Posted on the 27th Jun 2017 in the category News
In the June 2017 edition of New Directions Fr Peter CSWG explains why the Church of England needs contemplative communities
The physical heart is not a large organ in the human body: the size of your closed fist is the most regular answer. It weighs well under 1% of our body’s weight, yet through it flows the means and the possibility of human life. Any malfunctioning of the heart, without corrective measures speedily taken, and life is likely to cease altogether. Working in harness with the lungs, the heart plays an indispensable part in healthy human living. In the Body of Christ that is the Church, the grace of contemplation, understood as the fullness of prayer, undertakes a similar function as the physical heart in the body. Prayer is absolutely crucial for the life and well-being of that Body: if there is any malfunctioning of its ‘heart’, there will be a correspondingly limited life. ‘The Mission of the Church is weak because its prayer is weak’ (Fr William of Glasshampton).
Contemplative communities represent but a small proportion of the religious life of monks, nuns and solitaries, and a tiny minority of all Christians, yet their life directed to ‘unceasing prayer’ (1 Thess. 5.16-18) is vital for the positive functioning and healthy flourishing of the Church’s mission: its service to the world, and to the ‘poor’ among our fellow human beings.
Fr William of Glasshampton became a Franciscan friar with the Society of the Divine Compassion (SDC) at the turn of the last century. He initially found the meaning of his calling from God, by responding to the desperate needs of the poor and marginalized in London’s East End, and in particular a leper community in East Hanningfield. After several years of this ministry of mercy, William was led by God to leave all this behind in order to found an enclosed contemplative community at Glasshampton. This was not without some difficulty, for his own Community were not convinced of the vital importance and urgent purpose of such a life, in the degree to which Fr William had become convinced.
Although in the end no one joined Fr Willliam at Glasshampton, the present monastic community at Crawley Down (Community of the Servants of the Will of God – CSWG) regards its own life and growth as witnessing the fruit of William’s solitary witness and life of prayer. The Founder of CSWG, Fr Robert Gofton-Salmond, bought the property there in 1938, the year following Fr William’s death.
In Fr William’s understanding, without the fully enclosed contemplative life of men as well as women, the Church of England could not be regarded as having the fullness of catholic and apostolic life that began in the New Testament and during first 300 years of the Church.
The life of contemplation begins in Gethsemane, where the final testing of the Lord’s human will to affirm and choose the Father’s will took place: ‘Not my will but yours be done’ (Matt. 26.39, 42, 44). That struggle and its victory won in the Spirit enabled the triumph that would emerge the following day as the whole of creation was offered back by the Lord to the Father from the Cross.
Contemplative life thus finds its centre in the passion and death of the Lord at Calvary. The content of its life is never far from the heart of the Christian mystery, calling for sacrifice and a generous heart. Because that mystery of the Passion is its centre, contemplative life is filled also with joy and thanksgiving, sharing in the abundance and fullness of God’s blessings and the resurrection of new life, which are made possible through the Cross. The two – suffering and joy – become inextricably intertwined as the great Spanish mystic St John of the Cross came to witness in his later poems, ‘Spiritual Canticle’ and ‘Flame of Love’.
Contemplation is not something we do but rather something God does in us. For that reason, there can be contemplatives in the world and in parishes (including many parish priests), as well as those who share in a corporate community life. Contemplation requires stillness, some silence and solitude, and there may appear what seems to some a certain slowness in the manner of doing things that is baffling to the uncomprehending outsider, and ‘heresy’ according to contemporary cultural shibboleths. Together these qualities produce a stability of life that fosters continuous prayer. The most eloquent description in Scripture of the life of contemplation is found in St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: chapters 3-6, and its nub in chapter 4.6-12:
‘Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’ It is God’s work of re-creating human beings in his image, into Christ who is the image of God, into the resurrected life of his new nature. This new nature arises out of that continual life of dying and rising, and manifests itself as the new creation of Christ.
In the Book of Proverbs comes that remarkable saying: ‘without vision, the people perish’. It is the vision furnished by contemplation that has always spurred forward the Church, and broken new ground: Fr Mackonochie, Fr Benson SSJE, Fr William of Glasshampton, as radiant stars familiar to us in the more recent past of our church, were all spurred on by such a vision. They were all tried and tested in the Spirit, united thus with the Passion of Christ. Each in a different way held before people the vision of the beauty and glory and goodness of God, the ‘beauty of holiness’. The outcome from such a vision is always a reaching out to ‘the poor’ – to the marginalized, deprived and downtrodden, whom prosperous society casts on one side.
The Church of England needs its contemplative communities as it needs apostolic communities: it needs women and men consecrated to the Gospel and willing to give all for witness of its truth, living it out in a manner that precisely does that. The Church needs the vision given in contemplation: the prophetic understanding of what is wrong and bad in the present state of things; it also rekindles in us the glory and power of God’s goodness and beauty, lost sight of by a secular mentality, which alone has the capability to transport us, and to ‘move the mountains’ which the Lord promises to faith.
