Adrian is off to Mucknell Abbey to test his vocation to the monastic life in November, this is what he has to say on his recent journey and how the Holywell Community has supported the discernment process to this point:
I have recently returned from a second jolly jaunt to Mucknell Abbey near Worcester and made the decision whilst I was there to commit to joining them as an Alongsider (Postulant) for a period of a year to formally test my vocation to the religious life. I therefore felt this would be a good time to reflect on my journey up to this point, why I’m ending up at Mucknell and how the Holywell Community has helped me this year in making that step and coming to terms with path I am now treading.
First…a bit about Mucknell Abbey…. Mucknell Abbey is an Anglican Benedictine Monastery deep in rural Worcestershire, the nearest village being Pershore which is 5 miles away. It really does feel like you’re in a wilderness when you’re there, stuck up on the only hill for miles around, the wind always seeming to blow strong even when there isn’t any anywhere else and 40 acres of wild flowers and trees to roam around in. What better location to retreat away from the hustle and bustle of secular life and focus in on God, but this journey is not one of hiding away and going into retreat indeed it is one of stepping forward in faith, putting my head above the parapet and accepting who I am. Far from retreating you could not hope for a more conspicuous spot or indeed a more distinguished code of dress than a monks habit and the public ministry and hospitality to those who come seeking solitude, rest, guidance and to share in the prayer life and work of the monastery is never ending and that is without living continually in the close company of 13 other people all of different personalities, strengths and weaknesses. It really couldn’t be much more challenging but it is through this constant sharing of life in community that continually moulds us into the people we are meant to be and is why monasteries become a school for the Lords service.
The day starts at 5am with the first office of the day Readings at 6am, this then runs straight into Lauds at 7am followed by breakfast, then there is a quiet time of study until Terce at 8.45am, after Terce the chores of the day are done, it is also after Terce when the greater silence ends and so we can start talking at this point, whilst I was there my chores involved weeding, pulling up carrots in the garden, spending two mornings solid scraping and chopping said carrots but it could involve doing the washing, preparing the kitchen, ironing, cleaning the guest quarters, painting etc. These chores take us to 12 noon when we sing mass, after mass it is lunch time and lunch is had in silence with someone reading to us. Once lunch is over another time of study commences until None at 2.15. After None is the time to do the works of the monastery that are the individual monks responsibility as well as study, meeting of Chapter, corporate Lectio Devina, this may involve being Guest Master, making incense, teaching the novices, preparing sermons, caring for the gardens and wildlife, for example when I was there we needed to save a family of great crested newts that had got stuck in a drain and find them a new habitat. Ultimately though what is intended by the set out of the day is that praising God is at the centre of everything but that a balance of manual labour and work for the brain is important for sustaining the body and the spirit. There are therefore few rest periods during the day, study periods are real study periods and work periods keep the monastery going and therefore are essential. Vespers is at 5.30pm after which the working day has ended. There’s then supper at 7pm and Compline at 8pm the period between supper and Compline is the one part of the day given to recreation, after Compline the greater silence begins and we go to bed.
As you can see from this daily schedule, going to life in a religious community is not a retreat from life and work and nor is it a self-indulgent, selfish existence where we fail to be a witness to the Gospel in Society but is a continual cycle of prayer and work both manual, intellectual and pastoral that continues to challenge and invigorate the soul, the days are long and there is no escape from the people who you are to share your life with and therefore understanding and coming to tolerate and love peoples weaknesses and reflecting on that continually to what you can learn about yourself through the struggles and irritations that invariably arise is what moulds us into Holy people. It is a lifelong work and struggle to draw close to God in all things and is the work of a monk in this life.
So after that toil in life and in the field why would I or indeed anyone be drawn to the monastic life. It is only reflecting back now that the path becomes clear, at the time and moving forward the path has been confusing and sometimes frustrating and upsetting but looking back to this point it was never in any doubt and everything that befuddled me was entirely necessary to prepare me for the work I’ll now be undertaking.
