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.
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.