Broken Relationships | Building Community

Too much togetherness or too much distance often leads to the same thing: a broken relationship. Sometimes the break is temporary, sometimes permanent, and it is not for the outsider to judge or apportion blame. The world’s current experience of lockdown is placing new strains on many, but seventeen hundred years ago an ex-soldier and convert from paganism to Christianity named Pachomius introduced something novel into the life of desert ascetics who were physically or temperamentally unsuited to the solitary life: coenobitic monasticism. He grouped his monks into communities and provided common buildings for their use, with a rule of life based largely on the prayers they were to say together. He never lost his regard for the eremitical life but fostered the development of communal endeavours and in so doing provided an alternative to the rigours of a solitary existence, with all the dangers that poses to those who are not suited to it.

I wonder if we need a new Pachomius in Church and society today? Not literally, of course, but someone who will look with clear-eyed love at the suffering of those trying to conform to a way of life that is beyond them and yet who still desire to follow Christ and to be good and useful members of society. I have a hunch that a constant watering-down of what is asked of us may not be the best way to go. Most of us like a challenge, provided we find it do-able and not completely beyond our strength. The novices of a community are usually the ones who are least attracted to adaptations of the time-table or liturgy to accommodate senior members! In society more generally, there is an impatience with lockdown restrictions that reflects the keenness of youth to be up and doing. It is how we manage this that is proving difficult.

When we turn to the Church, we face particular problems. I often wonder whether the large, expensive, and sometimes cumbersome organization we call the Church is sustainable in the future. Some would argue that the future lies in smaller, less ‘traditional’ groupings, loosely modelled on monasticism. It is well-known that I have reservations about some of the so-called ‘new’ monastic communities — some, not all, and for reasons that go to the heart of what monasticism is — but the experience of living at a time when not just I but most of the Church is effectively unable to receive the sacraments must surely demand of the pope and bishops a response we have not yet received. How do we live in a world where the old structures, the old certainties, are crumbling? We talk about the ‘new normal’ and rightly so, because the ‘old normal’ will never return. A few clergy have expressed delight that they have larger congregations for live-streamed services than they used to have in church. Will those online congregations return to the pews, or will they fade away once lockdown restrictions are removed or amended? Who knows?

Eastertide ends with the great feast of Pentecost, the great feast of the Church, when all is made new. This year, perhaps more than any other in my lifetime, I shall be praying for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the great mender of broken relationships, the great builder of community. Let us never forget that and think, mistakenly, it all depends on us. It doesn’t. Our hope remains high because we depend on the Spirit.

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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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail