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On Discipleship Within The Monastic Tradition

This is the text of a paper presented at the first Postgraduate Research Morning hosted at St Hild’s College in Sheffield on Monday 5th June 2017.

 

I want to talk about discipleship today from within, what many are calling, ‘the New Monastic Movement’ of which I am part. This movement has emerged out of a protest against the steady increase of individualism prevalent in our Western culture. Many would argue that the individualisation of our society began in the Enlightenment with philosophical thought becoming more introspective and focussed on the subjective interpretation of reality famously summarised in René Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am.” The Church has not been immune to this social deconstruction and this has led to a powerfully individualised faith experience. This erosion of the corporate understanding of faith has impacted the Church’s discipleship and life together.

With the secularisation following on from the Enlightenment project and the further mechanising and fragmenting of all aspects of our lives, the place of community has diminished. In the late 20th century, with the Church increasingly  unwilling or unable to offer intensive forms of Christian discipleship, some have gathered together to re-discover what it means to live out the communal life as described in the New Testament. The faithfulness of the monastic and mendicant saints throughout history became wells around which these small groups were nourished, inspiring them to live counter-culturally. These ‘pioneers’ discovered that the shared life they dreamt of had long been practiced by communities like the Franciscans, Benedictines and the Jesuits, among many. Others arrived at a similar place by a different route, having sought, in the first place, to rediscover the spiritual fortitude and charisms of the very same saints of old and so to re-dig wells of Grace in the ‘places’ where God has worked for generations before. Regardless of the path towards a contemporary articulation of the monastic way of life, they all learned that the historic forms were in need of some re-imagining for the new context in which we now live. In this way these expressions of communal discipleship can all be reasonably described as ‘new monastics’.

The term ‘New Monasticism’ was first used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter he wrote on 14th January 1935. This is what he said,

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. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.424)

Two years later, Bonhoeffer published ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ in which he seems to expand on his view of classic monasticism. He writes,

The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness.  It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p.46-47)

This ‘toleration’ of monasticism by the Church, however, relativized the discipleship lived out in the monastic houses. The Church was able to avoid the criticism of secularisation by living the life of holiness vicariously through the achievements of these monks who obeyed the radical call to forsake all earthly things and follow Jesus Christ in discipleship.

Bonhoeffer argues that Martin Luther’s journey through the monastic life led him to see how the monastic life had failed the Church by perpetuating this lie that Christians could pay others to be ‘disciples’ on their behalf. The monastic houses had become, by the time the Reformation began, propped up by the financial donations by the Roman Church paying a select few monks to be obedient for the rest of God’s Church. Luther’s protest was an attempt to release the radical  obedience to follow Christ, found in the charisms of monastic life, and invite all Christians to participate in this form of devoted life of monasticism.

I say all this, yes, in order to justify the New Monastic movement as a continued protest for the Church to embrace the way of life outlined in the founding documents of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits and others. But I also say it in order to acknowledge and outline the popular portrayal of monastic life and the criticisms that it therefore receives. I want to argue that it is the early monastic life, articulated most purely in the Rule of St Benedict, that holds the key for us todayas to how to live as ‘a living protest against the seculariztion of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’

Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ. (RB Pro:1-5)

Thus starts the Rule of St Benedict. It begins with an unswerving command to obedience, not a popular command in our individualised, self-autonomous culture but the monastic life centres on the vow to stability, obedience and conversion of life. Columba Cary-Elwes helpful highlights that ‘the very word obedience has a treasure hidden in its history.’ She writes,

If you unpack it, ob audiere, to listen intently is the language of love. When you really love, you listen intently to know what the one you love wants to happen. (Columba Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer:the rule of St. Benedict for lay people (London:Burns & Oates, 1992) p.182)

This understanding of obedience is acceptable in the context of our personal relationship with Christ but it becomes problematic for many in our post modern, subjective culture. To love and obey another is seen by our self-autonomous society as oppressive and open to all manner of abuse. In outlining the role of the abbot in his Rule, St Benedict, on more than one occasion, however, quotes Christ, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.” Christ imparts authority to his disciples in order that they may speak on his behalf to others. The abbot in the monastic community is to represent Christ to his monks. The risk of abuse to that kind of power is real and Cary-Elwes acknowledges as much when she states,

No doubt also an abbot can go beyond his rights, and what is wrong or evil should not be obeyed. Yet all that happens is under divine providence and God’s wise guidance of the world, and this includes commands of superiors. (Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer, p.40)

St Benedict spends many chapters portraying what an abbot should and should not do; he spends so much time that it begs the question, “why is it so important?” It is important because the role of the abbot directly impacts the discipleship of the rest of the community. ‘The first thing that defines the abbot,’ Esther de Waal writes, ‘is not the position at the head of an institution but his relationship with sons’ She links this with the model of discipleship undertaken by monks.

The learning process is more analogous to that of apprenticeship by which one person learns a skill from another. In the ancient world skills were handed down from father to son, and so apprenticeship also carries with it the implication of a father-son relationship. It involves imitation and long, patient watching and copying, a shared learning that owes much to the fact of daily living together.(Esther de Waal, Seeking God: the way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1985) p.130)

Discipleship, within the monastic tradition, begins with obedience; to listen intently to God through His Spirit and His people under authority. Rowan Williams paints a beautiful image of this model of discipleship as he suggest that being a disciple ‘is a state of being in which you are looking and listening without interruption.’

You are hanging around; you are watching; you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: essentials of the Christian life (London: SPCK, 2016) p.3)

‘Obedience is not an imposed subservience to an external authority but a condition of inward growth,’ as Dominc Milroy writes,

The monk who is not authentically obedient to his abbot and his brethren will not be a happy monk; the carpenter who is not obedient to the laws of governing joints will make an unreliable table. All disobedience represents, in this sense, the pursuit of illusory freedom which obstructs the acquisition of real freedom. (Dominic Milroy, “Education According to The Rule of St. Benedict”, Ampleforth Journal, no.84 (Autumn 1979) p.4)

As well as obedience, discipleship, within the monastic tradition, also begins with stability. Brian C Taylor says,

The Benedictine vow of stability is a vow to a community of people… In this sense it is a marriage…The grass is not greener “over there”: one must work out one’s problems with this person because, if one doesn’t, one will have to work it out with that person. This is precisely what is so freeing about the vow of stability, both in monastic life and family life. To have to work it out is to demand growth, as painful as it is, and that is freeing. Faithfulness is a limit that forces us to stop running and encounter God, self, and other right now, right here. (Brian C. Taylor, Spirituality For Everyday Living: an adaptation of the rule of St. Benedict (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1989) p.17)

Or to put that more succinctly, Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘The meaning of stability: God is not elsewhere.’

If obedience is about listening intently, then stability aids our silencing of unnecessary distractions ‘for stability says there must be no evasion.’ There must be no escaping into a fantasy world or the day dreams of how we’d do great things if only… ‘At the heart of stability,’ Metropolitan Anthony bloom suggests, ‘is the certitude that God is everywhere, that we have no need to seek God elsewhere, that if I can’t find God here I shan’t find Him anywhere.’

Both obedience and stability combine with the commitment to seek out the conversion of our lives and gives the framework within which discipleship occurs in the monastic tradition. Conversion of life is about life-long, inner transformation which ensures discipleship is not a course to complete but a way of life to journey deeper into. Thomas Merton argues that a commitment to total inner transformation is to be regarded as ‘the end of the monastic life, and that no matter where one attempts to do this, that remains the essential thing.’

The Rule of St Benedict is immensely practical and pragmatic and can be used as a manual for a devoted life to following Christ. What we need to learn from it and the wider monastic heritage is the communal necessity of this way of life. Discipleship for Benedict, Francis and the other monastic fathers and mothers can only be done with others. Love can only be practised in the cut and thrust of community life. If the vows to stability, obedience and the ongoing conversion of one’s life can be seen as the soil in which monastic discipleship is rooted and from this the tree of discipleship can bear good fruit then we must acknowledge that all three require other people to be faithful and obedient to and to be changed by.

The monastic tradition has always rejected a form of life that attempts to replicate the religious life outside of a communal setting. John Cassian describes a type of monk called Sarabaites in a derogatory manner,

They… go on living in their homes just as before, carrying on the same work; or they build cells for themselves, call them ‘monasteries’ and live in them as they please… Shirking the austere rule of a community: living two or three together in a cell; under no direction: aiming above all else at having freedom from the elders, of going where they like, and of satisfying whatever passion they like. (John Cassian, The Conferences of Cassian, “Conference 18: Conference of Abba Piamun on the three sorts of monks”, Owen Chadwick (trans.), Library of Christian Classics Volume XII: Western Asceticism (London: SCM Press, 1958) p.268-269)

St Benedict also depicts this type of monk as,

…unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world… They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord’s. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful. (RB 1:7-9)

The monastic life, I would argue, is still ‘a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’ But in our modern context this requires us embracing the challenge of community life as outlined in the Rule of St Benedict. In this portrayal of community life discipleship is intrinsically linked with the submission of our self wills to the discipline of the larger community’s apprenticeship training. This is not the romantic, sentimental community life that we all easily describe in our dreams of missional communities but a very real and costly life which demands obedience and stability in order to enter into the inner change of discipleship.

