13 Jun Obum’s Journey
In May 2021 Obum, a member of the Community of St Anselm, spent two weeks at Mucknell Abbey to deepen his experience of monastic life. Here he reflects on his journey, and shares his impressions of life in a Benedictine Community.
The people who are close to me could argue to a very reasonable extent that I am Catholic both in theology and practice despite having come from a Province within the Anglican spectrum which abhors High-Churchism. I will, surely, and always find contentment and take delight in liturgical ceremonies with so much singing and incense all day long but, nevertheless, my inclination towards Anglo-Catholicism has some blind spots which are mostly unknown to me.
When I first arrived at Lambeth Palace as immersive member in the Community of St Anselm, one of the first beautiful moments was stepping foot into the chapel of Thomas Cranmer. That evening the Dean of the Community led the traditional Evening Prayer but never did it occur to me that this was the exact holy ground in which Cranmer summarised the Benedictine monastic Offices, giving birth to Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer/Evensong and Compline as well as other liturgical ceremonies of the Ecclesia Anglicana. I have often wished to experience the true sense of Anglican liturgy and Benedictine spirituality.
The Ignatian exercise taught me the value of prayer and how I can reinvent myself into some of those beautiful and saddening scenes in the Bible; have a heart to heart with Jesus like a friend; pray to God like a Father, pluck something that speaks to me from the passage and draw my conclusion if necessary. But beyond these, I haven’t really glanced at the difficult experience of monasticism and asceticism. When we were told that we are to spend two weeks in various religious houses within the British Isles, my heart skipped; I once had a traumatic experience of silence retreat, even though I am considered to be a quiet type and so it’s expected that I will comfortably flow and not float. As the day passed, I became nervous and sceptical about my readiness to enter into this, which was yet another rhythm of life devoid of the secular lifestyle I have known and been acquainted with. At the same time, there’s this hidden apprehension and aghast-excitement within me.
When the news came that I am to spend this time in Mucknell Abbey, it didn’t come as a surprise. I arrived here to be greeted by first the rain and cold weather, the quietness and the Brothers. My first two days were boring and quiet, but my consolation came from the Offices which I thought were “too much”. Consequently, as I intentionally stepped and immersed myself into the rhythmic lifestyle in which the monks and nuns here fashioned their lives and took vows to uphold, I discovered the abundance of peace in both my mental health and spiritual comfort. This Abbey has offered me the grace to discover new things, new things such as the Psalms turned into praise and glory. You could hear and feel the ambience of the silence: the greatest gift of God for our inner peace.
Days passed and I wished not to return to London. I have very much enjoyed the company of these holy men and women whose only desire is to follow and be with Christ all the day of their lives. They have given me a reason to realise the true meaning of sacrifice in which we are expected to sacrifice those treasures in other to gain greater treasures of the Trinity. I was convinced of this by merely looking at Br. Michael, who, despite his physical condition is devoutly following the path in which he feels called by God. This is true because ‘all vocations’, according to Thomas Merton, ‘are intended by God to manifest His love in the world’.
It is not surprising if we encounter weird people who think that such vocations are a mere waste of talents and human resources. Forgetting the fact that thousands and millions pay pilgrimage to be encouraged in their discipleship by these holy men and women, who deploy such gifts and talents within an enclosed space. Each and every one of them here has great talent and you can see the deep desire to serve and not to be served; a true example of that which Christ commanded us. If truly the Church understands the richness of religious vocation, she will probably have greater focus to encourage the younger generation. This she can do by training and producing holy, pious priests with a deeper understanding of our Catholic faith, whose life and devotion will encourage and simplify subjects surrounding pastoral responsiveness and religious vocation.
“You could hear and feel the ambience of the silence: the greatest gift of God for our inner peace”
The second Vatican Council reminds us that liturgy is the source and summit of the Christian life. Pope Paul VI went ahead to opine that monastic liturgy could be like a snuffed out candle if we lost the Latin and Gregorian chant. Aside from keeping to the Rule of St Benedict, the monks and nuns here sing beautifully. Through it you get connected to the Desert Fathers, St Anthony in East and St Benedict in the West, and it puts me in mind of the unity found in the Most Holy Trinity, the Three persons in one God. The liturgy, including the Eucharist, is a participation in the heavenly praise of the master, the Creator and loving Father, worshiping our Saviour Jesus who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the redemption of the world, and the Holy Spirit the helper and comforter. The Divine Office allows us to experience new, positive meanings from those ‘distasteful psalms’.
Among the many devotions and the rich treasury of prayer that the Church and its traditions offers the liturgy is first and foremost nearest to the mind of the Church, and brings us nearer to the Church and its teachings. A beautifully celebrated liturgy remains the best form of sermon, in the same way that Matthew 3:15-16 enjoins us to let our light so shine in the world: before our families, before our friends and enemies, before our neighbours, beyond our horizons that they may see, juxtapose it with other religions and glorify the father in heaven. In a monastic setting scripture is simplified and exemplified to give us a true taste of love, harmony, peace and comfort.
So, despite the silence spent in Lambeth, Mucknell Abbey has given me more experience of it in a grand style. This is a treasure here, together with the beautiful green habitation surrounding the property in which we connect with the birds and, as the holy man St Francis encouraged us to do, enter into fellowship with all of God’s creation. According to Francis we must ‘preach Christ at all times and if necessary use words’. It does not suggest that the absence of words (or so many of them) here in the Abbey is disobedience and dismissal of Christ’s command, rather it is an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit and the Angels in our midst, transforming our difficulties into eternal gain.
In the same way my experience and journey here has transformed and shaped me.
Solemnity of Corpus Christi