Blog New Monasticism Society of St. Columba St. Columba

Be Alone in a Separate Place

In this inaugural blog on behalf of The Society of St. Columba I want to reflect not on an organisational or missional introduction, as to why we have formed the society. It exists because we exist as a group of people re-discovering an ancient simple truth as journey towards the heart of God. A truth that we are called to ‘be alone with God’.

Therefore, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. Hosea 2.14

There can be no doubt that the Celtic Saints knew how to choose a location. Aidan’s Lindisfarne, Cuthbert’s Inner Farne, Kevin’s Glendalough, or Columba’s Iona, they are all places that are inhabited by a true sense of the wild, the wonderful, the dramatic and the intensely beautiful. They were on the very edge of where humanity at the time could exist. The sensory overload you experience when standing in such locations is truly majestic. A view through history captured in the landscape of the Divine. I have always been struck by what overwhelming instinct would drive ordinary men or women to abandon the shelter of their homes and warmth of their partners beds to journey to the ends of the known world and live out a sparse and meagre existence. It can only be because these men and women found something more compelling than material comfort. They had found the fire of the love of God. As in the case of Fionan, who on the wild and exposed rock of Skellig Michael, fell (metaphorically) into the arms of the wild Atlantic and its Creator. A literal abandonment to the love of Christ.

What is striking when reading St. Columba’s first rule was he placed location of the encounter with Christ before anything else. The more I reflected upon the location of the encounter with The Trinity, the more I began to understand the simple logic in this, as well as the profound impact that such a step could have in my own life. Alone and separate did not mean lonely and isolated. There can be no doubt that too embrace the idea of being alone, can be a terrifying experience for many people. Walking away from the noise and bustle of modern society and the sense of self-importance we all hope can be derived from succeeding according to the values of the worlds ideology, is an intentional step that is extremely counter intuitive in society and conventional church culture.

Daily life and activity is intent on bombarding ones senses with images, noises and activities that in the final analysis are questionable regarding the value and legacy they impress upon ones eternal reality. To intentionally remove ones self from the narrative of society becomes a bold step away from feeding the ego and one giant step towards intimacy with God. Given that our world seems to be about the communication of fear and/or desire more than love and justice, this may not be such an unwise move. It is fascinating to reflect upon the essence of advertising as an example. It would appear its three primary drivers are;

  • Desire to possess what we do not have or need,
  • Fear of what may happen to us through what we cannot see or control,
  • Ownership of the product that will satisfy the desire or alleviate the fear.

All this gives us the illusion of being in control over life, circumstances and the natural order of the world around us. Control in the final analysis is an illusion.

Being separate and alone moves me to a place where I have to live with my own inner turmoil, conversations, fears and desires without the ‘soma’ of modern living to drown out the voice of my true self. Yet finding that place is not easy. For Columba and his many followers this was the first step. Find your space, find your location, find your stillness, find your place where you can be alone within the dynamism of the Trinity.

It then seems that location becomes more than just a place of personal internal stillness and prayer, it is also finding that place that becomes an external manifestation of the relationship with Christ. A place that embodies the dynamism, drama and breadth of the encounter of the living Christ as this extract from Columcille Fecit beautifully illustrates,

Delightful would it be to me to be in Uchd Ailiun
On the pinnacle of a rock,
That I might often see
The face of the ocean;
That I might see its heaving waves
Over the wide ocean,
When they chant music to their Father
Upon the world’s course.

Naturally this practice can take on many shapes and forms. It can be a location, it can be a meditative state that opens one up to the eternal presence, it can be a image that triggers humility. Yielding to the ‘aloneness’ of self, ushers in the face of Christ in whom we encounter our true identity. It is here we are discovered and discover that we are never alone.

The opening phrase of the Rule of Columba began to capture for me one of the kernels of what the indigenous Christian spirituality of the British Isles was all about, the yearning for intimacy with Christ and the total abandonment of self to the love and passion of God. This can only be experienced through naked spiritual intimacy (one cannot be intimate in public after all, as society and institutionalised religions, classes that as indecent). This aloneness and the richness that flows from it is set in an eternal location. The inner journey is captured in the outer landscape.

That landscape needed to be discovered and needed to be remote, wild, exposed and inhabited by His and my presence alone. In the world of God’s Spirit intimacy means naked exposure,

As deep calls to deep, in your rushing waters:
and all your torrents, all your waves have flowed over me. Psalm 42.7

The psalmist could only capture the depth of God’s presence in the language and experience of being overpowered by the nature of water.

St. Columba understood that aloneness meant ‘togetherness without distraction’ and that the created order was the bed upon which we lay down with the Godhead. As I am enfolded in the dynamic personality of the Spirit, the immanence of Gods-self in the wonder and beauty of the created world allows me to be my natural self.

This is what the Society of St. Columba is about, and the work that it will undertake to create a Monastic Church at Chanctonbury in West Sussex is where we will ‘Gather together to be alone with Christ’.

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