Without this ultimate commitment to the other monks, to wife or husband, to child or parent, change is difficult at best because it lives under the threat of abandonment. With a commitment to stability, change is no longer a threat but something to be undertaken together. One can change or ask for change in the other when one knows that one is loved and that this request will not drive the other away.

What the monastic tradition offers the Church today is a communal way of life that challenges our cultures hyper-individualism by demanding the sacrificing of the idol of self and ‘a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.’ We must discover that on the boundary of the Church today the monastics still preserve ‘the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship.’

Chapter 73: all perfection is not herein attained

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For what page or word of the Bible is not a perfect rule for temporal life?

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

I sat amongst the emerging community holding the proposed Rule of Life for the possible Society of the Holy Trinity, a New Monastic Society aimed at bringing together communities across the UK (and hopefully further afield) under a common rule and constitution. As we read the prologue to this Rule and reflected on what it said, there was an obvious thing to say,

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

I had sat with Ian Mobsby, Gareth Powell and others for three days a month before and shared the stories of our different communities as they grew and developed. The Rule of Life, mainly written by one of the communities, had spoken to the other communities represented around the table. In our discussions we were clear that we needed this Rule to be a broad umbrella so that communities from across the Anglican communion may gather under it but it couldn’t be so broad as to lose any definition.

In a paper I was asked to write for the upcoming New Monastic Conference, entitled ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, I attempted to articulate what the New Monastic movement understands by a ‘Rule of Life’.

A Rule of Life is fundamental to the identification with the New Monastic movement. A Rule of Life is not just an agreed statement of belief or purpose but a set of commitments which are formally accepted by way of promises/vows. For all Christians, for every community, every monastery, every intentional grouping, the Gospel is the Rule of our life, the measure of our faithfulness to Christ. In this sense, no other rule is necessary. The tradition of the monastic Rule evolved as the deposit of the Gospel for a particular group at a particular time. Thus intentional communities need to be clear about the way in which they respond to the call of the Gospel. There are many possible ways: a community may feel called to follow a classic Rule; another may have felt called to write a Rule that is, for the members, their invitation to the Gospel life; another may have evolved a covenant document that identifies certain key practices that hold the members in their common vocation. (Ned Lunn, ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, Position Paper for ‘New Monasticism: a UK gathering of new forms of missional and religious life’, 14th April 2016)

With this understanding it is a natural response when reading any Rule of Life to say, ‘but that’s just being a Christian’ but the reality is many Christians struggle to specifically embody the gospel in their lives. The life of faith demands to live and move within context. The Spirit of God does not calls us to live anywhere but calls us to live in the time and place we find ourselves. Jesus lived in history, at a particular time and in a particular culture.

One of the ways in which the Society of the Holy Trinity distinguishes our specific vocation is to acknowledge that we are all communities living in urban contexts. This is not to say that we refuse to engage in the gospel elsewhere but the reality is we experience the life of faith is in the city environment. God has called us to live out the gospel in the City and so we have different questions to ask and a unique perspective on God’s vision for the new creation from communities who exist in the countryside.

I was initially uncomfortable with limiting the Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity to urban life but God showed me his specific call to bless the city. Living in a context requires us to continually return to the specific questions God asks of us and we must ask of each other. ‘How then shall we live here and now?’ It is easy to lose focus and to shift it from one thing and then to another; a Rule of Life forces us to sit with questions longer than we would naturally.

The Early Church wrestled with the question of context. St Paul argued pragmatically that Christians living in the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire as slaves and wives of Greeks or Romans did not have the luxury to distance themselves from the company of Gentiles as the Jewish Christians would want. It was easier for new Christian converts to live the Jewish life in Jerusalem but it was not practical or reasonable to ask those elsewhere to live to that standard. The Early Church discovered the need for some contextual common sense in the discipleship of new Christians.

The danger of context, however, is that we err too far the other way and use the charge of ‘context’ to encourage individualism. There is a risk that by adopting the ‘that’s alright for you but I am different’ subjective approach to life that we are never challenged by the cost of discipleship. There are some who are exploring New Monasticism who feel they can tailor make their own Rule of Life so that it works for their life as it is. When this Rule of Life starts to cost something of our life and comfort, they re-assess and change it to suit new priorities, etc. This makes me feel particularly uncomfortable. A Rule of Life must be shared with others to ensure that iron sharpens iron. That is why, even though there are some parts of the proposed Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity that I am not keen on, I’m happy to sit with it and would love, in the future, to vow to live by it.

A Rule of Life, like the Bible, demands of us to wrestle with the text and seek to hear God reveal himself through the tangible words. A Rule of Life is a lens we use to help us to hear and understand God’s life-giving story as it calls us to participate in it and it is a lens which we need to share with others to ensure we don’t impose our own agenda and distorted ideas onto it. A Rule of Life must not become an idol, formed into our image, but rather must point us to the revelations of God’s love and grace towards us and the world around us.

Esther de Waal, who I have enjoyed journeying with through the Rule of St. Benedict, puts it beautifully at the end of her book ‘A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict’,

The rule of Benedict is a way of life, a life-giving way. To encounter the text in all its fullness and complexity is like a source and stream, always the same and yet always different, or like a tapestry where I follow first one thread and then another and so get different glimpses of the whole. I return to it time and time again throughout my life. Benedict and his practical manual of the love of Christ are always there to help me on my journey, the coming home of the prodigal to the loving embrace of the father. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (New York: Continuum, 1995) p.215)

Reflection

Christianity is not a spirituality because it forces us to embrace our humanness; the fleshy, tangible life. We are not dualists, yearning for the separation of our souls from our bodies. We are not a people focussed on some spiritual nirvana achieved by asceticism or prayerful meditation in the hope of transcending our flesh. We are bodily present, rooted in history and geography, in the world we see, hear and breathe in.

The gospel is about the redemption of the world not an escape route from it. Rowan Williams writes,

The only history to be taken seriously is bodily history; and so the redemption of humanity must be located in bodily history. (Rowan Williams, The Wound Of Knowledge (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990) p.28)

The beautiful revelation of God through Jesus Christ is that God cares for this world and his eschatological plan is bound up in the atoms and particles of creation. The incarnation is good news for us that our earthly lives are not accidental but have a divine purpose: redemption.

The parish system should help us to remember the particularities of our life. Where we live is important. Our neighbours lives demand our attention. The communities of which we are a part are not distractions but the priority of our God who walks that landscape seeking out the lost and proclaiming another world is possible. We can easily forget these truths and realities and that is why a Rule of Life is helpful to hold us in that place of asking the question, ‘how then shall we live?’ How do we live out the gospel in this place at this time? It will be different from those in different contexts but the challenge is, as it has been since the early Christians first discovered God’s vocation given to them by the Holy Spirit at their baptisms, how do we remain united in the demands of different contexts?

Almighty God, through your Holy Spirit you created unity in the midst of diversity;
We acknowledge that human diversity is an expression of your manifold love for your creation;
We confess that in our brokenness as human beings we turn diversity into a source of alienation, injustice, oppression, and wounding. Empower us to recognize and celebrate differences as your great gift to the human family. Enable us to be the architects of understanding, of respect and love; Through the Lord, the ground of all unity, we pray. (“Prayers for Diversity”, Jesuit Resources, http://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/Prayers-for-Diversity.cfm)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 71: the brothers ought to obey one another

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The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot, for by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God.

Where is authority and obedience placed and how is it used?

Let prefix this post with an acknowledgement: I will be quoting Thomas Merton a lot during this one!

I have a personal struggle with authority and obedience which is deeply woven into my personality and history. Firstly, I am a born and raised Roman Catholic which has undoubtedly influenced me for good and ill in equal measure. I cannot and will not ever shake that influence from me, I can only learn to embrace the good and ask God’s mercy and grace to redeem the ill. Secondly, I am a millennial/Generation Y, my older siblings are the cynical generation X and they have shaped me as well as my peers who, like me have been parented by baby-boomers. All of that may sound like a load of sociological mumbo jumbo but the key point is I’m a product of my culture. Generation Y is also known as Generation Me, for we are, on the whole, a narcissistic bunch obsessed with selfies due to a great deal of pampering by our parents who were the recipients of Thatcher’s ‘booming economy’! These two parts of my social makeup would be enough to create a paradox around the issue of authority but there’s more specific personality traits that create a confusing cocktail of issues for me. (There’s my Generation Y traits coming out; a desperate need to be unique and noticed. Ironic!) In Myers Briggs personality test I am an INTJ

Blindly following precedents and rules without understanding them is distasteful to INTJs, and they disdain even more authority figures who blindly uphold those laws and rules without understanding their intent. Anyone who prefers the status quo for its own sake, or who values stability and safety over self-determination, is likely to clash with INTJ personality types. Whether it’s the law of the land or simple social convention, this aversion applies equally, often making life more difficult than it needs to be.(“INTJ Strengths and Weakneses”, 16 Personalities, April 23 2016, https://www.16personalities.com/intj-strengths-and-weaknesses)

I have a deepening sense of vocation to some form of monastic life. I am a self selected Anglican. I am artistic by temperament and, until ordination, by profession. All of this makes for some paradox inducing internal struggle for me but… it’s what makes me interesting!

