Without the abbot’s permission a monk may not receive from or give to anyone…
What is community?
For Ash Wednesday this year I was away on holiday with some of my dearest friends. We go away for February half term to the Lake District each year and this year it happened to coincide with the start of Lent.
I love Ash Wednesday. My theology and spirituality begins with the central premise that we are dust and not gods. God is God and He, by His grace gives us life and His Spirit. Each day of my discipleship I remind myself of that basic truth of what I am made of, not in some twisted attempt of self-flagellation but so that I can appreciate, in fuller measure, the overwhelming reality of the grace of God upon me.
Discipleship without starting from this humility is going to de-rail somewhere down the line.
Ash Wednesday is all about humility. Humility, says the writer of Proverbs, is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 22:4) and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). Humility is about knowing who you are. Charles Spurgeon once wrote,
True humility will lead you to think right about yourselves, to think the truth about yourselves. (Charles Spurgeon, The Soul-Winner (Tennessee: Lightning Source, 2001) p.15)
If our anthropology (our understanding of humanity) begins anywhere other than as creatures of the earth, coming from the same primordial ooze as everything else then we have begun in the wrong place. If we imagine, for even one moment, that we are born special, set apart from the rest of creation, that we are in some way born of the same substance as God then we are not being truthful.
But we must also remember that God has lifted us up from the dust and, in his gentle hands, formed us and shaped us into His beloveds.
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:10 NIV)
It starts in dust but it moves away from that into the hands of our Father who shapes us and moulds us into His people. We always remain dust, flesh, finite and fallible but, if we turn to God He will lift us up and redeem us.
That is why, for this Ash Wednesday, I created a liturgical space for my friends and I to reflect on the ash cross that we mark on our heads each year but also the cross of water some use at baptism. Ash Wednesday points forward to our redemption where we enter into the life of Christ who took on flesh that we may become one with God. Through the water of baptism we are renewed and we clothe ourselves in Christ, who did not reject flesh and dust but redeemed it by His life, death and resurrection.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Once we enter into the Body of Christ the symbol of flesh and God united we seal it with mark of oil for commissioning, being set apart for a task. We are called to be used by God’s Spirit who breathes through us and makes us living beings.
The service was called ‘Ash Water Oil’ and at each stage we discussed a word that has spoken to me through the Rule of St. Benedict which resonated with the theology behind each symbolic cross on our foreheads. For ash, we discussed ‘humility’, for the reasons expressed above. For water we discussed ‘obedience’; how we as disciples must turn to God and obey his hands as they shape us and redeem us. We follow in the footsteps of Christ as he obediently committed his body to death in order to be raised again. We reflected on these two quotes,
…faith exists only in obedience, is never without obedience. Faith is only faith in deeds of obedience. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p.64)
For the Christian to be perfectly free means to be perfectly obedient. True freedom is perfect service. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: toward a constructive christian social ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) p.131)
Finally, for oil we discussed ‘community’; how, through humility and obedience we are led, by God, into the community of believers and the community of the Trinity. The characteristics of Christina community should be marked by humility, rooted in flesh but filled with the Spirit, and obedience to the will of the Father through the example of Christ.
It was this final discussion on what we understood about community that sparked the most conversation. Community as a word is hard to pin down because it’s use is so varied and conflicting. We all think we know what it means and what it looks like and feels like but it shifts endlessly, it’s definition is always, it seems, just out of reach. We hear just an echo of its definitive state.
As I heard my friends struggle to find words for what this thing they are passionate about I was reminded of how we describe the Trinity. There’s a quote (which I can’t source) which says,
The Trinity is not a formula to be understood but a community to be experienced.
Why am I telling you all this?
When reflecting on seemingly cruel and strict chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict, it strikes me that the reason this and other chapters challenge is because it is cutting deep within that which makes us fallen beings. At the times of uncomfortableness, I can often find where I am finite and fallible. In this particular case with this strict removal of a monk from the ties to the outside world I am challenged by my need to be identified with material possessions and relationships with other people however well meaning I think they are. How many relationships must I lose before I realise I only need God? I think we judge too soon the answer to that question.
I can hear the protests and the reasons why we don’t need to sacrifice that much to know that we need God but I know for myself that I only want to say that because if I were to live it out I would find it too painful. The cost to this call is too much and so we don’t bother trying. To comfort ourselves we judge those who do that insane, unnecessarily severe but I look at the monks I know who have risked it and found great spiritual treasure from the discipline.
This of course doesn’t make it any easier to contemplate how much I am willing to cut myself off in order to discover the life of total dependence on God!
I have been thinking a lot recently about where God is calling Sarah and I next. I keep returning to this call to monastic life and how it might look alongside other aspects of our calling. The call to humility, obedience and community fills me with delight even when it becomes slightly more uncomfortable than I’d like. Chapters like this one, where an abbot is given charge over letters and parcels, strangely make sense to me and in that sensation I am aware of how counter cultural that is.
I find myself thinking,
Maybe the Church should be living out a completely different culture to the one around it. Maybe we have completely lost sight of what true discipleship looks like.
I think of that quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organized churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquired too cheaply?… We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard. What happened to the insights of the ancient church, which in the baptismal teaching watched so carefully over the boundary between the church and the world, over costly grace? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 53-54)
I fall into humble silence before my God and ask for Him to lift me up out of the miry dust and form me into the likeness of His Son, to redeem me into His life and to fill me with His Spirit.
Come, Lord Jesus.