Archbishop Robert Runcie famously compared the Church of England to a swimming pool: all the noise coming from the shallow end. It’s an unfair quip, but it contains more than a grain of truth. Deep waters run still and are easily overlooked.
Scattered in and around Oxford, whether in the bustle of St Giles or the tranquillity of Boars Hill, are many monasteries and convents, both Anglican and Roman Catholic. The religious orders of monks and nuns are one of the great hidden depths of the Christian Church. They will never be great in number, but their readiness to pursue God’s call to prayer and service at such personal cost is a great sign of encouragement to the rest of us.
A few years ago the BBC television series, The Monastery, opened many people’s eyes to the monastic life.
It followed five men who had volunteered to spend 40 days and 40 nights living the life of a monk in a Roman Catholic community in Sussex. The series could have been a sort of spiritual version of Big Brother, prying and formulaic. In fact it proved to be one of the most attractive portraits of the life of prayer and worship that I have encountered – quite an achievement on television, which usually needs action to come alive.
What came across very strongly was how hospitable the monks were. Their enclosed life had not shut them off from other people; it had actually made them far more open to others than most of us ever are. The sheer simplicity of the monks’ lives rubbed off on their guests. As the 40 days passed, we saw the five men letting go of their burdens of anxiety, shedding the layers of self-protectiveness, gradually coming to terms with who they were and with who God is.
This is not to say that the monastic life is an easy one. A friend of mine, an Anglican nun, recently wrote this: “After 14 years in the convent, I still find it hard to follow the rules with true obedience. It’s not the big things that are hardest, but the little regulations, such as always having to take the top towel on the pile when having a bath. After all these years the temptation is still with me to choose the softest towel or the newest one, or the one whose colour I prefer.”
The point of seemingly trivial rules like this is not to imply that pleasure and satisfaction are somehow wrong. Instead it is to remind the sisters that the deepest pleasure always comes unexpectedly. In our culture doing what you want when you want often seems to be our chief guiding principle.
But by obediently taking the top towel, by stopping herself from rifling through the pile to find the one she prefers, my friend is renouncing instant gratification. Then, when delight and pleasure come, they come as gifts, not as something she has engineered through her own desire.
It is in their obedience to such small regulations that monks and nuns learn how to separate the wheat and the chaff in their lives, and begin the slow, painful journey towards knowledge of themselves and of the God they serve. Still waters run deep.
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