I appreciate authority. I desire authority. I know the necessity for authority and even in a democratic country authority is not only allowed it is more needed than ever. Our relationship with authority, as a culture, is interesting to me. After it’s abuses by so many in the 20th century we have allowed the pendulum of social opinion to swing completely in the opposite direction. As my older siblings in Generation X have taken power (often in protesting movements and social activism) a large dose of cynicism towards authority and the status quo has become prevalent too. Figures of authority are routinely mocked and publicly shamed as satire has became increasingly popular so that now most comedians will have some form of pedestal kicking in their acts. I am not suggesting this is bad or unnecessary; I’m just noting it as interesting.

Thomas Merton (here it comes!) wrote to a Marie Byles, a scholar in Japanese religions, on January 9 1967,

You ask about the Catholic idea of holy obedience. What you are really interested in is evidently the ancient ascetic idea of obedience which goes back to the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, and so on, is exemplified by the saints, and is analogous to the perfect obedience, docility, and so forth found in other religious ideals. The idea is fundamentally the same: to become free from the need to assert one’s ego, to be liberated from the desire to dominate others, to renounce selfish demands, and so on. Ultimately the idea is that if you renounce your own will you will be guided directly by God and moved by Him in everything… The real purpose of obedience is to obey God and give one’s will to Him. This idea of obedience is somewhat ambiguous in the later legalistic context that it got into, when the religious Orders got highly organized and became big impersonal structures run by bureaucracies. The ascetic idea was pressed into the service of a different kind of ideal, and “blind obedience” was stressed as an ideal since it meant the subject simply submitted to authority and became a cog in a machine. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 191)

Merton draws out the first issue with obedience and authority and that is: where it is placed.

St Benedict’s original emphasis of obedience in his Rule stems from the expectation that within the monastic community there are personal relationships; monks were known to each other. An abbot knew the monks, personally and intimately. This relationship can’t always have been comfortable for either party particularly in issues of obedience. The abbot would have come from the community and could have been, at one time, a peer of the monks he now found himself in authority over. Within the intimacy of this fellowship of faith and discipleship, obedience is encouraged for it’s original purpose: to practice submission of our own will to God. I acknowledge not just my own personal need to practice this submission but my whole culture to do so.

Obedience, unfortunately, has continued to be associated with big, impersonal institutions and so is baulked at by many in Generation X and younger. Since the First World War and the abuses of the ruling classes that forced the population to fight increasingly failing battles on their behalf became apparent, cultural acceptance of authority began to erode. Throughout the last century, with the rise of fascism, communism, capitalism and many other philosophical and political ideals, humanity has developed a wariness to power and authority. Institutions have one by one shown themselves to be corrupted, or at least corruptible, and trust has been lost (the Church, the police, politicians, government processes, schools). This has been done to such an extent that we are now numbed to scandal and, strangely, we now see political elite and celebrities who are seemingly immune to such challenge.

To focus the issue a little more let me explore authority within the Church of England. I, as an ordained minister, have made an oath of canonical obedience,

I, A B, do swear by Almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of C and his successors in all things lawful and honest: So help me God. (Canon C14, Canons of the Church of England 7th Edition: Full Edition with First Supplement (London, church House Publishing, 2015)

In my case I have sworn obedience to the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu which has, on occasions, been put to the test. There have been decisions that the Archbishop has made which have affected me directly and which I have not agreed with. I have accepted those decisions as an act of obedience to him. This acceptance has not been easy at times as I struggle to obey authority solely because some person of status tells me to and particularly when I don’t believe them to possess all the necessary information of understanding, but I obeyed. My struggle is particularly painful when I am asked to obey decisions that have been made without any form of dialogue or relationship. Merton goes on,

As long as the notion of obedience is implicated in an impersonal power system it will be corrupted by the very things it is supposed to liberate us from- worldliness, selfishness, ambition, and so on… (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 192)

That is not purely to say that just the authority figure, whoever that might be, is corrupted by those things but those in obedience under them also. For the vow of obedience to be renewed and reformed for both parties involved I suggest we ensure it is placed back in the soil of long-term, trusting relationship. The alternative is to either blindly allow it to continue as it is and to be burdened by the struggle or to leave the system altogether (as many who have taken the oath of canonical obedience are doing.)

Thomas Merton, in a letter to a Wilbur H. Ferry on January 19 1967, makes the following heartfelt observation,

Authority has simply been abused too long in the Catholic Church and for many people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around that is imposed in God’s name. It is an insult to God Himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea of authority and obedience. There comes a point where they simply forfeit the right to be listened to. On the other hand… If everyone with any sense just pulls out, then that leaves the curial boys in full command of the field with the assurance that they are martyrs to justice or something. the real problem remains the reform of the Church people who remain inside. And if there can only be a little agreement on a more reasonable and free approach, something can be done. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 322)

Many have asked me why I, as a pioneer minister of sorts and as a creative artist, not only follow the rules but promote the need to stay true to them. It is the key paradox that makes me, me; how does it balance?

I have spoken before about an important moment in my life when I was asked by God to make a decision: was I going to be a revolutionary or a reformer? A revolutionary, in this instance, is one who seeks to overthrow the current system in power and replace it with something else. This revolutionary wants to destroy the status quo which is , in their mind, no longer fit for purpose, in order to create the new workable model. The reformer, on the other hand, is the one who seeks to take the treasures of the old and salvage them to allow the broken parts to either be ‘fixed’ or recycled or thrown out. The job of the reformer, in contrast to the revolutionary, is a long term systematic but thorough process. I made a promise to God some eight years ago to be a reformer and not a revolutionary.

Most pioneer ministers and those involved in the Fresh Expressions movement are revolutionaries. They are tired of the status quo failing, in their eyes, in the mission of God. The Church of England is joke and needs to be radically changed and that change is going to be made from a grassroots movements akin to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and UKIP (this is not about motivation but solely about approach.) I have promised my God that I’d commit to participate in dialogue with the tradition because I still believe God has built his Church and he has not forsaken it yet. I believe that the Church is the hope of the nation and that God is still in it working through it. Fresh Expressions of church must, in my mind grow out from and remain united to the Church of God.

The Reformation was, in my mind, an unfortunate but necessary moment in Church history. It was unfortunate because it has birthed, out of division, a divisive movement. If you sow in division you reap in division. This has meant that preference has often replaced the deeply held convictions of the reformers and we have the situation where there are so many independent churches. These church congregations are not, in themselves a problem, many are doing wonderful, anointed work and I rejoice with them in the promotion of the life of faith and mission but the ecumenical movement, despite our best intentions of being united, is not full unity. What was begun at the Reformation has created this issue.

It is from this place of commitment to change the system from within that I speak. I don’t believe in complaining about something and not learning why it is as it is and how it or I can be changed to solve the problem. It is in this reformation mindset that I struggle to balance my obedience to authority and work to discern how God is birthing the new things in and through his Church. It is in all of this that I am encouraged by Merton’s letter to Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit and one of the founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship,

While in fact there are a lot of Superiors who think themselves infallible, and are absolutely incapable of understanding what it means to really find out what their subjects need and desire (they consult only yes-men or people who have made the grade by never rocking any boats), there is a new bunch coming up that sincerely wants to help change things, but obviously can’t do everything they would like to do either. And then there are the good Joes who want to go along wherever the Church seems to be going even if they don’t really understand what it is all about. If all these are treated as if they were purely and simply reactionary tyrants, then there will be a real mess for sure… The moment of truth will come when you will have to resist the arbitrary and reactionary use of authority in order to save the real concept of authority and obedience, in the line of renewal. This will take charismatic grace. And it is not easy to know when one is acting “charismatically” when one is surrounded with a great deal of popular support on one side and nonsensical opposition on the other… In either case let us work for the Church and for people, not for ideas and programs. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 272)

Merton draws out here the other issue with authority and obedience and that is: how is it used.

The pain of authority comes when it is, as Merton calls it, “arbitrary and reactionary”. How many of us have been on the receiving end of this approach to power? Often authority is used like this when it lacks the environment of relationship but it can still manifest itself like this even when you are within long term, trusting relationships. Merton knew this personally with his own abbot at Gethsemani where he lived.

The letters and journals of Thomas Merton are full of his personal struggles with abbot James Fox who continually refused Merton the opportunity to become a hermit. these occasions are so numerous and so gradual it is hard to find just one that will sum up the pain he felt as he wrestled with obedience to an authority he no longer respected.

I know he is my Abbot, but I am very much afraid that I have never honestly been able to deal with him as with a “spiritual father” and it would be impossible for me to do so sincerely. (May 11, 1965, Thomas Merton to Jean Leclercq, ‘Survival or Prophecy?: The letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) p.128)

Just two years earlier, Merton expressed, in his journal, his approach to obedience to an authority he did not respect.

