Sense of Place – Liminal Community.
In man every creature, both visible and invisible, is created. There-fore, he is said to be the “workshop of all things”, since in him all things which come after God are contained. Thus he is customarily called the intermediary. Indeed, since he consists of body and soul, he contains within himself and gathers into unity the extremes that are at a distance from himself – that is, the spiritual and material.John Scottus Eriugena – Periphyseon V:49.
Humanity is unique within God’s created order, and this uniqueness carries with it the sacred responsibility to care for all of creation in a peaceable (shalom) way. So far, I am sure, my previous two blogs/podcasts on new monasticism may, to some, sound like a rant against the ecclesiastical establishment and its assimilation of worldly values at the expense of standing with the people. Well that may be the case, however my next sign of a Celtic new monasticism, I trust, will reassure everyone that the mystical as well as the material is very much a part of the tradition new monasticism is seeking to imbibe.
The early British and Irish fathers and mothers inherited much from the original desert monastics of Egypt and the near-east. Perhaps the most emblematic aspect of this inheritiance was their love and passionate embracing of a liminal creational existence. Liminal is a word used to describe a transitional phase in ones experience or geography. It is the idea of being in or going through a fluid phase. It is the space in between what can often appear as two contradictory polarities, whether ideas or states of being, and as such creates an ambiguity or disorientation that leads to a crisis and ultimate transformation. To experience liminality is to accept that you have left something but have not yet arrived. In a state of perpetual departure and to sojourn in a place of hiddenness or obscurity, a place of unknowing and being unknown. This for many Christians, can be a deeply uncomfortable experience. Yet for the new monastic this is the place where we first hear the deep call to journey towards God at the expense of everything else.
In my own journey with Celtic new monasticism I have faced many personal, as well as vocational challenges, in some cases life threatening. I guess you don’t work with gold and diamonds without some risk to the vested interests of worldly power. What I can testify to however, is that whenever a life or psychologically threatening challenge has occurred, God has met with me through a creational encounter. There is something uniquely authentic in encountering Christ in creation. Now as we work to establish a Celtic new monastic foundation at Chanctonbury in West Sussex, the creational liminal reality of this continues to excite me. God’s love for us is so great Godself will not let beloved disciples stagnate or plateau. Godself calls us forward, to a transitional adventure where the material and mystical become a daily encounter.
For the new or traditional monastic, the intentional leaving of the world, its systems, benefits, comforts and certainties is a liminal procession. The material (corporeal) life, whilst a positive affirming reality, is to be regarded as a transitory phase in one’s life. Letting go of the world system is something Jesus is very specific about and investing into the unseen Kingdom of God is actively encouraged;
And when some of the Pharisees asked Yeshua, “When is the Kingdom of God coming”, he answered and said to them, “The Kingdom of God does not come with what is observed.” “Neither do they say, ‘Behold, here it is!’ and ‘Behold, there it is!’, for behold, the Kingdom of God is within some of you.”Luke 17:20-21 – Aramaic Bible translated into English
To be a new monastic is to embrace the unseen journey of leaving the world and walking into a material embodiment of the Kingdom of God in creation. This materialisation of the Kingdom in the physical world is the authenticating echo of our contemplation and Imitation of Christ. It is a material realisation of the life of the Holy Spirit in the land and our call as new monastics is to incarnate this creational task in our daily life and spiritual practice.
In a conversation with John Skinner in the summer of this year (2018), the founder of the Northumbria community, spoke about the intentional and unintentional nature of new monastic communities. If we embrace the new monastic reality of the liminal and transformational work of the Holy Spirit, it is an acceptance that we are no longer in control, the Good Shepherd is in control. This abandonment to the life of the Spirit creates unintended consequences that cannot be foreseen or planned for. If I have learned any lessons from the sheep fields of Sussex over the last year, it is that control is an illusion. Our sheep have taught our fledgling community how to be together, to listen to each other, how to disagree with one another, how to work together, to be patience and overcome our personal ego’s and convictions of what is right. There is nothing more humbling than a group of well-meaning individuals trying to round up a flock of rare breed sheep without a dog.
Genuine new monastic communities grow together through participating in the tasks of caring for one another and creation, not in a doctrine or the institutionalisation of our ideas and belief systems. People turn up and participate, they find their level and contribute what they are able. All are welcome regardless of background and we are learning to live with the disruption of this. Our intention is to be a new monastic community, the unintended consequence is that we live with the uncertainty that each day presents. It is this daily uncertainty that is the crucible of our spiritual formation.
Liminal not only applies to the human person as he or she crosses the bridges of life and negotiates the psychologically, emotionally and culturally challenging events of existence. It is also is a term that describes creation and the spiritual connection to God that the land induces within us. To encounter Britain and Ireland as a set of islands off the western edge of mainland Europe is to encounter a landscape of extraordinary liminal quality. Hilltops and woodland, ocean and land, pasture and moorland, mountains and sky, valleys and the confluence of rivers, ancient spiritual monuments, are all inhabited by a natural sense of transition between heaven and earth.
