As many reading this will know, at the beginning of this month our interns, warden and deputy warden went away for a retreat-come-monastic experience. We spent a full week in the beautiful setting of St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling (Kent), living alongside the community of Benedictine nuns who calling Malling Abbey their home. In this post, I’m hoping to answer some of the FAQs as well as reflect on my time there.
Firstly, thank you very much to everyone who shared their questions on social media! I’ve tried to answer as many as possible, so I hope that you enjoy reading and learning about my experience. If you have any other questions, please do keep sharing them! I will try to answer them either in another blog or Facebook post, or respond directly (and quite possibly dreckly…)
Q: What was the best thing about your stay? And what did you find the most challenging? A: Two things were the best part of the experience for me: getting to know all of the sisters and discover the person behind the habit – how they came to be there, why they felt drawn to it, what they do to entertain themselves etc. – as well as using the time to reconnect with God without all of the worries of the outside world to distract me. The most challenging part was spending so much time with other people! As an introvert, I need plenty of time by myself to regain my energy. Luckily after a couple of days I knew my schedule well enough to know when I could get away for a few minutes by myself!
Q: Do the nuns have a television? A: The nuns themselves don’t own a TV, but there is a TV in one of the conference rooms on site (used by St Augustine’s College of Theology) which the sisters use to screen big events such as royal weddings or (as when Tess was there as a novice nun) the opening/closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.
Q: Are they [the sisters] escaping from reality or changing our reality? A: Good question! I would say that whilst the sisters are separated from the wider world (they have all chosen to join an enclosed order which has little interaction with the wider world) they are not escaping from reality, but instead creating a distance between themselves and the distractions of the world to focus on their way of life which revolves around prayer, work, and study. I think that it is about removing themselves from distractions rather than escapism. As for changing our reality, they certainly changed mine!
Q: Was it a silent retreat? A: It wasn’t a full week of silence, but we tried to keep to the greater silence (complete silence) at the same times as the sisters as much as possible, which was from after Compline (7:30pm) until after the Eucharist the following morning (8am). Apart from that, we chatted as normal in our kitchen but kept talking to a minimum when in the cloister.
Q: How does the experience compare to the Way2 Community life? A: It is similar in the sense that the life of the community at Malling Abbey centres around the seven daily offices (prayer times) and Eucharist in the same way that our day revolves around our two daily offices (morning and evening prayer). There was also similarity in the sense of community, of coming together for meals, and having a sense of self whilst seeing your identity as a member of your community. I would say that the experience was similar to the Way2 Community life, but on a very different scale!
Q: Did you miss social media? A: No! Given that I check Facebook and Twitter multiple times a day, it seems odd that I had absolutely no desire to check out either whilst I was there (especially given the number of notifications that I had accumulated by the end of the week!) but I actually enjoyed having a week away from social media. (This also answers another question: “what surprised you most?” – that I was so utterly unconcerned about the things that usually distract me in my daily life!)
Q: Has this experience changed your view of ‘rule of life’ in Christian community, and if so, why? A: I would say that this experience has shown me the value of living by a rule of life for the harmony of a community, and how rules don’t necessarily restrict and restrain people but can set them free.
Q: Do you think that you could ever settle into a routine of early morning prayer/getting up so early? A: If I’m honest, no. I really enjoy and depend on beginning my day in prayer (both my personal prayer time and our corporate morning prayer which it precedes), but I enjoy lie-ins too… and my idea of a lie-in isn’t 4:30am!!
Q: Were there any young nuns there? A: The two youngest sisters are aged 60 and 64 respectively, so the answer depends on your definition of ‘young’!
Q: How did you feel that the life of a nun fitted with modern life? Did you find it difficult or refreshing to step away from modern life into the routine of an Abbey? A: I found it really refreshing – I could liken my experience at Malling Abbey to taking a breath of fresh air after being in a room that I hadn’t realised was stuffy and claustrophobic. But it did feel like I was entering a space where the rules of time didn’t apply in the same way as they do for most of us! I think that some elements and practices of the community’s way of life can be brought out into the wider world (this is what their oblates, extended non-resident members of the community, do as they seek to say the offices and live the life in the outside world) but the whole way of life within the enclosure walls felt very different to modern life.
Q: Are you going to be a nun? A: No! To quote myself in a journal entry that I wrote whilst on retreat: “This week has proved both fascinating and hugely thought-provoking, and whilst I believe that my calling lies in drawing others into deeper relationships with God, coming alongside people of all walks of life and journeying with them, and sharing the good news of God’s love with those who are yet to perceive it, the time that I have spent here at Malling Abbey has given me a greater appreciation for the monastic life and those called to it, has given me the space and time to draw near to God, and given me tools, resources and techniques to bring into my daily life.”
My time at Malling Abbey was insightful, eye-opening and profound. I learnt much about the monastic life: its rules, quirks and habits (pun intended!), as well as its sense of deep-rootedness, its prayer life that seems as easy and rhythmic as breathing, and the people who are drawn to it. I entered the enclosure thinking that I understood the monastic life in theory but unsure as to why so many people are drawn to it… I left a week later realising that I could not truly know the monastic life unless I experienced it fully for myself, but wiser about why some people are drawn to it! I found my time at Malling Abbey very moving, but cannot yet put into words why or what exactly I felt whilst I was there – was it a sense of peace, of being drawn closer to God, of realising that my worries are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, of knowing that I am on the right path, of contentment, or all of the above?! I cannot yet say because for me the experience was an emotional one, and emotions are often so hard to put into words; all that I can express now is that somewhere in my being I felt that I was where God had intended for me to be at that time. I end with the final words of my journal entry written whilst I was sat in my favourite spot in the abbey grounds (which can be seen in the photo below) and which follow on from the quote in the final question above: “I hope and pray that it will not be long before I return here.”