Saying goodbye

I’ve always sound saying goodbye an incredibly difficult thing, and this is proving to be a week of goodbyes. I’ve said goodbye to the parish of Mabe, who took me under their wing in my first year. I’ve said goodbye to my community as we gathered together for the last time yesterday to celebrate the Eucharist and anoint one another. On Sunday I say goodbye to the parish of Mawnan, who have graciously dealt with my coming and going throughout the year, trying out new things on them (including my BAP presentation!) and learning together as I did new things. And now it’s time to say goodbye to you: the person who follows our community with interest, who supports and prays for us, who likes our silly photos on Facebook or Twitter, and who reads our blog posts from afar. Thank you for journeying with me these past two years. If you’d like to continue to journey with me as my path takes me to the north of England, you can find me at the following places:

Blog: https://onesmallbirdsingsquietlyinthecedars.com/

Twitter: @NatalieAJ95

Chaplaincy: the listening ear ministry

From Thursday to Saturday of last week, I found myself wandering around fields and avenues passing everything from cows to boutique shops to classic cars to wedding dresses to farm machinery. I was at the Royal Cornwall Show (RCS) – an annual agricultural show which draws thousands of visitors, traders, farmers and others from across the country – to experience life as a Show Chaplain.

As part of my time undertaking the Diocese of Truro’s Ministry Experience Scheme I’ve spent some time with chaplains at a local university and hospital, but when the opportunity arose earlier this year for me to come along and experience a very different type of chaplaincy I leapt at the opportunity. My calling to ordained ministry has long been tied up with my passion for rural communities, and it is the rural church which is at the heart of my previous, current and, hopefully, future experiences of ministry, as well as being the theme around which my undergraduate dissertation was centred. I was therefore thrilled to have the opportunity to experience ministering to people as a chaplain at an agricultural show, which are often the highlights of the year for many rural and farming communities.

The days were long and tiring. I woke up at 5:50am each day in order to leave the house by 6:30am, arriving at the show ground (bumping along the final muddy track which had been severely affected by the torrential rain on the second day of the show) in time to make my way to the Churches Together tent (which was, of course, on the opposite side of the show ground to the car park I had to park in) for prayers at 8am. I would then have a cup of fresh coffee – which was made throughout the duration of the show by a group of enthusiastic volunteers from local churches – before setting off for my first shift. We each had 4 one-hour shifts spread out across the day, between 9am and 6pm, one of which was spent in the tent and the other three out patrolling the show. Whilst in the tent we chatted with visitors, exhibitors and anyone else who might happen to have popped in for a cuppa or to let their children burn off some energy in the play area, and closed our hour with a short prayer which was projected through the speakers into the marquee. When ‘out’ I would wander around the show ground as I was led by the Spirit, which often meant walking in circles or apparently aimlessly! There were a few occasions when I was stopped by someone (usually to ask for directions!) but 90% of my conversations came from me saying “hello” or “good morning” to people as I walked by, and conversations growing from there. Most of my conversations were with stall holders/exhibitors, and I found myself particularly ‘ministering’ to the folks who ran stalls and rides in the fairground. Conversations were mostly about people’s experiences of the show, grumbles about the weather, and just chatting with people who might otherwise have had no one to talk to all day. But there were also some notable times when the conversations naturally went deeper – from conversations about the relevance of the Bible to contemporary life, to someone’s mother experiencing serious health issues as a result of an incident at a previous event similar to the RCS, to conversations about how many Christians would welcome celebrations of same-gender relationships in the church. I said very little in these conversations, and this reinforced what I’ve come to realise about chaplaincy over the course of my various placements: that it is a ministry that is about proving people with a safe space and a listening ear. Of course there were times when I didn’t know what to say or probably said the wrong thing, but there were many more when I found myself saying something that I hadn’t thought through and knew that it was God’s word in my mouth, or found myself thinking “I need to hold this silence for just a moment longer”.

