in there but when I can its well worth the effort. We all need a sanctuary

  3. Reading. I can read for Britain now. I can also clear my mind completely and just 'be'. As long as I can get the alone time to do these things it helps a lot. Sadly Sertraline is also helping just now but I'm not planning on that being a long term solution . Humour is also a good healer. If you can keep your sense of humour whilst things seem to be out of control it's a good thing ( I was going to throw in a joke about grabbing knockers in Durham but thought better of it haha) . You mentioned Cadfael in your blog, Jen and I loved that series and have it on DVD. We went to see Shrewsbury Abbey and found out that Cadfael wasn't filmed there but in Budapest , still good to see, as the history of the story belongs to the place.I'm waffling now so I'll be off. Bye for now. Diane

  4. I'm glad someone said reading. A good book should be overwhelming, something you almost live. But I also find a form of sanctuary in writing!

    I'm at my most comfortable within my own head. This is not a withdrawal from reality but an exploration of my own understanding of things - often-times I don't want or need third party or physical intervention or interaction. This also forms a large part of my creative process because I find comfort by expressing thoughts in writing, often by weaving truth into fiction and vice versa. "Write what you know".

    Is this 'healthy'?! I have no idea! But it makes me feel better if I'm able to find an answer, explain away the as yet unexplained, or at least consider the options and accept that there is no explanation!

    Sanctuary isn't really an escape for me. That wouldn't resolve the underlying issue and I don't think it's possible to be truly 'at peace'. It's more of an imagined consulting room; an echo chamber where I try to re-establish a sense of positivity and optimism. A means and opportunity to try to understand why it is I feel the need for sanctuary at all.

  5. Hi Chris, I like the post. I recently read this article from the Science section of The Economist, and think it is connected with your blog:
    What are your thoughts?