In consequence my attitude toward the monastery changes. They have need of me and I have need of them. As if without this obedience, and charity, my life would lack sense. It is an existential situation which god has willed for me, and it is part of His Providence – it is not to be questioned, no matter how difficult it may be. I must obey God, and this reaches out into everything… In this new condition my attitude toward the abbot is changing. Of course it is obvious that my complaints and discontent have been absurd. Though I can perhaps back them up with plausible arguments, they have no real meaning, they don’t make sense. He is what he is, and he means well, and in fact does well. He is the superior destined for me in God’s Providence, and it is absurd for me to complain. No harm will ever come to me through him – it cannot. How could I have thought otherwise?(January 15, 1963, Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: the journals of Thomas Merton volume four, 1960-1963 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) p. 288-289)

Esther de Waal suggests,

…obedience is a gift rather than a matter of duty. It is something which the good monk gives with gracious charity to his brother… Obedience depends on listening so totally and openly to the other that through them we discern the face, the voice of Christ himself. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p. 208)

Obedience must be a gift and should be lived not out of duty but love. This becomes painful when authority is wielded over you and obedience demanded from you rather than inspired in you. It is a delicate balance that Merton lived and that we all, in some way, must navigate. Obedience, like love, must begin as a practice, a choice and through this will grow into a habit and a virtue.

The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot, for by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God.

Philip Lawrence, OSB and abbot of Christ in the Desert, writes,

Obedience is valuable in our lives because we show one another what it means to serve and love one another. Even the abbot has to obey the brethren! (Philip Lawrence, “Chapter 71: Mutual Obedience”, Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, April 23 2016, https://christdesert.org/prayer/rule-of-st-benedict/chapter-71-mutual-obedience/)

Obedience is to be done in love and as a service and it is expected, although not explicit in the Rule, reciprocal. The person in authority over another is not to laud it over their subjects but to be obedient also. It is in this mutual obedience that authority can be wielded.

Obedience then should be preceded by a deep listening from both parties. If it is rooted in relationship then authority will be exercised with love and obedience given as a gift.

Reflection

This chapter challenges me, like the rest of the Rule, but particularly at this moment in my ministry. This current season in my life is painful like a continual dull thud causing me discomfort. I find myself blindside by a sear of the pain which I must ride out until it subsides. Through it all I choose obedience and to re-commit to following the path laid out for me by God, to see through my potentially erroneous beliefs or opinions and to say of my superior,

He is what he is, and he means well, and in fact does well. He is the superior destined for me in God’s Providence, and it is absurd for me to complain. No harm will ever come to me through him – it cannot. How could I have thought otherwise?

Having said that, I am also aware that authority and obedience is not currently rooted in relationship and it is in this way that it and I must seek to change. I must be careful though,

The moment of truth will come when you will have to resist the arbitrary and reactionary use of authority in order to save the real concept of authority and obedience, in the line of renewal. This will take charismatic grace. And it is not easy to know when one is acting “charismatically” when one is surrounded with a great deal of popular support on one side and nonsensical opposition on the other… In either case let us work for the Church and for people, not for ideas and programs.

I was asked to visit the nacent new monastic community at St Lukes, Peckham, as part of my involvement in the development of the Society of the Holy Trinity. In our discussion (which can be found here) the painful and personal issue of obedience to authority was explored. I encourage you to listen to it and pray.

I appreciate that this post has been long so I want to sum up the salient point: I believe in the Church as an institution which can develop a transformation of character by practices such as obedience. If authority and obedience is rooted in relationship and a place of intimacy they can be amazing gifts one to another. Outside of relationship they are potentially deeply damaging weapons wielded over people. The change should not be to disown them and seek replacements but to renew and replace them into their proper place.

You are the God who makes extravagant promises.
We relish your great promises of fidelity and presence and solidarity,
and we exude in them.
Only to find out, always too late,
that your promise always comes in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.

You are the God who calls people like us,
and the long list of mothers and fathers before us,
who trusted the promise enough to keep the call.

So we give you thanks that you are a calling God,
who calls always to dangerous new places.
We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us
that we may be among those who believe your promises
enough to respond to your call.

We pray in the one who embodied your promise
and enacted your call, even Jesus. Amen.
(Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis:Augsburg Fortress, 2003) p. 90)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 68: when a brother is asked to do the impossible

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If a brother is requested to do something difficult or impossible he should, at first, accept the command meekly and obediently.

Can we change?

Obedience.

Again.

Again I’m forced to ask the ever penetrating questions: how to respond to authority? and how to exercise authority? These two issues have oscillated throughout the Rule of St. Benedict and has raised obedience as the vow which cuts through the individualised, libertarian ethic of our age. Obedience is the virtue, the practice, I think, that challenges us most because it seems to our ‘progressive’ minds a reversal into authoritarian state which birthed both fascism and communism.

We want freedom. We want to be released from what others think of us. We want to be able to censor the oppressive demands placed upon us.

My heart knows what is good for me.

We want to be autonomous, in control, because the alternative is perceived to be unsatisfying and, at worse, abusive. We want freedom to choose because choice is the goal of our culture. We are told,

We can do anything if believe strong enough. We can achieve whatever we put our mind to. If anyone tells you can’t do it, they are wrong.

Our televisions project stories of people, ‘achieving their goals’. The contestants speak out in un-ironic parody the same statements of self belief. They’re ‘expressing themselves’ and ‘no one will stop them.’ It all sounds so positive and encouraging but under the surface lies a slightly more sinister tone of captivity.

Underneath the statements of ‘knowing self’, of finding ‘true self’ is an oppressive narrative which holds people in an identity which is unable to change;

You are who you are.

In this reality we need to discover who we are as static personalities and express it. Our gender and sexuality, our personality strengths and flaws all set in stone by a Creator who likes diversity no matter what the impact on others. Mistakes can be blamed on genetics and change of behaviours subtly denied because if we can change then we don’t know what we want or need and therefore choice becomes trickier to make.

In this consumerist narrative of free choice, we hear the call to obedience to something outside of our own choice as foreign. The truth is obedience opens our eyes to see the potential conversion of our life. It is only in obedience that we can be transformed from an old life to a new life but we must trust that which can lead us through the painful sear of true freedom into the fullness of life. All other freedom than that discovered through a commitment to obedience is false, a mirage that will blind you.

True liberation is a mystery many do not fully find because the false liberation is more appealing. The temptation makes more sense to us because we ask

why would freedom be difficult; it is the absence of pain, is it not?

True liberty does violence to self and, like Christ, who disregarded that he was sovereign becomes a slave to serve others. (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Pennsylvania: The Plough Publishing, 1988) p.40)

It is this liberation and conversion that St. Benedict calls monks to through the consecrated life. Ultimately, this life is ‘impossible’ without the faithfulness and stable love of God. It would be wrong to enter the monastic life thinking that it is achievable, it is within our capabilities. Many decide not to pursue the monastic life because they see it as impossible with their personality or who they are. The truth is: it’s not about you!

It doesn’t matter who you are, or even think you are because that, hopefully, will change; in fact, it must change if you are to live the life of discipleship and true repentance. It matters not if, when you think about the expectations the Rule places upon you, you cannot imagine yourself being able to ‘succeed’ at being a monk. It only matters if you trust that God can and will transform you from the life you live as you enter into a being ready for eternal life with him.

The superior, the authority of the abbot, is not forceful here. Again we see the gentleness needed in instructing a monk into the possibility of change. There is room, for St. Benedict, to go together, abbot and monk, as brothers into the presence of their all loving Father to seek his will. Both are equal under God and it is his will that they both must obey. Norvene Vest reflects beautifully on this approach to authority,

I resonate with the image suggested by the Latin word translated “gentleness.” The word is mansuetudine, meaning “accustomed to the hand,” and refers to training wild animals. I have a vivid sense of a small colt, standing shivering in cold and excitement as an attentive trainer approaches and gently caresses it. I often feel that way in the presence of God: fearful and shivering both with anxiety and eagerness, but willing myself to do all I can to respond, which is often simply not to run away. Instead, I tremble, and await the hand that touches me in love. (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: a devotional commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2004) p.261)

Reflection

We as the Church must not be lured into the social narrative of consumerism and individualism. We must proclaim the truth and reality of conversion. This is not some political ‘change’ that is preached during election season. This is deep and painful change that leads to meaningful relationships of trust and hope.

The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted. (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Pennsylvania: The Plough Publishing, 1988) p.27-28)

Our message of salvation loses all it’s potency if we collude with the morally liberal philosophies of this world or the dictatorial conservative world views which state that significant change of behaviour is not needed nor is it possible. We are all sick and distorted. We are plagued by faulty genes and personalities. We’ve all been infected and we all need healing! To heal the patient must be obedient to the process of change otherwise nothing will happen.

The church must become a place of real transformation and healing to all who come. Change must be on our banners and explicit in all we do but a change that rightly is rooted in humility (acknowledgement of the sickness) and obedience (the willingness to let go of the past and step into a new life.)

Loving Father, we submit. We submit to your gentle hand in obedience. We cannot see how we will live out the impossible but we trust that nothing is impossible for you. What we have always been can be redeemed for you, for the Kingdom, the glory and the power are yours, now and forever.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 65: provost of the monastery

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With several in charge, no one will have the opportunity to become proud.

Is it democracy?

All commentaries on this chapter begin by stating the obvious tension found here in the Rule… I will do the same. It’s pretty clear that St. Benedict does not see the benefits of a prior/provost in the monastery and believes that the abbot should govern with a group of deans as outlined in the chapter on that subject. St. Benedict, however, brings in balance and allows common practice to continue but not without some warning and dangers.

