Have you ever met a monk?

“Allow the awkwardness and silence to simply be. Trust that if you give God the time he’ll do something with it, instead of trusting in how ‘good’ your prayers sound.”

Mirfield monastic community

A year ago I didn’t really know that Christian monks existed. I didn’t know that there were communities of brothers (or sisters in nunneries) living together and pursuing God.

But somehow, this week I found myself on a train from London to Mirfield on a spiritual retreat. It was an opportunity to unplug for a few days and simply spent time with God in quietness. Normally, we see spending time with God in this way as something dramatic and deeply spiritual, reserved for only the most ‘serious’ people we know. And if you’re used to charismatic or Pentecostal Christianity as I experienced growing up — ‘God’s presence’ usually looks quite loud. Filled with tongues, music and drama — reeling with revelation and ‘God said’ moments.  

But this time it was different. I spent evenings walking around the monastery’s glorious grounds in silence or playing my music on low. I spent afternoons falling asleep on the lawn after journaling in the hot sun. It was different.

My group also had the opportunity to sit down with Fr Nicholas Stebbing CR, who has been a member of the Community for over 3 decades. He grew up in Zimbabwe and longed to spend the rest of his life there, but somehow found himself back in the UK. It was a pretty open discussion about his life, spirituality and his books. I didn’t even plan to share much about this experience publicly, but I believe some of what he shared might help and encourage you today. So find a quiet moment, and sit and ponder these very simple thoughts — they might move something significant within you.

*These are all ideas sparked from our conversation with Fr Nicholas, and also include my own response/thoughts.

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On prayer…

  • Prayer isn’t always packed with words, sometimes it’s quiet and contemplative. He likened it to eating a high-quality meal: you can’t always see or feel how the nutrients are dispersed around the body, but you become nourished and stronger in the end. Sometimes prayer doesn’t always feel good, nor does it feel like its ‘working’ or we’re ‘doing it right’. And that’s okay.  It’s not like learning a foreign language where there’s a right or wrong answer, it’s something God is creating with us and it’s deeply personal.

  • Feelings are only half the story. As you grow in maturity, words that once filled us with satisfaction may fade and feel like clutter. And that’s also okay because this is a relationship, and no relationships stay stagnant. We evolve in every phase of life and the ‘rush’ of first love, while wild and exciting doesn’t always have staying power… and soon it becomes a steadier, richer love.

  • In summary, trust is everything. Allow the awkwardness and silence to simply be. Trust that if you give God the time he’ll do something with it, instead of trusting in how ‘good’ your prayers sound.

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On this lifelong walk with God…

  • “Pain and joy are closely related”. If that isn’t the truth, I don’t know what is.

  • This life journey is like a tree — not a flower. The roots are laid down first for years, under the soil and usually unnoticed, and then it grows into something magnificent and long-lasting if we allow it to. And this tree can withstand storms more than a vulnerable flower.

  • A tiny portion bit of scripture is okay. When we rush to read through the Bible, it doesn’t go in. We can barely understand it nor can we remember it. Embrace the practice of lectio divina and digest tiny portions of the Word until it becomes a part of you. That was it will challenge, comfort and change you.

On discerning your calling…

  • It’s not a mystical process or one-trick formula. It’s a journey we choose to go on, twists and turns included — the real question is whether we will cling to God in the process.

  • God’s call first, ‘how’ later. Fr Nicholas didn’t necessarily feel called to live ‘in community’ — i.e. the monastery, he first felt called to God and called by God. I found this significant because sometimes we focus so much on what calling looks like that we miss the point. It challenges me to think and listen carefully to what God is calling me to (which isn’t always seen) before jumping into what I can see.

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  • Conflict can create room for growth. Even if we’re not living in a formal religious community, we have all faced drama or disagreements between us and those in our nearby community. One thing that has given the Mirfield monastery staying power is that they see conflict as an opportunity to grow. Even where there are disagreements, because the call was to and from God first and not other people, they are more committed to staying and working things out.

  • We can never fully anticipate what our calling will look like. When he first felt called to monastic life, he was living in Zimbabwe and loving it. That was the dream. But eventually, that monastery closed and he had to return to England *gasp*. Suddenly, a fundamental part of his dream had disappeared. Sometimes that’s how it works — we’ll get part of what we expect, but there’s always a refining process that comes with it, there’s always something we didn’t expect. Even still, decades later he has the opportunity to return to Zimbabwe frequently, working with orphanages and local community groups. So I guess a core part of the dream was restored, just God’s way.

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I stayed at Mirfield monastery in the retreat house for a couple of days, and I would highly recommend it. The monastery is open for members of the public to stay over and get a taste of the monastic life. If you’d like to take a retreat, click here.