The British Isles are full of caves, Roman ruins, islands and coastal headlands with Celtic associations and remains. Indeed, almost all the islands around the coast of Britain have the remains of chapels dedicated to Celtic saints.Phillip Sheldrake – Living Between Worlds: Place and Journey in Celtic Spirituality
One of the main reasons why I love the Celtic Church so much is that it possessed an ecclesiology rooted in the wilderness. There was nothing domestic about being Celtic and Christian. Your pursuit of God was realised in devotion to prayer and connecting to God in the wildness, beauty and devastation that is the natural world. The early Celtic Christian settlements were not founded in any old location, but were chosen for their particular geographically liminal quality, a quality that would assist those who lived there to practice their monastic fervour in a space between heaven and earth, e.g. Iona, Lindisfarne, Ynys Enlli, Skellig Michael.
This holy living in liminal geography would then act as a public witness to the spiritual life that is to come. They became places of pilgrimage where the public would journey seeking encounter with God. They became spiritual centres that witnessed to a life beyond the corruptions of the world. A physical outworking of the transitional destiny that all humanity has between the temporal and eternal realm. The Celtic monastics sought the desert in the ocean. A spirituality that cannot be explored from the safety of domestic bliss. It was a hard-won reality born of the triumph of the spirit over the flesh.
Could it be that the encounter with the Divine in liminal landscape is created as a result of an intentional openness to the presence of the Spirit of Holiness, not only in human activity, but also within the integrous nature and contours of the landscape itself? I believe so, the land speaks, creation speaks and wisdom is to be found in listening to the song of creation.
Whilst western societies have sought to commodify creation, (and in so doing cut themselves off from God the Creator), indigenous peoples and their communities have never reduced the Creator to a domestic god of emotional gratification, rather they have retained their custodianship of the origin conversation with God the Creator, who is in and through all of life on this rare blue planet. This is why creation is sacred, as it is the first sacrement established by God as light emerged from the darkness of pre-time.
The message of Jesus Christ is not only an anthropological message, it is a message of human restoration and realignment to our Godly creational purpose – namely to live in harmony and peace with all of creation within God. Scripture witnesses to how creation is fully integrated in the revealed nature of God. For the Psalmist the clouds, the wind and the waves reveal God in the natural world,
Bless Lord Jehovah, my soul! Lord Jehovah my God is very great; He wears brightness and glory! He is covered in light like a cloak. He has stretched out Heaven like a curtain. He makes his lofty dwellings in the waters and sets his chariot above the clouds and walks upon the wings of the wind. He makes his Angels the wind and his ministers burning fire.Psalm 104:1-4 – Aramaic Bible translated into English
Equally, the prologue of John speaks of all of life being born of and sustained through the Word of Life.
In the origin The Word had been existing and That Word had been existing with God and That Word was himself God. This One himself was at the origin with God. Everything was in his hand, and without him not even one thing existed of the things that existed.John 1:1-3 Aramaic Bible translated into English
This encounter with creation dwelling in God, does not reduce God the Creator to some animistic manifestation of human construct, rather it elevates the love of God to a cosmic creational level where all things are held together as a theophany of the Divine self-revealing love. The eternal infinite nature of God logically means that the temporal created realm must exist within Gods infinite eternal nature. Creation cannot exist beyond God, as that in and of itself would set creation up as a god with its own innate ability to sustain its own existence. Creation is not separate ontologically from God, but is indeed a primary theophany of Godself. The image I love of the emergence of creation into time and space, is that of creation being held and continually sustained in the womb of God. To ignore our relationship with creation is to ignore God and the huge investment of Gods loving activity that is present in all of life. To encounter creation, is to encounter the God who made all and dwells within all.
Over my three blogs/podcasts on new monasticism, I have sought to explore essential elements to the new monastic charism. Our need to move away from the world system and to embrace the Imitation of Christ as authentic discipleship. To re-orientate the practice of Christian leadership as standing and walking with the people as Jesus did, and to recognise the primary call of Christianity to care for the created order as an act of service and worship to God. Closer to home, we can no longer ignore the facts that the British Church settlement is not working. However painful a confession this may be, we must accept that business as usual is not an option (the systemic shrinkage of the British Church however is a topic for another day).
It is time to start again, literally from the ground up. For new monasticism to be integrous to its roots and origins, we must return to the desert in the ocean and the ascesis of our indigenous apostles like St Columba. We must seek out the liminal spaces of our islands in order to ‘be alone in a separate place‘ as St Columba commands us. The Kingdom of Heaven is not born of this world and its systems, it is born of the Holy Spirit in creation and community. It is our sovereign duty to take courage and seek to establish, once again this Kingdom of Holiness in the landscape of the British Isles.
The politics of new monasticism looks neither to the left or to the right of the mainstream political definitions for its inspiration, rather it looks out to heaven and then down to the earth of our lives. Maybe a generational focus (30 years) on getting working models of sustainable new monastic community are what is required, if we are to realise the freedoms that the Gospel of Jesus promises for the two generations, who are to come after us.
Monasticism will always remain the custodian of the heartbeat of Christianity so long as the Church seeks to ape the world system and Christianise the nation state. It’s raison d’être is to foster and facilitate closer communion with God the creator that leads the individual and/or community to a place of unity with the Divine. The closer we get to God the more like the Trinitarian perfect community we may become and the world is more likely to be inspired by the Spirit of Holiness in our emerging new humanity.