This is how to compromise. St. Benedict warns of the dangers but leaves the decision to the vote of the monastery. He adapts his vision to allow people the freedom to explore and develop but doesn’t leave them to walk down the perilous path alone, rather he continues to guide and help them to survive. It’s obvious that St. Benedict would rather monasteries decided against appointing a prior/provost but if they do decide he has some safety nets to put up in case the dangers become apparent and hurtful.

This is the strength of collegial governance and is why Synods, chapters and the like are so crucial in church. These forms of government are not democracy as we know it we know where that leads to! Democracy is about opinions and opinions can be easily swayed and manipulated; if one is not careful people lose sight of, forget or rashly change the rules and laws that govern said democracy if majority of people decide to. In the monastery the abbot decides but he decides within the confines of counsel.

After the previous chapter and throughout the Rule so far, the role of abbot is clear. It is not to be about wielding power, forcing agendas or manipulating the community but is about care, safeguarding and protecting the life of community together. The role of abbot is also totally reliant on the Rule of Life. The abbot is there to ensure all monks live under it and are guided by it. This is why the Church of England’s governance works (much to the frustration of many!)

The Church of England is “episcopally led and synodically governed” which means that the vision is set out by bishops (plural, in a college/house in which Archbishops are the first amongst equals) but they are constrained by the Synod (either General or Diocesan). This means that Bishops have final say over every matter but must decide based on the policies of General Synod. This should protect the Church from individuals or popularist thought to dramatically change the beliefs and/or practices rashly. A Bishop is there to uphold the common life and faith of the entire people of God under their care. Bishops set the pace and tone of the Church but they are accountable to Synod who can challenge decisions. Decisions are then arbitrated through Synodical Measures, Canon Law and Articles of Faith.

So why has the role of prior/provost continued if it is clear that St. Benedict was not a fan?

Practically because it works. In large communities abbots struggle with the sheer workload and pressure put upon them to oversee every aspect of the life of the monastery. He cannot be everywhere involved in everything. The other roles, outlined by St. Benedict, have some responsibility but not about decisions. Even with the appointment of Deans, each with their own opinions, it is a tiresome challenge to reach consensus let alone then to pray and make a decision that is right before God and may not be popular with the Deans and monks who advise you. The role of prior/provost is to take some of the smaller decisions off the list of things to be involved in to ensure the abbot is free to give proper time and attention to those big decisions. The relationship between prior/provost and abbot is key and St. Benedict is clear in making that a priority.

What is important in the life of the monastery is the realisation that,

…the church is radically not democratic if by democratic we mean that no one knows the truth and therefore everyone’s opinion counts equally… That is why authority in the church is vested in those we have learned to call saints in recognition of their more complete appropriation of that truth.(Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character:toward a constructive christian social ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981)p. 85)

It is here that I place a word of caution on a theology termed ‘ordinary theology’.

‘Ordinary theology’ is the sort of God-talk that comes first to the lips of all Christians when they reflect about their faith. Its main auditorium is not the lecture hall, or even the church building, but at home or at work; in the pub or in the garden; on the bus, at the shopping centre or on a country walk. Unlike the more ‘extraordinary’ theology of the academic world, it is ‘just ordinary’ and employs no technical jargon or philosophical ideas. It is, rather, couched in story and anecdote, using everyday language (which includes metaphors – without which we could hardly talk at all) and powerful images to express our deeply felt commitments and – sometimes – our agonized concerns.
We don’t have to go to college to learn how to do this. We only have to be ourselves, and to speak of what we feel and of what we know. To express in our own stumbling, inadequate way what we believe about God.(from ‘After Sunday’, “Ordinary Theology”, 2nd February 2016, https://www.aftersunday.org.uk/about/thinking/ordinary-theology)

There are a lot of things I think and feel to be right but on which I have little to no knowledge. Opinions are easy and everyone has them but they don’t always lead to wisdom. Wisdom is found after wrestling and study; reading and listening to each side, weighing up the different views and arriving, one hopes, after prayer and reflection at the right conclusion. I have the privilege of time to study and an intellect that can handle difficult subjects (I also love doing it!) I find, however, there is little desire to hear the fruits of my study in ‘ordinary life’. My reading and learning, my observations and testing of ideas is rarely requested or respected because ‘ordinary people’ don’t want to know or hear it. I sit in decision making bodies and hear a lot of subjective opinions which are all fascinating and important but I want to know the right opinion not just the good ones. Due to the shying away of many ‘ordinary people’ to deep thinking and reflecting, in a life that is busy as it is, decisions are made from a sense of utilitarianism rather than wisdom. What is going to make this decision quick and painless?.. We’ll go with that; usually the majority view.

The Bible is full of the prophetic speaking out against the majority view against the popularist opinions. Where then is their authority? I find myself reflecting a lot on the interplay between minority and majority views. In the UK it seems the minority view is heard a lot at both ends of the spectrum; we are developing into a polarised society which demands our population speak in extreme tones in order to be heard. I don’t hear much wise authoritative voices much these days; voices of those who have reflected deeply and share their views like Jeremiah, reluctantly and with great pain and struggle.

I know that I’m coming across as arrogant and demeaning (I genuinely don’t mean to be) but what I’m trying to articulate is that just because you believe something to be right in the deepest part of your being, doesn’t mean it’s right. We are fallen, broken, fallible creatures whose desires and instincts must be curbed to protect others. We need the counsel of others and we must work out our salvation in the company of strangers (those that are different from us). It is this reality we must become more aware of in are society at the moment.

Reflection

I am concerned that we are allowing opinion polls direct more decisions within the Church. It is how politics is done in our country at the moment but I’d rather hoped the Church would defend itself against such simplistic ideas. It seems we are being constantly tempted to simplify our message so that those outside the church can understand us; we must remain relevant and jargon differentiates us from the world. I have quoted this before but it is worth repeating,

We are cultural refugees. The beautiful monastics throughout church history were cultural refugees; they ran to the desert not to flee from the world but to save the world from itself… Much of the world now lies in ruins of triumphant and militant Christianity. The imperially baptized religion created a domesticated version of Christianity – a dangerous thing that can inoculate people from ever experiencing true faith. (Everyone is a Christian, but no one knows what a Christian is anymore.) Our hope is that the postmodern, post-Christian world is once again ready for a people who are peculiar, people who spend their energy creating a culture of contrast rather than a culture of relevancy. (Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President: politics for ordinary radicals (Michigan: Zondervan, 2008) p. 238-240)

Orthodoxy is a dirty word it seems and, as our culture rejects more and more institutions and positions of authority in the continual backlash from totalitarian regimes in the 20th and now in 21st century, one must defend against being told what to think or believe. This leads to a subjective life relying on whims and opinions and defending those out of fear of being changed against our will. Our free will is of prime importance no matter where it leads us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Loving Father, whose authority rests perfectly in Jesus Christ your Son, guide us to fuller knowledge of your will and call us closer to you that we may be changed.

Come, Lord Jesus

Where Next?

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Suscipiendus autem in oratorio coram omnibus promittat de stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia.

Upon admission, in the oratory, before all, he is to make a promise to stability, conversion (of behaviour/morals/life) and obedience,

I have been joined, as I have journeyed through the Rule of St Benedict, by increasing numbers of companions whose path happens to meet with mine and/or mine with theirs. Some of them have made commitments to particular monastic houses in different traditions, others are parish ministers who seek deeper community and discipleship within that service and others are those exploring what has come to be known as ‘New Monastic’ communities.

The New Monastic movement in Britain is a loose collection of groups who have identified a desire for more intentional community than that which is offered through traditional forms of church gathering. There is no stringent entry policy to this ‘network’/movement; it is better seen as an association. Even when a group identifies themselves in the category of ‘new monasticism’ it doesn’t bind you to another group who have also chosen to name themselves as such. In this way the movement remains self governing and flexible.

It works… sort of.

Accountability is covered for most of these groups through independent means but is not enforceable. Communities should seek to have an outsider to oversee or converse with the community to ensure safeguarding of its members and that relationships remain healthy as the group grows and evolves together. These relationships are based on trust and so the selection of a spiritual companion for a community can be a risky one.

The connection between individual groups and communities is a free choice. A group can, if they choose, be independent and get on with doing what they’re doing and being what they’re being without interaction with another group (many do). This choice, however, can lead to a sense of isolation and/or blind egotism, not to mention the spending of energy re-inventing of the metaphorical wheel! Many want to learn from others and become acutely aware of the challenges that face intentional community. At these times they reach out and discover the joy of journeying with others who share something of what they are living through.

Again, these relationships between groups/communities are self-selecting and so carry with them potential dangers. The concern I have is that of the blind leading the blind when there are communities that, although still learning and emerging, have journeyed terrain before and so can steer with wisdom and experience.

At the heart of my concern around the New Monastic movement is that we want to remain connected with the world in some areas of our life but not in others and we want to remain in control and choose the sacrifices and changes we experience. The sacrifice of the community is self selecting to suit our individual needs and what we think is right for us. Are we falling short of the ultimate hurdle which distinguishes a normal life and the monastic life? Does New Monasticism encourage people to remain individualistic consumers whilst giving the impression that we’re living radically different lifestyles? Do we just want to be different?

