In a sense, the whole year at the Community of St Anselm is a retreat. For me, joining the community was a deliberate withdrawal from ‘normal’ life to make space to intentionally seek God- this is of course the founding principle for monastic orders. Therefore, it seems scandalously luxurious for us to have times of retreat during this year. But even living in community at Lambeth Palace can start to feel like ‘normal’ life after a while, and it has been my experience that God chooses to speak in a different way during the times of more intentional retreat. So I looked forward to my time at Mucknell Abbey with eager expectation.
Hospitality is one of the main aspects of the Benedictine way of life and we can attest to the fact that the community of Mucknell Abbey is keeping the rule excellently! We have been really privileged to not simply be guests of the Monastery, but invited ‘behind the curtain’ and into the monastic enclosure and life of the community. By not only attending all the daily offices (well, apart from the 6am office of Readings which I have only made it to twice), but also daily conference meeting, recreation time and taking part in the various works that go on around the community, we have been given generous access to the ‘real’ life –and home- of the family of the monastery. We are also insatiably curious and so have taken every opportunity to speak with members of the community about their life here and journey to the monastery. Weeding, tearing up cardboard for composting and painting walls have all proven excellent activities for an ‘interview’. So no doubt we have caused a fair bit of interruption to the life of stability and contemplation here at Mucknell – which the community has graciously allowed!
‘…here the invitation has been to simply be with Jesus’
Unlike some of our other community members who have been doing a silent 30 day Ignation Exercises retreat, being here at Mucknell has been a gentler, subtle way of retreating. From experience, the Ignatian Exercises are a bit like sitting down at a table with God and one – or both – of you saying ‘Right, lets sort this out shall we?’ However, my fellow community member Demarius likens being at Mucknell to Jesus inviting His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to just sit and pray and watch with Him. Demarius is right – here the invitation has been to simply be with Jesus, to pray and to watch, to be attentive to Him in both singing the Divine Office and weeding the vegetable patch.
The ‘better part’
One of the main things my time here has caused me to reflect upon is the beauty of simplicity. It is no longer insightful to point out that today’s society and culture is one that prizes and promotes accumulation of wealth, possessions and status. Climbing up the career ladder, living life in the fast lane and making your way through a long bucket list motivates much behaviour. In the Monastery, this is all flipped on its head. Nobody is working towards any of these things as they are contrary to the Rule. Apart from the Divine Offices, days are filled with tasks that enable the community to operate – cooking, grounds maintenance, laundry, incense making (which generates income for the community) – none of which is going to get anyone any status in the worlds eyes. Portions of the day are given over to silence and one whole day a month is a ‘quiet’ day. In the Monastery people are working towards a lifestyle that is conducive to the love of God and the love of one another, which incidentally seems to be a lifestyle that is actually good for people. The desire to earn more money, to have a better job, to do exciting things all seem to be good for you, but time and again people have found this to be a fallacy. Observing the life of the community here I can’t help but think that like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, they have chosen ‘the better part’.
‘Why would anyone give up a promising career to spend their days…shovelling manure and singing the psalms seven times a day?’
All those in the community who have taken life-time vows have given up all of their personal possessions, wealth and assets. They have left careers and the potential of advancement in their fields. They have given up the possibility of romance and marriage. And in taking a vow of obedience they have given up a lot of their independence and autonomy. The cost of joining the community seems quite high. But during the course of my ‘interviews’ with people about their journey into monastic life, what struck me is that everyone in one way or another describes themselves as simply ‘fitting’ into the way of life here. It felt right for them. It fit with who they were – or indeed enabled them to really be who they were. From this perspective, the cost seems largely material and the gains immeasurable. Who of us aren’t searching for that life in which we just feel like everything fits, or that we are being our true selves? The trouble is, most of us are searching for this in our careers, status, possessions and relationships – none of which are wrong, and all of which have the potential to contribute to our flourishing and well-being – but often we see them as an end to themselves and they become a red herring in our search for a life that enables us to be our true selves. It costs us a lot to choose the ‘better part’. It involves risk. It goes against everything we believe is natural – it doesn’t often look like the better part. Why would anyone give up a promising career to spend their days tearing cardboard, shovelling manure and singing the psalms seven times a day? The answer is bafflingly simple – love. If we know we are really, truly, deeply loved for who we really are, then this fulfils all our deep needs for meaning, value and significance. We no longer need to search for their fulfilment in our careers, our relationships or status or whatever else we might be drawn to for this purpose. If the love of God is truly the ground and source of our being, then we can choose a simple life because we know that we – and our lives – already possess infinite meaning, value and significance.
‘…to choose to live my identity as God’s beloved’
We won’t all be called to the monastic vocation – instead we will be called to careers, families and communities, but we can all choose the ‘better part’ that is offered to all of us in different ways and guises depending on how God is calling us to live out our vocation as his beloved. So this for me is the challenge I will be leaving Mucknell Abbey with – to choose to live out my identity as God’s beloved, by choosing the beauty of simplicity and the ‘better part’, which in turn will feed my awareness of being the beloved, which will enable me to choose again the ‘better part’, and so it goes on. That’s the plan anyway, and as the community says every day after the reading of the rule: ‘But you Lord have mercy on us’. Amen!
You can check out the Mucknell Abbey website here.