Monasticism and Asceticism (part I)

I want to begin by reminding myself of something said in the sermon by our college chaplain on Tuesday night; As church leaders we are the most at risk of temptation to boast of spiritual achievements (see 2 Corinthians 12). Having said that I will add that I tell you about the intense couple of days I have just had, not to boast, but to share and document what God was saying to me through the experience.

Now that disclaimer has been issued…

‘The Monastic Ball of Intensity’ (T.M.B.I.)(see Wrestling With Truth (part III)) and I have talked for some months now about reading Isaiah straight through out loud; we wanted to listen to the whole narrative as it flows. As the term went on and things filled our diaries, we found ourselves in the last weeks with very little time during the day to take on this exercise. We decided that it would be ‘cool’ to do it at night and ‘up the stakes’. As we talked about it the descriptive words used by both of us became less ‘interesting, useful’ and more ‘endurance, intense, hardcore, ascetic’ and we started to run away with ideas of doing an all night spiritual marathon with prayers and disciplines added on.

The final decision was: after the college communion on Tuesday night we would do Compline (Night Prayer) and start at chapter one. We would take alternate chapters and/or rotate through whoever came and joined us. We would light some candles and have a simple cross to help our focus but the main task was to listen and digest the words of ‘the great prophet’. We would stay up all night and fast in the chapel as we read and when we came to the end of Isaiah we would decide on another prophet (perhaps Ezekiel) and read through until we got to about 6.00am when we would read Morning prayer and prepare ourselves for a quiet day on Holy Island, organised by our college for the students.

And so at 10pm on Tuesday T.M.B.I., myself and three other students sat in chapel and said Compline together by candle light. We then went straight into Isaiah, chapter 1, verse 1: ‘The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz…’

During the evening we stopped and prayed for different things, we repeated verses that struck us as important, we knelt in quiet meditation. People came and went and by chapter 40 it was T.M.B.I. and I, one kneeling the other reading. The whole experience was intense, amazing and exhilarating. The sleep deprivation, although visible in my eyes was not felt in my spirit. I was buzzing as we head into the final chapters. God’s presence was so tangible; one person who joined said that as he walked in the place was heavy with holiness… but I’m heading too close to boasting of my experience.

At 2.30am, we had completed Isaiah and moved to our common room to reflect on what we felt God saying through the reading. The only word I could use was ‘relentless’. Isaiah, gives you no break from the anger of God, the passion for His people and, through it all, His almighty mercy. Hope is splattered through the whole book but always the background of depravity and darkness; specks of light break through blackness. T.M.B.I. commented on the ineffability of the text, all we can truly hold is the emotional response to the ‘relentless’ narrative of this relationship of God and his people. We were all struck, I think, by the importance of repentance for sin, not to cheapen grace and forgiveness and, most importantly, not to tame God! What does confession of sin and repentance look like in a theatre setting? I have some ideas already brimming, need to capture the truth of them…

T.M.B.I. went to bed after an hour and a half of chatting and I went back and read Acts, a perfect complement to Isaiah. I was struck by the Spirit (which I will not speak of) and it came as a drenching after an academic year where I have rarely been fed as deeply. When it got to 5.30am I started Morning Prayer, alone in the chapel.

Afterwards, I went, got washed and changed and went to meet a group of guys who I have prayed with over this year. I was flying, it was amazing… I can hardly describe it. The prayer session was fantastic and I’m so grateful for those guys who have supported and ministered to me and for whom have allowed me to support them in times of vulnerability.

