A retreat talk given by Trevor Miller in Bradford Cathedral.
This familiar theme is taken from Paul Brain’s song Alone/Together – ‘building the new on foundations of old.’ This one sentence captures an indispensable truth – that an understanding of our foundations; our background and history is essential because it gives us a sense of ongoingness, continuity and identity with what has gone before, which in turn gives meaning to the present and direction for the future.
It is the principle of Deut 4:9 “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
We need to know where we have come from, our roots and identity in order to integrate and plant so as to bear fruit in the present and future. Chinese Proverb ‘Whoever does not know the village they are from will never find the village they are looking for.’
What do we mean when we us the term ‘foundation’? Put simply, it is the basis on which a thing stands, is founded and is supported. That part of the building (often unseen) upon which all else rests. It is very important to realise that foundations are not only past, they are an essential part of the building still being built. We have an obligation to tell the story because it is a living story still being told.
The Northumbria Community has a living history; it is not static or complete but rather moving, growing, changing, something dynamic because it is life being lived. It is an ongoing challenge whenever we talk about ‘foundations of old’ to understand the difference between tradition and traditionalism. Tradition is life passed on, ongoing meaningful expressions of the distinctives, the ethos of a life lived which is both timeless and timely. Traditionalism is anachronistic, meaningless ritual which is now empty and dead. We must ever guard this life giving movement from becoming a monument however well preserved but we must also be committed to ‘passing the baton’ to the next generation.
How do we do that? By embracing and living the story, and the vehicle for living this story is Community. It is comm – unity, a common unity of heart and life, and it is this which connects us even though we are both geographically dispersed and hugely diverse in expression because of the vastly different lives, situations and circumstances of so many different people from different backgrounds, traditions and experience.
All this needs ‘an interpretive framework’ which is our Rule of Availability and Vulnerability. No magic wand. No fantasy or fiction but incarnational reality. To be a Companion in the Northumbria Community is a Yes to God, a freely chosen response to the call of God to seek to live Availability and Vulnerability as a way of life in the everyday ordinariness of who you are, where you are, what you are!
This is our spirituality and in this sense it comes before theology. In the NT following Jesus is the first act, and reflecting on the meaning and significance of the following comes later. Live – then reflect on how you live. This is how our Rule came about. Experience first, then evidence to explain the experience.
For us all the Rule of life of Availability and Vulnerability and a workable rhythm to the day is what connects us at a heart level. This Rule and rhythm helps us to seek to live in a way that tries (and often fails) to balance prayer and activity, work and leisure, material comfort and simplicity, as a pattern for our days. It is a principle we would want the whole Community to embrace but we realise that it has to be (and can only be) in the context of their own unique, ever changing circumstances and relationships.
Our Rule of life is deliberately flexible and adaptable. It is also timeless because it does not PRESCRIBE, it PROVOKES. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive! We don’t want to box God into denominational Church or statements of faith – we’ve seen the damage it can do. So if your thing is to be a pre-millenial, post tribulationist with a dispensational view of the Second Coming, then God Bless you, you will have our genuine respect for a sincerely held view but that is not who we are. It’s not that doctrine is unimportant rather a case of when the Lord comes will he find faith on earth – in my heart?
So for us it is the very opposite of having to ascribe to a uniform doctrinal assertion – its seek God for yourself, who you are, where you are – with your unique experience, knowledge and understanding of life. With all your idiosyncrasies, prejudices and crap – bring it all to the Rule of Availability and Vulnerability. Hold it loosely so as to make your own discoveries. Realise there won’t always be an answer but keep asking the questions. How then shall we live? Who is God? Who am I? What is Real?
Adventure, risk, experimental, constant change, vulnerability – we don’t know but let’s not know together. Centred on relationships – belonging, identity, humanity. We strongly identify with those believers described by William Stringfellow as the hidden future of the Church ‘Dynamic and erratic, spontaneous and radical, audacious and immature, committed if not altogether coherent. Ecumenically open and often experimental, visible here and there, now and then but unsettled institutionally. Almost monastic in nature but most of all enacting a fearful hope for society.’
All this resonated with us and we firmly believe that we are experiencing as a Community, (along with many others) a ‘holy restlessness’ and a ‘divine concern’ regarding the nature of faith, which only makes sense of the nonsense through an embracing of monastic disciplines which in turn issues in a call to repentance, a call to self denial, and a call to recognise and to resist evil. To ‘find a different way’ of being a Christian in the society that we live in. To know ‘How we can sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ to ask ‘How then shall we live? To seek God as ‘the one thing necessary’ so as to learn to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, strength; to love our neighbour as ourselves; to love one another as Christ has loved us.
THIS IS THE HEART OF THE NEW MONASTICISM.
a) Seeking God – Alone/Together. A commitment to Community where we seek God as “the one thing necessary” as the very foundation of life. We do so both ‘Alone and Together’ = Cell/Community which is for us an embracing of ‘a new monasticism’ in the context of a common Rule of Life – Availability and Vulnerability.
b) A Rule of Life – As we’ve said it provokes but does not prescribe, core values, interpretive framework, flexible and adaptable, life giving not legalistic This is not a grey uniformity but a colourful diversity united not only in a Rule, but in a rhythm of life that seeks to incorporate “a faith that is active and contagious and a prayer that is quiet and contemplative.” This ebb and flow of the mixed life of both the contemplative and active, withdrawal and engagement, solitude and community, together makes the Northumbria Community ethos.
– Inner journey – landscape of the heart. Rhythm, anchors. A willingness to follow God’s heart “wherever the Father leads” to risk and adventure on a “journey without maps.”
– The mixed life – Monastic and Missional, Contemplative and Active, Cell and Coracle. ‘Nether Springs and Upper Springs in the field that Father’s given.’ The ‘mixed life’ of a ‘new monasticism’ lived out in the world. Contemplation in a world of action.
– Incarnationally expressed in huge diversity
– Retreat, Reflection, Refuge expressed as Heart, Home, Hospitality, – – ‘The future belongs to those who have Hope.’
This is the spirituality we attempt to embrace as a Community. It is a discipleship still under construction, full of complex, paradoxical, ‘don’t know what we are doing’ disorder but it is life.
We are called to be AVAILABLE to God and to others
FIRSTLY to be available to God in the cell of our own heart when we can be turned towards Him, and seek His face
then to be available to others in a call to exercise hospitality, recognising that in welcoming others we honour and welcome the Christ Himself.
then to be available to others through participation in His care and concern for them, by praying and interceding for their situations in the power of the Holy Spirit
then to be available for participation in mission of various kinds according to the calling and initiatives of the Spirit.
We are called to intentional, deliberate VULNERABILITY
We embrace the vulnerability of being teachable expressed in a discipline of prayer in exposure to Scripture
in a willingness to be accountable to others in ordering ourways and our heart in order to effect change.
We embrace the responsibility of taking the “heretical imperative” by speaking out when necessary or asking awkward questions that upset the status quo by making relationships the priority, and not reputation.
We embrace the challenge to live as “church without walls”, living openly amongst unbelievers and other believers in a way that the life of God in ours can be seen, challenged or questioned. This will involve us building friendships outside our Christian ghettos or club-mentality, not with ulterior evangelistic motives, but because we genuinely care.