I’ve now been living in the Community of St Anselm for four weeks. At times it feels like it’s been a lot longer and at other times I’m aware that we are only at the very beginning of our journeys – both individually and as a community. Inevitably lots of people have been asking how I’m getting on, what it’s like here and what we do on a daily basis and so I wanted to use my second blog post from the community to answer some of those questions, by focusing on some key features of our shared life here:
Silence. It’s the question everyone asks. How is someone like me – whose known for never being short of words – coping with the silence? And how much silence is there?! So, during the week, we are silent between 10.30pm and 10am (unless we are speaking as part of the morning prayer service) and on a Wednesday, this silence is extended until 2pm. Surprisingly, I have come to see silence as golden. Mutually agreed silence prevents you from feeling like you have to socially perform every moment of the day. Silence helps limit meaningless distraction and superfluous noise. Silence makes the voice within* louder and clearer. Silence demonstrates a trust in something other than my own efforts.
Community tasks. Lots of people seem to have a high-level concern over where our food comes from. Are there caterers? Grown-ups-in-charge? House elves? Although we do live in a Palace, it’s hardly the monastic way to have domestic staff and so we share out the weekly and daily tasks of cooking, menu prep, cleaning, mopping, laundry and food shopping (which is done online for those of you who were wondering).
Services. We attend three services a day in the crypt at Lambeth Palace – Morning Prayers, Eucharist and Evening Prayers – all of which are all based on Anglican liturgy. In the morning and evening this includes reciting psalms together. On a Friday, we take it in turns to be in charge of ‘Vespers’ – basically an opportunity for us to pray and worship in whatever style we want. So far this has included Taize chants, contemporary worship and some good old hymns.
Charity. Part of the monastic tradition is service to the poor and so we are all volunteering with different charities across London. I will be spending the year with the Marylebone Project, a Church Army organisation that supports homeless women. I will be helping with a rough sleeper drop in and hopefully with running some creative activities for their service users.
Free time. Our main free time happens between Saturday lunch time and Sunday evening. This is when we have time to rest, to explore London and to attend a church that we feel at home in. We are able to go and do our own thing, but encouraged to be mindful of the fact that we are part of a community.
Sharing group. Once a week we split into two sharing groups. We have dinner together and then each share something in response to a question such as ‘What has been a significant moment in your faith journey?’ The distinguishing feature about this group from other small group scenarios is that once someone has shared, nobody can comment, question, challenge, identify or respond to what that person has said. It feels a bit unnatural and counter-intuitive, but what it does is create a safe space for people to share without the fear of other peoples’ response. Even if someone is trying to identify with what you have said, it can undermine it if that person misses the mark. We are encouraged to see what the other people share as a gift to us, rather than thinking that what we could add would be the gift for them.
Culture shock. One of the most frequent questions has been ‘how are you settling in/adjusting to your new life’. In many ways I have settled in very easily. On the whole I’m quite adaptable to changes in environment, routine and people, and London isn’t exactly far from where I’ve been living. I don’t need to adjust to new language, food or behaviours. Even the Anglican liturgy isn’t completely unfamiliar territory. But for me, there was a more subtle culture shock – it has taken me a while to settle into the idea that I’m not here to achieve anything. When I sit down to read a book, or if I spend an hour praying**, there is nothing else I should be doing. It’s ok to ‘waste’ time. Yes, there are tasks to be done, but I’m not here to work. I have been given the opportunity to step out of the culture of toiling and striving and into a new one where just being is enough. Frankly, it’s a bit of a shock to the system. But it shouldn’t be, because this is a micro-level picture of the gospel I have known on a macro-level my whole life: God calling us by name to step out of a culture of self reliance into a culture of God-reliance. So often we struggle to apply a macro-truth on a micro level. The message our modern, Western culture gives us is pervasive: it says we have to toil and strive for self improvement, for self justification and for self sufficiency. By the culture of the gospel is one in which we are invited to lay down that burden and take up and easy and light one: which is simply to be a child of God the Father, through the work of Jesus. No toiling and striving necessary, just a call to learn the unforced rhythms of grace. All easier said than done of course, but something to try and aim for (yes, the irony there was deliberate).
The robes. No, we don’t have to wear them all the time. I wish! We just wear them when we are praying in the crypt or chapel. I do have a wooden cross that we are encouraged to wear at all times – even outside the palace. It has led to some quite interesting conversations, including a very enthusiastic cashier at the stationers who assumed I was a Catholic sister. I couldn’t be bothered to correct him so shook his outstretched hand and promised to visit the stationers again if I needed more supplies.
So, there’s your snap-shot into life at the palace. Of course, most of what happens in the palace stays in the palace, so I should probably end it here. Also, it’s 10.45pm and I’m unsure as to whether writing a blog article counts as silence or not (in trying to work out how to live the rule of silence, we’ve had quite a lot of conversations along the lines of ‘If a tree falls in an empty wood does it still make a sound?!’), either way for all of our sakes I’m going to place it safe and sign off. Thanks for reading!
*Yes, I am aware of the Christina Aguilera reference here. Sorry.
**When I say an hour, what this means is approximately 15 minutes praying, 30 minutes thinking about something else, 10 minutes in surreal almost-sleeping-dreaming and 5 minutes chastising myself for not praying.