So you know what Church is?

I’ve been to church quite a lot over the past few days.

On Tuesday I went to “Church” – aka “Temple of Fun”.  It is a fusion of many things: vegan cafe bar, arcade bar, live music venue, home to an independent fashion label and a tattoo parlour (“Purgatory”).  The place was built as Osborn Works 100 years ago, designed by an architect who was responsible for many  Sheffield Methodist churches.  However the decor has been inspired by South American iconography – I can’t help but wonder whether the designer/owner has had issues with Roman Catholicism – perhaps putting the confessional to use would be in order (yes, there is one)!  Or saying a prayer at the altar with its crucifix, or paying reverence at the gaudy corner with statues of angels, fairy lights, candles, skulls, flowers………  Amazing!  Not forgetting the bar with statuettes of the Virgin Mary among the bottles next to a Rambo arcade machine.

On Thursday I went to a friend’s church.  This is what she calls her local tea rooms which exude charm and attention to service.  The cafe is located in a village-like part of the city where she has lived for many years and is known by plenty of people (even if she is still an incomer!).  She spends a lot of time in the place, meeting friends and local people, listening to what is going on for them in life, and sharing her experience of faith when asked to or when it makes sense to say something.  My friend meets up with other people, in the tea rooms or elsewhere, with whom she can explore prayer and creativity as expressions of faith.

On Saturday I had a walk out to an Edge (for non-Sheffielders an Edge is a gritstone escarpment found out into Derbyshire).  There were plenty of people walking along any number of different tracks on their (life) journeys, all enjoying the Spring sunshine and the views of creation.  Birds soared and hovered overhead, away from the Edge small birds sang, there was mysterious mistiness before sunset, and majestic stones pointing heavenwards.  My contribution was a smile and “Hello” when people looked in my direction and we briefly encountered each other as Stranger.  It felt like a shared communion within the natural world.  Was this Church?

On Sunday I definitely went to church.  After all, I was meant to be leading a church service.  I dressed in smart clothing (not clerical apparel) which made me feel out of place as I walked to and from the church building. The atmosphere in the service was informal and we enjoyed each other’s company, offering a gift of music or a relevant insight.  The usual sort of things happened:  hymns, prayers, Bible readings, listening to and discussing the Word, sharing bread and wine, offering of money etc.  Afterwards we had coffee and cake or tea and biscuits and people continued chatting and catching up with each other’s life events.

And in between all these experiences I have weaved my usual rhythm of prayer in my conservatory chapel.  Sometimes I have been glad that God honours my presence despite my unreadiness for prayer and encounter; other, far fewer, times I have sensed a word or understanding lodging itself within me.

So what counts as Church?

Thank you …

… for the one or two who encouraged me to write more blogs and said they would read them!

I do feel another blog coming on me – so watch this space and something might arrive soon.

To blog or not to blog

Just over 5 years ago I joined Facebook.  A late convert.  Actually I was cajoled into it – assured that I needed to join up in order to communicate with people.

So what has been my experience?  Mixed!

On the positive side I have discovered people and organisations engaged in interesting stuff.  I have “signed up” to certain pages either via Facebook or via email.  My horizons have been opened up and deepened (can you do that with horizons?).  This has been particularly true with my monastic wanderings.  I have also appreciated the use of Messenger for contacting people (especially family) and having mini conversations.  Work-wise the Open House page has acted as an events manager and diary.

On the negative side I realise that it can have an impact on my mental health.  It is easy to feel the equivalent of being lonely in a crowd.  I can feel intimidated by people who seem to use Facebook easily and frequently (do people actually read stuff they “like”?).  It can all feel a bit addictive.  I know that I have to work out how I should use the medium and what works for me.  I’m on it….

When I became a pioneer minister I was left with the impression that all pioneers should blog.  This is how we communicate; this is how we convey our pearls of wisdom (such that it is!).  Out there is a ready audience waiting to read our thoughts.

I have a problem with that.  Firstly it’s not my natural medium.  Secondly you seem to have to put in quite a bit of effort to actually build up a following.  Thirdly I don’t see why I should assume that anyone wants to read my random thoughts.  And fourthly that’s not how anyone really gets to know me and how I’m thinking and feeling about stuff.

So, I’m reviewing my blogging life (very limited to date of course).  If anyone happens to read this, do let me know your thoughts – if it is an appropriate thing for you to do!  Is there anything that you would find remotely useful/helpful that I might write about??

Oh, and “Happy New Year” to anyone out there.

A Monastic Easter

Continuing my personal exploration of monasticism ……

My first Holy Week and Easter without any churches to look after!  What should I do?   I decided to journey through the 8 days from Palm Sunday to Easter Day with prayerful activities and reflection.  I kept a personal journal to record my thoughts and feelings – and they will stay private!  I also weighed up what the experience was telling me about the monastic vocation.

Semana Santa

This was the inspiration for my week-long observance.  Anyone who has visited Spain, especially southern Spain, knows about the processions and celebrations of Holy Week.

My visit to Malaga a couple of years ago introduced me to the high emotions of Holy Week as the days go by until the quieter observance and respect of Holy (Good) Friday and the Great Silence of Holy Saturday.  I was captivated by it all.  I experienced the desire to live the week in my own way back home.

