Gentle Counsel

A column in the Church Times recently caught my attention:

Deliver us from the sources of the Evangelical Takeover, by Angela Tilby

I enjoy her insightful columns and almost always have my perception broadened by her writing. This column, which became the most viewed column by online subscribers, has caused quite a stir. She is looking at the Church of England’s initiative Thy Kingdom Come and raising her concerns. I really don’t have enough experience of the varied landscape of the Church of England or the initiative to be able to comment on her concerns, but what did resonate with me is her final paragraph.

The abandonment of traditional religion, with its respect for privacy and the slow nurturing of the person through unconsciously memorised texts and gentle counsel, has left a hole in the heart of society which is too deep for words.

It is the middle section of this quotation which interests me as I think that I find here a very good description of monastic life.

Visitors to a monastery are more than likely to encounter a respect for privacy, as this is written into the Rule of St Benedict. St Benedict is very clear that only those whose job it is are to approach guests.

No one is to speak or associate with guests unless he is bidden; however, if a brother meets or sees a guest, he is to greet him humbly, as we have said. He asks for a blessing and continues on his way, explaining that he is not allowed to speak with a guest.

Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 53

While this might appear a little cold, it is actually a safeguard and a wisdom. For monastics living within the enclosure a similar respect for privacy exists. Silence plays a major role in this.

Monasteries are places where the Word of God gives shape and form to all that happens during the day. Monastics gather several times a day to sing the Psalms and to listen to the Scriptures. Monasteries certainly are places of slow nurturing. Hearing the Scriptures daily is often likened to water dripping on a stone. Over time, a change occurs; a deep and lasting change of the heart. As the years pass, you find that you have indeed memorised some texts and these stay with you for the rest of your life. This is just one of the gifts that comes from trying to be faithful to the daily rhythm of prayer.

There is much about the Rule of St Benedict that speaks to me of gentle counsel. St Benedict has as a deep understanding for the weaknesses of human nature and speaks of his monastery as a ‘school of the Lord’s service’ (Prologue v. 45). While there is some debate about how we might understand the Latin schola, the image suggests to me an environment where there is the potential for counsel to be taken and life-long learning to occur.  But perhaps the verses of the Rule that speak to me most strongly of St Benedict’s attitude of gentle counsel come in vv. 46-47 of the Prologue:

In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.

Trying to force people to behave in a particular way rarely works in any walk of life. Whatever our experience of monastery life, organised religion, family life or the workplace it is worthwhile being open to those moments of gentle counsel.


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Silent Growing



Every so often there is an overlap between the cycle of scripture readings that we hear at our Sunday Eucharist and those that we hear at our Weekday Eucharist. During this year we hear Matthew’s Gospel at both Eucharists, though the sections chosen aren’t synchronised. The scriptural ground covered can at once feel consolingly familiar and a little disconcerting as you try to work out when you last heard the text.

Some portions of scripture have become so familiar to my ears that I almost don’t hear them. The Parable of the Sower is one such text. (We heard it on the 16th Sunday and on Wednesday and Friday of Weekday cycle of Week 16) I have to admit to a little impatience at being given an ‘explanation’ of the parable in the biblical text. By temperament I like space to wonder and time to sift through various possibilities before I come to an understanding.

Because familiarity has dulled my senses a little for this text, I find I need a little extra help to unlock the meaning. Sometimes this help comes in the form of a commentary or a piece of poetry. I’ve been greatly helped by Malcolm Guite’s book of poetry, Parable and Paradox. In his sonnet The Sower he writes these lines:

How hard to hear the things I think I know,

To peel aside the thin familiar film

That wraps and seals your secret just below

It takes time and patience for me to ‘peel aside the thin familiar film’, but when I do, it’s always worth the effort. This year I found that my thoughts stayed around just one word: ‘soil’. I took some time to consider the ‘soil’ of my life. In Benedictine monastic life there’s a stress on ‘this place, these people’. We call this stability. Some of the elements of the ‘soil of my life’ are set by my choice of monastic life and so there is s sense in which growing conditions should be good. And yet there is one significant variable and that’s my own disposition. My own disposition makes all the difference as to whether or not the seed will take root and grow. Often growth is silent, imperceptible.

As I reflected, I remember these lines from Joan Pul’s book, Every Bush is Burning :

The field in which we search is the space and time of your life and mine. And we are about the rhythm of planting and sowing, of ploughing under and of reaping. That process is sacred. The hope is always there that with the seed and and its silent growing, with the ploughing and its careful upturning, with the reaping and its multiple fruits, the treasure will slowly be revealed.

Sometimes the labour is hard and you can feel as if the rhythm of daily life takes all your energy and little progress has been made. It’s not always easy to trust that ‘treasure will slowly be revealed.’ We can sometimes go in search of the sacred as we sift through the soil of our lives and forget that that process of sifting is itself sacred.

