Apparently it’s only been five weeks since I became a member of the Community of St Anselm but I’m sure my calendar must be wrong. Five weeks, and I can barely remember what I used to do on Monday evenings instead of strolling into Lambeth Palace. Five weeks, and I feel entirely naked without my wooden cross hanging on my chest.
In many ways, it is all still very new – I haven’t got into a good making-lunch-the-night-before rhythm yet, so I’m still spending far too much on convenience food, for instance – but already Community life has thrown up some big surprises.
You might remember that before I begun this adventure, the thing I was most worried about was living by a rule of life. Getting it wrong. Messing up. Being restricted. Losing my freedom. But if I were to pick a word to summarise this first few weeks, ‘rules’ would be way, way down the list. Top of the list? Joy.
That was the first surprise.
There is so much joy when we meet together. I mean it in the sense of a deep pleasure in the ordinary things we do. It’s the enjoyment of one another, and the enjoyment of God.
On our first evening together in September, Justin Welby told us that when you live in community, you find yourself irritated by things as irrational as the way someone butters their toast in the morning. After a very intense week away on retreat as a whole community, I’ve definitely started to notice things like that! But so much more pervasive is the pleasure I’m finding in this new family.
One person has a grin that not only lights up the room, but the whole of London, and he shares it often and freely. Another gives these great bear hugs that Argentina must be seriously missing while he’s with us. I’ve discovered how much funnier and cleverer puns are when the person making them speaks English as a second language. I’ve enjoyed how ridiculous we all look when doing the actions to French or Italian worship songs.
Over the last few weeks, this eclectic bunch from all over the world, from different denominations, with our own quirks and peculiarities, have been knit together as a family – a clan of siblings who will laugh, play, cry, eat, pray and serve together over this year. There’s a special kind of satisfied contentment in the time I spend with them. Who would have thought?
There’s the enjoyment of one another, and there’s an enjoyment of God – a kind I’ve never experienced before. I knew that monastic life would involve a lot of prayer, but I sort of imagined it to be the stern, solemn, difficult kind, the kind that builds character by sheer determination and strength of will.
I had no idea how much time we’d spend simply speaking aloud words of thankfulness for who God is and what God’s done. We sing a grace before and after every meal, and it really does deepen my gratitude for what God provides. In pauses between songs and in quiet times of prayer, people freely express their wonder at God’s character, his grace, his purposes, his work, his wisdom, his love. And it’s contagious. You can’t spend too much time in a community of continually worshipping people without catching a delight in God.
But the second surprise was pain.
The pleasure of our togetherness makes the division between us all the more absurd, all the more unnatural. It hurts.
The first time it became centre stage for me was on our first retreat to Sclerder Abbey, now a house of the Chemin Neuf Community, with whom we shared our time and our lives. As a whole group, we were a real mix of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestant denominations – and our daily Eucharist services reflected that, sometimes Roman Catholic Mass, other times Anglican.
As the priest leading the first Mass stood up, there was sadness in his eyes. He reminded us of the Church’s position that only those who are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church should receive the bread and wine. He did not have the authority to invite us, the Anglicans and others, to receive. I was reminded of all the Eucharists at Lambeth Palace, when it was we Anglicans and others who could receive, the Catholics who have to say no.
When the time for communion came, that same sadness was etched on the faces of us all.
We looked around at one another, these people we’ve come to love as brothers and sisters. People we pray with, people we share our struggles with, people we laugh over dinner with. People who worship the same Father. People who help us follow Jesus more closely. People who we experience the Holy Spirit with. Some could go up with hands open to receive. Some had to cross our arms across our chests, heads bowed to receive a blessing.
And it was the most beautiful, loving blessing. Though I couldn’t meet Jesus through bread and wine that day, I met him through the blessing of a Catholic priest instead.
The music stilled and there was a deep sense throughout the chapel that this could not be right. This could not be what Jesus had in mind for his Church. Our spontaneous prayers were words of sorrow, acknowledging our dividedness, asking for forgiveness. We cried out to God for unity between our Churches, looking forward to the day we’ll gather together around the throne of Heaven.
I’ve barely thought about division in the Church before. I’ve never seen anyone really moved by the desire for unity. But my tears burned hot on my cheeks and I wasn’t alone. There were very few dry eyes in the chapel that day as we knelt together – united in our white albs, by our love for God and one another, so broken-hearted that we couldn’t share Eucharist together.
So from here on, I’m joining my prayers to those of everyone who prays with Jesus, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
Father, make us one – that we may enjoy you and one another with nothing holding us back.