Holy Week – Open House style

My usual rhythm of prayer, including lunchtime and teatime prayer (people are welcome to join me), was supplemented by evening reflections, conversations about the meaning of the Week, washing one another’s feet (as Jesus did with his friends), and a Passover-style meal in remembrance of Jesus’s Last Supper.

For Holy (Good) Friday I joined with my pioneer colleague and people gathered at the local food bank for a lament about the things that are wrong in society and the wider world.  Words representing these wrongs were nailed to a cross.  Open House was privileged to look after the cross for a little while and to hold in prayer those who suffer at the hands of others.  Holy Saturday was spent in continued prayer and reflection and ended with a service of light to greet the dawning of light amid the darkness.

I don’t do early morning!  But I was awake just after 6am on Easter Sunday so said my morning prayers in the early light.  After a happy day with family I rounded off the week with an evening reflection and a dedication to love, life and hope through the bread and wine of Communion.

So what more have I discovered about the monastic vocation?

The importance of showing up…… One important role of the monastic life is to follow the daily rhythm of life (with prayer as a central focus) and the seasonal pattern of the church year.  I do this whether anyone else joins me or not.  Obviously the format of what I do varies according to whether I have any companions at events, but I continue with the experiences even when I am on my own.  I guess it is the representative nature of the monastic vocation – to support the Church as a whole by maintaining the constant pattern of prayer and reflection and to help keep the faith story alive.

Once more I have reflected on the issue of status – see my previous blog – and the very human desire to be relevant, useful, and to have significance.  Yet monastic living goes on in unremarkable ways – often unnoticed and even undervalued.

And again the importance of ‘being’ in a world where people have become consumers   (“I shop / buy stuff….therefore I am”) and are intended to become producers or active agents too (“I make / do stuff ….therefore I am”).  Perhaps the monastic vocation is primarily to ‘be’ and to affirm other people in their prime identity of ‘being’ (“You are …… and you are loved”).

A basic monastic desire is to know yourself truly and deeply.  It is via this journey of self-knowledge within the love of God that I might discover wisdom and experience to share with others.  But I can never forget that I am just a very ordinary human being, as flawed as anyone else, and daring to believe that I may be as gifted as anyone else too.

Greetings to you for this continued Easter Season (another month to go yet!)


Monastic Journey

From the outset of my pioneer adventure I have known monasticism would be a significant feature.  Vividly inscribed in my mind is the moment of revelation.  Since then I have been attentive to developments in New Monasticism as well as to my experiences of traditional monasticism, chiefly through retreat experiences and reading.

I have been captivated by the life of the early Beguines.  I hear their story as feisty independent women serving their communities, eventually becoming a semi-monastic movement.  Their largely forgotten story is being rediscovered in present times.  I have felt a close affiliation to the earlier Franciscans – an Order which continues to this day and provides an obvious attraction for a pioneer aware of matters of poverty.  To my great surprise I have been grabbed by the Benedictine tradition.  Again, I could describe the moment.  Now I am trying to feel at home in an online community based on both Benedictine principles and the example of the Beguines.

New Monasticism has become a rather attractive development in recent years.  It seems to hold the promise of revamping Christian life in contrast to an often struggling inherited church.

However, does New Monasticism run the risk of losing or avoiding key disciplines?  What sort of Christian life is it advocating?

Let me share the latest fundamental truth to hit me:  monasticism is about losing one’s status.

On one level for me this is a practical consideration.  I am no longer a church minister. I do not have the status accorded by church communities to their ordained leader. (What that status might be today is probably less significant than it once was, but some status remains).  I no longer have a function as someone relating primarily to churches.  My colleagueship with other presbyters (ordained ministers) has changed because I do not share in certain meetings or the sense of common life.  At face value I am living as an ordinary person, in an ordinary house, in a particular neighbourhood, with very few local individual connections.

On another level this goes a lot deeper.  My ministry is small-scale; much of it is one-to-one spiritual accompaniment or pastoral conversations or neighbourly chat.  By its nature these encounters are not seen or widely known about.  I am not seeking to run projects or organise activities which could bring me recognition and approval from others.  I might hope to facilitate community engagement with and among others, but my role would be more an enabling, background one.  In all likelihood it would be one-to-one or small group scale.

I acknowledge that there is part of me that would love to be in the limelight.  I would love to have plenty of work to do, to feel fulfilled and actively make a difference to people’s lives.  I can easily crave the attention and approval that comes with doing something well.  I know that what society seems to value (and the church often colludes) is what a person produces or does.  Can it be evaluated?  Can it satisfy a funder’s need to see results?

And yet…….. Am I called to just be?  Am I called to accept my prime identity as one who is loved by God?  (Whoever or whatever “God” may be).  In my beingness am I called to value other people simply for who they are?  And does this come at the cost of the loss of whatever status I had or might envisage having?

It is a sobering thought to ponder.  I suspect that an authentic monastic journey cuts you down to size!

After much struggle I seem to have discovered a level of contentment (even joy?) as I try to accept this discovery.  The temptation will always remain to seek recognition for what I do (I am only human after all!).  So prayers and encouragement would be welcome……