Mary Michael CHC on a New Oxford Movement and the need for a re-formation of the religious life
In the course of those occasional moments of pensive, sometimes nostalgic looking back, I have not infrequently caught myself saying that if I had my time over again I would like to be a nun. This is not cynicism but rather a realization of how far one has fallen short of a seemingly impossible ideal, humanly speaking; of how difficult it is to live out the monastic charism, and to pass on the tradition to others especially in western society today and in our own small corner of the church universal, the beleaguered CofE. This is not a bad place to be, however, and I mean my apparent state of mind rather than the CofE!
I have stuck it out in the Religious Life for 50 years – perseverance and repentance – axiomatic in the monastic life, as in our Christian living generally, wherever we are called to be.
Doing our best
Those who come to monasteries and convents, and guests are never wanting, are often moved by what they find. They come back for more. We do not strive artificially to impress, but simply press on trying to respond to the grace of our calling. God does the rest. However, we are only too human, too fallible. If vocations seem to dry up we carry on as best we are able. It sometimes feels as though the sand is filtering through the hourglass (the old-fashioned egg timer) – it grows less and less from the stance where we are, slipping away – but it is going somewhere, filling up another space.
The revival ofthe Religious Life in the CofE – and from thence further afield in the Anglican Communion – was one of the most surprising and visible effects of the Oxford Movement. May it also be so now, in our time and context. A new Oxford Movement must not sideline it. However, it is not a question of a wistful regret for a vanishing lifestyle. Certain aspects of the nineteenth-century revival have appropriately slipped over the horizon for ever. What is needed now is a re-formation of the life but without loss of essentials – not a radical break but a development of the tradition in line with God’s purposes, as Newman helps us to understand.
We do not know what lies ahead but if our concern is with a New Oxford Movement the chances are that we have a strong sense that God requires something of us. In a sense, it is a sort of digging in of our heels with the aim of expressing the truth that full Catholicity in the CofE matters still and is paradoxically possible. If that were not so it would become plain to us. Thus, the perseverance I spoke of earlier is vital. That is what the Benedictine Vow of stability is about, in large part, by the way. All the monastic virtues, too many to enumerate now, are part and parcel of the stance we have just noted. That is one reason at least why the Religious Life is so essential.
Not many, though mercifully some, are called to full monastic commitment. The nucleus of the New Oxford Movement is therefore right to ask how the group can share in and foster the Religious Life. I enumerate some obvious points:
Visit the Communities. Come and stay to imbibe the spirit of things. Come for retreat, for study, for a live-in. A NOM meeting could be held at, say Crawley Down or Costock? There is a lot to share.
Explore the possibility of becoming an Oblate or Associate, which involves commitment to the monastic charism within one’s own setting and a sharing of spiritual resources with a Community, above all through mutual prayer support.
Seek to foster vocations to the full Religious Life, to recognize such a call in any you might have responsibility for in spiritual nurturing, even perhaps yourself!
Discerning vocations is naturally not an easy task. The desire for community, for shared Christian living is strong indeed these days – Base Communities; the Anglican Oratory Movement; Fresh Expressions; Emerging Church; the New Monasticism and so on. Many are disillusioned with the institutional churches (hardly surprising!). Only too easily are traditional Communities equated with institutional structures. This latter concept is both true and not true. Religious are simultaneously on the margins of the Church and yet at its very centre, ‘struggling’ there in passive resistance, as it were, against the forces of division. That centre, of course, is Calvary, the sharing through deep God-inspired prayer in the work of redemption.
‘New Monasticism’ (though not so new if one really looks back into history) is very significant and valuable but there must be the institutional form too – albeit renewed and adapted as God inspires – especially in the ‘now moment’. Embedded at the centre of the burgeoning Mission Society there must be a monastic presence. The fledgling Ordinariate knows this, as does the newly forming Nordic Catholic Church for example.
We are n ot in the arena of competition here, not claiming precedence over other forms of Christian service. There are many members in the Body, rooms in the Father’s house. None can say ‘I have no need of you’. But if one part of the Body, one household, needs a boost then the others will help where they can. ND