Five years ago today Bishop Richard Payne appointed and installed Fr Mark as Prior and Ami and Sam as the first Lay members of the Holywell Community at a service in St Mary’s Priory.
“What an amazing five years it has been”, said Prior, Fr Mark.
“Each year has been different, but each year has seen the Community grow. During that time we’ve had two Sub Prior and a total of 10 Lay Members. We have been overseen by two wonderful visitors in Bishops Richard & Rowan. “
Here are a selection of photos from the past 5 years.
So we pray for God’s blessing on us for the next five years!
The members of the Holywell Community have just come back from a few days of retreat in the Wirral with the Sisters of Jesus Way. It was the first moment I’ve had to stop and breath after an eventful few months. I went straight from Godly Play training, to travelling around the Welsh coast with my parents, to two weeks of intense work in Walsingham for their youth pilgrimage, to the Holywell Community’s Induction Week. It’s been a whirlwind.
It’s also been a time coloured by my consciousness that I am not going to be here for much longer. The middle of October, when I’m due to leave, will be here any minute now. And yet, here I am being inducted into a new year of the community. It is a very strange feeling!
In thinking about this, I’ve been drawn back to a wee snippet of a Godly Play story that I picked up in July. Here it is:
Time, time, time. There all kinds of time. There is a time to get up in the morning. There is a time to go to bed. There is a time to go to school and a time to come home. There is time to work and a time to play. But what is time?
Some people say that time is a line, but I wonder what time would look like? Ah, wait a minute. What is this?
Time. Time in a line. This is time in a line. Look at this. Here is the beginning. It is the newest part. It is just being born. It is brand new. Now look
Look it is getting older. The part that was new is now getting old. I wonder how long time goes. Does it go on forever? Could there ever be an ending?
It ended. Look at the ending.
The beginning that was so new at the beginning is now old. The ending is the new part now.
Godly Play Story: The Circle of the Church Year
I’m going to leave this ambiguity hanging for the moment. We’ll come back to it! I want now to turn to our readings for tonight in light of two themes which were discussed during the Community’s recent retreat. I’ve spoken about both of these themes to you before, but they are hard to exhaust! The themes are: obedience and listening.
Our retreat was focused on the Rule of St Benedict. If you have read much of the Rule you will know that it is filled with references to the scriptures. In the edition we use, you can tell that Benedict is quoting from the Bible when the words are in italic script. Flick through, and you’ll see that many pages are filled with italics.
When explaining what obedience means, St Benedict quotes a line from the New Testament reading that we have just heard: “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). Indeed, the whole passage is very helpful for understanding the kind of obedience that a Benedictine is supposed to cultivate.
In the passage, St Paul is engaged in something like the first Christian Aid Week He is in full rhetorical swing trying to convince the Corinthian Christians to provide material support for the Christians in Jerusalem. He uses a few different strategies to encourage the Corinthians to give: ‘I’ve been telling the Macedonians that you are very generous… you wouldn’t want to make me a liar would you?’. All good rhetorical moves. But there’s something deeper. Paul tells the Corinthians that they must not give reluctantly or under pressure but cheerfully.
St Benedict insists that obedience isn’t just a matter of following commands. Obedience must be from the heart. It must be “free from any grumbling or any reaction of unwillingness”. This is hard. I think of the most annoying kind of store manager or boss, who demands not only that you fulfill your duties but that you also do it with a smile. Or that you ‘embody the values and company philosophy of McDonald’s’ or whatever.
There’s something especially unpleasant and overbearing about a boss who says not only must you do what he tell you… you have to like it too! They already have control over where you are and what you do, now they want control over what you feel and think too! Ugh!
It might look like this is the kind of situation St Benedict is trying to create. It might look like St Benedict was just another overbearing boss. (Incidentally, this is why I get a little anxious when I hear about business leaders trying to use the Rule of St Benedict as a model for their companies — it sounds like it could go quite badly!). But there’s a difference here. The reasons that Christianity thinks of obedience as a virtue are incompatible with that obedience being merely external or merely a matter of following orders.
What is the reason? It is simply that our obedience is being directed towards God. God may be demanding and may appear at inconvenient or frustrating times, but God has something the overbearing boss doesn’t have. In my experience, the worst examples of overbearing bosses tend to be, lets say, a bit incompetent. They tend to screw things up. God, on the other hand, is the source of all goodness. For things to be going well, for things to be what they ought to be, just is for them to work according to God’s purpose for them. (The boss’s purposes are not necessarily in line with your best interests – God’s, almost by definition, are.)
I’ve just been complaining about incompetent bosses. But they’re not the only ones with a tendency to screw things up. We all have a tendency to screw things up. The call to obedience to God is, in part, a recognition of this. Without God, we’re nothing. Left to our own devices, and our own desires, detached from the source of all Goodness, we have no hope of improving. At least, this is what the Benedictine thinks. Instead, we are to open ourselves up to God’s desires.
The problem we are trying to solve with, in St Benedict’s words, ‘the strong and noble weapons of obedience’, is that our hearts aren’t quite right. Well, the only way that could work is if obedience transformed our hearts. Just following orders isn’t going to do the job. Obedience in the Christian sense is a matter of the heart.
St Benedict was trying to set up a particular kind of social structure: a monastery. Whether his rule for monks is a success or a failure ought to be measured in terms of how well it leads monks to the kind of obedience to God that we have just been talking about.
Tonight, I don’t want to focus on the bits of the Rule which specifically concern monks and monasteries. Instead, we can ask a more central question: how are we to be obedient to God from the heart? Benedict gives us an answer: listen “with the ear of your heart.”
There’s no getting around the importance of private prayer as the place where this listening happens. There’s lots of advice out there about how to pray. I’ll just say a few words now (not pretending to great expertise in the matter). As many now recognise, contemplative prayer is important. This is prayer in which we go beyond words. But we shouldn’t forget meditation, in which we take something from the scriptures or some episode from the life of Jesus or the saints, and make it come alive in our imaginations, thoughts and feelings.
This has the advantage of not being simply a list of requests given to God. “Lord please give me this, please give me that”. One way God speaks to us is through the scriptures and the saints. We can take advantage of that. Meditation also has the advantage of engaging the heart. Often some aspect of the story will stir our emotions or stick out to us. These things can change from day to day. But the whole person is involved in this process.
There is always something in the key events of the Christian story to take away and apply to our own situation. So it making resolutions as we conclude a time of prayer is also important. That is, to commit to some way in which we can exhibit the truth of whatever we have been meditating on in our own lives in the coming day or two. This is a way in which our actions can be brought in line with God’s purposes.
Perhaps, say, in meditating on the creation story, we might focus on the virtue of thankfulness. We might then resolve to express our thankfulness to someone in particular who has done something for us recently. It can be that simple!
The approach I’ve just be gesturing towards is only one way in which we can listen to God in prayer. Your mileage may vary!
One thing that this kind of listening is not compatible with is assuming that we already have the answers. We might (and unfortunately sometimes do) tell God what needs to happen in a given situation. Our Old Testament reading can help to illuminate this problem.
Isaiah is not happy with the people of Judah. They think they know what’s right. They won’t listen to the true prophets.
The problem they are facing is that the Assyrians are threatening the kingdom of Judah. You wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the Assyrians. Let’s say that they didn’t believe in multiculturalism. So the Judeans sent treasures to Egypt to try and get in their good books and help them to form a defensive alliance against the Assyrians.
But, Isaiah tells us, none of this was done with God in mind. No listening involved. And, we’re told, God doesn’t think the Egyptians are going to be much use in this matter. But the Judeans had their plan and they weren’t going to hear otherwise. They reject, in the words of our reading, ‘quietness’ and ‘trust’ and instead ‘flee upon horses’. And God says: you will flee! Things will not go well for a time.
But all is not lost. God promises to a restoration in which ‘[our] eyes shall see [our] Teacher. And when [we] turn to the right or when [we] turn to the left, [we] shall hear a word behind [us] saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”’ (Who’s the Teacher? The usual Sunday School answer is correct… but that’s another story).
So let’s avoid getting carried away with our own plans and attitudes about what needs to be done or what God ought to do. Let’s not let our business overtake us. Rather, let’s ensure that we leave time to listen to God in prayer and to have our hearts transformed so that we can be truly obedient.
A loose thread…
I left this string hanging earlier. Our time line where the beginning has gotten old and the ending is the newest, freshest bit. Let’s come back to it:
Do you know what the church did? They tied the ending that was like a beginning and the beginning that was like an ending together, so we would always know that for every ending there is a beginning and for every beginning there is an ending.
Godly Play Story: The Circle of the Church Year
I was expressing some confusion at the start of this sermon about being at the end of my time here while everyone else is at the beginning. It is a strange feeling. But endings and beginnings are joined together as we grow into the people God intends for us to be.
In this case, the virtues of obedience, humility and the like discussed in the Holywell Community’s initial retreat are not just for members of the community. Our discussions were just as relevant to me, about to leave, as they were to the people who will stay for the year. Indeed, the themes I’ve been talking to you about tonight are relevant to all of us in our growth as Christians.
