Some weeks ago, I watched the final installment of the wonderful television series The Abbey, which was featured on the ABC’s Compass program.
One of the things I found fascinating about the show is how the five women who were chosen to live in the Abbey and experience the daily life of the nuns – ordered according to the Rule of St Benedict – adjusted to the discipline of monastic life. Most people, I suspect, believe that living in a monastery is easy, that it involves little more than saying a few prayers, doing a few chores, and basically having a lot of leisure time to laze around and do very little. But the reality is quite different: as the nuns kept reminding the women (and the audience), the rhythm of daily life is governed by the seven daily prayer and worship sessions (which begin at 4:30am!), around which the various jobs of the self-sufficient abbey must be completed. In other words, the life of the nuns is one of work suffused with prayer and contemplation. It amounts to a very full day, seven days a week; and the women discovered for themselves how difficult it actually is.
Another interesting aspect was the amount of silence which the women had to keep – not only at night (the “Great Silence”) but also during many parts of the day. This is something which the Rule insists upon in order that the individual might develop the capacity to really listen; listen to the secrets of their true self, to what their life experience is saying to them, to what God is saying to them. Some of the women were actively searching for God; others were either dubious about God, or didn’t see God as relevant. But the silence forced them to be open to the possibility of God, and to the fact that God might actually be speaking to them. And that was very confronting for them, because they were used to a world of noise, to the sound of their own and others’ voices. It was not simply the amount of silence that troubled them, but its depth, and what it was revealing.
But there is also another reason why this aspect of silence engaged me. This reason resides in the fact that silence, for me, has never been a troubling or confronting experience. On the contrary, I have always found silence deeply comforting and refreshing; it is in silence, and stillness, in the almost physical quietude of the “dark, sacred night” (to quote from the song What A Wonderful World) that I have most deeply and powerfully experienced the presence of God. So, unlike these women, silence for me has never been a problem; what I have flinched from is crowd and noise and the absence of quiet.
Which isn’t to say that I’m anti-social. Rather, that I’ve never been very good at “working a room” or introducing myself to strangers, or just thrusting myself into a conversation. Nor am I very good at “small talk”; a conversation I can sustain until the cows come home, but ask me to talk about the weather, and I’m lost. You could also say that I’m not an “events” kind of person: my idea of a good night out is a sharing a meal and a drink and chatting with a couple of friends in a snug pub or nice restaurant. Likewise, I prefer entertaining a few friends at home and cooking them dinner than going to a club or a loud party.
Yes, there is an element of shyness involved, but it’s also part of my nature to prefer calm and convivial events rather than a roisterous “bash”. I was even like this as a teenager (much to my mother’s exasperation!). But in light of The Abbey and observing the women’s difficulty with silence, I am prompted to reflect on my difficulty with noise, especially in the context my candidacy to the ordained ministry.
Will my preference for silence, for small, quiet events, sometimes even solitude, interfere with my pastoral duties and responsibilities? Will my natural reserve, containing as it does an element of shyness, prevent me from being open and welcoming to people? Will my difficulty with “small talk” stop me from engaging with others?
I don’t think so. Afterall, I’ve managed to make friends with many people, partly off my own bat and partly through association with others. Moreover, my work in the union movement was intensely pastoral, requiring me to engage with people and enter into their suffering. And when it comes to functions, I’ve always managed to find a way to break the ice, however awkwardly. So I don’t think my natural inclinations will cripple my capacity to be sociable.
But it will be a struggle, and a struggle for my whole life. I am conscious of that fact, even as I am conscious of the difference between difficulty and debilitation. But the point is not so much how I will deal with situations I find confronting but the fact that God is seemingly taking me into places and situations in which will have to square up to these confrontations. You see, as I was watching The Abbey, it occurred to me how many times I have told people that, had I been born in another time and place, I would almost certainly have ended up in a religious community. Moreover, this is a prospect that I still find deeply compelling: the notion that, at the end of my life, when I have done all there is to do in the world, I could spend the last years of my existence with God.
But I dare say that will never eventuate, even as I know it will always remain an attractive possibility. Because I think the point is that my life is not meant to be comfortable, that faith is not about letting me escape from the world, but enter into it. Not that I think any of the sisters in the Benedictine monastery that was featured in The Abbey are inadequate types who cannot cope with the world; on the contrary, I think they are performing a profound service in which they offer a radical alternative to the materialism and self-absorption of the present cultural climate. What I mean is that I suspect, for me, entering a religious community would in many respects be the “easy option”, it would represent a retreat from the life of the world I find so often confronting and challenging. And, for me, I think that is the point of the ordained ministry; it’s about not letting me get away with the “easy option”, with taking the line of least resistance.
Recently, in another post, I wrote this about myself:
I don’t think God wants me to be happy; I think God wants me to be fully human, to be what I truly am. I think God wants to take me out of my comfort zone of complacency and familiarity, so that I can grow up, and love, and be loved. And in order to do that, I need to heed the call of vocation which God has been issuing to me my whole life long.
And I think therein lies the reason why God is leading me down this path. Jacob wrestled with God all night and ended up with a limp and a dislocated hip; he was renamed Israel, which apparently means “he struggles with God”. And that is what faith is; not an easy assurance, but a struggle, a wrestling match from which we come away both bruised and blessed. It bruises us because it confronts and challenges us deeply, with the most powerful and painful aspects of our existence; but it also blesses us because from that suffering arises a richness and depth of being that would not otherwise be possible.
I suspect I will be both bruised and blessed along my journey. I don’t look forward to the bruises; but I will try and see beyond them to the blessings.