Friday, 7 November 2008

Retreat words

Back from the annual three nights at Alton Abbey, the substantial home of six Anglican Benedictine monks in the Hampshire beech woods. A small group of us have been doing this for twenty years. We don’t have to plan our pattern of activity or worship because we know the rhythm of the Abbey’s life and prayer and we know which large chunks of the day we keep on our own and which we keep catching up with each other.

I thought I had learnt by now not to bring too much with me; the point for me is supposed to be paying attention to what (if anything) emerges in the silences and not to keep it at bay with a project or reading list however spiritual or worthwhile. But the one valued slim volume I did take with me turned out to have notes in it made on our visit four years ago. There was what seemed to me a depressingly up to date summary of all the character faults, ministerial distortions, and habits which get in the way of others, clearly set out without my needing to do any self examination at all. I’d rather thought the process was like the occasional wash round under the draining board to keep things clean; I discover it is more like puzzling away at what on earth to do about apparently permanent stain along the grouting behind it which no amount of scrubbing or bleach seems to have been able to shift.

The little book was Rowan Williams’ lectures on the spirituality of the Desert Fathers Silence and Honey Cakes and one of the many things he reminded me is the basic one:

The church is a community that exists because something has happened which makes the entire process of self-justification irrelevant. God's truth and God's mercy have appeared in concrete form in Jesus and, in his death and resurrection, has worked the transformation which only God can perform and only God can tell us: that he has already dealt with the dreaded consequences of our failure, so that we need not labour anxiously to save ourselves and put ourselves right with God. The church's aim is to be a community that demonstrates this decisive transformation as really experienceable. One of the chief sources of the anxiety from which the gospel delivers us is the need to protect my picture of myself as right and good.

Just as well. Still, it might be nice if it was a different set of faults to reflect on in four years time rather than just the same ones further ingrained.

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