Greetings everyone. My name is Nicolas. This is a bit of my spiritual story.
I’ve been living as a member of a new Anglican monastic community for now two weeks.
After my arrival into Wales, I had to make myself comfortable quickly, as I started a new journey of faith. From my little town in France, I was now living into a wonderful Welsh city where God called me to serve.
I must say I’ve been really anxious and stressed about this new move. Is there where you want me to be, Lord? Will I be able to love people enough? Am I in the right place? How will you nurture my vocation to the priesthood?
As an extrovert person, I really enjoyed to be surrounded by quiet people from the community. Their quietness strengthened me to listen to God’s voice more deeply. I felt myself truly embodied into their lovely silent presence. Stability becomes true to me and anxiety started to leave me.
God’s first language is silence, says St. John of the Cross.
At the Mass of installation, we’ve received a message about how Mary made herself able to listen to God. How silence and obedience meet and work together.
Now, I feel I am in a place where I can truly meet God, where people in the parish and the local town can teach me about their lives. I learnt and still learn how to abandon myself to the mercy of God, and how to minister as a lay member to the people in the parish and beyond.
It has been hard. It has been disturbing. A new rhythm of life and prayer. A new place. A new language (though my English is good enough).
All these new elements have become more and more enjoyable day after day. I’ve been remarkably and joyfully amazed by the kindness my fellow brothers, the Prior and Sub Prior bestowed upon me.
As I continue to walk in the path of Christ, I rejoice to be able to do so with such incredible persons of faith.
May God help us all to do his will, to love more deeply and carefully our neighbours.
Over the past two days we have heard some exciting news about our Alumni Joanna and Adrian.
Following on from the news that Joanna SSC is to became a Novice at the Ty Mawr Convent is the news that the Chapter at Mucknell Abbey have agreed to Br Adrian nOSB taking his first vows. This news follows the Ordination this Summer of Sam to the Diaconate
Welcoming the news the Prior, Fr Mark said
“As we go in to Retreat as a Community it was very uplifting to hear this wonderful news that our brother and sister are progressing in their vocation. Many congratulations and blessings from us all at Holywell.”
Much of our first week was taken up with Induction, being introduced to the various policies under which we operate and to the working of the site. All boring stuff you may think, but essential for good and safe working practices.
We also had three sessions of training normally offered by the Church in Wales to Pastoral Assistants, as we learn to engage with the wider Christian Community in Abergavenny.
On Saturday of the first week we joined the Annual Fr Ignatius Pilgrimage from Llantony Abbey up the the Valley to the site of his Monastery. After Mass at St David’s Church, Llantony and lunch there is the walk to Capel Y Ffin for Evensong and then solemn procession to the Monastery. Fr Ignatius was one of the pioneers of the Anglican revival of monasticism. More information.
While at Llantony we meet with brothers from The British Orthodox Church: Abba Serphim the Metropolitan of Glastonbury, Archbishop James Titular of Caerleon-Upon-Usk and Archdeacon Anthony Holland.
Week Two we are on our Induction Retreat with Bishop Dominic Walker OGS, and old friend of the Community and former Superior of OGS and Bishop of Monmouth.
We are looking forward to spending the week with the Sisters of Jesus Way in their Convent on the Wirral. The Sisters come from a Methodist back ground, so it will be interesting to see what they can teach us. While most of the offices on the Retreat we will say as a Community using our Benedictine Office Book, we will join them nightly for their Evening Prayers.
On Monday morning we will say our Office of Lauds and Mass in the Priory Church, then after breakfast head north, stopping enroute for a picnic lunch. We plan to be back at St Mary’s Priory for Vespers on Thursday. On Friday we will have a rest day.
Rt Revd Br Stuart OSB, former Abbot of Mucknell, preaching at our Admission Service reminded us of the importance of seeing each other as gifts to us from God *especially* when we infuriate one another. That’s when God-the-potter is at work on us!
His address in full:
First of all, I bring greetings from our Br Adrian – formerly YOUR Br Adrian. He is a much-valued gift from your community to ours!
Secondly, greetings from the rest of my community on your Patronal Festival.
When my old archdeacon was invited to preach at a Patronal Festival he always began by telling the congregation that the reason we keep such festivals is to remind ourselves that the tenor and quality of the life of a church community should reflect that of its patron saint.
So: St Mary:- her vocation was to give Jesus to the world, and that is a vocation we share. But how do we do that?
St Francis is reputed to have said, “Preach the Gospel always, and use words only if you have to.” Live the Gospel rather than talk about it.
Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize Community, used to say, “Si vous etes de Taize, taisez-vous, et vivez!” – ‘If you belong to Taize, shut up and live!’
From what little the Gospels tell us about Mary, two of her qualities spring to mind: her silence and her obedience.
Unlike most proud mums who boast of their children’s giftedness, we are told simply that Mary ‘pondered these things in her heart’. She was there, we gather, quietly in the background, loving her son and ready to give a nudge when necessary – as at the wedding feast at Cana – but allowing him to do the speaking. STATUE???
Obedience? Not a popular concept today, but perhaps that is because the concept has been abused and the word de-valued. The word comes from the Latin ‘Ob-audire’ – to hear and respond appropriately. And when we look at the story of the Annunciation we see Mary’s puzzlement: “How can this be?” – and the Archangel’s assurance that she is loved – ‘highly favoured’ – by God. He is asking her to do this as an expression of his love for her — and the same is true for each one of us. We are loved enormously by God, and it is in that context that Jesus gives us what he calls his ‘New Commandment’. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
When we do that, he promises to be present in a special way amongst us. ‘Where two or more are united in my name, there am I amongst them.’ Jesus present, ready to be encountered by all who come.
That’s the theory. We need to remember that when Jesus gives his ‘New Commandment’ he continues, ‘No greater love have any than this: to lay down their life for their friend.”
It’s much easier to say than to live, either as a congregation or as a member of the Holywell Community. It’s a challenge to us all, and we are all charged with this task of giving the spiritual reality of Jesus to the people of our generation.
It was said of some of the early Christians: “See how these Christians love one another.” Sadly it’s not often said of the Church today, but that is something we are being asked to remedy urgently, and Mary gives us the way forward.
Silence. What happens when we try to be silent? Usually a hundred different voices start clamouring in our head. Many of those voices are coming from aspects of ourselves we ignore or don’t acknowledge or are ashamed of. We would rather be like someone else than accept the truth of who we really are. Basically, we are giving God a slap in the face and saying, ‘When you created me you didn’t do a good enough job!’ If, in the silence we can listen carefully to some of those voices, and begin to recognise and accept the truth of who we are – we will be in business. The Bible has the image of clay in the hands of the potter. God, the potter, hasn’t finished with us yet. We are more like the lump of clay. As long as we pretend to be a beautiful vase, the courteous potter can’t do much with us – but if we can accept the truth of who we are, God can work wonders.
Then obedience – the command to love one another. To love one another as we really are. The fact is that we can only accept the truth of someone else in as much as we can accept the truth of who we are ourselves. Otherwise we will always be disappointed, because the other will never match up with what we think they ought to be.
Mary was puzzled at the Annunciation: ‘How can these things be?’ We, too, will often ask the same question. Often it will be more like looking at the reverse side of a piece of complex embroidery – all we see is a tangle of coloured threads and it’s impossible to make out the design on the front! We simply have to accept that God knows what he is doing when he brings us together.
The Australian monk, Michael Casey, has a lovely passage in his book “Strangers to the City”. It applies to us all, but perhaps it could be particularly poignant for the members of the members of the Holywell Community as they begin a new year.
He writes: “the cloistral paradise is still in the stage of becoming. But it is conformity to the image of heaven that is the goal of the community’s corporate journey. … The primary characteristic both of the ultimate expression of the ideal and its imperfect realisation here on earth is mercy. An earthly community approaches perfection in so far as it is a living expression of mercy, forgiveness, toleration, compassion, reconciliation. To implement these qualities there must be those who need to be endured, tolerated, forgiven, reconciled. By the grace of God our communities abound in such persons. Without them we would have no hope of becoming more heaven-like.”
For all of us there are moments when we are exasperated by others. It is in those moments when we are feeling driven to distraction by someone that we need to remember that this may well be the Potter trying to do his work on us.
It is good to try to remember St Benedict’s advice: “Listen. Listen carefully, with the ear of your heart.” This person is here as God’s gift to me in the journey to wholeness. “Lord, help me to calm down and love you in this sister or brother.” And later, in a moment of quiet, ponder these things in your heart as Mary did, and receive the gift.
AND because we are all part of the same Mystical Body, the whole body will be enriched and strengthened. So, let’s give thanks for each other and continue to pray for each other, and especially today for Br Josh, Br Sebastian, and Br Nicolas and for Nathaniel as he prepares to come to join the Community in the New Year…and we pray for Fr Mark and Fr Tom and the community’s associates, and for Archbishop John and all the responsibilities he shoulders. God bless you all.