Nicolas Stebbing CR on the many ways in which monastic communities can contribute to mission
Is the phrase ‘missionary monks’ a contradiction? We have stereotypes: missionaries are out on the road, or teaching under palm trees, or preaching to large crowds. Monks are in monasteries, in silence, saying their prayers. True, monks may pray for the missionaries, and from time to time missionaries may come to monasteries for rest and renewal. Is there more of a connection than that?
In fact, the Community of the Resurrection, like many Anglican communities, tried to hold mission and monastic life together, not in contradition but in creative tension. The way we have done it has had to change from time to time as the world changes round us. Now is a time when we are once again having to adjust our ways of fulfilling both parts of our vocation. Yet we must fulfil both parts of it, since that is the charism God has given us. How do we do it?
- God comes first
A monastery speaks of God, that God comes first. The silence, the structures, the church, the daily offices which have absolute priority on our time, all seek to say the same thing: God is first, we devote ourselves to him first and other things will find their right place after. This is not a purely monastic idea. It is simply Christian. Jesus himself said ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God’ (Matt. 6.33) and that great missionary founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola. began his Exercises: ‘Man is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul’.
Mission is first about God; it is God who began mission when he sent his Son into the world. It is God who does mission. People who come to a monastery need to meet God, and when they do, in the silence, or the music, or the grounds, they begin to realize there is another world, or another Being who gives this world a whole new meaning. One of the most exciting things for us monks is to see this happen. All we do is tend the place, sing the psalms, create the space. God fills it and changes people’s lives.
- Praying for mission
And yes, we do (or we should) pray for mission. We may not use the word very much in our prayers, but when we pray for priests, people, churches, the sick, the suffering, the unjust regimes we are in fact praying for the mission of the Church. Probably we should take this more seriously. We do not usually see what is happening ‘out there’ so we can lose our conviction that this sort of praying does actually share in the evangelization that God is doing all the time. We in the monastic life do not exist for ourselves. We must attend first to our own relationship with God, but we live for God and for the people God cares for. We need to work hard to make sure our prayers speak of the things that matter and seek to understand what needs to be done.
- Community life
The stereotype of a missionary imagines the missionary out on the road, or in a church preaching. Why don’t we do more of that? people often ask. Actually our vocation is to live together and foster Christian life amongst ourselves. That is what Benedict tells us throughout his Rule. This, of course, has considerable missionary effect if it is properly done. Early pagans were converted to Christianity by the sight of Christians living together: ‘See how these Christians love one another.’ Christian love, joy and peace need to be unselfconscious (and probably unconscious) or it becomes repulsive, but the effect of a community living out that Christian life can be quite dramatic in a world where hatred, selfishness, divisions and misery are only too evident.
Then we in CR have a particular charism for education – or for making it possible for others to do education. We have the College of course, where people are trained for the priesthood of the Church. We believe the formation they receive is unique in the Church because it has a monastic context and gives them a different way of understanding the workings of God in parish life. Parishes are the real interface of mission. Most mission is done quietly, undramatically, but would be better done if more people were aware of how it happens. That is one job for the priests.
- Equipping the laity
We also have the Mirfield Centre where Christian learning is offered to all people. This again is part of a revolution in one’s idea of mission. It used to be thought that mission was essentially done by priests, maybe CR Fathers who conducted great missions of preaching and teaching in which usually some lay people ‘helped’. Increasingly we have seen that it is the lay Christians who must do the mission, not because they are the only ones left in a world of far fewer priests but because they are the ones in the right place at the right time. They live and work at the coal face. In formal evangelistic activity it is the lay people who must go out and find people and talk to them. But much mission is informal and again it is the lay Christian who brings people to church. Really effective mission must concentrate on equipping all Christian people with the knowledge of the faith and the experience of God that will make them effective evangelists.
- Experience of God
Teaching and learning is not enough. Evangelists need an experience of God that will set them on fire. ‘Faith is caught, not taught’, as the saying goes. Christians need to be excited about God, and know Him for the love he has shown them. Again monasteries can be places of retreat where people can discover this experience of God which makes it possible for them to give a real impression of what sort of a God we believe in.
Another contribution a monastery can make lies in the area of thinking. Monks are not usually great academics and although CR has a reputation in some quarters for great scholarship, this is largely exaggerated! We don’t believe it ourselves. Yet monks do stand back a bit from the battle line. They can often see changes in society which affect the way we need to focus our evangelism. Priests come and talk to us about their problems and joys and we get a good idea of what is going on out there. Monastic life tends to be very busy but because of its structures we sometimes can find more time to read, reflect and talk about issues that are important in a changing world. Do we use this time effectively? Do we share it with others?
- New converts
I once read a pragmatic piece of research on mission across all the churches which has determined my mission thinking ever since. It seems to be true: eighty per cent of those who come to Christ do so because of a relative or close friend. These are the real missionaries. That means you, dear reader, especially if you are not a priest. It is not the big mission events, the great orators, the people with the state of the art technology who bring people to God. It is the person who suggests a new baby is baptized, or who gives comfort in a time of sorrow or who gets others involved in some charitable work that happens to come out of the church. The ways of doing this are many. Are you using them?
The next really important person is the priest or minister whom that new person met. That is really scary for those of us who are priests. Have we shown interest, compassion, encouragement to a new enquirer, or put them off with some throw-away remark?
Finally, what the new converts really wanted was an opportunity to learn about this new faith. Such learning should not just be book (or DVD) based. It needs to be with real people who know and love their Christian faith. That is another area for the monastery, perhaps?
God’s wonderful work
Sometimes the first way of mission is where we as monks or nuns find ourselves. More often it is the second two ways, helping people to take their first steps and then grow in the knowledge and experience of this new Lord Jesus Christ whom they have discovered. The most exciting part of that is seeing that it is not we who are doing the work; it is God! He is present right before our eyes and we can watch him at work. How wonderful that is!