You might have overheard me use the phrase and been confused. Perhaps you’re one of the people who’s texted me recently to say “Are you REALLY…?”
So here it is. A few answers to the question, “What’s all this about you becoming a part-time nun?”
First, you’re right – that’s the not the technical definition. It’s shorthand for saying that from September, I’m joining the newly-created Community of St Anselm, based at Lambeth Palace for 10 months.
It’s a monastic community, meaning we’ll be following a pattern of life together that would be recognisable to religious communities of monks and nuns through Christian history. It’s based around prayer, community life, theological study, and service to local communities.
Some of the Community, 16 people, will be living at Lambeth Palace (which is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s house) and doing all that stuff full time. They’re coming from all over the world to form a close-knot community of strangers-become-family, and the daily rhythm of praying together, eating together, learning together and serving together will become their whole life.
Others of us, me included, will be non-resident members of the community. I’ll carry on living in Tooting and working my normal job, and I’ll go to join the others at Lambeth Palace often, for regular evenings and weekends and retreats.
But in fact I won’t be a ‘part-time’ member at all. The ‘rule of life’ that we’ll live by will affect all of my life, the time that I’m physically with the community and the times that I’m not. The commitments I’ll make about what I do with my time, how I spend my money, what I do with my body, will apply just as much when I’m on my own or with friends – I’ll need to practice a serious amount of integrity and honesty.
And yes – we will have outfits. Not the kind of nun’s habit you might expect though (sorry), just a plain white ‘prayer alb’ to wear during community worship. I’m sure there will be photos.
Aside from the practicalities though, the question I’m being asked most is “Er… Why?”
It’s a question I’m asking myself pretty often too. There’s definitely no financial gain from it – I’ll be giving a significant amount of my own money towards the Community, and raising support from others too. (Responses to this have included, “Really? I could write you a set of rules and force you to stick to them, for way less money than that” and “I suppose it is cheaper than rehab”.)
So, seven being a good biblical number, here’s seven reasons why I’m signing up to this:
1. To learn to love people I haven’t chosen.
I gave a talk a while ago about casual dating and how easy it is to find myself using people, picking and choosing the people I spend my time with based almost entirely on what they do for me and what they add to my life. I’m not okay with living my life that way, so it’s time to practice relationships that are not about what I get out of them.
One of the principles of the Community of St Anselm is “We choose one another” – I’ll be choosing to commit myself to this group of 50 or so people without having picked them personally, regardless of how funny or intelligent or popular or charming they are. There’s no sex, no dating, no ‘exclusive relationships’ to create divisions – the idea is we’re all as committed to one another, no conditions attached.
2. To become a better version of myself.
A couple of years ago, a friend asked me if I like myself. I had to think – on some levels, I’m full of self-confidence and belief in my own potential. But the answer I gave was, “I like what I can do, less so who I am.” What I was trying to say, I think, was that my confidence is generally based around my skills, academic achievements, things I’ve succeeded at. The thing I really struggle with is my character.
I am my best self when I practice integrity, honesty, faithfulness, commitment, humility, sacrifice for others – and I have a lot of work to do on those. A few people have said, “Why don’t you just work on them on your own then?” Sure. But apparently that’s not working so well – perhaps character building in community is a better bet.
3. To practice not having what I want.
I’m under no illusions that my life so far as been a pretty easy ride. Not without it’s dramas, but at least since starting university, there are few things I’ve been seriously deprived of. Oxford life was full of indulgence in expensive food and drink, beautiful libraries, lavish events, and glittering evening dresses. In London too, I’ve wasted no time in enjoying the freedom that single life, brilliant friends, cocktail bars and disposable income offers.
I’ve rarely had to say no to myself. This is the kind of thing toddlers are meant to learn. It’s probably about time I did, so if it means submitting myself to a community’s authority while I learn a bit of discipline myself, this seems like an ideal opportunity.
4. To find a pattern of prayer and spirituality that works for now.
Once upon a time, I used to get up at 6.30am each day, for my time praying and reading the Bible before school. I’d doodle my prayers and worship lyrics that captured my imagination over school books. I’d take time on a quiet Sunday afternoon to meditate on favourite verses, illustrating the words in posters for my wall. It was nothing formal or particularly planned, but I had a rhythm of spirituality that breathed life into the every day. What I’m excited about this year is the prospect of finding a new rhythm; a heartbeat of prayer that works here and now.
5. To be free from the things I currently serve.
My phone is forever glued to my fingertips – I find hour-long meetings at work a struggle because I can’t check WhatsApp for a full 60 minutes. I can’t say no to joining a spontaneous trip to the pub – even if I desperately need to be at home doing laundry – because of my deep FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Free as I think I am, I’m at the mercy of my need to be constantly connected, my need for others’ approval, my fear of loneliness and my thirst for new experiences.
But this year, I’ll not only say no to myself, I’ll say no to those masters too. With times that I have to switch technology off, evenings that I have to spend in silence and solitude, the plan is to break the power of habits I’ve slipped into and make sure I’m making the choices that I want to, rather than obeying the bleep and flash of notifications on my phone.
6. To be inspired by people.
A couple of weeks ago, I happened to meet someone else who will joining the Community too. When we realised how much we had in common, I was relieved. There’ll be at least one person there vaguely like me! But there’ll be plenty of others, I hope, who are not. People of different nationalities, different branches of the Christian tree, different ways of following Jesus. The others in the community, those coming to teach us, the spiritual mentors we’re given – I’m expecting them to nudge me past my white, middle class evangelical Christianity, and to be inspired by all of them.
7. To become open to whatever might be next.
There’s this song we used to sing at youth camp that went: “Jesus, I believe in you, and I would go to the ends of the earth”. I always felt a bit guilty singing it – although in theory, I’d like to think I’d go anywhere Jesus sent, I’d really rather it didn’t involve leaving the country, and preferably not the comfort of my sofa. A few years on, I’ve got nice and settled, accustomed to my steady salary and social life and career plans. I’d like to think I’d do anything God called me to, but he’d have to call pretty loudly if it’s it to shake me out of my complacency.
So becoming a “part-time nun” for a year seemed a good way to throw myself in the deep end. If I can say yes to this, perhaps I’ll be brave enough to say yes to whatever God asks next.
So there you go. I’m really doing this.
I’d love your support, in prayer if you’re that way inclined, and financially if you’re that way inclined. But if neither of those, I’m expecting to find it pretty hard at times – if you fancy checking in to see how I’m getting on, that would be much appreciated too!