Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Monastery

”The Monastery” was a series of three programs in May 2005, in which “the Benedictine monks of Worth Abbey in Sussex set a challenge for five men in search of meaning in their lives: to agree to live according to the monks’ rules for 40 days and 40 nights.”

Leaving behind family, friends and jobs, Gary, Nick, Anthony, Peter, and Tony “embarked on new lives in the monastery – including getting up at 6 every morning, praying six times a day and eating their meals in silence.”*

“The Monastery” has at one and the same time, been illuminating and frustrating.

First, it has certainly challenged the ill-discipline and superficiality that marks the devotional lives of many of us. We might well ask how we can re-organise and simplify our lives to be able to properly pray and reflect on scripture each day. This is obviously easier in a monastery. However, Christians who truly hunger for God have always strived to prioritize these things, often despite the busiest of schedules. Second, the series has also challenged the church over the impact truly loving and godly community can have on the non-Christian world. It was this that broke down the cynicism of the five men and so gained a hearing. One suspects that if much of the time we spend busying ourselves were re-directed to building such relationships, we would see a far greater interest in the gospel. Again, we might ponder how to re-organise our time to in order to do this. Third, we have been given a moving insight into the brokenness of the non-Christian. As in the gospels, it seemed that the more obvious “sinners” were in fact the more poor in spirit. Tony and Gary in particular demonstrated a great longing for help, challenging our attitudes to those we consider beyond redemption. By contrast, as in 1 Corinthians 1-2, it was the well educated Nick and Peter, the wise of this world, who seemed the most sceptical, perhaps challenging us to be wary of “high culture,” rather than to so esteem it. All five men however, were very much revealed to be sheep without a shepherd, individuals made in the image of God, desperately in need of his forgiveness and transformation.

Any who could remain cold-hearted towards the needs of our lost world having watched this series, is cold-hearted indeed. Yet it was in the attempt to meet those needs, if you like, the actual shepherding these people received, that should have raised alarm bells for us. The spirituality the Benedictines encouraged was generally (though not exclusively) a “mystical” one. That is, one in which a direct experience of God was expected, which could happily bypass the mind. Tony exemplified this, writing on the Worth Abbey web-site:
“I was hit by something I'll never forget. It was like I'd taken a new drug and felt paralysed and unable to speak. It lasted about a minute…And that was it. That was my call. That was my answer. It existed. There was something in it…It was real. And I felt that for the first time in my life. And without realising it, I had worked very hard at making myself receptive to it, if there was anything there in the first place to be receptive for…And it's a gift that I carry with me today, and explore at my own pace on my own terms. Because I'm never going to carry a tambourine or wear a habit. But I was put in touch with a spirituality deep inside me which has given me the energy and inclination to strive for so much more in my life and appreciate what's important and be a better person and lead a better life.”**
Of course we long for Tony to have been truly converted to faith in Jesus. But one wonders whether he might have had the same experience shutting himself away from the busyness of life anywhere. How does he know this was an authentic experience of God rather than just peace experienced through relaxation? Do not Buddhists claim similar experiences through their meditation? Mystical spirituality is very in tune with the spirit of our age. People are cynical of the rat race, suspicious of truth claims, and so long for spirituality that grants simplicity of lifestyle and flexibility of belief. And it is here that mysticism is so fundamentally dangerous. It can lead people to assure themselves of a right relationship with God on the basis of an experience, no matter what their beliefs or behaviour. In Tony’s words, it allows them to explore “on their own terms.” It is in many ways then an easy spirituality: one that to some extent meets our spiritual needs without making great spiritual demands.

By contrast, Jesus challenged those who worship “what they do not know” (John 4:22), calling them instead to worship in spirit and truth (v23), to repent and believe: to actually acknowledge him as God’s Son and ruler, and so live in obedience to his will. Jesus was adamant that those who did not acknowledge him in this way did not in fact know God (John 5:23).

In his kindness, God has not left us in darkness, groping for any experience we can interpret as an assurance of his presence and acceptance. He has revealed himself clearly to us in his Son, and in the book his Son sanctioned. We can therefore know his presence and acceptance with certainly through faith in his word, irrespective of the ups and downs of our emotions, or the busyness of our lives. The spirituality of Jesus is bible based and bible governed, it is holistic, engaging the whole person, calling them to love God not just with their heart and soul, but with their mind and strength also (Mark 12:30). The concept of actually seeking God in experience is foreign to the bible. By contrast, its longest Psalm consistently equates seeking God with meditating on and obeying his revealed word in the Old Testament. And Peter summarises the path to true spiritual experience by speaking of our being born again by the living and abiding word of God (1 Peter 1:23), which he tells us is the preached gospel (v25) now found in the New Testament. People need not be ships blown here and there by every wind of experience or teaching, but can be steered by the rudder the Lord has provided (Ephesians 4:11-16). Only by this means will they not shipwreck their lives, and be sure of reaching a heavenly destination.

It would be unfair to suggest that the Benedictines had no grasp of this. Their encouragement to read scripture slowly and reflectively is something we can all learn from. And the Abbot in particular sought to ensure the five men did engage with the bible. However a recognition of the primary way the Good Shepherd wants his under-shepherds to shepherd lost sheep was certainly lacking (Acts 20:26-30, 1 Timothy 4:1-6). The relative absence of conversation about the Lord Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and the call to follow Christ and submit to scripture, inevitably therefore left the candidates free to choose their own form of religion, and authenticate it on the grounds of experiences that were certainly genuine, but were not necessarily experiences of the one true God.

* - accessed 25.5.05 **