The former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey once described Anglican religious orders as being ‘the best kept secret in the Church of England.’ This is a great shame, for the monastic life offers some of the richest experiences of Christian service and worship.
On the weekend of Palm Sunday, a group largely composed of students, including a good number from All Saints, went on retreat to the Franciscan Friary at Alnmouth in Northumberland. Alnmouth is one of the main houses of the Society of St Francis, a Franciscan order whose emphasis is on serving God in the whole of creation. The friary is set on the Northumberland coastline with beautiful views out over the sea on one side and the countryside on the other. It is the home to a small number of friars who combine a life of prayer and worship with a dedication to service and friendship of all. And of course, it is the spiritual home of a good many more people who have found God’s love and presence more fully realised in the silence of the chapel or the fellowship of the table.
It is hard to describe exactly what it is like to share in this simple but extraordinary life. For my companions who hadn’t been on retreat to Alnmouth before, they found it a place of profound depth and spirituality. For those of us who were returning, we felt much the same. Retreats have a habit of cutting straight through us into that core of our being that is united to God.
Over the weekend, we were invited to share in the life and worship of the brothers who had welcomed us into their home. We joined them in the cycle of offices, meals and the daily Mass, and spent the rest of the time either in quiet reflection or having a good discussion with a cup of tea in the common room, depending on how we felt! Alnmouth is a place where you feel both affirmed in the values of friendship and faith, but also challenged, or at least for me. I find that God isn’t always comfortable and sometimes it takes a lot of soul-searching before I know what to do or where to go.
Retreats do not take of out of the world, but help us to live more fully and more completely in it. This, after all, is the message of the Gospel; not some remote God ‘out there’ but a God who is the ground of our very being, who shares our life and death, our joys and our sorrows. When Christ laughed and taught and broke bread with his disciples, he was showing them a God who was already standing with them, as a companion and a friend. When we take time to be silent and to pray we find that it is this God who sustains us at every moment and who asks us to follow him and to understand more fully what it means to be human and what it means to be a child of God.