In Poole with our emerging Fresh Expression of Church Ekklesia -a new monastic group- we regularly take groups to Hilfields Friary a Franciscans residential community deep within rural Dorset, near Dorchester.
It has been a wonderful oasis for us, where all sorts of people have joined us from those just wanting a bit of space to some of our friends from the life works charity who are in recovery, struggling with mental health or just released from Prison some of whom have more complex needs. We are a mixed bunch that turn up each month for a day retreat, but God is faithful and meets with us. The ancient Celtic Christians talk of “thin places” where people can meet with God, and for us we come with an expectation of encounter.
We often misunderstand monasteries and friaries, think of them as cloistered escapism retreating from the world into a fluffy-spiritual bubble. Yet this misunderstands religious movements, that can be best understood as communities of resistance, refusing to conform to the culture or the Empire, capitalism, consumerism or whatever, a choice to live radically and differently from the conventional wisdom and expectations of the prevailing culture. A life of intersession is not running away from the world, but in intersession we run deeply into the world and its pain and problems discovering God’s heart afresh, a costly call. Franciscans are Friars, which are people who live out their faith in active service within the community.
Hilfields runs like an organic farm pioneering green and ecological thinking as they manage life together in a sustainable way stewarding creation well following the example of Patrick, they offer retreats and Spiritual Direction, in a rural setting, yet there are many Franciscans that live and work in a very different setting.
There are other communities, such as the house of divine compassion in Plaistow, in East London, which supports and blesses many people in need in this community, both Mark and I had been here separately before, my abiding memory was of an elderly Friar -in his 80’s- Edwin, playing hopscotch (in his habit) with a woman with mental health issues who was presenting as a child. This image of care and love, but also sharing joy and fun really struck me, too often we feed, clothe people and signpost them to other agencies, but do we take the time to laugh with them and bring them joy? This elderly cleric could have held onto his dignity and refused to do something as demeaning as skipping around in the back garden (with lots of people watching!) but he clearly cared more about blessing this woman that looking silly. This was an image I found deeply moving.
Later I got to ask Edwin how he sustained his faith and spiritual life, he smiled and said: “sometimes you need to go where there are more trees than people!” -reminding me of Saint Aiden who used to live on an Island that was only accessible when the tide was out, and people came and visited them for help and care, but when the tide began to rise people left and he and his followers were able to pray and do their devotions. I remember an athlete talking about how they factor into their work-outs ‘intentional recovery’ which in a sense is what Edwin and Aiden had discovered for their own emotional and spiritual health and well-being.
We were hear to meet Brother Sam their “head-honcho” but the Franciscans are very ‘flat-line’ as a community without pomp, ceremony and hierarchy and he is very much part of the team, indeed he was cooking the evening meal when we dropped by to meet him.
The previous evening we had met a wonderful group of young Franciscans in London (mainly in their twenties) whom we had had a very eclectic meal with jerk chicken, pizza, soup, figs and tequila sorbet before joining them in their beautiful but simple chapel for shared night prayer together.
Mark and I had struggled to find them (a bit of a theme here!) and ended up chatting to a guy called Tim who gave us directions. He asked about what we were doing and somewhat encouraged by our previous meeting with Dave, we began to talk about New Monasticism and Jesus, he was really interested and said he’d try and “look them up”. I believe that so many people in our generation have had a belly-full of consumerism -and most of the empty promises that our world regurgitates constantly- and are seeking something real, deep and authentic in wanting to escape the rat-race and ‘the system’ daring to believe that call that is at the heart of us all “that there truly is more to life than this”.
These guys had been working hard to pay the rent to the Church of England, all with other jobs on top of their commitment to communal life, hospitality and prayer, and a common purse, but even so was tough going, it turned out that it had been Sam’s influence that had caused the diocese to ‘cut them some slack’ with their rent. I wondered whether this mild mannered man (with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes) was gently pushing invisibly from the sidelines many prominent people to step out in faith and Christ-like obedience and generosity, we need more Brother Sam’s!
He also introduced us to an amazing and inspirational young brother called Finian.
They both asked us about our journey as a New Monastic Community, Mark and I spoke about our desire to be a community that helps one another to be all that Christ would have us be, and how to spur one another on and hold one another accountable to pursuing Christ-likeness. We spoke of our desire to work out a rhythm or rule of life (although we prefer the phrase “way of life), and how to hold together a life of activism and contemplation; practically and prayerfully living out our faith each day.
Yet rather than giving us a great “how to” guide -which I would I admit have quite liked but would probably have ignored!- they asked lots of insightful questions, realising that this “soul work” cannot be ‘short-circuited’ by just ‘quoting experts’ but rather wrestled prayerfully through the knottiness of trying to live for Jesus authentically every day, but through the questions helped clarify and crystallise our thinking.
After Sam went off to cook the tea, Finian chatted about how he has recently been involved in the Extinction Rebellion Protests, and how he feels passionate about “talking truth to power” -something Francis did very well- and how he had wonderful opportunities to talk about Jesus to those who were surprised to see a young guy in a habit at a protest.
I asked Finian about his call and vocation, a similar question to one I had asked the previous evening to the young Franciscans who talked about: “Going deeper with God -‘deep calling out to deep'” or the inspirational figure of St. Francis who spurred them on in their walk with Christ. Finian said something that chimed with the beginning of my journey when he said: “it’s all about encountering the presence of God which transformed my life and is the most wonderful thing I have ever experienced!” Admittedly his encounter with Christ might stylistically look different from Jimmy Rocks and the guys at “Open Heaven” but a reminder that at its heart Christianity is about “knowing God” not just “knowing about God”, the reality of encountering Jesus, being transformed by him and loving, following and serving him in the power of the Holy Spirit.