Arriving at the Beginning Again, or,
In praise of the YellowHammer.
The search for Christian spirituality is never a linear activity and this is especially true when we begin to embrace the silence of God. Viewing the Kingdom of Heaven as if it were a clock ticking towards the completion of a project, is perhaps one of popular theologies greatest misconceptions. God it would seem condescends to encounter us humans in waves, seasons, tides, motion, birth, life and death. To clock watch the Christian life seems to me to miss the very essence of that life, which is to live every day as though it was my only day on this earth, regardless of what that day may choose to deal up for me.
As I reflect upon my arrival at Chanctonbury (an ancient stronghold and home of the Society of St. Columba) I have come to understand that arriving somewhere often happens in three phases; the pilgrimage, the arrival itself and the beginning again.
When I lived in Chichester I would often rise early and go to the Cathedral for 7am when it opened. At that time in the morning no-one else is there. I would go to the Chapel of St John the Baptist, were we would often converse on matters of identity. That particular morning, I went to the Lady Chapel only to find an old friend Nick Ellis praying in the early morning solitude. Both of us had arrived at the same point in our walk with God, a place of quiet contemplation of the Divine counterpointed to the noise and kerfuffle of the church tradition we had grown up in. In the silence of quiet contemplation, with no regard for the significance of mission or profound sense of calling, I met a fellow pilgrim. This was in many respects was the point of departure for me on the journey towards the Silence.
St Mary’s Church, North Marden, the tiny Anglo-Saxon chapel were we started Night Prayers. From the silence emerged the Society St Columba.
Nick and I agreed to begin Night Prayers, a once a month gathering in a chapel located in the mid-Downs north of Chichester. These small Anglo-Saxon chapels stand as a testimony to the agrarian roots of our ancestors. Every village, hamlet would have its pub and church. The Mardens were no different and St Mary’s of North Marden became our destination for monthly prayers. No electricity, no warmth, no false sense of hospitality, this tiny church offered only itself, its ancient echo and its stillness, as a cloak around which to harbour us as we explored what silent prayer sounds like.
Quantifying the quality of silence is never easy, particularly as life is never silent. Our heads are often cluttered with worldly trivia or the rehearsal of pointless controversies. We are often agitated by the atmospheres of other people and of course our world is never silent, in fact the noise seems to get louder with each passing year. In these moments at St Mary’s I learned that entering the silence of prayer is a wonderful thing, something that my soul was craving for. Yet the silence of prayer proved to be an enigmatic companion, like a footpath is a guide to a walker, it is not the primary reason for going for the walk. I do not go for a walk to admire the footpath, I go to be amazed by the surroundings that the footpath leads me through.
If my soul craved a refuge from the noise of life (movement away from the world), my spirit yearned for the author and source of the original silence – namely the Creator of all things (a movement towards Godself). When we consider silence we learn quickly that is an aid towards that almost forgotten state of human being, namely the ability to listen. If I am alive to God there will always be sound as opposed to worldly noise. The Tawny Owl in the church Yew Tree taught me that. Entering the silence is too aid us all in our ability to listen.
And listen we did, to the owl, the wind, the rain, the frost of our breath, the blackbird, the robin, the gravel on the path and the padding of bare feet on cold ancient stone. In the silence of St Mary’s, the noise of the world retreated and the voice of creation began to be heard in the context of worship. Questions then began to form, questions of a theological communitarian nature; ‘Can we start again?’, ‘Can there be an ascesis that is at peace with God and creation?’. As the questions formed within me, so the untwisting began. The more the questions crystallised the more acute and painful that untwisting became. It felt like a lamentation of the soul, not just a lament for my own impoverished state of being, but also a lament for the seeming impotence of the Body of Christ in this land to be ‘Its’ true self’. The distance between the witness of Jesus and the cultural manifestation of the Churches in Britain is a painful chasm to contemplate.
This reflection on the Body of Christ opened a rift in my own stance towards my history as a Christian. Deconstructing the culture of the Church in the western hegemony (a popular practice these days) became an increasingly futile exercise. Deconstructing my faith was not a door open to me, as my own opinions, hurts, fears, disappointments and traumas do not change the reality that God exists and sustains all of life. Even as I write this, I am aware that today I feel nothing regarding my relationship with God. Tomorrow I will no doubt feel something else. My feelings are never a good judge of the immutable nature of the Creator. However hollow or full I may feel, God remains steadfast in Gods-self and in the sustaining of all life through love.
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in youSt John, Chapter 17:20b-21
The schismatic nature of the western Church (Protestant denominations number up to 40,000) opened up the recognition that as a body we are apart and denominationalism is by and large a moot point in the economy of the Godhead. If ecumenicalism was of any value, its value lay in the honest confession that we recognise our separation and the pain it causes the Spirit of Christ in the world of Gods creation. At its root the Body of Christ is a body maturing and growing in unity with God and as Children of God our first task is to submit to the process of seeking Unity with God in all things.
‘Truth may be vital – but without love it is unbearable’.Pope Benedict XVI – CARITAS IN VERITATE
As I listen to the many voices in our world today who insist upon being right – I am drawn, however painfully it may be for my ego, away from the need to be right, correct and thereby justified as ‘in the truth’, towards the heart of God, who in essence and truth is LOVE. The burden of being right, is subsumed in the truth that love is eternal and beyond measure. The silence spoke clearly to me – 90% of what I prayed was in fact me, and about me, I was the centre of my own prayers and as such my prayer was of limited value. When God finally spoke, it was merely to confirm the 90%, and that it had very little to do with Godself. I was simply regurgitating, purging myself and finally when I reached the end of my noise, God was free to start again with me.
