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A Year in God's Time: Why these young people have been living a monastic life

Sam Hailes meets the young people who have spent the past year shunning materialistic culture by living a monastic life at Lambeth Palace

Two years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury made the surprising announcement that he would host a ‘unique experiment’ at his official residence.

Justin Welby said he would invite a group of young adults (aged 20 to 35) to live under a ‘Rule of Life’, which involved serving, praying and studying together at Lambeth Palace for ten months. The community would be named after Benedictine monk and former Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm. It was billed as an opportunity to ‘spend a year in God’s time’ and experience a ‘deeply countercultural’ way of living.

For many, the idea of monastic life conjures up images of elderly, robed men with tonsured heads living in secluded monasteries, but has the time come to dispense with those stereotypes? Many modern Christians are rediscovering the spiritual benefits of living in community and following a daily pattern of prayer and work.   

Visits to retreat centres or short stays in monastic communities such as Taizé have become common among young evangelicals, and the teachings of the desert fathers have been popularised by friars such as Richard Rohr. Meanwhile, experimental Christian communities such as the Simple Way, led by justice activist Shane Claiborne in Philadelphia, have given rise to the term ‘new monasticism’.

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, wrote: ‘Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy; in fact, the opposite.’

In a fast-paced, materialistic world, the attraction to young Christians of a ‘deeply counter-cultural’ community such as St Anselm begins to make sense.  

Living in community

Over the past year, the very first intake of students has lived in close-knit community at Lambeth, heard teaching from leaders in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions, and experienced a monastic lifestyle first-hand. These students have served at local charities and many of them have endured a month-long silent retreat.

The celebration and commissioning service held for these 34 young people over the summer was as diverse as you might expect from a group that spans a variety of nations and denominations. There were choral chants and set prayers, a rendition of Hillsong United’s ‘Oceans’ and a healthy dose of humour and joy.

We had no phones, no laptops, nothing. We only had the Bible

As testimonies were shared, the highs and lows of the year were openly discussed. Laura Collingridge’s anecdote about the struggles that come from living in community was especially memorable: ‘On one of the first Mondays back in September it was my birthday. I’d already shared a birthday cake with everyone else whose birthday was in September two days before. Someone came up to me that night and said, “Can I ask you a question?” And I thought, “Oh, they’re going to ask me how my birthday was!” and they said, “Would you mind doing the washing-up?” That was a massive reality check of what community life is. It’s constantly laying down your own needs and selfish thoughts and putting others first in really practical ways.’

There were other challenges as the group learned to live and pray together. But over the course of this unusual gap year, the community of St Anselm clearly experienced something of God. And although sad to now be going their separate ways, the individuals who made up this community are ready and excited to apply all that they have learned.   

Claire Jones on experiencing true freedom

Claire has written more about her Community of St Anselm experiences at  theartofuncertainty.com

A year ago, most people I knew were asking me why on earth I was signing up to spend a year giving up my freedom, joining a community of people I’d never met and living by a rule of life I hadn’t chosen. If you’d have asked me that question, I would have told you that I needed to have my character sorted out.

I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I’ve started to recognise the gifts and skills God has given me to use in serving him. I’ve always been confident in what I can do for God, but I’ve never been happy about who I am. For a long time, I’ve believed there was something broken, something wrong about my character that would need sorting out before I could really give myself to a lifetime of ministry. I saw myself as a servant of God, but an unruly servant; a child of God, but a wayward child; a friend of God, but a flaky friend.

I became part of the Community of St Anselm, asking God to rein me in, to get me under control, but what he’s actually done is set me free; more liberated than I had ever imagined.

My experience this year has been one of growing in nearness to God. I thought we’d mostly spend our time looking at the various disciplines of the rule of life, confessing where we’d failed and urging one another to do better. But much more than that, we’ve spent time growing in intimacy with God, learning from Jesus and listening to the Holy Spirit.

And as we’ve done that, the first thing God did with me was to shatter the lie I believed. Powerfully, clearly and undeniably, he set me free from the belief that who I am is bad, and he spoke over me truth about who he says I am: that he’s made me, loves me, delights in me, and invites me to adventure with him; no qualifications, no buts.

This freedom from shame means that I can live in nearness to God in each moment of each day. In the past I might have rolled my eyes at the sort of people who say, ‘God said to me’, but now it’s a part of my daily vocabulary. It turns out that if I’m ready to listen, God rarely stops speaking: in ideas that come to me in the shower and gentle nudges in my conversations with others. From my work-life to my relationships to my plans for the future, I don’t think there’s anything that hasn’t been transformed by living hour by hour, minute by minute in communion with God.

If I’ve found myself calmed down and seen my character grow, it’s because I’ve come to know the beautiful character of God better, and to see how he delights in sharing my life with me; how he laughs with me, how he comforts me, how he never says ‘I told you so’, how he loves to see me open every good gift he gives.