I’m more than aware that we all have unique vocations due to what God wants of us in our different contexts, with our personalities and experiences. Some of us are ready and blessed to be called to traditional monastic life in the different traditions. Some of us are called to that way of life but find ourselves in families and relationships which also seem to be permanent. Some of us are called to ordained ministry and some form of more intentional life. There seems to be several different shapes and models emerging all naming themselves something slightly different in order to distinguish themselves. ‘Missional Communities’, ‘Hubs’, ‘Home Groups’, ‘Organic Communities’, ‘Parish Monasticism’, ‘New Monasticism’, or any other unique name for a group who have a particular shape and call on its members. Some would say,

It works… sort of.

Discipleship and mission must be contextual. Where you find yourself must impact how you live out your faith and mission. The Holy Spirit calls us to particular tasks at particular times in particular places but the source of strength and call must remain fixed in the same God. Although the expression of faith has adapted to different cultures and language the faith remains steadfast. It is the tension between the rootedness of tradition and the fresh expressions of faith and mission which keeps a sense of life. A balanced life is one lived in tension.

I am an advocate of uniting all these different expressions of discipleship and community and I know that many others disagree. I can see that there may be some who feel uncomfortable ‘pinning down’ or ‘fencing in’ these exciting, new discoveries. ‘Organic’ and ‘adaptable’ keeps the thing streamlined and efficient, able to move to new places but I am extremely cautious about this view. It strikes me that there’s an addiction to novelty and being different. Maybe I’m being too cynical but is there not still an ‘attractional’ mindset underneath this approach to move with the times and the people we want to connect and bring into the group/community?

I agree that the Spirit blows where it will and the Church has suffered by its slowness to catch up with God. I agree that definition can exclude some who might have otherwise moved further in if they were encouraged to, or rather if they were not discouraged by boundaries. I agree that most communities who identify with this ‘monastic’ call, whatever that means for them, remain fragile and embryonic. And I totally agree that the reason traditional church doesn’t work for increasing numbers of people is because of our culture’s anxiety, fear and disapproval of institution.

It still comes down, for me, however, to a desperate need for the gospel to challenge individualistic consumer culture and not collude with it. Structure and framework is needed for a sense of security and refuge. It is not sustainable to constantly live in uncertainty, risk and vulnerability; we need shelter, even if it is just a tent which is moveable.

This is why I have found reflecting on the use of tents in the Bible encouraging. Tents give people a resting place in a landscape of wilderness. Tents are used as ‘home’ when you are being called to be nomadic. Tents give you the space to feel safe when the rest of your life is danger and risk. Paul uses this image to describe our earthly bodies on earth and to encourage us to see ourselves as belonging to another place.

I have shared before this prophetic picture someone once saw for me of a mountain goat living in rocky terrain, barren and wild. The words that accompanied that picture were, “You were built for this terrain.” I often find myself in spiritual wilderness, barrenness. I find myself in conflict and rough seas. When I do find a settled place, a place of comfort, I get uncomfortable. I thrive in the wild but even I need times of peace and rest. I survive but in a different way to how the sheep of the green pasture survive down in the valley.

I was reading Psalm 104 last week and then a verse sprang out as an encouragement for me,

The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. (Psalm 104:18)

What struck me was I was built for one context which is not shared for others but I still need refuge and places to recuperate. Graham Cray, ex-bishop of Fresh Expressions UK, when I shared this picture with him told me to hold onto the monastic practices to sustain that call to those contexts.

The Church is in exile; divorced from mainstream culture. The passionate discussions over calling the last Fresh Expressions’ Conference ‘From Margins to Mainstream’ focussed many people’s concern on where do we want to see ourselves. Some like being margin, periphery dwellers, others like to be anywhere but ‘boring mainstreamers’, some like the comfort of the known and others are anxious but uncertainty. Whatever is mainstream for one is margin for another; it depends on where you’re standing and how you see yourself.

I am one who finds himself, more often than not, in isolated viewpoints. I don’t fit. This always runs dangerously close to my obsession with being different and contrary and I am on constant watch to not fall into that trap. I know that is part of where God must hold me close and is part of my spiritual practices.

Rules of life are meant to be way markers not straight-jackets. I have explored different rules of life and studied the charisms of different communities what fascinates me and excites me is that despite being different they share similar central calls; they name them different things but they’re essentially the same. I’m talking about principles or virtues they live by not the practices they perform. Ian Mobsby and the Moot Community named these principles, ‘postures’.

I wonder what might happen if we acknowledged together, a sense that the monastic call is commitment to ‘stability, conversion and obedience’ (words used by St Benedict in chapter 58 of his Rule)? Some may want to interpret them as the traditional vows of ‘chastity, poverty and obedience’ but I see them as interchangeable.

Stability

A desire to remain rooted somewhere or with someone; no matter what the spiritual weather is like, no matter what temptations afflict you, you stay and remain faithful.

Conversion

A desire to change, to turn away, step by step, from the things of this world to the Kingdom of God. To seek, in different circumstances and in different ways, to become more and more Christ-like, poor and dependant on God.

Obedience

A desire to place yourself under the decisions of something or someone else. To seek to curb that deeply human temptation to be in control of ourselves and our decisions; to hold onto the power in or own lives.

Over the next few weeks I want to develop this motif and offer some potential suggestions how, in different contexts, disciples can adopt these three shared vows whilst remaining contextual and flexible in practice.

Chapter 61: reception of pilgrim monks

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A stranger from a distant locale may be received as a guest for as long as he desires providing he does not make unreasonable demands but accepts the ways of the brothers and is satisfied.

Where is the sacrifice?

A friend of mine has recently done some research on theological education in the UK. The research aimed to uncover the reasons behind a person’s selection of one theological training institution over another. My friend has not finished writing up the findings but they were struck by how the primary motivation for selection was personal preference.

That may not seem, on the face of it, a shock,

Of course, it’s down to their personal preference!

Personal preference always plays some part in any decision but when this is the primary reason we may be in trouble. Personal preference is now outranking God’s call along with the potential cost that that call may have on one’s life. The responses may well assume that ‘personal preference’ means God’s will but that is even more dangerous and leads me to some thing I’d like to briefly explore again.

Our current culture is so individualised that we have again committed the heresy of assuming too much that God is made in our image and not the other way round. Every generation is tempted to commit this error in different ways; ours has fallen for it in the way we interpret Scripture and discern the will of God. In our heady mix of neoliberalism and libertarian morals alongside the deeply ingrained consumerism we have arrived at the place where our primary authority in discernment is personal, private emotions.

I know God and He loves me just the way I am and He wants me to be happy. He’s not clearly saying “no” to this behaviour and it makes me happy so it must be ok.

This subjective authority is of no use in a functioning society. Yes, the heart is important but, as Jesus himself said,

”For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

We are capable of great love but we are also capable of great evil and discerning the two is not as easy as we assume. Love can be contaminated with these evil intentions. We have this arrogance to think that we know what love is but we limit it and we make out it is easy to love. Jesus showed us that great love has a great cost and the way to be like Jesus is narrow.

Where is the talk of radical, costly discipleship? Where is the conversation about the narrow road, the immediately exclusive way in Jesus spoke about this path of transformation? Consumer culture has infected Christ’s body and we need to deal with it. God can easily be thought of as blessing us with everything we want and our faith crumbles when things don’t go our way. We act however we like and we all search the Bible to justify our actions. We freely choose to behave in ways that seem perfectly reasonable and we judge them to be right by the happiness factor.

In a very banal way, consider church hopping.

I’m not against searching out a local congregation that will feed and encourage us. The style of worship has a part to play in whether you are called there, as is theological roots and tradition. You don’t want to be in a place where you are always frustrated and tempted to moan and grumble about that group of people. This desire to fit in though must be held in tension with God’s work in you.

I chose to go to Cranmer Hall in Durham not primarily because the people were nice, or it was closer to family but primarily because I felt God calling me to train in the difficult, urban communities of working class people very different from my experience. I visited Ridley Hall in Cambridge and it was great. I could have trained there and I would have learnt a lot and would have loved the people I trained with but the swinging factor was I felt God asking me to step out of my comfort zone and stretch myself. That was scary but my wife and I trusted that God would grow and change us and ultimately surprise us with what he can do through us.

I feel God is challenging His Church to readdress the question of commitment. I think there is a great move of the Spirit towards an acknowledgement of ‘costly grace’ and I don’t think any of us really knows what that looks or feels like but I can assure you that it won’t be comfortable.

Rowan Williams, in his book ‘The Wound of Knowledge’, says,

Humanity is created in God’s image – created with the capacity for relationship to God in obedience: its fulfilment is in this relationship…But the image is potential only, it must be made into a ‘likeness’ by the exercise of goodness. Had humanity been created in perfection, it would have performed its good acts automatically. (Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990) p.27-28)

The Anglican Church adopts a three fold authority structure to guard against mis-guided discernment: Scripture, tradition and reason. All three must play a part in the discernment process. This is why discerning moral responses to issues takes time because all three must be held in tension. In our current age we have, at times, thrown all three out of the window and adopted the authority of this world, private happiness.

Although it is not obvious, St. Benedict is talking about discernment in this week’s chapter. He talks about how a visiting monk should point out things he thinks are wrong and how the abbot should respond.