We all need to keep telling one another: the religious life is an exacting but real choice for Jesus and an answer to God’s invitation made through our baptism, for each one of us to serve him. So we will be sharing this with folk once again, this time in Kennington in South London at the end of September.
Please encourage anyone you know who may have an interest to attend.
Posted on the 6th Apr 2017 in the category News
In the autumn last year, ten intrepid seekers (male and female) made their way to York from varying parts of the country to take part in a Taster Day sponsored and organized by members of RooT, and to listen to the stories of three members of communities – two monks and a nun – telling something of what it might be like to become involved in such a call. One of those seekers shares his experience of the Day:
The Hollies have it:
Perhaps not from the writings of one of the great Church Fathers of ages past, or a theologian of the contemporary church, but the Hollies have it! The Christian journey is never a straightforward one, but neither is it dull or uneventful for indeed God, as Gerard Hughes SJ tells us is a ‘God of Surprises’. One such surprise was an advert posted onto my Facebook page:
Intriguing. Could this be talking to me, a priest of the Old Catholic tradition? In some small way, I have always had perhaps a romantic idea in the back of my mind, that to live in community would be a lovely, idyllic, prayerful, and serene life, bathed in the hushed tones of plainsong and holiness. So, could that be me? Here was the question for real. I got in touch with Louise, who was coordinating the event, and so following an e-mail from Fr Peter CSWG, I was soon headed off to York. It occurred to me whilst on the train, how “other” our brothers and sisters who live in community can seem to be. Not in any negative way at all, after all many of us, whether on retreat or pilgrimage, will have come across these holy enigmas, but how often do we really get to share on a personal level or in community the story of their vocation, and indeed to explore if we are being called to such a life?
The venue was the beautiful 1470’s medieval hall of Jacob’s Well. Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by an assortment of robed figures, hospitality abounding and hot drinks flowing. As our numbers grew, so did the conversation, and with ease and genuine joy our band of pilgrims readily settled in, and once assembled, +Glyn gathered us all together in welcome and prayer, and so our Taster Day began.
Introductions next and how extraordinary it was too. No less than 8 communities represented. Re- enter The Hollies. ‘The road is long…….,’ but how inspiring it was to hear the personal stories of some of our brethren. How they encountered God’s call to the religious life, and how reassuring it was for me and I’m sure for my fellow pilgrims, to hear that seldom was there ‘a Damascus moment’. God, although full of surprises, is a God of subtle and personal conversation, the still small voice of calm. Our conversation opened up and with remarkable generosity, we learned much. Missionary work, education, social work, hospital work, pastoral care, retreats, spiritual direction along with daily communal worship and private devotion, were just some of the aspects we spoke about of a life lived in community. Questions flowed and were answered, leading us to The Angelus, and Sext. Whether by design or good fortune, it was the feast of S. Thérèse of Lisieux, herself a model of religious life; surrounded by such charisma, the need for food became apparent.
Lunch followed, hearty and simple, +Glyn once again joined us, and so our fellowship continued, allowing us opportunity to mix more freely, to swap notes and to form new friendships. We seemed to respond organically to the idea of community after our meal, each without direction assuming a role to ensure everything was tidy and nothing was left to fall on the shoulders of those who had provided such a wonderful lunch. We gathered once more, this time in smaller groups for a more intimate time with our brethren and each other, allowing a deeper, more personal discussion about our own journeys through faith and how we might respond to our vocations, for as Christians we each have one.
At 3pm we headed just around the corner for Holy Mass to the Parish church of S. Mary, Bishophill joined with S. Clements York: a glorious building spanning the ages and orthodox traditions. The warm and friendly Anglo-Catholic congregation and clergy also play host to the Greek Orthodox congregation of Ss. Constantine and Helen, and the Russian Orthodox congregation of Ss. Constantine and Helen. Fr. Andrew celebrated and preached, offering his insight into the role of religious in the contemporary world. After Mass, we were invited for tea and cake, a final opportunity to spend time together swapping numbers, and compare notes. A final presentation from Louise by way of huge thanks to those who fed and watered us, to +Glyn, Fr. Andrew, and of course the very dear brothers and sisters who travelled far and wide to be with us. Our final joy was to be thanked too for our being there and sharing our journey. After a final prayer of thanksgiving and the blessing, we each received a gift and an Invitation: “Come and See. You are invited….. “. An invitation I know is open to all! .
After all, as the Psalmist writes, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Or…. As The Hollies have it (forgiving the non-inclusive language). ‘He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother..!’
Fr Mark Dunning
Posted on the 4th Nov 2016 in the category News
In the October issue of New Directions Fr Nicolas Stebbing of the Community of the Resurrection asks some questions - see here.