Built into the monastic way of life there are practices and rhythms that are intended to encourage growth of all kinds. Poet and priest, Malcolm Guite, captures this beautifully in his sonnet entitled  A Sonnet St Benedict:

You sought to start a simple school of prayer,
A modest, gentle, moderate attempt,
With nothing made too harsh or hard to bear,
No treating or retreating with contempt,
A little rule, a small obedience
That sets aside, and tills the chosen ground,
Fruitful humility, chosen innocence,
A binding by which freedom might be found

‘Tilling the chosen’ ground is a daily task not just for monastics, but for anyone who wants to follow Christ more closely.


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The Way of Life

I’ve been trying all morning to write a post for the Feast of St Benedict. I realise that the text of the Rule of St Benedict just bristles with meaning for me and this makes it hard to know just where to start. I have narrowed myself down to just two thoughts.

The first is connected with the image above of a trellis supporting the roses. The Latin word for Rule, regula, has a range of meanings. It can be used in the sense of a basic principle or guide, it can also mean rod, bar or rail. I’d like to think that St Benedict had all of these in mind when he wrote his ‘Little Rule of Beginners.’ It’s usual for newcomers to a monastery to see the Rule of St Benedict as a list of regulations and to focus on all the things that you can’t do. I prefer to see the Rule rather as a trellis, a support to help us grow and flower.

My second thought is the title of this post ‘The Way of Life’. These words are from v.20 of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. In v.14 St Benedict sets the scene:

‘Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days?’

The monastic path is about life in all its fullness. We are given an invitation, an invitation which is hard to refuse. We are not promised that it will be easy, but we are promised that it will bring life.

19 What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling us? 20 See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.

I’ve always heard these verses as loving encouragement. God points out the way for us and we, with trust and courage, respond.




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Capax Dei

grotte-de-st-marcel-4185-2The mystics believed that we are all born with a capacity for God (capax dei). St Augustine believed that this capacity makes it possible for the human person to be re-formed through God’s gracious gift.

It has become common place for society to be described as ‘post Christian’ or as ‘secular’. While it may appear that Christian values are all but forgotten in the way in which our ordinary lives are ordered, I think we may have lost sight of the fundamental truth that we all carry within us the capacity for God. This capacity won’t always be expressed in the traditional ways, but I do believe that in the heart of every human being is the desire to know that they are part of something much bigger than themselves. Every human being wants to be connected to someone or something that gives meaning to their life. We are made for connection.

St Augustine sees our re-forming in terms of the image of the Trinity. Just as there is unity among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so too, there is unity in a person’s memory, understanding and will. At the core of each human being is a mystery which reflects the great mystery of the Godhead. In the ordinary run of life it’s easy to lose sight of this mystery that we carry within us. We are often more of aware of our failures than our triumphs. Maria Boulding,  expresses this so well in her book, The Coming of God, which has become for me a personal spiritual classic:

All your hopes and disappointments, your joy and suffering, your achievement and failure, your ups and downs: none of it is wasted. Provided only that you consent without qualification, the work of grace is going on in you through the whole business of living, to hollow you out, to make you capax Dei, as the old mystics used to say, able to receive God. You yourself are the place of desire and need. All your love, your stretching out, your hope, your thirst, God is creating in you so that he may fill you.

How can you make space for God this Advent?



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icontrinityIn the Orthodox tradition this famous Icon is known as Philoxenia. Translated literally, this word means ‘love of strangers.’ Its opposite, xenophobia, fear of the stranger, is a word with which we are all too familiar.

The Icon depicts the story in Genesis 18 where three unexpected guests are welcomed with lavish hospitality by Abraham and Sarah. There is a sense in which some risk is involved in providing such lavish hospitality. (Some commentators suggest that Sarah kneaded 36lbs of flour, which would be no light undertaking.) When you offer food there is always a chance that it may not be received well, that your guests may find some fault. There is also the chance that they may stay longer than is convenient for you.

Sharing food is a basic human response to another. It is a fundamental way of welcoming another. Once you have shared food with someone the relationship has shifted. It is just possible that in the act of sharing a stranger has become a friend.

It’s no accident that the highly successful Alpha Course structures its sessions around shared meals. A group of strangers comes together to share faith and food and in that sharing friendships are made.

Can you take the risk this week and welcome a stranger?

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We will make our home…

HouseI have recently had the privilege of sharing a session of Lectio Divina with some of our Oblate community.(Lectio Divina is prayerful reading of scripture. It is distinct from Bible Study in that it is a matter of listening with the ear of the heart.) We used John 14:23-29, a passage that was familiar to us all.

I was struck by the lines ‘we will make our home’. Home can have many connotations, not all of them are positive. As I allowed the phrase to find an echo within me, I became aware of quality of intimacy and also of belonging that I associate with ‘home’.  In a monastic context ‘home’ takes on a deeper meaning. In community we are called to be ‘homemakers’ for each other. We each have our areas of responsibility and together we create a space where growth can take place. Some will have responsibility for the fabric of the building, others for the spaces within it, but we all share the task of incarnating the values of our ‘monastic home’. While our endeavour is communal, growth takes place for us as individuals in our interior dialogues and the handwork of self knowledge.

