Sharing Our Monastic Journey!
My last activity in Derby was to share something of the ‘New Monastic Vision’ of what I am involved with in Poole 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!”
As I was about to speak to them, I felt my stomach tighten as I wondered what I was going to say, or perhaps whether they would “get” what I was on about? In one sense I wondered if I truly knew what I was on about either!
I start by trying to explain that New Monasticism has become a phrase that is used to describe many varied groups, events and activities often that look radically different from one another, and often wonder how can these different ideas, people and communities possibly have anything in common at all? A forest church in a wood somewhere might call itself ‘New Monastic” just as the homeless project could based in the city centre might cite a monastic influence or perhaps a prayer-room in a university campus covered in art, post-it notes, Bible verses with worship music blaring from the stereo might also use the term “New Monastic”.
Yet traditional monasticism has always had various interpretations, expressions and practices, yet often what is meant are values around prayer, the corporate-life/shared-life together, justice, hospitality, ecology, sacraments, study, simplicity, discipleship, mission, spirituality (and no doubt many others!) and the Missionaries of Charity (founded by Mother Teresa in India) which runs hospitals and orphanages for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta looks vastly different to the mobile-missionary order of the Jesuits –originally going from place to place as travelling evangelists with no fixed abode; Or the Trappists –taking on vows of silence and praying for hours in their cell in a remote Sussex village.
My mind wandered back to my journey that brought me to this point.
For me my journey in all things monastic began first when I was working for a Church in York when I was twenty-one, felt a bit disillusioned –they seemed obsessed by spiritual gifts (which are great) but felt very much like we were just chasing a bit of a spiritual high and buzz, with the latest Christian music- theologically it seemed that we spent all our time focused on life beyond the grave, which felt like “pie in the sky for when you die”, yet what about life now –Jesus talks about giving us ‘life in all its fullness and abundance” (Jn.10.10) which seems to be talking about both eternal life and life in the here and now, “steak on the plate whilst you weight” (apologies to any vegetarians!). One evening my friend Luke appeared after the evening service with a huge bag of cooked sausages from a barbecue he had been having (must have been quite a party, either that, or he had massively over-catered!) with the idea to give these out to the homeless of the city (York has a lot of homeless people). Myself, and a couple of others, went out with him, chatting to the homeless, praying for them and giving them some food to eat, in many ways not very radical but this was the first time I had done any work with the homeless, and it birthed something in me, which was a greater understanding of the Kingdom of God, that involves both the supernatural and the super-normal, prayer and practical concern, serving in the rain whilst sitting in the gutter as well as singing praise-songs in the sanctuary. Proclaiming good news is a calling to be good news. This was the birth of understanding the Kingdom of God is advanced and expressed through our words (what we say), our works (what we do) and God’s wonders (God working through us/despite us). Salvation has echoes of the Jewish word “Shalom” which means “wholeness”, the good news is both holy and holistic, speaking into every area and element of life.
Too often our vision is to fill our Church buildings, rather than transform the world, and there is nothing that the good news of Jesus does not have something meaningful to speak into the situation that calls upon the Christian to respond to with actions, prayers and words, we are called to be people who turn this upside down world the right way up for Christ –instead we have too often swapped this for a few platitudes and a bit of quiche.
For me, I continued to feel discontent and dissatisfied with what I was presented as ‘normal church life’ often looking so different from not just the Acts of the Apostles but also sometimes not feeling like it has much in common with Jesus either. I sometimes wondered whether Jesus might get angry and flip over a few tables at some of our church council meetings when we spend vast sums of money on ourselves and little to nothing on the ‘last, the least and the lost’.