And then on to Holy Island…

The home of St Cuthbert, ‘Durham’s Saint’, for many years, Lindisfarne is a place that knows monasticism! After a brief reflection in the church there I went for a solitary walk to some beach. As I sat I asked God to speak and sum up what happened the previous night. I was drawn to Peter Brooks’ chapter on Holy Theatre in ‘The Empty Space’ which now lives, again, constantly in my bag. He writes,

‘he himself was always speaking of a complete way of life, of a theatre in which the activity of the actor and the activity of the spectator were driven by the same desperate need… Artaud applied is Artaud betrayed: betrayed because it is always just a portion of his thought that is exploited, betrayed because it is easier to apply rules to the work of a handful of dedicated actors than to the lives of the unknown spectators who happen by chance to come through the theatre door.’

What a powerful way of describing the work of any prophet. I sat and thought about what I had heard the night before from Isaiah. ‘Isaiah applied is Isaiah betrayed’ for the exact same reason as it was for Artaud. Brook also says,

‘…maybe the power of his vision is that it is the carrot in front of our nose, never to be reached.’

I’m not sure about the ‘never to be reached’, in Isaiah’s case, but certainly not within the limitations of this fallen world. Isaiah’s vision is always out of reach in completion but that we grasp one thing and then another thing is brought into focus. I shared this thought with T.M.B.I. and he came out with a gem only he could say,

‘That’s why we have to stay mad!’

I wonder if he knew Artaud as the man who died with one shoe in his hand, in an asylum?

That would be a nice completion of my post today but… in true Isaiah fashion I will carry on!

As I stood on Cuthbert’s Island, a little clump of land which becomes an island at high tide, I heard the seals wailing. The sound was so powerful. It sounded like the screams of demons or of a damage generation. High on sleep deprivation and coming off an epic reading of the prophet, I imagined Cuthbert stood in prayer hearing the seals wailing, in the distance the mainland. What a powerful prayer tool! God called me to pray for this country and the emotional screams that echo through our land. I desperately wanted something to have as a reminder of that meeting with God and I went into the shops to buy some memento… it was all tat!

Hope was at hand. Friends of mine were making a visit to the Northumbria Community and I was keen to have a look at this way of life and to buy some spiritual aid. I have heard so much about this community over the last year and was intrigued about the nomadic nature of the community and how we, in the theatre world may use the framework.

When we arrived it was a lovely farmhouse, homely and welcoming. The people were awesome and very hospitable, which is good because it’s part of their Rule. I looked at their prayers and studied the literature they use and was dissatisfied. For me (and it is a very personal thing!) their liturgy and the focus of the community was a little too ‘hippy’ for me, too alternative. If anyone has gone to Greenbelt before and found some of the religious stuff too ‘60s love and peace’ then this place is not a religious home for you. Having said that, the welcome and peace around the house is wonderful and I can see, if you want a place to rest, then this is ideal. I just wouldn’t be signing up to read their Morning Prayer every day with a very earthy and ‘hippy’ mentality. This all sounds cruel, it’s not! I can’t describe what it is about the literature I saw but I accepted it wasn’t for me, although I would praise the theory behind it. The work of this community is important and, for others, will be a real home, but for me it isn’t.

What then of a monastic styled community for the theatre? What of a rhythm of prayer for actors who travel (see Riding Lights Theatre Church post)? I have started a conversation with a Fransican friend of mine, we shall call her ‘The Mother’ (not sure what she’d say to that but she has a great maternal instinct and it has slight religious connotations!). She follows the Fransican Rule and as I spoke to her this morning she spoke about the ‘fool for Christ’. I will speak more to ehr about it before offering embryonic thoughts…

How to end in Isaiah fashion? Chapter 66, verse 23 and 24:

‘“From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”’

Relentless, isn’t it?


  1. Good one Ned, although I think you clearly need a nickname as well. So many things about the link between art and Christ. I didn't come up here to talk about them (tho I do sometimes and it's nice) but to feel myself become a bridge between the two. Bridges get walked over – it's not nice but it's great. We are guardians of the story to our generation, and while most stories are about being the nice guy and not being cocky this is the mother story and that means letting the Story tell us and giving way completely. Anyone out there ready for that?

  2. Bonhoeffer said of monasticism "…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…"

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