I joined the Holywell Community to get clarity on my vocation because I was getting pulled by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), among others, to explore both public ministry and the monastic life, due to me not being able to clearly define my vocation and also to gain experience living in community, which I’ll be honest with you absolutely terrified me. I had always lived by myself before being here and I wasn’t sure if I would handle it being as introverted as I am. When I started I was thinking very much that I was going to get the experience to be a Parish Priest and increase my confidence so I would go back to the DDO and express myself more clearly ready to get through selection but with the outside chance that others might be right and maybe I shouldn’t dismiss being a monk out of hand. Now I’m off to Mucknell to potentially be a monk, so what has changed in the interim to perform such an about turn.
My first week here we went to Buckfast Abbey for retreat, a retreat that was led by one of the monks there and as he taught us about some of the concepts behind the rule of St Benedict and their practical application and also the balance of life centred around prayer it began to resonate with me. Having seen real monks in the flesh and their work outside of their enclosure and pastoral support they provided I also began wondering whether a balanced life around works and regular prayer was something I may want to look into in this community setting. Life at the Holywell Community itself then began to impact on me in a similar way. The approach to the traditional Benedictine offices in the Holywell Community was invigorating, the work we then went to do was becoming an act of worship in itself and therefore more fulfilling, I was finding that living in community was very much what I was meant to do and felt lost without it. Everything I was experiencing even washing dishes was becoming a joy to do and after reflection it was the interpretation of the rule of St Benedict that made this closer drawing to God possible for me. There is almost not a day that goes by now without me quoting something from the rule to the irritation of other members of the community 🙂 . It has helped to liberate me and serve God in all I do.
Living in Community is tough, everyone has their issues their gripes some of which clash with one another and this therefore leads to ups and downs, political issues getting in the way sometimes but it has been through this, supporting people in their troubles whilst also reflecting on my bad handling or good of certain situations that helps all of us corporately to draw into a closer bond with each other and learn from each other and by doing so draw closer to God and the humans we’re intended to be. Without this it does become hiding away, you don’t have to face your issues and therefore grow, you can just pretend it’s not happening and stay still. Journeying into faith with God is not stagnant like this, it’s something that grows and develops and in doing so empowers the person to reach out more to his fellow brothers and sisters in love. Being at the Holywell Community has helped me to accept this and come to a recognition that living closely with others in this way is important for the sustaining of continual growth. A life alone should not be undertaken until you’ve grown to such stature of self that you no longer need others to nourish that growth.
Once, therefore, I had worked out that being a monk may be for me, the Holywell Community has been very good in giving me the contacts and the space to explore this properly. I’ve been put in touch with a Bishop who himself is a member of a community who in turn has linked me up with Alton Abbey and Mucknell Abbey and then the Prior of our community has been good in providing me with the time to visit monasteries and pray and spiritually guide me to take the next step.
Another thing I would say is that my initial aim of coming here to develop me for public ministry has also been achieved. I have developed as a preacher, as a pastoral visitor and also in areas I wasn’t expecting such as children’s worship, supporting toddler group, working for a teenage charity in supporting some of the results of deprivation in our town, leading school assemblies, leading parts of mission in Merthyr Tydfil, Messy Church, Bible Study. Most importantly it’s provided me with clarity on where my strengths and weaknesses are. All of which would give me confidence to go back to the DDO and better articulate who I am and where I could add to the ministry of the church and also help me understand people better which is at the core of what we do.
In a nutshell without the Holywell Community being here I would still most likely be living my secular life and struggling to find clarification on myself and my direction in serving God and therefore, would continue to not be as effective in serving others in the Gospel as I would long to do. By living in community my self-awareness and my awareness of those around me has been enhanced. Through the daily pattern of prayer and work the spiritual life of the Parish and my life has been enriched to a point beyond what I expected and through work it has equipped the whole community to go out and serve God in the ways intended whether as monk or public ministry.