If he thinks something wrong and points it out humbly, charitably and judiciously, the abbot should circumspectly meditate upon it, for the Lord may have sent the stranger for that purpose.

Humility, love and wisdom. These should be our desires for ourselves. What does it mean to pray for humility? What does it mean to be loving? What does it mean to be wise? All of them are life-long journeys of discovery and our prayer should always be that God works these things through us and all of them will require that we change who we are.

Reflection

There has been a really interesting report out this week from the Centre for Theology and Communities entitled ‘Deep Calls to Deep: monasticism for the cities’. In it they have explored monastic expressions from various traditions in East London. At the end of the interviews they share the following suggestion,

The stories in this report are challenging to our urban consumer culture. They are stories of people prepared to commit to something for life, living together in community, willing to forgo and to share money for the benefit of others, devoting their careers to pursuit of the Common Good. (Tim Thorlby and Angus Ritchie, Deep Calls To Deep: monasticism for the cities (London: Centre for Theology and Communities, 2015) p.43)

The reason I would argue that the New Monastic movement is an evangelistic and missional movement is because of this direct challenge to our culture at this time. I see many people proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and coming to Church but there is little focus on the conversion, the turning away from a previous life.

I guess Shane Claiborne says it best,

We are cultural refugees. The beautiful monastics throughout church history were cultural refugees; they ran to the desert not to flee from the world but to save the world from itself… Much of the world now lies in ruins of triumphant and militant Christianity. The imperially baptized religion created a domesticated version of Christianity – a dangerous thing that can inoculate people from ever experiencing true faith. (Everyone is a Christian, but no one knows what a Christian is anymore.) Our hope is that the postmodern, post-Christian world is once again ready for a people who are peculiar, people who spend their energy creating a culture of contrast rather than a culture of relevancy. (Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President: politics for ordinary radicals (Michigan: Zondervan, 2008) p. 238-240)

The New Monastic movement is, I feel, taking an interesting turn in the UK towards a parish focus. This parish focus reintroduces sacrifice into a movement that could have been seen as pic and mix spirituality. With an emphasis on location the new monastics are called to even deeper obedience and commitment that counters that consumerism that is ingrained in all of us. With the emphasis on committing to a particular community and a particular area, no matter how hostile or challenging, the new monastics are bringing the contrast of the disciplined life into the heart of a culture and changing it. The new monastics are living in exile in the midst of an alien culture and living an alternative lifestyle.

Loving Father, you are unchanging and steadfast but we are not. We thank you that the path of transformation is open to us and that we can change. Guide us by your grace and your Holy Spirit that we would be transformed into the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ. May we grow to be steadfast in our commitment to you, that we would be more and more faithful disciples, humbly loving the world and seeking to establish your kingdom here amongst us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 60: priests who would live in the monastery

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Should a member of the priesthood wish to enter the monastery, permission is not to be immediately granted.

What is it God is calling me to?

Having discussed general principles of vocation and commitment for the last few weeks and having spoken earlier about a potential monastic understanding of vocation, the Rule now causes me to reflect on my own personal discernment. It’s been hard reading this chapter on the acceptance of a priest into monastic orders partly because it forces me to see my sense of calling to a form of monasticism from the other side.

This week I sat in front of a panel and answered questions of vocation. I think it went well. I answered as openly and honestly as I could but there will always be a small sense of disappointment in these situations due, in part, to always being unable to discern, precisely, the will of God. Discernment, for me, is a corporate activity; it is best done within a community listening to God together. This ensures personal agendas and egos are balanced and the Spirit can confirm itself through the Body of Christ.

What is it God is calling me to?

I have been asking that question for a year and a half now. My prayers have circled round this question as I have sought God’s leading for Sarah and I post-curacy. There have been some encouraging glimpses as God uses all the vehicles of communication to show us his plans and purposes.

But…

All of those glimpses are potential and not actual. Dreaming is easy (I can do it in my sleep!) walking them out is hard. Reality is a cruel beast with a seeming will of its own not easy to tame with our desires. The stirrings of my heart are one thing but what will happen may well be quite different.

There comes a point in the journey of discernment (and I have reached it now) where one falls on the mercy of another, usually a person in authority. This is an act of trust. In vulnerability one offers the dreams, the stirrings, the private wisps of conversation between ones heart and God and ask another to decide the path to take. This is never straight forward and the person to whom you pass those cherished fragments of one’s inner life to must handle them with great care. To trust that person with such treasure is made easier when it is done in relationship.

At some point in June/July I will head to my bishop with the fruit of my wrestling with God and ask him to discern my next step.

How do I communicate what I feel God speaking to me about?

Our lives, our vocation, everything that makes up the cocktail of what makes ‘me’ me is like a tightly knotted ball of odds and ends which are so intrinsically woven to discern what to do with it takes care; a mixture of gentleness and love alongside bold and decisive cuts. It is not something to hand over easily but, sitting with it in your lap won’t help either.

Yes, I feel called to ordained ministry as a priest. Yes, I feel called to the Church of England (for whatever reason!). Yes, I feel called to married life. Yes, I feel called to sit on committees/ strategy groups, Synods, etc. Yes I feel called to the ministry of reconciliation. Yes, I feel called to the wilderness context. Yes, I feel called to serve in the ordinariness of life and, yes, I feel called to monastic life, intentional community, a contemplative rhythm of prayer and action. What does this particular concoction of callings look like in practice? How do they connect and work themselves out? I do not know… and so the ball of confusion gets passed with great trepidation to the bishop with a prayer that God’s will be done in my life.

In the Rule of St. Benedict there is a sense that the call to priesthood is to be set under the call to be a monk. That monastic call supersedes the call to priestly ministry. This, for me, makes me reflect on how I see the priestly ministry. I still find myself considering it as a function rather than an ontology (a question of being). I see myself as being a priest in that I am someone who instinctively inhabits the ‘between places’ but I increasingly feel I am a monk in that I think I am at home in the wilderness with a gathered community of other desert dwellers.

The key question for me, as I wait for the call to move,

Where then is my home?

My answer (if I am forced to be so bold) is identifying the wilderness that is all around me and building the altars there. Abraham meets God in the journey and is called to encounter him there. There are increasing number of people who feel a similar call to establishing community of intentional disciples pitching a tent and setting up a place for God’s presence to be amongst them. Will the Church recognise this move of the Spirit which seems to be birthing monastic communities within the wilds of 21st century western civilisation?

Reflection

It can feel like what I am envisaging is having my cake and eating it! This chapter has highlighted that.

You want all the pleasure of being a monk without any of the cost

The New Monastic movement is criticised on this point, I know. How is it monastic if you’re not alone? If you rarely have to face the cost of poverty and chastity how is it any form of monasticism?

I do not have an immediate answer to that but I know that we will only come to an answer by living in those questions rather than jumping to some theoretical answers. The Desert Fathers and Mothers didn’t write out a plan, a strategy, a theory; they moved into the edge lands and lived, struggled, failed and persevered.

I want to end with a picture that I have begun to own for myself; the bear.

The bear is often a solitary animal but is fiercely social as well. They live in the wild and gently plod around existing in quite extreme environments. When you bring them into a different surrounding you have to cage them because they cannot be contained. They are wild, strong and dangerous when caged or cornered. They are resilient in their natural habitats but their defence mechanisms kick in when they are out of it and God have mercy on those who are on the receiving end of their fury.

As I wait in a context I don’t feel naturally comfortable in, my prayer is simple,

Father, lead me. Meet me. Strengthen and defend me.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 59: sons of noblemen or of poor men offered to God’s service

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…if the child is under age, the parents should write out a petition as above.

What is the role of godparents?

Whilst introducing some members of our church to the Anglican baptismal theology in the hope that they may join the baptism team, I found a great oversight in our basis for preparation policy. At our church we currently invite parent(s) to come along for an evening to talk about what baptism is and to ‘help them to work out if baptism is right for them’ (to which the snowier seems to always be “yes”!) This ‘preparation evening’ is a great opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them and to encourage them to consider the life of a disciple and to answer the call to follow him. No problems so far…

Then I looked down at Canon Law B22.3 (you know the one, right!?)

The minister shall instruct the parents or guardians of an infant to be admitted to Holy Baptism that the same responsibilities rest on them as are in the service of Holy Baptism required of the godparents.

This assumes that due instruction has been given to the godparents; that the godparents are aware of their responsibilities and can,

…faithfully fulfil their responsibilities both by their care for the children committed to their charge and by the example of their own godly living.(Canon Law B23.2)

In our parish we currently only ask that the parents speak with the godparents about their responsibilities but we have no contact with godparents prior to the baptism.

I asked some other clergy to send me their baptism preparation process to see where we could develop and improve ours. Of the 6 shared with me none of them do any instructing of the godparents on their role and responsibilities and of the 5 churches where I have been aware of their preparation process none of them did either. Bearing in mind that we struggle, in my current parish, to get godparents who are baptised let alone practising Christians we are a long way off. We have long since wavered the requirement of confirmation as set out in Canon Law B23.4!

So here is my question (and it is a question): Would it be so bad to adopt a stricter policy of admission to Holy Baptism based on the requirements laid out regarding godparents?

