Tomorrow I’ll be going to Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor with students enrolled on my module on ‘Community Learning and Reflective Practice in Northern Ireland.’ About two years ago, I added an overnight silent retreat to this module so that the students who had volunteer placements with local reconciliation organisations would be forced to take time out from their study and activism to reflect on their experiences.
Not all students who enrol on our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation are practising Christians, but Holy Cross still provides a quiet space that is conducive to the deeper reflection that I think is necessary for reconciliation practitioners of all faiths and none. And the monks welcome everyone.
The importance of the monastic tradition in Ireland was brought home to me earlier this month, when I attended Irish Baptist Networks and Contemporary Christianity’s conference: ‘Prophetic Voices from the Margins: The Contemporary Witness of Celts, Anabaptists, and the New Monastic Movements,’ at Ballynahinch Baptist Church.
Roy Searle, leader of the Northumbria Community, was one of the featured speakers. He lamented the twee romanticisation of Celtic Christianity that has occurred in recent years.
Searle also argued that the best way to avoid such romanticism is to remember that Celtic Christianity was thoroughly rooted in the disciplines of monasticism.
In the case of many of the ancient Celtic saints monasticism of course meant living in monasteries – and being sent out from them as missionaries. But, Searle said, the disciplines practiced in monasteries, such as observation of the Rule of St Benedict, commitment to community, the daily offices of prayer, lectio divinia, and so on, can have a place in the lives of contemporary Christians who do not live in monasteries.
It is the way that these disciplines encourage Christians to work on their interior lives that is most crucial. Searle said:
Monasticism should remind us that in a frenetic culture, our first call is our relationship with God. Monasticism emphasizes the inner journey, the interior life, the heart. Monasticism is a counter culture to the activist contemporary church.
But Searle is not encouraging a withdrawn pietism or quietism. Rather, he emphasised that the Celtic saints were thoroughly engaged with the cultures around them.
Using a term that resonates with the theme of my blog, Searle said that the depiction of Jesus in the Gospel of John – as a prophet who operated “outside the walls of a religious domain” – is crucial not only for understanding Celtic Christianity, but for learning any lessons it might have for us today.
Searle added that a problem with many of our contemporary churches is that they are:
“preaching answers to questions that the world has never asked.”
As a first step to remedying this disconnect between churches and cultures, Christians who see themselves as part of a “church without walls” should be striving to understand, engage with, and love those who are different. This also is living out St Benedict’s instruction to welcome the “stranger” as Christ.
(Image: Celtic Cross used by Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor, sourced on Facebook)