God, Each Other, and the World

Jutta and I spent 4-7 July at the Anglican Religious Communities conference, which took place at Lee Abbey in Devon. It followed on from a conference in Whitby two years ago, of which we were both unaware at the time; it’s amazing how much has happened since. it brought together representatives from traditional and newer, ‘new monastic’ communities, and was an incredible experience – there’s so much I could say about it, and I’m honestly not sure where to start!

This was my first visit to Lee Abbey, for one thing. We travelled with our friend Anne, who has links with our Community although she was attending the conference wearing a different ‘hat’, and I was impressed at how she calmly got on with her knitting during the journey – especially on the long coach drive from Taunton with its steep hills and sharp bends. I spend a lot of time on my phone when travelling these days, sometimes sending necessary texts and emails but often doing non-essential browsing, and I mention this because, as we approached Lee Abbey and while we were there, there was no signal and very limited WiFi. Some advance warning of this ‘remoteness’ might have been helpful, but it certainly got me thinking – it was such a blast from the past to have to use a payphone (to reassure my daughter, who worries when she doesn’t receive a text from me at least once a day, that I hadn’t disappeared off the face of the earth!) How often do I use my phone for company and leisure, and not because I really need to?

On arrival, there was almost no time to familiarise myself with what is a rather complicated building (lots of random steps in the middle of corridors!) before going straight in to Evening Prayer followed by supper. The Lee Abbey staff are wonderfully welcoming, and so clearly a Community in their own right despite frequent changes in residential membership. It was a joy to sit and be served by them at some of the meals, while hearing about their lives and what had brought them there, and they also provided us with musical entertainment one evening and gave such interesting talks about their countries of origin (I certainly know more about Hungary than I did!)

When I sat down for that first meal, feeling slightly overwhelmed, I was immediately greeted by a voice on my right saying ‘Hello, I’m Sister Elizabeth Jane’. She turned out to be from the Community of St Mary the Virgin, and her friendliness amidst the busyness set the tone for the whole event. There was a very full, possibly rather too full, programme, but there was always someone on hand with whom to share experiences and aspirations – Franciscans, Hopeweavers, Sisters of the Love of God, to name but a few; clergy, novices, those who have been professed for decades or who are only just starting out on their particular journey – all so exciting for someone like me, who is exploring the Religious Life. We were truly a Community of Communities.

The times of worship together, outside, were a real highlight – the simple Eucharist on the beach, and Compline round the fire. We were blessed with glorious weather! Add to this the talks, discussion groups and workshops on the theme of ‘God, each other and the world’, which could easily fill another whole blog post – there’s so much to think and pray about, to remember and to be grateful for!

A Week of Wonders (Part 1)

Several weeks have already passed since Easter, and I should have updated this blog much sooner (technical issues notwithstanding!)  I had such an amazing Holy Week, with so many new experiences – but there may be something to be said for looking back on it all at a little distance.

The tradition in which I grew up, and have mainly been used to since, has only involved extra services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, with an especially joyful service on Easter Day (following a family treasure hunt). These services nearly always included the singing of ‘There Is A Green Hill’, ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’, ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today!’ and ‘Up From the Grave He Arose!’ on the appropriate days (with the more recent addition of ‘See What A Morning’). This year I only sang one of these (and a somewhat different version, at that), despite spending more time in church than ever before. How good it is to be challenged, at times, by the different and the unfamiliar!

It all started for me on the Tuesday evening, with a Taizé-inspired meditation at St Thomas’ Church, where the focal point was a wooden cross on the floor with candles outlining its shape. It was still light for much of this service, with the sun streaming into the church at the start, and I was struck by how the candles around the cross managed to be so visible despite the competition.

Then, on the Wednesday evening, I attended my first ever Passover Meal. There was so much that was moving and inspiring about this – the sense of gaining a little insight into something Jesus himself experienced and valued, the awareness that this has been an important part of Holy Week at St Thomas’ for years, the joy of sharing such a special time with people who have so quickly become friends – and the power of a close-knit community singing Psalm 23 (The Lord’s My Shepherd) together, unaccompanied, by candlelight. I must confess that the reservations about candles expressed in my previous post have already been severely challenged (although I would certainly have struggled without the torch which was so kindly provided for me!)

On the morning of Maundy Thursday I went with other Community members to the ‘Chrism Eucharist’ at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, the occasion when the clergy renew their vows and the holy oils are blessed. Another new experience – and the highlight for me was the sense of unity and equality before God, symbolised by the questioning of the bishops by a young chorister, and of the priests by an ordinand. Also at this service, Bishop Mike preached a memorable sermon, in which he described his teenage attempts to avoid the local vicar, and how his opinion of this individual was transformed during a time of family bereavement.

Speaking of Bishop Mike (of Dunwich), I feel privileged to have been part of the foot-washing ceremony at St Thomas’ on the Thursday evening. I was initially reluctant to allow a bishop to wash my foot – I said to Jutta beforehand that I’d much prefer to wash others’ feet than have mine washed! – but in the event it was a profoundly moving occasion. Not least because it was so quickly followed by the overwhelming sadness of the silent vigil, before the ‘Altar of Repose’.

To be continued…

Being Community

At a recent Community meeting, we were joined by Gareth, the leader of the Community of St Margaret the Queen (based in Streatham, South London). It was a joy to have someone from another Community visiting us, with the opportunity for mutual encouragement and the sharing of experiences, and I felt so proud and blessed as members of the St Thomas Pilgrim Community assembled. Having an ‘outsider’ present helped me realise afresh just what we have here – it’s over a year since our very first meeting, and we’ve come such a long way in getting to know each other and forming a bond through prayer and fellowship.

Read more

Let the earth hear His voice

I have a significant visual impairment, and I was interested to hear and read recently about the 19th century American hymn-writer Fanny Crosby, who was blind for most of her long life. I was listening to the sermon on Sunday Worship on Radio 4, while also thinking about starting this blog, when suddenly Fanny Crosby was mentioned as the writer of ‘Blessed Assurance’. On looking her up, I found that she had been encouraged when a child to learn long passages from the Bible by heart, and that she was also the author of ‘To God Be The Glory’, with its rousing chorus: ‘Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear His voice’. Read more

The heavens declare the glory of God

Since joining the Community, I feel I’m learning so much more about the Bible than I ever have before, despite having been a Christian for most of my life. As I was unemployed for my first few months here, I was able to attend Morning and Evening Prayer regularly. Morning Prayer is said daily at 10am in St Thomas’ Church (it’s wonderful to live right next door, but I’m afraid I have dashed in at the last minute on more than one occasion!) and as a Community we started Evening Prayer several days a week at 4pm in the Vicarage. Daily readings of sometimes unfamiliar parts of the Bible have been such a revelation, and in particular I feel I’m at last beginning to get to know the Psalms. Read more