Monasticism and Asceticism (part II)

As I walked towards the place of wailing seals and separation I remembered that the tide was in. Do I turn back because the spiritual experience I had been waiting for for five days was not accessible or do I go and see what happens distanced from the detachment?

I plodded on round the houses to the back of the church and out towards Cuthbert’s Island. I stood on the coast, the North Sea filling the gulf between me and the ‘holy place’. I was last here in June (see Monasticism and Asceticism post) and as I stood, my feet on a shifting stone shore, I thought about the time that had past.

There, almost a year ago, I had a moment with God that punched me in the stomach. Now as I finish my second year at college I am well accustomed to that feeling. Over the year, almost incessantly, I have gone from one beating to the next. The story of Jacob wrestling with God has become more and more ingrained in my spirituality; the loving, merciful aggression of God always holding back from using His full force which would leave me reeling into an abyss of non-existence and yet interlocked in an embrace.

To be honest I’m knackered! The white flag is waving and yet He stares as I catch my breath, smiling at me.


“Let me catch my breath, Papa.”

“We don’t have to…”

But as I signal the end, admit defeat, a new energy arrives. I can do another round. Why? Because I feel myself getting stronger, resilient, more able. This round will be mine! As I engage again I remember that with each round He up’s the stake and reveals His ever increasing ability to overthrow me.

As I think of the endless tussling between me and my Maker I smile. I think of St Cuthbert sat, alone on this island in front of me. The tide ebbing and flowing, at times allowing people to cross and speak with him and him needing a more deserted sanctuary to be alone with God and their wrestling matches.

I continue to reflect on whether I am an introvert or extrovert. The restlessness and banality I turn to after spending too much time in conversation with people; to the deepest battering I receive when I spend too much time on my own. When I went through a Myers Briggs’ evaluation it told me I was right in the middle needing both solitude and companionship.

My place was truly on that island. At times the tide high forcing me to be alone to face my sinfulness and my merciful King, at others the tide allowing a causeway to community, hospitality and friendship. This leads me back to my reflections on the Northumbria Community who I visited on the same day as my last visit to Holy Island.

I have organised with Pete Askew to go on placement with the Northumbria Community in September. Sarah and I had gone a talked with Pete the day before and I was struck by how much their approach to spirituality and living a Christian life fitted with my own discoveries over this year.

This is the Rule we embrace. This is the Rule we will keep: we say YES to AVAILABILITY; we say YES to VULNERABILITY.
We are called to be AVAILABLE to God and to others:
Firstly to be available to God in the cell of our own heart when we can be turned towards Him, and seek His face;
then to be available to others in a call to exercise hospitality, recognising that in welcoming others we honour and welcome the Christ Himself;
then to be available to others through participation in His care and concern for them, by praying and interceding for their situations in the power of the Holy Spirit;
then to be available for participation in mission of various kinds according to the calling and initiatives of the Spirit.
We are called to intentional, deliberate VULNERABILITY:
We embrace the vulnerability of being teachable expressed in:
a discipline of prayer;
in exposure to Scripture;
a willingness to be accountable to others in ordering our ways and our heart in order to effect change.
We embrace the responsibility of taking the heretical imperative:
by speaking out when necessary or asking awkward questions that will often upset the status quo;
by making relationships the priority, and not reputation.
We embrace the challenge to live as church without walls, living openly amongst unbelievers and other believers in a way that the life of God in ours can be seen, challenged or questioned. This will involve us building friendships outside our Christian ghettos or club-mentality, not with ulterior evangelistic motives, but because we genuinely care.

As I walked away from Cuthbert’s Island and into the town I thought about God’s call on my life. Who am I? What’s God forming me into? Is it God who is forming me or my own self-delusions? I am close to God or far from Him? Is this wrestling one of discipline or formation? But above all of these the question arose again, as I looked at the picture of the island cut off from the shore, Am I missing the tides that will unite me with a community and cut me off for contemplation?

This year has been a year of ‘right thinking at the wrong time’. I’ll catch a glimpse of God and rush to tell people but it’s too early because as I step onto the shore of others and the tide does its thing I find myself trapped and needing to go and be alone. Or I’m on the island too long and friends and family get worried and concerned by my isolation.

Is the monastic life one of complete isolation from the world? Where is the mission? The spreading the good news?

The ebb and flow of ‘the mixed life’ of the contemplative and active, of monastery and mission, withdrawal and engagement, solitude and Community, together makes the Northumbria Community ethos.