The task of cultivating the space within is ongoing. Each year I am struck by this reading from St John Chrysostom:

‘Paint the house of your soul with modesty and lowliness and make it splendid with the light of justice. Adorn it with the beaten gold of good works and, for walls and stones, embellish it assiduously with faith and generosity. Above all, place prayer on top of this house as its roof so that the complete building may be ready for the Lord. Then he will be received in a splendid royal house and by grace his image will already be settled in your soul.’

Homily 6 On Prayer

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The Contours of God

scan0014Quite by chance, I came across Anthony Hulbert’s book, The Contours of God, in the Biblical section of our library. The title attracted me and when I opened it up I saw that he had signed it and given it as a gift to my community. It’s a beautifully crafted book. The contents page alone inspired me and set me thinking about my own image of God. Here are the first five chapter headings:

1. Beckoning God: The Call of Abraham

2. The Accessible God: The Story of Jacob’s Dream

3. The God who Calls by Name: Moses and the Burning Bush

4. The Over-Shadowing God: Moses Encounters the Glory of God

5. The Enabling God: The Commissioning of Joshua

I have been reflecting on these chapter titles and exploring how each has been significant in my monastic life. I have needed all of these images of God to sustain me on my monastic journey  It often strikes me that biblical revelation can provide a pattern or a guide for our development as human beings. First we need to get to know the God of biblical revelation. We do this through the powerful medium of story. It can take many years to become familiar with the storylines. The point of the stories is not always immediately obvious and we need to take time to ‘inhabit’ these stories. It is through the exploring of the stories that we can become aware of God’s invitation to us. We are invited reflect on how we image the God who Beckons, the God who is Accessible etc.

Which chapter title speaks most strongly to you?





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807babad350cf2d895288e4680aa686fToday’s Feast of Martha, Mary and Lazarus touches a chord with all those who are trying to live a monastic life. The Gospel texts have an immediacy about them and it is easy to picture the scenes. There is emotion and intimacy, challenge and reassurance. I have heard many a sermon which holds up Mary as the ‘contemplative’ and Martha as the ‘active’. I wonder just how helpful these categories really are? What stands out for me is the friendship between these four people. They care enough to be moved by the actions of each other. Jesus is part of this circle of friendship too and he engages with each of them where they are. He too is moved.

In the day to day happenings of a monastery we are called to be open to friendship, to meet people where they are. Part of this call means that sometimes we will offer re-assurance and sometimes it will be challenge. Sometimes we will be quite unaware of what we have provided for the other. Likewise, another’s simple kindness can gently strengthen a friendship. It’s the small things that build and strengthen the circle of friendship. It’s the small things that bind us together in Christ.

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I have a few treasures in my box…


Each year when we celebrate the feast of St Bede I am thrilled by the knowledge that the little boy Bede grew up in my home town,  Sunderland, in Tyne and Wear. Down by the river, now called Monkwearmouth, Bede took his first steps in the monastic life.  Although Bede’s daily life and my daily life are quite different, we share a set of values. We both live with the Scriptures at the heart of our lives. We both desire to grow in knowledge and love of Christ.

In Cuthbert’s account of Bede’s death there are a few lines which have always struck me:

‘I have a few treasures in my box, some pepper, and napkins, and some incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of the monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me.’

Each year I wonder what my ‘treasures’ are now, what do I keep in a safe place? I also wonder what I will consider ‘treasure’ when my life nears its end. In monastic culture it’s often the little things that make their mark on us. Monastic writers talk of poverty and simplicity and the importance of non-attachment to ‘things’. The lived reality is far more complex. Each day I have the opportunity to evaluate my choices and to steer that careful path between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. Perhaps the key thing here is not so much how much or how little you have, but how willing you are to share.


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Come with grace unearned, unsought…

‘Come with grace unearned, unsought’ is the last line of the hymn: Spirit of the Lord, come down… written by the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. It’s a beautifully written hymn which invokes the Spirit and is used by my community in the liturgy between Ascension and Pentecost. We sang this hymn for the first time on Saturday at Lauds. Just before Lauds I had been gathering my thoughts, preparing to introduce a session of Lectio Divina for a retreat for our Oblates. Several of the lines of the hymn leapt out at me and seemed so appropriate for the experience of Lectio Divina. So much of our lives can involve working through a ‘to do list’ and we are programmed to measure our own success and that of others. When it comes to prayer it is almost impossible not to have our mental ‘to do list’. We often to expect something tangible to happen in prayer. When nothing seems to happen we might begin to wonder about our method. And yet the wisdom of the monastic tradition tells us something different. All that is required is our faithfulness. We are called to open ourselves to God, through his Word and our simple prayer is one of calling on God; ‘Come with grace unearned, unsought.’

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