As I looked for Christians who were living lives that seemed to grasp something of the reality of what I believe the normal Christian lives should look like, I began to notice that many of these guys were linked with intentional communities and monasticism. To live the life that God is calling us as his people to is one that is costly, sacrificial and challenging so tough that I do not think it is possible to do on our own –we need to be part of a community to try and change (not just the Church) but the world, this community needs to be one that goes further and deeper than just offering one another sympathetic looks and gestures over coffee once a week after when we make small talk over coffee, or the polite chit chat we have the nerve to call fellowship when in reality it is nothing of the sort! Whilst I was a youth worker in Poole in my early twenties, there was quite a group of us who were Christians (and there were always a fair few who hung out with us who wouldn’t call themselves Christians) but many of us used to pray together regularly, and there was strong levels of honesty and accountability (sometimes quite uncomfortable so) yet I knew these guys ‘had my back’ they genuinely cared about me, and in this period of time was when I felt I grew most in my walk and life of faith. Scripture uses these images of interdependence a great deal, and yet too often much of our spirituality in the western church is individualistic and consumerist, yet the monastics teach us that we need each other we can function fruitfully without being rooted and grounded in an authentic Christian community.
One of these friends was a guy called Chris Harwood, who I am seeing at the end of the tour, he was offered a bungalow on an estate with a negative reputation and he and a friend lived there as an intentional community, praying and working there as a youth worker. There house –which they ironically called ‘Rose Cottage’ as it was far from picturesque! Also became a hub for others to come and join with them to pray. I remember Chris being worried about looking like a posh middle-class boy coming to an estate to ‘do God’ to the people there and so was very respectful and wise about how he lived, talked and acted; sadly often Christians with a heart for mission work in deprived areas with an unintentional colonial or patronising attitude which (unsurprisingly) is not missionally fruitful!
It was largely through Chris and his work in North Bournemouth that I really understood community, and his flat became a community hub for many people, Chris began to explore things around New Monasticism, which I initially thought was weird, but got the idea about how intentional communities can sustain long term mission to an area, and offer something beautiful that the world is longing for.
Sadly, too often, Churches talk about community rather than actually practice it, community needs to be real and authentic and yet too often it can feel hypothetical, token-gesture or just empty rhetoric.
Community is not an optional extra for the Christian –nor is it something we should romanticise –people stuff can be hard work as they (like us) are broken and we tend to ‘catch’ on each other but , it is vital to our on-going spiritual health, we need and are needed. I am someone who rushes and gets burned out a bit, and I keep having to remind myself of an African proverb which says: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far go together”.
Scripture expects the Christians to be living in community sharing resources and building one another up, I wonder if the early apostles would recognise our “hour on a Sunday” and an activity or two in the week as Church, when their idea of following Jesus was much more corporate and collaborative in a way that is rarely seen in our inherited church, but still is very much part of monasticism which often has a high value in the communal.
Following getting bruised and burned out in my former parish of Kingswood I was reminded not only of my deep need to real (and reciprocal) relationships to enable me to follow Christ well, but I also need rhythms (some people use the word rule) to help me practically and spiritually. It is in those times when the ”wheels come off the wagon” that we realise the need of some spiritual disciplines to help you pray and keep going when you are struggling, and people who love you to walk with you, and hold you in prayer when maybe you can’t really pray yourself.
In a world obsessed by ‘well-being’ the monastic tradition is full wisdom of living well, authentically and deeply, perhaps this is why so many people who wpuld not call themselves Christians still see something attractive in monasticism which (when done ‘right’) is living in a way that draws us into Christ.
I was struck by a story of a monastery that was near a Buddhist Meditation Centre, and often the monks were ‘interrupted’ by knocks at the door with young backpackers asking directions to the Temple. Eventually the monks began to talk to the guys calling in, and soon they realised that what these young people were looking for Christianity had to offer in abundance.
In our community in Poole we have a lady who is a Buddhist and a guy who has walked with the Bahia faith, we have plenty to learn from them just as the Christian tradition has plenty of riches too, but I believe that monasticism is tapping in to a deep hunger people have for real and authentic spiritual lives, to journey deeply, to understand what (and how) can we be “good people” and is offering something traditional Sunday Morning congregations often don’t .
Theologically the only human-being to really manage to understand how to live the human life as it was intended by God was Christ, and his life and discipleship method looked more pilgrim/monastic than like what we are used to in traditional Church.
