I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the way that monastic and religious orders, order their lives. I can see great wisdom in the concept of ordering the day around non negotiable times of spiritual activity, and I have been working for some time to try and order my own life similarly.
One aspect I have thought quite a bit about, and found most difficult to implement is the concept of silence. In a monastery, the ‘great silence’ or ‘big silence’ is (depending upon the way of the particular order in question) between Compline (roughly 9pm) and Terce (9am) so for half the day there is a silence, punctuated only by times of prayer.
The silence represents not so much the absence of sound, but the absence of interpersonal communication. The idea is that this time is reserved for meditation, prayer, reflection, and of course sleep where you can get it.
But how do you attempt to implement something like this when you are not in a monastery? In my house, silence between 7am and 9am for instance is not a possibility, nor is it possible between 9pm and 11pm most nights. I get away with the rest because either I, or everyone else is probably asleep for most of it.
However, on reflection I have been wondering if a suitable solution may not be found in digital silence.
I already practise digital silence – apart from the occasional abberation – during the weekend, surely it couldnt be too hard for me to practise it between 9pm and 9am, or possibly 9.30 to 9.30 too? As I usually work up to about 10pm, this will hack an hour or two off my computer working time, but I sure I could claw that back by less reading of online newspapers and other blogs – perhaps my blog feeds will take a bit of a cut to acheive this.
I know that once my computer is on in the morning, the chances of me taking time out to meditate are gone, I have to do it before I download my email or else I am too distracted. If I miss an early morning meditation slot, then in ordinary circumstances my chances of making space in the morning are slim.
Anyway, just thinking out loud really – in the spirit of looking at computer use as digital communication. I am planning to implement this from next week, and I’ll let you know how I get along.
In other new/old monasticism related news:
Today – the launch of a new multi authored book about new monasticism: ‘Ancient Faith Future Mission: New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of Church’ which looks good. Some discussion of aspects of it here and here.
Out already – a film called ‘The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer’, of interest to many, download it on itunes in the US.
Coming soon – a fascinating film called ‘Of Gods and Men’ about a monastic community caught up in the midst of an African civil war.
And finally dont forget my book, ‘Totally Devoted, the challenge of new monasticism’ , which will introduce the whole subject to you, takes you to meet new monastics here in the UK, and will hopefully inspire you too.fre
I’ve been party to a bit of discussion recently about new monasticism, whether it is in fact new, or monastic. Monastic is of course a word which has different meanings to different readers, and in one sense you might say indeed, there is not much monastic about many of the new monastics.
But when Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of a new monasticism, he called for one which had nothing in common with the old, save an unswerving allegiance to the sermon on the mount.
What has fascinated me, among other things, is what contributed to getting Bonhoeffer to this point. One thing I noticed was that he spent time with the Community of the Resurrection (CR), and following my own visit to them, I began to see a link.
The man who founded CR was called Charles Gore. Gore was a privileged, well educated young man who clearly had a prodigious intellect and a powerful social network. But despite his privileged background, Gore was an iconoclast, an early socialist and as founder of CR a man who encouraged the return of the church to religious life. Even within the church, his Anglo Catholicism set him apart.
Anyway, Gore was fortunate enough to go to Harrow school, one of the best boys schools back then (an maybe today too) – this was in back in the 1860s. Whilst at Harrow, Gore came under the tutelige of a man called Brook Fosse Westcott, another extraordinary character.
Westcott has had a good deal written about him, as has Gore, but the key moment for me, was a sermon Westcott preached to the boys of Harrow School when he was assistant Master – this was in 1868.
In the sermon, which powerfully impacted Gore, Westcott extolled the ‘Disciplined Life’ – but then went on to contend that St Benedict, St Francis and Ignatius of Loyola, founders of the Benedictine, Franciscan and Jesuit orders respectively, had expressed this disciplined life in a form ‘inappropriate’ to the time they were now in.
“History thus teaches us that social evils must be met by social organisation. A life of absolute and calculated sacrifice is a spring of immesurable power. In the past it has worked marvels, and there is nothing to prove that its virtue is exhausted.”
He then went on to call for a new kind of disciplined, monastic, or religious life, which in a ‘pre-post modern’ way was to be a kind of bricolage of other rules:
“We want a rule which shall answer to the complexity of our own age. We want a discipline which shall combine the sovereignty of soul of Antony, the social devotion of Benedict, the humble love of Francis, the matchless energy of the Jesuits…”
Legend tells that when Gore and five others founded CR in 1892, they each took a different rule to study. From each they pulled out certain elements which they took to be particularly important, and pooling them, began to form a new rule, relevant to them in their current age.
