Now that my year at the Community of St Anselm is over, the inevitable questions are rolling in, questions that want me to sum up my experiences in some way: the best moment, the hardest thing, the most important lesson…
All good questions, and ones that I am of course asking myself. But right now, they are all too hard to answer. How do you sift through 10 months, 300 days, 7200 hours worth of experience, not forgetting the fact that this was (and I quote) ‘a Year in God’s time’, so to be honest who knows how long I actually spent in the community?!
So, as a stop-gap whilst I do some sifting, here are 8 images that can help articulate a teeny tiny portion of what has been meaningful for me this year…
In our second week, we did an exercise with someone who laid out lots of images of Jesus and asked us to pick one which we felt best represented Jesus for us. I picked out this one in, what I think was hopeful expectation of what I would discover of Jesus in the months to come. Seeing this picture from the other side, an image full of intimacy, simplicity and care, I see I wasn’t disappointed.
At Christmas we all travelled on an overnight coach (seriously, it was horrendous) to the south of France to spend the festive period with A LOT of Chemin Neuf consecrated brothers and sisters. It was Epic. It was French. It was Beige (Chemin Neuf dress code). Here we were invited to meditate on Mary – a virgin who carried and birthed a son. Literally, the impossible happened. God’s work wasn’t limited by her ‘poverty’ (aka virginity), in fact it was made all the more spectacular and all the more poignant because of it. All she needed to do was put her ego aside and say ‘yeah, ok then’ to God.
I was helping out at a silent retreat that our non-resident brothers and sisters were taking part in (side note, one of the most fun weeks of the year). Those of us helping were looking at how God speaks and shows up in the every day (and how I’m often too cynical to really buy into it). One morning I was doing a bit of bargaining with God:
Me: Ok God, it would be really great if you could promise me that this thing I want you to do will get done.
Me again: Ok God, I think that you’re promising that. It would be really great if you could give me a sign that you actually are making this promise.
Me sarcastically to myself: Lol, what, like a rainbow?
Me: Ok, thanks, goodbye, Amen.
As you can see, it was a fairly one sided conversation. But I moved on with the day and forgot all about it. That afternoon, us helpers went for a little trip to Polperro, where it started to CHUCK IT DOWN. But then, as we sheltered under some overhanging roof thing, what did I see there infront of us? Yep, a rainbow.
I’ll just say it: this icon is ugly. I don’t even know where to begin with how unattractive I find this icon. I had seen it before, but it was hanging in my room at Mucknell Abbey where I spent three weeks on retreat. I had kept hearing about this mysterious practice of praying with icons and was curious. After a word of advice from Br Stuart about letting the icon ‘look at you’ rather than vice versa, I headed off to the oratory mezzanine where I knew there was an icon – just waiting to look at me. And to my dismay it was this one. Not only was it ugly, but it also wasn’t Jesus looking at me. It all felt a bit too unorthodox* for my liking. Anyway, I’ll try anything once, so I sat down and let Mary look at me. Once again, her story spoke to me. She was tasked with giving birth to GOD, and ends up doing so in what I imagine she could only describe as the shittiest of circumstances. Best laid plans and all that. She had to watch her son grow up, full of hopes for him and his future, only to witness him being killed in the prime of his life. She had to relinquish ownership over something she had been given to care for. She birthed something God had given her, she nurtured it, cared for it, loved it as an extension of herself and then grieved it’s loss. She grieved it not fulfilling the potential she had dreamed for it, she grieved the brokenness in the world it was both coming to address and was impacted by and she grieved it being no longer hers. BUT she got to be cheek to cheek with Jesus. Firstly, who doesn’t love a snuggle with a baby? It makes most things feel better. Secondly, she got to see up close and personal God incarnate at work on earth. Once again, Mary proved herself to be my homegirl. Needless to say, I drew a lot of comparison between these reflections and my experience with Bright Shadow.
Another ugly icon. It was in front of this cross that St Francis prayed when he received his commission to ‘rebuild the church’. It didn’t have quite the safe affect on me, but when I looked at it in the chapel of Hilfield Friary, a Franciscan community I stayed with, I couldn’t help but reflect at how chilled out Jesus looked. There he is, nailed to the cross (blood visible on his hands and feet) and he looks as cool as a cucumber. If anything, he is holding the cross up rather than the other way around. This spoke to me of a Jesus who had freely chosen the way of the cross and who was utterly submitted to where his journey led. He can’t have 100% known, in his humanity, how the whole road to calvary was going to pan out, but he carried on, content in his ‘I just don’t know’ and trusting in his Father who did.
This classic ‘before and after’ snap of a tree in Lambeth Palace provides a fairly cliche summary of the year. I’ve no idea what kind of make-over regime the tree was put on over the 10 months I was at Lam Pal, but all I can say was that at the beginning of the year to my (in)expert eye it looked dead. However, by June the tree was growing some greenery – albeit in an awkwardly tufty kind of way, reminiscent of awkward hair regrowth post hair cut/shave gone wrong – the tree was once again alive and kicking.
Normally my tweets only illicit a response from one or both of my parents. However, when I tweeted this picture with the following pithy statement: “The place in the labyrinth that feels furthest away from the centre is actually the nearest” it achieved 2643 impressions (whatever that means) and got TEN likes. Obviously there is some secret labyrinth illuminati sect out there patrolling twitter, but I stand by my original statement. Life and progress isn’t a straight, logical path. It twists and twines, you don’t know what’s just around the corner and the centre is often closer (or further away) than you think.
And finally, these nine photos don’t even go 2% to illustrating community life with the 14 other community members. As you can see, I specialised in a lot of shameless selfies throughout the year (I restrained myself during times of prayer). Finding connection with people from across the world, of different ages, Christian persuasions and temperaments was effortless at times and hard work at others. But the glue that held us together was our having chosen one another before we even arrived. Our Rule of Life requires us to commit to choosing one another – each and every one of us choosing each and every one of us each and every day. In a world where being ‘chosen’ by others is something we feel we need to work hard at, something we quantify by social media likes and something we rarely feel entirely secure about, living by this rule felt like a powerful prophetic statement. It communicates Jesus’ choice to welcome us into relationship with Him, just as we are: when we are our best selves and our worst selves, which we all inevitably were at varying points over the last 10 months. My wonderful friend and fellow community member Hannah writes much more eloquently about this on her (award winning) blog.
Community life has been great. So great in fact that I’ll be staying on for another year at St Anselm. I’ll be staying to help the team in leading next years cohort whilst sticking my fingers in a couple of other pies as I explore my vocation and hopefully plumb even more depths of life with God and community. That’s what I’m telling people anyway – in honesty, I just couldn’t bring myself to loose ‘Palace’ from my address quite yet.