But how do you start again? Where do you start? The answer was in fact all around me on those cold winter nights in the Churches of the Mardens. This was starting again. Cold stone, frosty breath, alone in a separate place, the Tawny Owl my partner in prayer. Here we began again in harmony with creation, in conversation with God without distraction.
‘Be Alone in a separate place, near a chief city, unless your conscious permit you to be in common with the crowd’, these words recorded as the first rule of St Columba set the train in motion. It was winter darkness into which the illuminations of God became apparent. I was reading St Johns Gospel and lingering over the nature of light. Initially light changes nothing, it merely reveals the clarity of what is hidden in the shadows and darkness. When my children were in their early years, if you did not switch on the light when you entered their bedrooms, you would end up tripping up over all the mess strewn about the floor. To avoid the hazards of life, allowing The Light to guide you is expedient.
Being alone and in a separate place was in fact the normal state for the adherent of Celtic new monastic practice. Alone and without distraction, alone but not lonely or isolated, as your position should be close to a centre of human activity such as a town or a city, unless you receive the rarest of dispensations to be in common with the crowd. Being in common with the crowd risks perhaps the most cancerous erosion of our vital life in Christ, the embracing of material comforts. This material cosiness has led to a Christianising of worldly values and benefits that are in contradiction to the call of Christ. ‘We are pilgrims on the road of life’ as St Columbanus taught, material discomfort is often a sign of a maturing faith.
My walk with God, to this point, had been the exact opposite. My early years as a Christian had taught me to be in the world, be culturally relevant, intentionally missional in seeking converts to the faith and to campaign to see the political structures of the state changed to mirror the values of the Kingdom of God. Influencing the influential of society is held at a premium and worldly honours and wealth were venerated as signs of success in advancing the Kingdom of God. It is a sobering challenge to come to the realisation, (whilst retaining optimism and faith in the goodness of God and the inherent value of the Body of Christ), that every generation rises up believing it will change the world. That same generation dies knowing that very little changes the ‘modus operandi’ of the spirit of the world, and our lives in Christ are defined, not by the conversion we secure, rather the choices we make for righteousness and justice in contravention of the world system. Christianity is a faith of worldly non-compliance.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled’.St Matthew 5:6.
The Celtic new monasticism I was encountering with St Columba was forming in the silence of contemplative prayer with the chorus of Creation as my worshipping companions. These encounters inverted the cultural construct and expectations of my early Christian upbringing. It began (and continues to do so) to re-establish an old spiritual foundation in my life. A foundation I had always instinctively reached out for, but had never had the language or courage to embody. It turned out the vocabulary I was searching for was in fact the silence. A silence that I needed to begin the journey of entering into the dynamic creative flow of the Spirit of Holiness. ‘For God alone, my soul waits in silence’ Psalm 62:1a. The pilgrimage into the silence of God revolutionised my encounter of the Divine and released a yearning to be in union with Christ. The Columban piece was not an external process, an intellectual evaluation of historical data, the celebration of a figure from antiquity, it was the grit in the oyster forming the pearl of great price.
If we are to see the New Celts emerge in the land, the land must be born in us first through the process of listening. This transition remains seminal for me. As an activist by nature I had moved from ‘activist charismatic’, too ‘contemplative activist’ and now find myself arriving at the germ of an idea, the reawakening of social & ecological (w)holiness. The yeast of this reality was originally born in Eden – an idea that humanity, born of God, the origin and Creator of all, can live in this world in a holy way.
Arriving at the end of the road that goes no-where is an exercise in arriving at a place I have always been. I finally caught up with myself.
From mirror after mirror, No vanity’s displayed, I’m looking for the face I had, Before the world was made.YB Yeats – A Woman Young and Old.
In the silence of God the mirror begins to dissolve and the un-known original self begins to awaken. This is not a de-materialisation of myself, as in Christ we see human being in its fulness, a physical and material incarnation. In Christ we discover a physical holiness that causes the soil of the original body, and the breath of the Divine Soul to meet in the world of God’s creation. In this re-formation of my original humanity I discovered Christ in Creation, and behold, there is dirt under his fingernails. I found His voice in the lilting song of the Yellowhammer and his breath in the dance of the wind in the Popular Trees.
Greg @ Chanctonbury
Supporting the work of St Columba at Chanctonbury.
As a footnote, the Society St Columba have this year taken on a semi derelict heritage farmstead which we have renamed St Columba’s Community Farm. Here on this land we are beginning to Start Again. Start from the ground up seeking to outwork our seven Celtic New Monastic principles of Prayer, Work, Reading, Pilgrimage, Silence, Sabbath and Place. Our desire is to draw on the deep wisdom that is so abundant in Celtic Christian history and outwork it again at Chanctonbury. Education, hospitality, worship, economic equality, ecological regeneration and sustainability are all values we are seeking to outwork at Chanctonbury. Please do consider joining us on the journey as we seek to get our Celtic Learning Centre renovated and open for business. Or feel free to come and visit, stay awhile and enjoy the deep silence that is St Columba at Chanctonbury.