If we are trying to be Jesus-y, can we imagine that if Jesus were walking the earth today would he do the stuff we do? (And the way we do it?) Would he say:
“Yeah, this is my sort of thing!” A local Church in Bristol used to talk of re-producing the DNA of Jesus worked for our time, context and community rather than trying to blend into –and be like- the world.
As these ideas fizzed and crackled through my head I kept on meeting more and more people who were interested in, and exploring, New Monasticism, or linked somehow to the religious life, and somehow I realised that I had developed a heart for monasticism.
Many years later, following our move to Poole, I was having a beer with Chris (before he moved to Carlisle).
“Mase, you need to meet Mark Phillips!” said my friend Chris, draining his pint, “You’d really get on with Mark; he’s actually doing the stuff, not just talking about it!” Chris continued, flicking his eyes towards the bar, as if to say: “Catch up, Mase, my glass is empty!”
I ordered two more pints of beer and a plate of nachos, which had become a tradition, and continued: “I’m so tired of the odd token-gesture event mission/justice event appearing randomly on the church programme feeling like a conscience-salve whereby people can say ‘at least we are doing something’…”
Chris grinned with a smile that revealed, ‘I know exactly what you mean!’ “Cheers, Mase,” he said, as he took a swig of beer, before adding, “Mark’s the real deal!”
I had not yet met Mark, or become mates, but Chris went on to explain that Mark was the Community Worker and centre manager at Parkstone United Reformed Church. He was doing great stuff engaging in community action and activism, and building community with a diverse bunch of people all through the week, eating together each day, alongside a rhythm of prayer; exploring the tension between activism and contemplation.
“Sounds an interesting guy,” I said, taking a first sip of beer from a new pint, “I’ll have to look him up.” One of the advantages of being a newbie (or a returner) to a town is you can just drop people emails and say, “Hey, I’m interested in exploring stuff. Can I shout you a coffee and pick your brains?” Which has opened many really exciting doors over the years!
“I think Mark is doing some work with addiction too,” said Chris, his mind evidently thinking about Simon. Chris was also a friend of Simon’s and, like me, was in shock at his passing. Both of us had been speaking about how we would like to do something in his memory.
So, I managed to meet Mark and he asked me to speak at one of their morning services, 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.
Chatting to Mark he 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. Mark offers radical hospitality to all who visit, he always seems delighted to see you when you walk in the door, and always instructs you to “put the kettle on and lets have a brew!” 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. As part of the community here in the building there are a couple of people ‘hot-desking’ some admin staff and some volunteers from a project called “Life Works” many of these have additional needs such as poor mental health, in recovery or suffer from things such as Asperger’s so is a pretty disparate but wonderful bunch of people, that truly feels like a foretaste of heaven. Each day the community begins with prayer (although its sadly is only a few of us who come regularly to this), the entire community stops and eats together both at lunchtime and also at 4:00 when we have tea and toast together. If you are a visitor and happen to arrive near lunch-time or near time for tea and toast people are made welcome!
With Mark, we have begun to explore New Monasticism a bit more intentionally within Poole. The two words we have focused on are: ”Activism” and “Contemplation”; Activism risks burn-out and contemplation can give birth to lethargy but learning to harness the benefits of both elements forces us to become ‘reflective practioners’, acting wisely, living intentionally deeply whereby our activism brings practical reality and physical embodiment to our contemplation.
Activism with contemplation (or contemplation with activism) enables us to go deeper and to reach out further, and as we reach out further so we can go deeper.
Both Mark and I are by nature of the scale activists, but have come to realise and value the need of prayer, reflection and space to hear the voice of God afresh and to operate out of a healthy place of wholeness. 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. Some of the volunteers come regularly to Hilfields, and I remember an early session hearing one of the volunteers really open up about meeting with God and I had thought that perhaps they were just enjoying a free-day out, but God really challenged in that moment my judgemental attitude as I was fighting back the tears, as 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 exploring is a rule, rhythm or way of life, withsome 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.
We began to do regular monthly events exploring themes such as “Doing December Differently” where we looked at 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.
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, what God had done (and what God was doing) 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.