Giving a year in God’s time

by
11 November 2016

Candidates for the second year of the Community of St Anselm started their year at Lambeth Palace in September. Huw Spanner finds out how three of the first year’s alumni got on

Marc Gascoigne/Lambeth Palace

Challenge ahead: Frances Germain at the original commissioning service

Challenge ahead: Frances Germain at the original commissioning service

NEW members of the monastic-inspired Community of St Anselm, based at Lambeth Palace, were commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury during their service of commitment at the end of September.

Forty-five adults aged 20-35 committed themselves to prayer and to living under the community’s 15-point rule of life for ten months. They included nine non-resident members, part of the 2015-16 alumni, who are now choosing to continue with the community.

Of last year’s original cohort, 20 were non-residential, combining their full- or part-time work with community life, and 16 were resident, led by and living alongside members of the Chemin Neuf Community at Lambeth Palace (News, 25 September 2015).

In a service to send them back into the world, after what had been billed as “a year in God’s time”, the Archbishop declared that the purpose of the community was to equip its members to be “those who physically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, in every possible way, [are] used by God to feed the world” (News, 24 June).

Frances Germain, aged 29, was among the first-year non-resident members. The idea of joining had appealed to her because her training posts as a junior doctor obliged her to move every year; as a result, her life had felt “quite transitory and disconnected” — a sense, she believes, that many other young people shared.

Ms Germain reduced her NHS hours by 20 per cent to take part. Like all community members, she made a commitment to observe the community’s rule of life, based on St Benedict, St Ignatius, and St Francis. And, in sharing community life, she was required to spend one evening a week, and one Saturday a month, at Lambeth, and to take part in three retreats.

“There was a very strong commitment to daily personal prayer, and for it to really become a rhythm — which can be quite challenging, especially because I was a shift worker. So there were a few times when I found myself saying morning prayer at 2 a.m. in the chapel when I was on a night shift.

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“It was about finding something that worked for you, and allowed you to really deepen your prayer life with God. And then, also, try new ways to pray corporately.”

She found the experience intense and transformative. “It has allowed me to get a better sense of balance in my life, and to see how different parts of it relate to each other, and are all tied up in God. Prayer has become much more central in my life.”

She is continuing her career as a doctor, which she sees as “very much a vocation”, but has been inspired to go back to university to study theology for a year at King’s College, London. She recently, for the first time, co-led a service at her parish church, and is also joining a new community being set up near her home in south London, the Community of St Margaret the Queen, Streatham Hill (due to have its commitment service at the end of this month). She has literally become involved in feeding others through helping out with a foodbank set up by the Community of St Margaret the Queen.

“Community isn’t something you can put down,” she says. “Once you’ve started, it becomes necessary, I can’t imagine not living with it. That’s not to say the parish or cathedral system has anything necessarily wrong with it, but there’s something about community that is wonderful.”

 

ONE of last year’s resident members was Joshua Brocklesby. He had been two years into what he supposed was a long career in advertising when he read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment while on holiday, and was “forced to rethink” the direction of his life.

“God gave me a real sense that things needed to change, both in the Church and in society. We are too caught up in ourselves as individuals, and have lost our sense of being part of a community. I saw St Anselm’s, and the simplicity of its lifestyle, as something very countercultural.”

One of the aspects of the rule of life which had an impact on him during the year was the rule concerned with the Journey of Descents. “That was the rule basically saying that instead of a world where everyone’s trying to push themselves to the top, we would seek to descend, as Jesus did, and to serve others.

“The year is really good at teaching us how to put other people’s shoes on, and try and imagine walking in them for a bit. That means that, in my day-to-day life now, I think I am a lot better just naturally at thinking about those whom I am living in community with, or those whom I have met, and to try to think more thoughtfully and perhaps more compassionately about the person, and not thinking it from a sense of ‘What can I get from this person?’, but from a sense of ‘What can I give to this person?’”

As part of the rhythm of their day, resident members of the Community of St Anselm are required to take part in three services a day. They are also asked to commit themselves to an hour of silent prayer in the morning and in the evening, and are encouraged to explore different ways of praying.

“As the year went on, I found it a real joy to have those times in the day. One of the big things I was interested in was: when I leave the community, will all that disappear in the busyness of days again? Yes, I did become very busy, very quickly again, but it instilled in me the need to pray. If I get to five o’clock and I haven’t had a time of stillness and prayer, I feel it. There’s a desire and a need to take a step back from the day, and to listen to what God wants to say.”

He joined St Anselm’s, in part, as a way to test a vocation to the priesthood that had “very much caught me out”, he says. He had felt very disillusioned with the Church, and no longer belonged to a congregation, and his immediate reaction to his sense of calling had been “Definitely not”. In fact, he admits, he continued to fight it all the way through his discernment process.

“St Anselm’s brought me to a place where I’m excited by it,” he says. And he now belongs to another community, in effect, as an ordinand at Ridley Hall.

 

PART of the purpose of St Anselm’s is to bring people from different countries and different denominations together. Another of its initial community members was a Pentecostalist from Kenya, Lucy Osulah. She had been working for the Commercial Bank of Africa in Nairobi when she decided to leave her job as a business analyst, and come to Britain to join the community.

“I needed time to talk to God about my personal journey with him, and I had this very busy life that did not allow that. I also wanted to know whether I was called to serve in the Church as a minister, or to be a Christian active in the marketplace. I had reached my thirties, and, by that age, I think it’s time someone knows where they’re going in life.”

Before she left, she had been spending her Saturdays mentoring teenagers in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, and she was wondering, in particular, whether she should be working with children full-time. At Lambeth Palace, she says, “I found a safe space with other young people who had similar questions, and we were able to talk about the issues, among ourselves and with a spiritual companion. We also had a 30-day silent retreat, which was quite something.

“I came to feel that I had been holding on to the security of my old job. If I returned to the bank, I would be successful, but I would lose the part of me that I really wanted to develop, and that I thought would bring glory to God."

Now back in Nairobi, she is studying child development for a psychology-based degree, and is looking for opportunities to work with pre-teens in education or psychosocial support.

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