An interesting point to note is that now the community is looking again at the issue of the rule. They are now drawing more heavily on the Benedictine rule rather than their own, which they now seem to recognise was very much ‘of its time’.
CR was then founded to be an order of religious life within the Anglican church. This was at a time when these things were being revisited, and it represented a shift in focus. Over the 100+ years of its existence it has shifted a bit and settled a bit, and now resembles something perhaps more akin to a settled monastic order of the old sort – albeit with strong elements of the religious life.
Curiously Gore was also at Harrow at the same time as a master called Rev W D Bushell, who in 1897 bought Caldey Island, a small but significant place in South Wales, just off the coast of Tenby. Caldey has been home to monkishness for centuries, I have personally visited a very ancient ruined Celtic building there. In an attempt to rebuild some of its ancient monastic heritage, in 1900 Bushell invited a community of Benedictines to live on the island, selling the whole place to them six years later. Bushell’s more romantic association with medieval monastic history wasnt exactly close to Gore’s progressive and political religious life thoughts, but its a curious cross over.
So when we talk about new monasticism today, and we wonder whether something is new or indeed monastic, lets try and take the long view. CR as a community exists today as an important part of the older story, but they were once very new – a radical left wing outpost of Anglo Catholicism in the dirt and grime of industrial yorkshire.
I am sure that when Bonhoeffer looked at them he saw something of this heritage, his visit in the 1930s was barely 40 years after the community had been founded (in 1892) and it was still getting going. He must surely have seen in them the driving force of a desire for a new kind of monasticism, or a new kind of disciplined life, and recognised in them the same motivation as his own.
I’m deeply indebted to Alan Wilkinson’s book ‘The Community of the Resurrection – A centenary history’ for this article. That is where you will find the quotes I give above. It’s out of print, but if you hunt you will find it – I did.
It’s not often that I nip away for a night, but this weekend is going to be a bit special. I’m meeting up with my good friend James, and we’re off to visit a special place.
The Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, Yorkshire, is an Anglican monastic community, which follows the Benedictine rule. The community are particularly notable historically for a couple of reasons – firstly for their remarkable anti apartheid work in South Africa, and more recently Zimbabwe. Their corporate efforts in Southern Africa have been ongoing for more than a century. If memory serves me well, I believe that community members later had some involvement with Bruce Kenrick, who after being inspired by the East Harlem Protestant Parish went on to form the housing charity Shelter.
And secondly, although very notably from my perspective, they played home for a short time to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he was looking at the shape of his own ‘new monastic’ community which later took form at Finkenwalde, which if you read my book ‘Totally Devoted‘ you will of course already know.
So this trip is part pilgrimage, part reunion, part adventure. I’m really looking forward to it.
This is a classic quote, which strikes at the core of a ‘monastic’ approach to life:
“A brother was troubled in his solitude. He went to see Abba Theodore about it. The old man said to him, ‘Go, be more humble in your aspirations, place yourself under obedience and live with others.’
Later, he came back to the old man and said, ’I do not find peace with others.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are not at peace either alone or with others, why have you become a monk ? Is it not to suffer trials? Tell me how many years you have worn the habit ?’
He replied, ‘For eight years.’
Then the old man said to him, ‘I have worn the habit for seventy years and on no day have I found peace. Do you expect to find peace in eight years ?’
At these words the brother went away strengthened.”
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, alphabetical collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Mowbrays. 1975/77. p 63. ISBN 0 264 661 249.
I watched the second episode of BBC’s The Big Silence on iPlayer yesterday, I was really impressed by the programme, there was depth to it but no mawkishness, a fascinating, entertaining and well captured study of regular people encountering something which goes beyond themselves. I really reccomend you watch it, very good stuff indeed.It honestly is not boring – I know I like boring stuff, but this isnt it!
The focus on the great spiritual value of silence reminds me of something Thomas Merton wrote, which seems truer than ever:
“It is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard.” (Thoughts in Solitude, p91).
An interesting film and book project coming out of the states that may be worth having a look at if you are interested in Monastic spirituality/Christian primitivism – as I am.
At first I was unsure, thought it might have been a wind up because of the names of the two principal people involved, but that was just my Anglo Saxon ignorance showing, this looks like a genuine and fascinating project.
I am guessing that the mysterious Jesus Prayer of which they speak is ‘The Jesus Prayer’ – which is well known I think, but then again it may be something quite different, and it will certainly be interesting to get a look into some of these ancient places.
I’ll blog more if it gets more interesting.
Today is the feast day of Saint Francis, the poor man of Assisi.
Francis founded the brotherhood now known as the Franciscans, and is widely regarded as a model of selfless Christian virtue. His commitment to radical living is respected across the traditions, but its worthy of note that very few of us are willing to follow too closely in his footsteps.
