An article written by Trevor Miller for Quiet Spaces.
‘Can you tell me a little about yourselves? What is the Northumbria Community?’ These and many like them are frequently asked questions, which are not always easy to answer; not least because the Northumbria Community describes a network of people, hugely diverse, from different backgrounds, streams and edges of the Christian faith.
Those who are Companions in Community are united in their desire to embrace an ongoing exploration into a new way for living Christianly that offers hope in the changed and changing cultures of today’s world. Each has to learn to translate and apply our Way for Living, which is centred in Availability and Vulnerability before God and others to their own situations and circumstances, as each has to face differing roles, responsibilities and relationships. This commitment to adaptability and flexibility makes it very difficult to translate our life into words adequately. The best we can do is to talk about living the questions at the heart of our life as a response rather than an answer. Answers give finality whereas we want to convey life still being lived, discoveries yet to be made, exploration and adventure being real. This is why the Northumbria Community is always in draft form and because it is dynamic, organic and ongoing, it is never a finished product.
However, there are some unchanging principles and core values in that the essence of the Northumbria Community ethos is found in each Companion. Each can say, ‘this is what I am, who I am’, like the words in a stick of seaside rock – embedded throughout, part of the thing itself so that however much it is broken up, the letters remain. Ideally, for Companions, the life and message has become who they are; it is in the heart, not in knowledge alone.
From our earliest days as a Community we have understood that two concepts capture this essence, both seen in the original meaning of the old Greek word ethos meaning both the atmosphere (ether) and the habitual practices (ethics) of any group within that atmosphere. We recognise the ‘ether’ in which we live, move and have our being today is that of a rapidly changing culture, characterised by a consumer-driven, instant communication globalism. Exploring how to live in this new world, our ‘ethics’, (seen in our core values and spiritual disciplines) enabled us to discover our Way for Living. This is embodied in living constantly with three questions: Who is it that you seek? How then shall we live? How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
The Community is geographically dispersed and strongly ecumenical but has an identity rooted in the history and spiritual heritage of Celtic Northumbria. In seeking God as the ‘one thing necessary’ (Luke 10.42) our continuing quest for a new monasticism is the heart of our life, whether alone or together. It is this blending of ‘a prayer that is quiet and contemplative and a faith that is active and contagious’ (to quote one of our foundational documents), lived out in the ordinariness of everyday life, which forms a basis for our growth and development.
This came alive in the merging of two groupings in the late 1980s: the Nether Springs Trust (contemplative and prophetic) and Northumbria Ministries (apostolic and missional) that was ‘the major turning point in the establishment of The Northumbria Community, and the single most important event following the years of pioneering’ that had began a decade before.
We discovered that to seek God for his own sake is never just an intellectual exercise or part of a study programme – it is life lived in the ordinary and mundane. We are all seekers and always remain so, hence the continual ‘who is it that you seek?’ that lies at the heart of our ethos. ‘Who is it that you seek?’ is our message and vocational expression, giving voice to our mission which is not only to create the space to seek God in our own lives but also to help others clearly led by God along parallel paths. Many people (like us) are suffering an interior homelessness – they are internal émigrés. Many are aware of being in exile, often bewildered by the huge winds of change shaping our culture, and yet despite it all, clearly on pilgrimage with hope in their hearts. Our discovery of a new monastic spirituality, strongly influenced by the way of life expressed in the monastic communities at Roslin in Scotland and at Clonfert in Ireland, enables us to live with such hope.
God’s call on the Northumbria Community is not to any form of institutionalism but to embrace, explore and express the heart of monastic spirituality in the ordinariness of our lives, as a different way of living in and relating to, today’s world. We 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 has only begun to make sense of the nonsense within us and around us through an embracing of monastic values and disciplines. Monastic spirituality implies a single-hearted (solitary) seeking of God. This may or may not be carried out in the company of others, (the monastic tradition has embraced both being alone and together), but the focus is clearly on returning to God. It also involves making use of a daily rhythm of prayer (Office) and a Way for Living (Rule). Together, these enable us to marry the inner journey, the landscape of the heart – a call to repentance, self denial, and to recognise and resist evil – with the outer journey, the landscape of the land, which has given us a platform to find a different way of being Church. We can then offer the fruit of our life with all who come our way and cross our path, asking with them ‘Who is it that you seek? How then shall we live? How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’
Our Mother House, the Nether Springs, is situated quite deliberately in north Northumberland as a fulfilment of Joshua 15:17-19, a foundational scripture about the Father’s gift to us of both the Nether Springs and the Upper Springs. In the early days, this story of Caleb, Othniel and Achsah inspired us ‘to seek for the nether springs’ (KJV). Holy Island was clearly the place of the Upper Springs; but somewhere further inland would be a place where people could seek the nether, hidden, deeper springs of spirituality rooted in the history and heritage of Northumbria.
This scripture became a source of hope that as the pioneers walked away from familiar territory without a map to guide them; a way would be found for the journey ahead. They travelled on in the hope that the journey, which they found themselves on, was not in vain but was at God’s invitation and would be sustained by God’s provision. The Nether Springs is the hidden place, not simply geographically, but in relation to our spirituality as well. It is a place where individuals come to seek God on their own unique journey of faith. It is a well from which seekers can draw water to sustain them in their journey with God.
Our Mother House holds the heart of the life of the Community insofar as it is a sign and a symbol of the Community’s monastic vocation to seek God as the ‘one thing necessary’. Life at the Mother House is therefore shaped around a daily rhythm of work, worship, study, community and solitude. The rhythm offers a gentle structure that turns our attention towards God even in the midst of the ordinariness of life. At the centre of this rhythm is the Daily Office, shared in our chapel in the gardens of the house.
As a Community, we seek to offer time, resources, understanding, validation and support for all who are genuinely seeking God. We want to be there for the many seekers who have discovered an inner reality of ‘being’ alongside ‘doing’; who long, in the words of TS Eliot, for ‘a still point in a turning world’. They need a spirituality that offers simplicity, solitude and contemplative awareness in a busy and noisy world, yet still acknowledges the reality of that busy, noisy world where we have to live our lives.
It is this single minded search for God which, being essentially monastic, stands in the tradition of wisdom that is not an accumulation of knowledge for its own sake, but a constant application to life actually lived: ‘A wise person does not gather and dispense insights, but rather has the heart to live those insights.’