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The company he keeps

13 May 2016

Simon Jones joins the Northumbria Community for a retreat experience that won’t rub out

NETHER SPRINGS, the mother house of the Northumbria Community, is not really a retreat centre. Nor am I really on a pilgrimage. But the rucksack I carried down a damp St Oswald’s Way is heavy across my back, and I am ready to stop. Striking castles kept leaning into view, facing the dark teeth of a dramatic Northumberland coast, but all I could see in the damp was a map that said that there were too many miles left, plus another couple on top. I had set off in search of the saints, on Lindisfarne’s Pilgrims’ Path, but have sucked up more mud than Celtic Christian air.

I am trying, in short, to have a spiritual experience on demand — to a precise length of 1200 words — and the sacred is not playing ball. So I am giving up, taking a lift to Nether Springs, and meditating on nothing more than a treasured Crunchie bar, the gold ingot waiting for me at the bottom of my bag.

The Northumbria Community is a dispersed network of people exploring “new monasticism”; it has a daily rhythm that takes its inspiration from the spiritual heritage of Celtic Northumbria. Their rule of life — summed up as “availability and vulnerability” — includes hospitality as a core component, and I’m here to find out what that might mean, practically, for a temporary visitor. But right now I’m just hoping that the shower works.


THE first signs are good. The “house” is a neat set of refurbished farm buildings set around a pretty sandstone courtyard. Each room is named after a Celtic saint, and Chad’s modern bathroom offers a geyser of joy. I get out just in time to hear a bell ring, which means evening prayer. I’m not really in the mood, but this is a working holiday, and I have to find out what the scoop is.

The community has its own liturgy, published as Celtic Daily Prayer, and each member of the house team takes it in turn to lead us through the daily offices. After introductions and a tour, Catherine asks us why we’re here, and tells us what we might expect. Northumbrian Companions consider their tradition as always having been in flux, preferring questions to creed. The three that compel them most are: Who is it that you seek?; How then shall we live?; and How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Who is the “we”, I wonder, when Catherine — who will turn out to have something of a gift for anticipating my disquiet mind — says that, for the next few days at least, it’s us.

Over dinner — vegetarian and tasty — I learn that people come here for all sorts of reasons: some to study or write, others to decant themselves from the busy bottled-up life of congregational ministry. For some, it is just a long way from London, and the walking looks good. The group is as ecumenical as the community itself, but abides by a key house principle: do not bring anything to the table that divides us, only what unites us.

If this sounds vague, the liturgy is not: it is inclusive and sonorous but rooted, too. It is unashamedly Trinitarian, and, so far as I can tell, contentedly orthodox. “O Christ, son of the living God,” begins our first compline, “May your holy angels guard our sleep, may they watch over us as we rest, and hover around our beds.” We say parts of it individually, and parts of it together. We make the sign of the cross. One after the other, we repeat: “My dear ones, O God, bless Thou and keep, in every place where they are.” I head back to Chad, think of my son, and giggle at the fact that the lavatory in the shared part of the house is called Regulatus.

BREAKFAST comes immediately before or after morning prayer, depending on what time you like to rise. Daniel reminds us of the various places we can tuck ourselves away for quiet reflection, suggests various walking routes, and asks us to return books to the library when we are done with them. I make a cup of herbal tea, and set off for Poustinia (the community cherishes desert mothers and fathers as well as Celts), a room at the bottom of the walled garden. I sit for a bit while nothing happens. I go back to the library and pick a book on Christian mindfulness. I breathe deeply. I look at the view, and realise that the sea is just about visible. I relax.

Midday prayer makes me feel a little guilty. “Establish thou the work of our hands,” it asks, after I have spent the morning watching clouds. I wonder if I should check out the craft box, or walk the labyrinth, which has been mown carefully into the garden grass. I read a little instead, and tinker with one of the guitars left in the lounge. There is an old Spring Harvest songbook high up on a shelf — I don’t think it’s a standard aspect of community life — so I pull it down to knock out a couple of hymns. No one seems to mind. I am neither bored nor focused, and no one seems to mind that, either.

My inability to settle means that I end up pestering my partner, who is much more focused than me, and we end up bickering. The mood is still sharp when the bell goes for evening prayer, but conscientiousness compels me to go anyway. It is a surprise to discover that the liturgy has a meaning even when my heart is not exactly in the right place. The rhythm of the day is beginning to make sense: sometimes each word is felt, sometimes it continues to be true whether I feel it or not. The practice matters whether or not it is attended by the right feelings.

THE following day, for the weekly eucharist, we all head to the chapel. We file into the sides of the converted barn, and we are reminded that the table is for everyone. No one is excluded. Polly pulls the door shut, and the hush feels holy. A wood stove hums in the corner. Catherine’s meditation is gentle and thoughtful, and arrives for precisely that moment. There is a little music. We say the peace. We remember that we have to leave.

Later on, I talk to Pete, who speaks with authority about the nature of the community, its history, and its structure. It is important to know how these things work, who governs, where power lies. Accountability matters. But I am reassuring myself where I need no reassurance. Nether Springs is a place of welcome, calm, kindness, and quiet inspiration. Its theory is evident in its practice; its heart and its head share one body. Pete raises his eyebrows when I say that retreat centres are closing all over the country, because it is not short of guests. This does not surprise me.

Back on the train, the Northumberland coast looks seductive again. Already the memory of its paths is better than the experience; I will return to walk them again. I may return, too, to Nether Springs, but I will say compline with the community tonight anyway, together while apart. I reckon the encounter will go longer than 1200 words.

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