Fr Peter CSWG explains why the Church of England needs contemplative communities
The physical heart is not a large organ in the human body: the size of your closed fist is the most regular answer. It weighs well under 1% of our body’s weight, yet through it flows the means and the possibility of human life. Any malfunctioning of the heart, without corrective measures speedily taken, and life is likely to cease altogether. Working in harness with the lungs, the heart plays an indispensable part in healthy human living.
In the Body of Christ that is the Church, the grace of contemplation, understood as the fullness of prayer, undertakes a similar function as the physical heart in the body. Prayer is absolutely crucial for the life and well-being of that Body: if there is any malfunctioning of its ‘heart’, there will be a correspondingly limited life. ‘The Mission of the Church is weak because its prayer is weak’ (Fr William of Glasshampton).
Contemplative communities represent but a small proportion of the religious life of monks, nuns and solitaries, and a tiny minority of all Christians, yet their life directed to ‘unceasing prayer’ (1 Thess. 5.16-18) is vital for the positive functioning and healthy flourishing of the Church’s mission: its service to the world, and to the ‘poor’ among our fellow human beings.
Fr William of Glasshampton became a Franciscan friar with the Society of the Divine Compassion (SDC) at the turn of the last century. He initially found the meaning of his calling from God, by responding to the desperate needs of the poor and marginalized in London’s East End, and in particular a leper community in East Hanningfield. After several years of this ministry of mercy, William was led by God to leave all this behind in order to found an enclosed contemplative community at Glasshampton. This was not without some difficulty, for his own Community were not convinced of the vital importance and urgent purpose of such a life, in the degree to which Fr William had become convinced.
Although in the end no one joined Fr Willliam at Glasshampton, the present monastic community at Crawley Down (Community of the Servants of the Will of God – CSWG) regards its own life and growth as witnessing the fruit of William’s solitary witness and life of prayer. The Founder of CSWG, Fr Robert Gofton-Salmond, bought the property there in 1938, the year following Fr William’s death.
In Fr William’s understanding, without the fully enclosed contemplative life of men as well as women, the Church of England could not be regarded as having the fullness of catholic and apostolic life that began in the New Testament and during first 300 years of the Church.
The life of contemplation begins in Gethsemane, where the final testing of the Lord’s human will to affirm and choose the Father’s will took place: ‘Not my will but yours be done’ (Matt. 26.39, 42, 44). That struggle and its victory won in the Spirit enabled the triumph that would emerge the following day as the whole of creation was offered back by the Lord to the Father from the Cross.
Contemplative life thus finds its centre in the passion and death of the Lord at Calvary. The content of its life is never far from the heart of the Christian mystery, calling for sacrifice and a generous heart. Because that mystery of the Passion is its centre, contemplative life is filled also with joy and thanksgiving, sharing in the abundance and fullness of God’s blessings and the resurrection of new life, which are made possible through the Cross. The two – suffering and joy – become inextricably intertwined as the great Spanish mystic St John of the Cross came to witness in his later poems, ‘Spiritual Canticle’ and ‘Flame of Love’.
Contemplation is not something we do but rather something God does in us. For that reason, there can be contemplatives in the world and in parishes (including many parish priests), as well as those who share in a corporate community life. Contemplation requires stillness, some silence and solitude, and there may appear what seems to some a certain slowness in the manner of doing things that is baffling to the uncomprehending outsider, and ‘heresy’ according to contemporary cultural shibboleths. Together these qualities produce a stability of life that fosters continuous prayer.
The most eloquent description in Scripture of the life of contemplation is found in St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: chapters 3-6, and its nub in chapter 4.6-12:
‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.’
‘Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’ It is God’s work of re-creating human beings in his image, into Christ who is the image of God, into the resurrected life of his new nature. This new nature arises out of that continual life of dying and rising, and manifests itself as the new creation of Christ.
In the Book of Proverbs comes that remarkable saying: ‘without vision, the people perish’. It is the vision furnished by contemplation that has always spurred forward the Church, and broken new ground: Fr Mackonochie, Fr Benson SSJE, Fr William of Glasshampton, as radiant stars familiar to us in the more recent past of our church, were all spurred on by such a vision. They were all tried and tested in the Spirit, united thus with the Passion of Christ. Each in a different way held before people the vision of the beauty and glory and goodness of God, the ‘beauty of holiness’. The outcome from such a vision is always a reaching out to ‘the poor’ – to the marginalized, deprived and downtrodden, whom prosperous society casts on one side.
The Church of England needs its contemplative communities as it needs apostolic communities: it needs women and men consecrated to the Gospel and willing to give all for witness of its truth, living it out in a manner that precisely does that. The Church needs the vision given in contemplation: the prophetic understanding of what is wrong and bad in the present state of things; it also rekindles in us the glory and power of God’s goodness and beauty, lost sight of by a secular mentality, which alone has the capability to transport us, and to ‘move the mountains’ which the Lord promises to faith.
We all need to keep telling one another: the religious life is an exacting but real choice for Jesus and an answer to God’s invitation made through our baptism, for each one of us to serve him. So we will be sharing this with folk once again, this time in Kennington in South London at the end of September.
Could you be a Monk or Nun? On Saturday 23 September there will be an Anglican Monastic Taster Day at St John the Divine, 92 Vassall Road, Kennington, London SW9 6JA. Please encourage anyone you know who may have an interest to attend.
Fr Peter CWSG chairs the committee of RooT (Religious of Orthodox Tradition): www.sswsh.com/RooT/