Let’s take the idea of looking at the admission to Holy Baptism through the lens of a monastic model in a parish church. If a parish church’s baptism policy was connected into a more monastic understanding of discipleship then the approach to infant baptism could be viewed in similar terms as St. Benedict does in this chapter of his Rule. This would be no different to the theology behind infant baptism outside of a monastic understanding of discipleship with parents and godparents taking on the responsibility of making vows on behalf of the child.

In practice, the parents of a child being offered to the monastic life would need to write the petition, an unbreakable contract agreement, with the same understanding of the commitment being made if the child was of age. This would mean the same sort of rigour of instruction before an offering of the child was made. In Canon Law it states that,

No minister shall refuse or, save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents, delay to baptize any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptized, provided that due notice has been given and the provisions relating to godparents in these Canons are observed.(Canon Law B22.4)

For every child to be baptized there shall be not fewer than three godparents, of whom at least two shall be of the same sex as the child and of whom at least one shall be of the opposite sex; save that, when three cannot conveniently be had, one godfather and godmother shall suffice. Parents may be godparents for their own children provided that the child have at least one other godparent…No person shall be admitted to be a sponsor or godparent who has not been baptized and confirmed. Nevertheless the minister shall have power to dispense with the requirement of confirmation in any case in which in his judgement need so requires.(Canon Law B23.1&4)

Now, whenever delaying baptism is discussed there are some who get uncomfortable with placing ‘hoops’ in the way. They feel that the parents will feel shunned or rejected by the church and that experience of ‘not being worthy,etc.’ will impact in their view of church in general. I understand the fear of this and can see the complex pastoral issues this raises but this is what happens when you develop such an open door policy in the first place. How do these pastoral minded objectors interpret Jesus’ challenge in Luke’s gospel,

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)

William Barclay suggests,

It may well be that we have hurt the Church very seriously by trying to tell people that Church membership need not make so very much difference; we would be better to tell them that it must make all the difference in the world. We might have fewer people; but those we had would be totally pledged to Crist. (William Barclay,The Gospel of Luke: the daily study bible (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1961) p.133)

I had a young man contact me wanting to be baptised and so I eagerly met with him to talk about it. I asked him why he felt he wanted to get baptised and he ‘just wanted to’, his family had all ‘been done’ and he had ‘missed out’. I asked if he had any experience of God. He answered by saying that he once prayed for something and it happened. I talked about what he would have to promise if he wanted to be baptised and talked about the need for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I sent him away with homework; to read Mark’s gospel and to write down any questions or confusions about what he read. I asked him to contact me in a week and we’ll chat about what he had discovered. I also invited him to come to church and to experience worship and prayer in the context of a community of believers.

He never came to church and I still wait for him to get back in touch. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I have had three previous conversations which have ended after our first meeting. All of them began with a request to be baptised. After these conversations I feel guilty that they hadn’t taken the opportunity to explore faith, I questioned whether I was putting too many barriers in the way and I beat myself up that I wasn’t able to share my faith i a way that was attractive or exciting for them.

Then I remind myself that for each of these encounters I also have stories of when I have sat with someone and share my faith with them and they now stand as faithful, practising Christians. God can and does use me sometimes!

I read the gospels and I see there Jesus asking people to follow him and many turning away and not taking him up on it. These refusals to follow Jesus don’t make Jesus change his admission policy but rather to pray and love them nonetheless. We should do the same. Keep the challenge to be a disciple but love those who feel it is too costly for them. There’s nothing wrong with being the crowd, Jesus still loved them, they just weren’t disciples with the responsibility and cost involved.

Reflection

We can all feel great pressure to make everyone we meet a Christian. The focus on mission and evangelism can be heard as a drive to increase membership in our churches but there is a distinction which needs to be heeded to stop us from selling grace too cheaply. Evangelism is not about the results. Evangelism is only about proclamation of good news; the word in greek for ‘evangelist’ means messenger, someone who speaks a message of good news. How the hearers responded was not their job, their sole purpose was to say the good news to the people. Let us not change the message so that it is favourable to the hearer. Let us instead proclaim the message faithfully and allow the hearers respond how they wish; some will hear, others won’t. Jesus knew this more than any of us.

Mission is more about establishing God’s Kingdom in our hearts and proclaiming it with our mouths and transformed lives than it is about increasing our market share. The results of mission and evangelism must remain out of our control if we are to not become manipulative or manipulated. This should not hinder the passion with which we engage in mission or evangelism we must still do it with all our heart and lives but God builds his Church. He must encounter people by his grace and he has always given humanity freedom to choose to respond or not. Allow him to take the heart ache of all those who do not listen to his voice.

Gracious Father, you came and met us in your Son, Jesus Christ, and called us to live a life as your disciples. You told us the cost and warned us of the challenge but you also showed us the glory of your resurrected life and the power of your Spirit. May we never forget reward of being in you and having you dwell within us. May we not sell that powerful experience of grace short with the people we meet.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 50: brothers who work at a distance from the oratory or are traveling

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Brothers who cannot come to the oratory at the appointed hours – because of their distance labor – should say the Divine Office where they are, kneeling in fear of God.

Who do I pray with?

Part of my personal reflections as I read the Rule of St. Benedict has been on my place within the Northumbria Community. My noviciate process has been stalled for two years now and recently I have been revisiting my future of the journey with them. I called a stop to the noviciate process due to my difficulties with the dispersed nature of the community. Despite having local groups that meet to encourage living out the Rule of Life and to have fellowship with, I have never found a group local enough. As a parish minister I feel a strong connection with my geographical location, serving and praying for the people in the area I live and work. I feel I would benefit from a community who walk the Rule of Life in that location asking the question, ‘How then shall we live… here?’

I still find the Rule of Life for the Northumbria Community enriching and challenging and I find myself returning to it and wrestling with its questions. I still say the Daily Office regularly and have settled into a sustained rhythm embedded over five years. I have made annual retreats to the Mother House over the years and contribute a relational tithe to them each month. I still feel a deep connection with the Northumbria Community and value their friendship and prayers but is the season changing now?

Part of my reflections on my relationship with the dispersed community has been the question of prayer and how it connects me into the community. Each morning, lunchtime and evening when I sit down to pray the Daily Office I feel a connection with the community, mainly those praying at the Mother House in Northumberland. I think of them often, sitting in Nether Springs, preparing meals, cleaning rooms for guests, leading workshops, pausing to say those shared words that I too am saying several miles south in my parish. It is the rhythm of prayer that connects me most; connects me into the established relationship with specific people and, in a smaller way to unknown members of the community across the world.

Over time, however, I find that I think of them less as my mind turns to my more immediate community in the parish. I now consider those who sit with me in situ regularly praying the Daily Office with me. My prayer ‘home’ is no longer up in Northumberland but here in York.

I have moved.

This is significant when considering what rhythm you pray to. I am feeling less and less of a relational connection with the people in Nether Springs (the Mother House of Northumbria Community) not because I love them any less or that I don’t desire to be with them more but because my rhythm of life has had to change. The Rule still stands as root for me to return to but the Daily Office has become less of that connection than it did. I don’t pray at the same time as my fellow journeyers up in Nether Springs due to the different work days that we have. I no longer pray for the same people as I focus my prayers on the local area with the prayers of the people around me.

Where does this leave me in my relationship with the Northumbria Community?

Many would say it doesn’t matter where you are, you engage with the community when and where you like; that’s what it means to be a dispersed community.

You’re expecting too much. It is too idealistic.

Maybe that’s true but I still have a deep call to be part of an intentional community which is rooted in the monastic tradition and part of that call, for me, is about location.

Another question I have is about the alternatives. I have yet to see God leading me to start an intentional community where I am at this point in time. I will soon be moving on from current role and it would be foolish and impractical to start anything now. I have, however, sensed there is a group of people orbiting the idea of this form of community discipleship in York and there is the potential bubbling up. What that looks like, how it would work and what Sarah and my role in that is has yet to be discerned. As my mind thinks over this possibility I think less of the Northumbria Community and more about the people who seem to share a call to intentional community in York.

Having prayed for over a year now around this subject all I can say is that I feel called to be a part of a group of disciples who live and work close to one another, who live out a life of prayer, study, dialogue and worship with one another, who have a passion for reconciliation, healing and creativity. I want to explore this with people who live close to me who can share my life as I share theirs and we share the life of Christ with the world.

Reflection

Parish life lends itself to a community at prayer in and for a specific location. Each morning and each evening I pray for my geographical area, I lift their needs and questions to God on their behalf and I am privileged to share that task with a small group of others who sit with me and support me. When I am unable to meet with them I still pray, wherever I am or they are and I do not feel alone… Of course I am not alone in prayer as thousands (if not millions) of others are praying with me at the same time, they’re just not in that room with me physically and that is where my reflections return.

Where is my physical community at prayer? Where is the community who not only say prayers with me but live out the prayers with me, who know me, know my heart, challenge me, pray for me and speak God’s word into my life?

Father, you are with me and by your Spirit you pray through me. You have called me to this place with a particular vocation and ministry. Keep me faithful to your timing and rhythm. Lead me in the way of Christ and gather round me the Body of Christ that I may play my part in it.

Come, Lord Jesus.