Posted on the 8th Sep 2016 in the category News
Today most communities offer facilities for becoming an “alongsider” – the opportunity to live more or less the same life as Community members, but without any obligation to make a definite long-term commitment. Taster Days, meanwhile, are an opportunity to see and meet with different members of communities and to chat informally about their lives, perhaps asking questions you wanted to ask but never dared! There is a monastic Taster Day in York on Saturday 1 October for anyone interested in finding out more about the traditional monastic way of living. For full details, see here, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted on the 7th Sep 2016 in the category News
In the September 2016 edition of New Directions Fr Nicolas Stebbing CR reflects on the call to the religious life.
Why do so few people enter the religious life these days? That is a question that has occupied many of us over the past few decades as religious communities have grown smaller, and seem largely to consist now of elderly monks and nuns. The occasional young brother or sister is an exception, and much rejoiced over - but why are there so few of them?
There are, of course, many answers: the world has changed; most young people do not come to church; the Catholic constituency in the Anglican Church has contracted; women particularly now have many other ways in which they can fulfil themselves; and young people used to life in an affluent and materialistic world find it much harder to step away.
I wonder, however, whether there is another answer that is much closer to home. Are people in our parishes really learning to pray? Or, to put it more accurately, are they learning to pray in a way that will bring them to realise that God may ask difficult things from them; and if He does ask difficult things will they see it as a joy and a privilege, not a burden?
The religious life should never be a soft option. Historically it has often become a soft option, and then it has died. Every single renewal of the religious life has taken on a more demanding, more costly form, and that is what brings in the new recruits. Those of us who live the religious life need not to ask if we are too tough for a modern generation, but whether our lives become too soft, and too compromised to be attractive to generous souls who really want to serve God. Not many of us will come out of that process of questioning unchanged.
However, the responsibility does not stay with us. How are the parishes teaching people to pray? What kind of prayer are young people being taught in schools, confirmation classes, or on pilgrimage? Is it a prayer which is centred on God, which opens the person to the possibility that God may say to them ‘Follow me’ in that totally uncompromising way that brooks no argument and allows no concessions? Or is the prayer focused on the self ? Much prayer given to children, I fear, is about teaching them to ask God for what they want, and encouraging them to expect only good, nice things in return. This is nonsense; but is it often the message they get. Sadly, it seems also to be the message many older people receive as well.
Anyone involved in spiritual direction will have heard remarks like ‘I used to say the office, but I didn’t get anything out of it, so I gave it up’; or ‘I used to pray, but I got bored and stopped’; or ‘I used to go to daily mass, but…’. There are endless variations. The sad fact is that most of us (myself included) have at times been convinced by our modern world that everything we experience from God must be good, nice, affirming, cuddly, and warm; or that everything we do for God or in church must immediately result in feeling good, otherwise it is a failure. Christian life becomes a search for those ‘good’ experiences, whether through the hype of choruses, music groups, tongues and excitement; or through glorious vestments, clouds of smoke, and exotic music. None of those things is bad in itself; but each can be a substitute for God, and the search for spiritual satisfaction can lead into hysteria and despair.
Against this self-centredness stands the story of Jesus Christ, who ‘left us an example…that we should follow in His steps’ (1 Peter 2:21). Christ was not concerned for himself. He wanted simply to do His Father’s will. He wanted to make sure His disciples were cared for and did not give up in despair. He suffered for the whole world and He suffered more than any of us could suffer since He had infinite capacity to suffer. Can we actually follow in His steps without some acceptance of suffering? Should we perhaps even welcome suffering as a chance to follow the Christ whom we love?
Suffering in this context need not be physically painful. We don’t have to suffer chronic illness, or martyrdom. We do need to suffer the daily checks and trials that move us away from selfishness and make us care for others. We need to give up that cherished (and spurious) freedom our society makes us think is our basic human right. We do need to pray in a costly way that will be for other people and for the praise of God, not for our own comfort.
Of course, it doesn’t need to be all pain. We Catholics are good at enjoying ourselves. It is fun to do good liturgy, to have nice vestments, and to make good music. It is great to go on pilgrimage, and to enjoy days at Walsingham. But underneath is there the discipline of daily prayer, a prayer that will often be dry and costly? Is there the practice of frequent confession, admitting to the sins and failures that we wish we didn’t have to speak about? And in relationships do we accept the Christian way, which makes quite difficult demands on us? Modern society’s sexual freedom is not for us, however much we may wish it were.
This may sound rather grim. It isn’t, actually. Jesus did promise that if we took up his yoke and burden we would find it easy and light – but we have to take it up to find that out. Religious life is a very joyful place to be, so long as one makes as few compromises as possible. We will all compromise a little! Doing the will of the Father may take us into areas with large horizons and quite scary scenery; but it won’t be dull. The modern world offers people endless exciting experiences, and fails to deliver more than passing enjoyment, which never fully satisfies. Jesus Christ offers us a way that gets better and better, if we don’t get frightened and opt out. He offers us a road walked with him that can only be exciting, stimulating, and unsafe. God offers some of us a life in which prayer takes a great part: offering him praise on behalf of a world that does not pray, and begging him to him to send his healing spirit on a broken and suffering society. The world needs this prayer, and so does the Church; and it starts with daily prayer where each of us, and now.