Parish Monasticism?

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Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam;
et non confundas me ab expectatione mea.

Receive me, O Lord, according to your word, and I shall live:
and let me not be ashamed of my hope.

Since training for ordained ministry at Cranmer Hall in Durham, I have felt a call to a form of monastic life. Monastic life comes in many different forms and, with the rise of New Monasticism in the UK and USA, as well as other places, the word ‘monasticism’ has become a bit of a buzz word. I think this is down to a move of the Spirit; a conviction to return to ‘life together’. Our society and culture loves the concept of community but it has, as I have said before, ‘become vacuous by its overuse’. Community, in the religious/spiritual sense, does not just mean individual autonomous units living side by side but rather means a breakdown of our personal boundaries to enter into a deep communion with others. In this respect I’m indebted to the writings of John Zizioulas, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, Miroslav Volf and Stanley Hauerwas, who have become significant in the New Monastic movement*.

Whilst in Durham I encountered the Celtic Saints; Cuthbert, Bede and, of course, Aidan! Through their lives and witness I was inspired to live out my discipleship in a meaningful and deeper way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t inspired by other, non-monastic Christians but there was something about the commitment they showed to their Lord that opened my eyes.

I am an ‘all or nothing’ kind of guy. I have always been passionate and if my heart and gut isn’t fully committed to something I rarely engage. It’s been a good thing to have been brought up to be intensely fascinated by the world in which I live. My mother, one of my greatest inspirations, was a teacher fueled by her love of learning. she finds the world an awesome place and, with child like wonder, explores thoughts, ideas and experiences. After separating from my dad, she never re-married. She loved the solitary life (well with three children!) Over the last five or ten years, as her children left home and she experienced increasing personal freedom with her space and time, she has discovered a spirituality that not only enriches her but has transformed her.

She has struggled and experienced a difficult period within those years which had a major impact on that spiritual awakening but whatever has grown in her has been present in her, certainly, through my life. I look at her and she is a ‘monastic’ person; a woman who structures her day around encounters with her heavenly Father, who dedicates every moment of her life to prayer and service and who intentionally seeks God in the everyday.

As I look at my own life and come across decisions I find myself wanting to live a life like my mother because through her I see Christ, his compassion and his Passion. I see the fruit of a life that is dedicated in this way where integrity of character is based on an undiluted desire to be transformed and aligned to that of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God.

Whilst discovering the Celtic Saints I also found the Northumbria Community who, from the moment I read their Rule of Life, I knew would have an important part of my discipleship.

It was during my second year at college when I experienced the pain of a particular approach to ministry. This experience un-settled me (that’s an understatement, to say the least!) I found myself uncertain of what I was being called to as a minister in the Church of England. Most of my reflections around this time were around ‘home’ and the feeling of ‘exile’ was very prominent. In this emotional landscape I visited the Northumbria Community and the language that they used was a fresh homecoming… but that’s not quite right: A homecoming in the desert. The feeling of ‘edge’, ‘fringe’ and being an ‘outsider’ remained but I felt a peace about that place.

Since that time I’ve been grateful to God for sending me to the Northumbria Community and I have dedicated myself to attempting to live under their Rule of Life. I began their novitiate process and have been exploring it ever since. That process has, in recent months come to a halt as I struggle to ‘fit’ into parish ministry. It is this struggle which has encouraged me to start writing on the ‘monastic’ call to my life, whatever that ends up looking like.

Over Advent this year, I read Esther de Waal’s ‘Living with Contradiction: Benedictine wisdom for Everyday Living’. I enjoyed it, partly because it is clearly an inspiration for the Northumbria Community’s love of paradox but also because it opened up the cloisters of Benedictine monasteries to everyday life. It made me ask the question, ‘is it possible to have an open monastic house in a parish?’ What might it look like to be a parish priest with a monastic call?

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During a stay at Nether Springs (the mother house of the Northumbria Community) I was speaking to Rev. Pete Askew about this sense of call to monastic life. He wisely suggested,

It’s impossible to live the way of life we live here at Nether Springs and be a parish priest. You’d have to be very stubborn to achieve it.

Then he looked at me and joked,

You may be able to do it!

There’s something in my gut which says I should try. I will probably fail. I will probably discover that I am naiive and have completely misunderstood the monastic call. I have reservations about the outcome but I still feel the journey should be made and if, after prayer and seeking, God leads me to a place of humility where I learn from the wisdom of obedience then so much the better… I guess that is my aim; to learn what obedience means.

I plan to read and pray through the Rule of St. Benedict. I will take one chapter each week and reflect on it. This is not (and I want to emphasize this) an exercise of understanding Benedictine monasticism. I will not write my reflections as advice on how to live out the Rule; I am in no way qualified or experienced in that. My reflections will be a personal journey of how I read the Rule of St. Benedict, what the way of life, that is lived out by those who have committed their life to it, inspires in me, encourages in me and challenges me. I do hope it is of benefit to others but more than that I do hope God uses this journey of exploration to speak to me and shape me into what would be of benefit to him.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6)

*Of course there a female writers, Esther de Waal, Karen Ward, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sister Catherine Wybourne.

6 comments

  1. Thank you for this Ned!! Would love to talk to you about this further at some point, echos so much of my spiritual journey at Cranmer thus far…, look forward to reading more.

    1. Having studied under three different Wardens with different approaches I was one of those privileged to witness the ethos of our college quite separate from the personality of leadership. I think there’s a ‘charism’ of ‘monastic’ community. I don’t know if that is a suitable word to describe it but I want to explore it here. I do wonder what our current Warden thinks of my comments? I wonder if Cranmer could explore New Monasticism as a missional move of the Spirit? You just had a Northumbria Community week… I wonder what policies could develop this ‘charism’?

  2. Hi Ned. Interesting reading. Strangely enough, I too am reflecting on Monasticism and Rule of Life in community as part of my work. As a Methodist Deacon I belong to a Religious Order and we have a Ruke of Life but I am now sensing that in trying to establish a new community at The Ark in Crawcrook that a community around a Rule of Life (including children) is what God is directing me to. I found Joseph R Myers book “Organic Community” and Simon Reed’s “Creating Community” very helpful. The community of Hilda has been my inspiration. I look forward to reading your weekly updates.

    1. I’m working alongside a Methodist Deacon in York and we’ve spoken of the New Monastic call to community. May God continue to lead you by His Spirit in wisdom and grace.
      Myers and Reed are great books. You should also look at Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’ (I think we read some of it in Pioneer Ministers’ Reading Group) and pre-order Ian Mobsby and Mark Berry’s new book ‘New Monasticism Handbook’

  3. I am a member of the New Benedictine Community in the USA and affiliates in Latin America. I would love to share more in the future and discuss community life and parish life which I struggle with and my own development over the last 5 years. We seem to share many of the same questions and issues. Vincent osb

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