My last activity in Derby was to share something of our New Monastic Vision with the people from St. Thomas’s. Simon said “it is good for them to hear someone else talking about exploring these things too as it is not just us doing our own crazy thing here!” I laughed and said: “Always good to know there are other nutters about!”
So, as we ate together around the table, we chatted and I began tell the story of what has happened in Poole, before handing over to Simon to see if he could subtly blend our chat into a call to receive afresh the elements of communion, reminding us of Christ whose body was broken and blood was shed for us.
I spoke about how following Chris Harwood’s recommendation I met up with Mark Philips, and ended up being invited to speak at one of their Sunday Morning Café Church services with a small number of older people. At the end of the service Mark pressed a key into my hand and said “use here anytime you want for whatever you need!” –this deeply touched me as I was exploring what God was calling me to and where he was calling me, I felt pretty unwanted and like I no longer fitted into how Poole had become; yet here was someone –who despite not knowing the journey was keen to bless me, encourage me and invest in me which was an act of kindness that touched me very deeply.
Mark gave voice to his heart once as “longing to open the first monastery in one hundred years” a community in which all are welcome, where there is practical help –with the hungry fed, clothed and given shelter, where addictions are broken and people are healed by love- in a place which is both prayerful and practical.
I had enjoyed wandering around Parkstone United Reformed Church centre (known as PURC –although I was mortified when my dog Teddy wee’d on the floor whilst I was having the tour! The centre is a bit quirky and not always neat and tidy with lots of interesting Christian books everywhere, but is teaming with life with lots of communities using the building but unlike many centres it feels like they have a real relationship with Mark and the building. This might be because Mark is always around the centre mending something in and greets you with huge warmth and says “fancy a brew!” –and through Mark’s warm nature and enthusiastic tea-drinking he has changed many people’s lives.
Mark offers radical hospitality to all who visit, it is not always from bone china cups with matching saucers, but it feels like family, come as you are and hope you can accept us as we are. Each day the community stops and eats together, and even if you are just visiting when food is ready you’re welcome to join in, many of the volunteers who came to various projects have many different needs so sometimes conversations can become a little random, and there is normally some banter, but if I am free at a lunchtime this is one of my favourite places to be.
The two words we have focused on are: ”Activism” and “Contemplation” as if you just run around doing stuff you eventually burn out, and if you just sit around contemplating you just get lethargic, but learning to harness the benefits of both elements forces us to become ‘reflective practioners’, where contemplation refining the activities we do so that our energies are used most fruitfully, and our activism brings practical reality and physical embodiment to our contemplation’s. Going deeper enables us to reach out further, and we reach out further so we can go deeper.
Yet what Mark and I both share is that both of us have got burned by exhaustion and singed by burn-out, seeking to discover a new way of being, of wanting to not just become busier and busier but to go deeper in our relationship with God and discovering new practices to refresh and sustain us. Each day we pray together at the start of the day with a morning prayer, and often with a lunchtime prayer too. As both of us have previously struggled to make time for retreats and reflections we now stop each month for a day and take some cars up to nearby Dorchester to a Friary there with whoever wants to come along with us (sometimes some interesting mix of people) and just allow God some space and time to encounter us, speak to us, and change us.
Many of the people who come are some of the volunteers from life works which is a charity that helps out those who –for whatever reason- need a bit of extra support, some struggling with addictions, some recently released from prison and others with mental health issues, and I wondered if they just enjoyed coming as it was a day that was different from their normal work day? This was until the second or third time we visited and Mark suggested we closed our time together with a prayer, a couple of the guys shared what God had been doing, and a couple prayed and I was fighting back the tears, clearly God was doing something real, deep and beautiful in their lives, and I had been incredibly judgemental in selling that short.
One of the things many of us –including Mark and I- have been a rule or rhythm of life, some shared values to live by and to hold one another accountable to, and as we began to talk we ended up wondering if we really asked ourselves about how we could practically make real and achievable changes in our daily lives to better reflect the values of the Kingdom of God.
As we develop a rule of life we seek to instil in ourselves practices that we could hold one another accountable too, recently a few of us have begun reading the Bible together –and sharing life together- and posting what we think or were challenged by each day on whatsapp.
It was nearly Christmas and our first event was “Doing December Differently” where we explored issues around trade-ethics, localism, sustainability, stewardship and we invited many local groups that were implementing positive different ways of celebrating Christmas, which was not only a lot of fun and helped network together Christians and community activists, but has continued to be an on-going question exploring about doing Lent (how about keeping Lent local?), Advent (how about a reverse calendar putting something in for a foodbank each day) (or choosing not to wrap our presents in plastic that ends in landfill or buy crackers that just end in the bin), Harvest (where perhaps we can look at reclaimed food being used to feed the hungry), Easter and Pentecost differently in practical ways.
As we have set out on this journey we have inadvertently discovered that it has attracted people to us and the journey we feel called to, on one occasion after posting some photos of an event a mum facebooked me and said “My kids would love this, could we have an event more children focused?” which was never part of the original vision but having children with us has radically transformed the feel of us as a community, with prayer stations and acts of random kindness I have discovered that the children really encounter God through different ways of praying, and often end up sharing remarkable and thought provoking things to the adults.
Yet, it is not just Christians who have found a place to journey with alongside us, Mark’s partner Tracy, a Buddhist, has joined much of what we do, and has really brought something new, fresh and challenging to this journey, and I have found her questions and experiences from her faith have really challenged and inspired me in mine. Another guy Mike, was having lunch at Parkstone URC (or PURC as we call it) and was (with a twinkle in his eye) talking about how he once had past-life regression and had been a Franciscan Friar in a past century! Which led to an interesting conversation, followed by a bang on my door and a suggestion of an event “contemplation and conversation” where we share silence and contemplation together, thinking and exploring some ideas, before chatting together and sharing our thoughts, he had written a mini syllabus which featured miracles, Trinity, Truth and Paradox. Here was someone who was not a Christian inviting me into conversation about some pretty big issues and topics which was an exciting opportunity that most vicars would spend a small fortune on and here it was happening for free before our eyes.
So, as I splurged all this out before the guys at St. Thomas’s I realized just how much we had done, and just how far we have come, if I had not had to talk about it to these people at St. Thom’s would I have realized how much God has already done her amongst us in Poole.
Monasticism is really just trying to work and walk together in living out your faith in Christi in all that you do, keeping accountable, and disciplined in our outlook at ethos.