Here was a man who repented so thoroughly of his worldly ways that he gave up all of his possessions, choosing to abandon everything and rely solely on providence and charity. A difficult enough task for anyone, but consider that Francis was born into wealth and privelige, and from an early age had a reputation for being a party animal.
Francis demanded of his brothers a vow of poverty which was considered too extreme by his contemporaries, leading him to evenutally be deposed from the leadership of his own order.
His poverty wasnt tokenism either, he suffered for his choice, hard living and malnutrition leading to his becoming ill towards the end of his life (he only lived to 45), and going blind. When the pope heard of his blindness, he ordered that he should be operated on – which meant the cauterising of the eyes with red hot pokers – nice.
So Francis models radical devotion, selfless and without personal consideration. He reminds us that it is not the self publicists and the powerful who can have great influence for good. He reminds us that Christianity means suffering, that none of us are exempt from hardship because of virtue.
No wonder so few of us want to model any part of our lives on his, but love to talk glowingly of him as one of our favourite saints.
Just a note by the way – Francis was originally Christened Giovanni – which is ‘John’ after the Baptiser – his father demanded he be renamed Francesco and should become a businessman and dandy. It was only when he broke with his father’s expectations that he reclaimed the mantle of the itinerant prophet clad only in rags.
Francis too is remembered for his love of, and respect for, all nature. He has much to teach any of us who make pretentsion to care for the environment and the garden in which we live.
A truly important figure in the ongoing story which we are part of – and one on whom we need to turn more of our attention.
The second part of the book is based upon interviews and research which looks at a range of residential (and other) communities and movements – one of which is the small prayer house of Ffald-Y-Brenin in West Wales.
The prayer and retreat centre of Ffald-Y-Brenin, which means sheepfold of the King, is a house of prayer in rural Pembrokeshire, which belongs as much in a section on places of prayer and hospitality as it does here.
It was established during the 1980s as a Christian retreat centre, but had no real identity or driving vision until, in 1999, Roy and Daphne Godwin arrived to take on the running of the centre and began to see it fulfil its potential as a house of prayer.
Since their arrival, one of the most significant steps taken by the Godwins and their team at Ffald-Y-Brenin is the adoption of rhythm of prayer as a key part of the daily life of the house. After initially inviting a small group of people to commit to regular praying of a blessing for Wales, they now report that thousands of people are regularly praying with them. Looking around for a model which would most comfortably fit with the way their life
was developing, they began to learn and understand more about early Celtic Monasticism.
They found that what became important to them was to reorder their lives around a rhythm of prayer which centred thoughts upon the work of the Holy Spirit. They began to live according to a pattern of life which prioritized prayer, and found hospitality and relationship a natural expression of a lifestyle based upon God’s love, in which they found echoes of the Celtic spiritual heritage which is very rich in the area.
Certainly the feeling of remoteness and isolation inherent in the location is a powerful reminder of the rich legacy of the Celtic monks. The Celtic notion of ‘thin places’ – locations where the ‘veil’ between heaven and earth is particularly thin – is one they and others identify with…
I suppose the first half of the book really is spent setting the scene for a look at some of the communities which exist today, and there really is a lot of context to be explained. For instance there is the role of Anglicanism, and the movement which was born around the same time, but which in many ways is its opposite, Anabaptism. Both of these wings of the church have played important roles in the formation of new kinds of monasticism.
…within a few years of the Reformation, Deacon Nicholas Ferrar founded an Anglican lay community at his home in Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire. The ripples of that particular wave are still being felt in the UK today. More details of this community are to be found in chapter 10.
Other Anglican orders have had significant impacts upon the worlds of monasticism and religious life. The Community of the Resurrection, for instance – who were visited by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1935 as he sought to find practical ways for starting his new sort of monastic community – are an Anglican order who are best known for their pioneering work in apartheid-era South Africa. The brothers of the community had deliberately chosen to base their religious life amid the grime and soot of industrial Yorkshire; in doing so, they were, and continue to be, a model for other monastic and religious life expressions found in urban locations.
Returning to the Reformation of the European continent, and we begin to find people using the terminology ‘new monastics,’ which became a kind of derogatory term used by supporters of the Reformation leader Martin Luther, in reference to the Anabaptist movement with whom Luther was in serious dispute. Luther himself had been a monk previously, and after leaving the cloister is said to have denounced barefoot friars as ‘lice placed by the devil on God Almighty’s fur coat.’ The Reformer Wolfgang Capito wrote worriedly about the former Benedictine monk turned Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler, who he thought was bringing about ‘the beginning of a new monasticism’.