It’s been two years since I began my time with the Community of St Anselm, and over at Lambeth Palace, a new cohort will be just getting to grips with their rule of life. As they step into a challenging daily rhythm of prayer, study and service, as they start to sacrifice their social media and social lives, no doubt some are already wondering just what they’ve let themselves in for.
Meanwhile, 261 miles away, I am a couple of weeks away from beginning my training for ordination. Without intending to worry the new St Anselmers, I’m not the only one – there’s a good handful from my year group who are now somewhere on the path towards ordination. It seems that spending a year focused on listening to God can have dangerous consequences…! And I too am wondering just what I’ve let myself in for.
The two experiences – being part of the Community of St Anselm and studying at theological college – are by no means the same. One was for ten months, with no specific goal but the participation: taking time out for God. The other will take two years, and is all geared towards ‘formation’: that is, preparing me spiritually and intellectually for ordained ministry in the Church of England.
But as I get myself ready for this next adventure, I want to bring with me much of what I discovered during the St Anselm year. In that time there were practical lessons, painful lessons, and the odd spiritual insight – all of them gifts from God, not to be quickly discarded. Some struck me at the time as deeply significant, and began shaping my life right away. Others have only risen to the surface in the months since we dispersed, perhaps gifts God held in reserve ready for the time I’d need them.
So, here are a few of the things I’ll be carrying with me from ‘nun school’ to ‘vicar school’:
Get God’s priority
When I showed up at Lambeth Palace for the first time and met my ‘sharing group’, we each nervously said a little about why we were there: what had led us to join the community, and what we were hoping for out of the year. My introduction essentially consisted of telling the group that I needed a kick up the backside. I thought I needed fixing, a good clip round the ear and my character seeing to – I was sure that’s what God would give me.
Looking forward two years to when I’ll be (God-willing) made a Rev, it’s easy to feel that’s still what I need. There’s plenty of academic learning to do, but as a vicar I’ll need to be generous, kind, wise, self-disciplined, patient, sacrificial… And the sense of needing to be more of those things could become a heavy burden.
But what I learned over the course of my Year in God’s Time is still very true now: what God want’s to do with me most is draw me ever closer to him. It’s intimacy with him, sharing each moment of each day with him, hearing from him and responding in the ordinary fibres of life. That’s what he cares about. It’s me that God wants, not a hypothetical, polished version of me. And as I look more intently at his face, I’m sure I will find myself changed. But that’s God’s work to do, not mine. I’ve only got one job: draw near.
Commit to community
Alongside the personal disciplines of prayer, study and service, a key aspect to being a member of Community of St Anselm was committing to one another. Before we’d ever met, or even had a list of names, we signed up to share our lives deeply and lovingly with 35 other people from across the world and the Church.
Some were people I could instantly connect with, folks I’d have wanted to be friends with however we’d met. But naturally, some relationships took more work. Sometimes people were irritating. Sometimes we didn’t understand each other. Sometimes it was hard to find the energy to make conversation when it didn’t come smoothly. But what underpinned it all was a sense of safety: we had each committed to take the others as a gift from God, just as they were. And that shaped everything.
Of course, at vicar-school, there’s not such an explicit commitment to one another. The group who happen to be in any one training institution at any one time is created by a whole range of factors: the speed of each person’s discernment process, family circumstances, individual college preferences, recommendations of each diocese… the list goes on.
But that said, it is no less true for this community, transient and accidental as it might seem, that God has called us together at this time, in this place. And while I can’t control how anyone else approaches our common life, I can choose to take each person as God’s gift to the rest of us. I can choose to have the same confidence that I had as a St Anselmer: that God has called me to be his gift to others there too. And I can be active in looking for the ways that God uses the most unlikely and the most difficult of people to help me draw closer to him in the end.
Stay and face it
One of the main differences between committed community and any other social group I’ve been part of, is the way that conflict is handled. Or rather, that conflict has to be handled. I am not one for conflict at all: I’d much rather take a deep breath, walk away, perhaps write an email if something really needs saying. But face-to-face difficult conversations are really not my thing. It’s all so awkward.
In the Community of St Anselm though, it was inescapable. From minor grievances to ongoing and more serious struggles, everything was meant to be brought out into the open to be dealt with in our regular Reconciliation Times. For the most part, these somewhat intense evenings, held in the context of prayer and reconciliation with God, worked well as a space to take one another aside for a quiet word of apology, thanks or even confrontation.
Inadvertently, I found myself at the centre of a rather large controversy during the course of the year, and the kind of conflict it caused was uncomfortable to say the least. With all eyes fixed on me, my face burning and my stomach twisting, there were times when I really wanted to walk away. But through the painful conversations, the anger and the awkwardness, we found a way through – it was imperfect and clumsy, but we found a way through that looked something like reconciliation.
I would never have chosen that experience. But it’s been fascinating to see how God has used it through my vocational journey. And knowing now that I can be brave – that awkwardness doesn’t kill me – I’m more determined to face up to the tensions and conflicts that theological college may bring. Most Anglican ordinands (in my experience so far!) are pretty nice people. And much as that makes for pleasant conversation over tea and cake, it does sometimes mean we ignore the elephants in the room, hoping they’ll get bored and wander off. I’m certainly not going seek conflict over the next two years. But where honest, gracious conversation could be more helpful than strained silence, I want to be the first one to offer it. Tea and cake still included, of course.
Make space for silence
With community life sometimes becoming a challenge, it’s perhaps not a surprise that I discovered the value of silence during the St Anselm year. I won’t repeat everything I wrote in 7 lessons of a silenced extrovert but finding time for silence has remained an important part of my life over the last couple of years.
Now, of course, I don’t have silent retreats and designated hours of personal prayer time handed to me. Instead, I’m learning how to live with another person (which is just the most wonderful thing, by the way!) and the new routine and rhythm that brings, as well as beginning to immerse myself in the newly forming college community. So, knowing what a difference space and silence makes to every aspect of my spiritual and social life, I want to be conscious to balance time with other ordinands and their families, time with my partner, and time in silence (whether on my own or not). And if I find I’m getting grumpy, frustrated, lacking focus or motivation, this balance will be the first thing I check. (Well, after checking if I’m hungry or need a nap.)
Discern when you decide
And finally, there’s a habit that began to form over my year with the Community of St Anselm that I want to nurture until it’s entirely instinctive. It’s to consider choices I need to make as times for discernment, rather than simply decisions. During the course of the year, we were encouraged to bring everything to God in prayer, many things to our spiritual companions in one to one sessions, and some things to our sharing groups – all to help us listen to God and act accordingly.
In theory, that’s what the whole lead up to ordination training has been – a discernment process, by which I and the Church have sought to discover God’s calling for me. But it doesn’t end here. And while there is a structured and lengthy journey toward being selected for ordination, most of the other choices I will make in the next few years won’t come with such obvious instructions.
From what subjects to study and essays to write, to roles in college and placements in holidays, to a curacy and all that that entails – there are going to be many more decisions to make. And everything that I’ve learned about listening to God, especially from the Ignatian tradition, is going to be vital. If only I can remember to pause, hold myself back from jumping into everything two-footed, and ask the question: “Where are you in this, God? Where is your Spirit beckoning me to follow?”
I suppose it brings me back to where I started: what I took away from the Community of St Anselm and what I want to take with me to theological training, is the most simple and most wonderful thing I’ve ever learnt.
Draw ever nearer to God. Everything else is for him to work out.