The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth…Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change…A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.Laudato Si, Pope Francis
As I enter 2020, I do so with the healthy dose of hope and sobriety. Jesus taught His disciples that you do not begin a journey or a task without first weighing up the costs, making sure you have prepared and made yourself ready for the journey. As I look forward at the dawn of a new decade (a decade that leads towards the celebration of 2000 years since the execution and resurrection of Jesus), I am mindful that despite the immense power that is latent in the gospel message of liberation and resurrection, we are faced as a human species, who populate this Mother Earth, with a decade of great turbulence and despair.
Some years ago I nailed my colours to the mast of Celtic New Monasticism. A recognition on my part that contemplation (prayer), pilgrimage towards the wilderness, a renewed sense of belonging to the land (as distinct from a political nation) and the imitation of Christ was the indigenous way . Little did I know at the time of this confession/conviction that I would find myself in the mid winter mud and rain, of an old dilapidated and ruined historic farmstead called Great Barn Farm. Were I along with others have dutiful taken on restoring a derelict farmstead, care for a small flock of sheep we have called The Wild Ones and seek to outwork a simple life of prayer, work and reading.
A vision like Celtic New Monasticism can captivate the imagination very quickly. Great Barn Farmstead attracts activists, eco-enthusiasts, spiritual idealists, gardeners and builders. Yet anyone who has been round the Church block a few times will tell you, vision and idealism can quickly turn from a kaleidoscope of colourful hope to a mundane greyness, when the pace and personal price of change do not line up with all the dreams and desires we hold hidden in our hearts. I believe one of the foundations of new monastic practice is we turn up for no other reason than to be transformed in some small way into the image of Christ in then land. Great Barn Farm at Chanctonbury is a ‘starting over’ place, best arrive with hand luggage only.
I find myself challenged daily. Am I a volunteer giving some of my time to the new monastic call, or am I a faithful pilgrim fully resolved to walk the way of Jesus regardless of the depth and texture of the mud on the path ahead of me? The pilgrimage of the soul is not for the feint of heart. It is not an accessory we add onto the already cluttered Christian lifestyle so prevalent in the noisy post-Christendom Church circles. Pilgrimage is never about ministry, climbing the Christian career ladder or preaching from platforms. Pilgrimage is an intentional walk away from significance and the vanity of saving the world for Jesus. I have often wondered if the sign of a maturing walk of faith is a walk towards the deep silence of creation? Out into the desert where the wild birds and the anonymity of the ego are your only constant companions.
It is in the slowness of Gods self revelation in creation that I am beginning to understand the heartbeat of new monastic discipleship. St. Columba of Iona taught this very thing; ‘Be naked in your imitation of Christ and the evangelists.’ The slow penitent walk of the pilgrim, is where the noble virtues and better selves reveal themselves. But make sure you have the right footwear, as you will get dirty. If we do not pick up the mud and dirt in the land on our walk, well I guess we are not outdoors. We need hope, yes we need faith, but most of all we need love. Without love there is none of the above and love will always cover you in mud.
GOD IS LOVE, and love is perfected in the context of an imperfect community. Without the weakness, failures, frustrations and disappointments present in our shared broken humanity, how will we ever learn to perfect our faith? How will we learn to forgive, be reconciled, offer compassion, show loyalty, defend the weak, lift up the down-trodden, care for the vulnerable and be recipients of Gods grace when we ourselves walk through the darkest moments of life? Bearing one another burdens as an act of solidarity with our communities keeps the flame of hope alive in us all. Couple this with the raw hope of Christ among us, we can endure suffering with a grace and fortitude that transcends circumstances. This I am sure was the intercessional nature of Christs suffering – suffering on behalf of others through choice. In a political landscape darkened by nationalism, economic greed, social exclusion, ecological devastation, food poverty and failed leadership, our embodiment of intercession is to start again from the ground up. Mine are the politics of potatoes and onions, they will never let you down, you can eat them and if you don’t like what you get you can compost them back into the soil.
Beginning again is exciting, as it is the point of any journey where expectations are at their highest, energy levels full and the hope (that most intoxicating of spiritual values) of better days to come is tangible. However, the reality of starting again soon kicks in as the untrodden ancient pathways are discovered to be full of pot holes, storm damage, bramble thickets and unforgivingly deceptive in their direction. Every step forward potentially presents a new obstacle to over come. For the en-culturated western soul, so used to instant gratification, this is a painfully frustrating process. It would almost seem that in the economy of the Holy Spirit, if you are not going slowly, you are not going at all.
So how do we ground ourselves in the slowness of the Spirit of Holiness? Creation is the platform upon which we stand. It offers us the security of the immutable presence of God in any given moment. Creation is not a ticking clock, it is a season, a song, a light and shadow across our lives, that daily reminds us of our motion and belonging in God. Creation is the primary revealing of Godself, and as a part of creation we humans reflect back to God this eternal truth.
Pilgrimage is a sacred journey of the soul that is outworked in the material world. A walk of penance, discovery and hopefully enlightenment. We all begin a pilgrimage with our own personal expectations of what we might get out of it. God however always has other ideas and the first part of any pilgrimage is the work of being stripped of those expectations and brought to a place of emptiness. A place where our hidden filters, our pain, conflicted nature, self destructive tendencies, jealousy, anger, need to ‘people please’ and general unpleasantness are revealed to us and those around us. It is here in the darkness of our own humanity that we encounter the profoundest truth at the heart of the Christian faith. GOD IS LOVE. The kiss of God in the darkness is the kiss of life. It is the validation our soul craves and a strength given to keep us walking and turning up.
Blessings, Greg Valerio.