St Pachomius and Sailing Close to the Wind

St Pachomius is one of my monastic heroes. He is widely credited with being the founder of coenobitic monasticism and at his death there were perhaps 7,000 monks in his chain of monasteries. Let’s think about that for a moment.

One of the ways in which we are accustomed to assess the health of any religious institution is by playing the numbers game. We may deny it, but in practice we are impressed by numbers. A congregation of 500 at Mass is said to be flourishing; a monastic community of 50 or more likewise. Occasionally, someone will drill down into the figures and give a more negative assessment, usually on the basis of age. If 400 of our putative 500 Mass-goers are over 60, the congregation is suddenly transformed from ‘flourishing’ to ‘aging’ or even ‘dying’. Sometimes, we don’t even think about the words we use. There was some fluttering in the dovecote when I spoke about our need to get a bigger house to accommodate those who wish to join the community and the first comment was from someone who said, ‘Yes, all religious communities are having to down-size these days.’ She had not heard what I said but what she assumed I would say.

How ought we to measure the vigour or otherwise of our congregations and communities? The question is highly relevant to the community here. Holiness of life is not always visible to the outsider while multiplication of services and charitable activities may mask an inner collapse. Dom David Knowles once remarked à propos the Dissolution of the Monasteries that a decent observance of the Divine Office could be kept up long after the heart had gone out of a community. I have always taken that as a warning never to assume that, because the monastic routine is faithfully observed and we are doing good works, all is well. Something more is needed.

Yesterday we celebrated a small anniversary in community. Ten years before we had moved into the rented house in East Hendred which was to be our home for the next nine years. Although we had no money to speak of, one of our first undertakings was the making and lending of audio books for the blind and our online engagement — websites, blogging, social media and online retreats. At the time, it was thought odd for a community of nuns with such slender resources to be so open to others, but we persevered. Looking beyond our own needs to those of others, whether visually impaired or anonymous surfers of the web, is surely no more than a modern take on the traditional hospitality of Benedictines.

Throughout the Hendred years we worked hard to try to secure more permanent premises in order to accommodate those who wished to join the community but, again and again, we were told ‘You are too small.’ Fortunately, not everyone was of the same mind and eventually, ‘with a little help from our friends’ (and a huge bank loan), we moved here at the end of May last year. Our first postulant enters in June, D.V., having finally secured all the necessary authorizations from the UK Border Agency and there are a few more ‘potentials’ in the background.

Does any of that make us ‘flourishing’? Not if you think size the only indicator. I would dare to say we are a vigorous community, with plenty of can-do spirit and a very clear sense of our monastic vocation. We probably influence more people’s lives than we realise for our ‘online community’ is quite extensive, but our numbers here are few and likely to remain so. Only someone with a sense of adventure and very real trust in God is going to join a community that financially sails so close to the wind and has no great ‘presence’ in the world.

Others may laugh, but I like the analogy of sailing close to the wind. Being filled with the Spirit is exactly what I would wish our little community to be. I also think it is something St Pachomius himself would have understood and approved.

Thank You
I’d like to thank again all those who have contributed in big and small ways to our community over the years, and especially those who made possible our move to Herefordshire. May God bless you all.


12 thoughts on “St Pachomius and Sailing Close to the Wind”

  1. You certainly have influenced my own perspective on life. Your community – small as it may be – reaches out to the whole wide world, and makes a difference for the good for very many people.

  2. This is simply true : Holy Trinity Monastery IS a vigorous community, with plenty of can-do spirit and a very clear sense of monastic vocation. What a ten years these have been, from those ‘small’ beginnings ! What a spirit of adventure and trust in God ! How invigorating you shew it is, the sense of sailing close to the wind, filled with the Spirit.

  3. There are always different ways of looking at monasticism – any religious life can (in some ways) talk about a new monasticism, and the Desert Monastics sit at one end of the story (if we don’t talk about earlier expressions, even back to the Essenes and further back to Elijah!) and you sit at the other ‘end’ – with Martin, and Cassian, and Benedict, and Hilda, and the Cluniac Abbots, and Bruno, and Bernard, and Dominic, and Francis, and Claire, and Bridget, and Ignatius, and Sigebert Buckley (yes I had to look him up) and Gertrude More (her, too), and Charles de Foucault, and Bede Griffiths, and, Roger Schutz, and, and…
    Thank you for /your/ new monastic vision.

  4. Ten years, I can hardly believe it. I have know, loved and cherished this Community almost from day one, and am blessed to be part of it as an Oblate. Small numerically maybe, but never in vision.

    Thanks be to God for it, and if it be his will may it prosper and flourish. I am sure that D. Teresa must be rejoicing on the other shore about it too!

  5. Happy 10th Anniversary! May the Holy Spirit continue to inspire and surprise you as you spread the Gospel message.

    31 years ago my parents moved to a location where my father was able to avail himself of audio books from the local library. An avid reader in his youth, he was robbed of his eyesight by multiple sclerosis at age 30. Audio books brought him immense pleasure for the remainder of his years.

  6. I have just read your post and found it so moving – moving too to have been a follower on the margins during much of this time. I sent my memory looking for a story (perhaps two stories assembled by Rowan Williams? The book has disappeared as books do) about Abba Arsenius and Abba Poemen. This is what it came up with, but nothing it produces nowadays can be relied on. A monk had a dream in which he saw the two abbas. Arsenius was in a boat: he was cutting through the waves and was quite alone save for the Holy Spirit filling his sail. Poemen was elsewhere and going nowhere, but he was sitting with the angels eating honey cakes.

    When I first read this story I used to see daily a friend called Clare – she now has Alzheimer’s and has forgotten everything, whereas my forgetting is still partial. For me she was the one who sat with the angels eating honey cakes, whereas I was a shipwrecked would-be Arsenius!
    Today I was wondering how to define your community in those terms. Sailing close to the wind, indeed, and with plenty of it, yet supplied by the angels with honey cakes and perpetually sharing them out to feed the many who come crowding round.

  7. I think the signs of a vigorous community is one where life and hope are living signals and witness to God’s love.

    Your community might be small, but it sends those signals out far and wide to all who come here to interact with you. As you say, numbers are taken as a sign of a vigorous community by some, and the Church of England suffers from the numbers game quite a lot. It influences mission, outreach and the availability of Clergy and Pastoral care more than it admits. Bottoms on pews = financial giving which the church is totally reliant on to keep going. Somehow God’s providence (evident in your community) has been lost along the way.

    Some say that we are just managing decline, others like myself, live in hope that we will change from being managers of decline to evangelists in the Gospel sense and live in that hope and God’s providence.

    Establishment tends to tie our hands as we are bound to it, while free churches seem to be thriving, risk taking, and doing God’s business without fuss in so many different ways. The Church needs to listen more, stick to the Gospels and proclaim the good news via all means, including social media for a digital age.

    Tradition is all well and good, but if it traps you in your churches than it needs to be looked at hard to free God’s people to move into the community and make God central to it.

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