Joshua Brocklesby on serving others 

Joshua worked for a creative advertising agency in London before becoming part of the community  

I applied for this year because I wanted to experience what it was like to live a counter-cultural life. At a time when the world was putting up walls and barriers, I wanted to join something that was doing exactly the opposite. This community brings together people from all cultures and denominations, and from all over the world.

I also wanted to explore different modes of prayer. The fact the community experiences Ignatian, Benedictine and Franciscan spiritualties is an amazing foundation.

Living in community was the hardest thing. To no longer have your own space, control and individualism, and live in community with people you didn’t choose is really challenging. But it’s been a real opportunity for growth. Sometimes we think we can grow by ourselves, but this year has shown me that you need others to allow God to change you.

For a third of our time in community we go out and work with charities around London. I worked in a residential home for those with severe alcohol dependency. That’s been a really important part of the year because it allows us to practically be Jesus’ hands and feet. I think a lot of the time we go out with the idea we’re serving people but it turns out they’re the ones teaching us about ourselves.

At one point this year we went on a month-long silent retreat, which meant zero contact with the outside world for all that time. We had no phones, no laptops. Nothing. We only had the Bible. It was a blessing to have that time with God with no other distractions. That was a really interesting experience as it made me realise how quickly we become attached to technology and mobile phones and they feel a part of us.

God has also been teaching me about patience this year. I used to be focused on how we can change things and thinking about how things need to be fixed. I still have that hunger and passion for change, but God has also given me patience to trust that his love is at work and that it may take time.

This has really equipped us to go back out into the world, to take everything we’ve learned and put it to use.

Rachael and Jonathan Lopez on Christian unity

Rachael and Jonathan participated in the community as husband and wife

Rachael About ten years ago I read the book Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster (HarperSanFrancisco). It was a manifesto to the Church to embrace all dimensions of faith and practice that define the Christian tradition. I loved this book, but in the decade that followed I couldn’t see a person or church that embraced the values of these different streams, so I filed it away under ‘utopian ideas about the Church’. I never thought I’d meet people who would live out their faith in a way that was prayer-filled, virtuous, spirit-empowered, compassionate, word-centred and incarnational. That was until I moved to Lambeth Palace and experienced it for myself.

We’ve participated in 1662 prayer book services, charismatic worship nights and everything in between. We had teachings from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, a Californian healing ministry and several Cambridge scholars. This year, I have discovered a broader experience of being ecumenical. It goes beyond doing a Good Friday walk together once a year. It is engaging with other Christians to the point that it profoundly affects your faith. It is finding treasures that span 2,000 years of history, and from across all cultures and denominations today.  

Jonathan This year has been somewhat of a ‘playground’ experience. I was like a child hesitant to play with unfamiliar children at a playground or park. But here at Lambeth, God has provided a safe place for me to know more about being a part of a bigger Church family.

Beforehand, a common thread when leaders of this community prayed for me was a prayer for wisdom. I have found wisdom this year in being a broken vessel before the living God and taking God’s hand in a leap of faith to get to know strangers. I have discovered that the transformed Church is a masterpiece God is displaying to the world, and that the world is drawn to it because it reflects who Jesus is.

I was asked to lead sports activities when the community was first set up. It was a frustrating experience to have American, French, Kenyan, British and Australian rules for each game and it always ended  with classic British cynicism and French rules winning the day!

For me, this year is only the beginning of what God will do as we seek intentionally to develop further relationships with one another, despite our different nations and rules. We are different, but we are united by God’s love for us through his Son, who calls us to be transformed by the Holy Spirit from the inside out.

Hazel Hutchison on finding times of solitude 

We received some definitions at the beginning of the year that were very helpful. The first was ‘alone’: to physically be on your own. The second is ‘lonely’: the feeling of aloneness regardless of whether you’re on your own or with other people. The third is ‘solitude’: the knowledge you are deeply connected to God regardless of whether you’re with or without people. 

As an introvert I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea that solitude didn’t require physically aloneness. Sharing a home with more than 20 people and sharing a room meant there wasn’t a huge amount of alone time. So one of the things I’ve learned, received and been deeply grateful for has been this journey of knowing how to find solitude in the midst of a busy and chaotic life.

The transformed church is a masterpiece God is displaying to the world

I remember being told as a teenager that it’s really important not to lead a double life and to share your faith. I took a bold step in sharing my faith with my friends at a school where there was only one other Christian in a year group of 200. That began a process of integrity with my faith. But I’ve realised how many pockets of my life I have not brought into God’s gaze. This year I’ve learned to bring all of myself into God’s gaze. I’ve discovered God loves me as I am. It’s something I’d been told many times but didn’t know until this year.  

The community of St Anselm offers both residential and non-residential placements and is open to Christians aged 20 to 35. For more information visit stanselm.org.uk 

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