Yes the days were long, I was exhausted at the end of each day (and I still am now!), I was cold and wet, and sometimes I wondered what I was doing there. But it was a privilege to be there, to bring something of God’s love to the people I met, to witness to God’s presence through my presence, to surprise people and to hear the words “you’re not like most chaplains!” There is power in being present and providing a listening ear; and that, to me, is what chaplaincy is all about.

A watched phone does (eventually) ring

It’s 2:59pm on Thursday 23rd May 2019. I’m in the passenger seat of a car on my way back to Falmouth after a meeting in St Austell to discuss my upcoming placement at a church there. Throughout the meeting my mind was at most 75% focussed on the conversations as they happened. The other 25%+ was thinking “not long now, not long now…” Now, as we travel back in the car, chatting to fill the silences that are heavy with expectation, my eyes frequently flick to the digital clock that sits in the centre of the dashboard.

As the numbers edge ever closer to 3pm, my stomach knots in fear, my mouth feels dry and I have to take frequent sips of water. The reason for the heavy expectation, fear, and dry mouth? Today, at 3pm, a report will be sent from the Ministry Division of the Church of England to the Bishop of Truro, a report which will either recommend me (conditionally or unconditionally) or not recommend me to train for ordained ministry in the Church of England. Once he has received the report, the Bishop will then prayerfully consider the report, before deciding whether or not to accept the recommendation of the panel who wrote it.

Soon, I will know whether I am going to train to be priest in the church that I love, or whether I will need to prayerfully discern another path for my future. Today, having lived in a state of uncertainty for so many years, I will finally know in which direction my life will go.

My eyes flick to the clock again. 15:00. I take a breath, glance at the phone that I have held tightly in my hand, and say a quick prayer. Any minute now, it could ring…

3:37pm. We arrived back in Falmouth a few minutes ago, and I promptly shut myself away in my bedroom, the room where I get the most phone signal (and where I could have some privacy to wait without the eyes of my community members on me). A message pops up on the laptop screen in front of me from Jem: “Your coffee is ready down here.” I grab my phone, which has been propped up on a stand beside my laptop, and dash downstairs to grab my coffee, before retreating to my room once again. I return the phone to its cradle and glance at it frequently. They say a watched pot never boils, and it’s beginning to feel like a watched phone never rings. But still I watch it and wait.

4:16pm. I hear feet climbing the stairs and as I instinctively turn to follow the sound, the sound I’ve been waiting for fills my ears: my ringtone. As I hear the voice of Angela (our community warden) call out “Bye Natalie!” I answer my phone with a “Hello?”

4:20pm. 4 minutes. That was all it took for Bishop Philip to tell me that he was delighted to accept the recommendation of the Bishops’ Advisory Panel that I train for ordained ministry. I don’t remember much of that conversation, other than I said “hello” at least 3 times and “thank you” even more. I also remember him reading to me the opening paragraph of the report, which I remember thinking was lovely at the time, but forgot what was said as soon as the call was over! It was also lovely to learn that I am the first person he’s sponsored to train for ministry, still being a relatively new bishop.

I walked down the stairs and silence fell in the living room, where Jem, Angela and Melissa were waiting. I only made it half way down the stairs before I called out – “you can breathe now, it’s good news!” and walked into the living room, grinning.

7:56pm. After hours of my phone pinging non-stop as messages flooded in to congratulate me on my good news, things had finally started calming down. And then, in the midst of the lull, came an email from the DDO containing a copy of the report. I opened it and finally breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the word in bold type on the first page of the report: “recommended“. I was nervous to read the report, having heard many horror stories about reports being filled to the brim with criticisms and unfounded claims, even for recommended candidates. But I was pleasantly surprised to read a report which I felt captured a true reflection of me – something that, over the week, I had said I felt the advisors had grasped – with plenty of areas for growth and learning development, as well as really encouraging comments from the Advisors, such as the following: “we would encourage her to believe in her significant potential in this area.”

I was also finally able to read that opening paragraph for myself, the one which Bishop Philip had read to me on the phone, which I will share below.

“We very much enjoyed meeting Natalie at the Panel. She brought a quiet enthusiasm to the Panel. In Natalie we met a well-grounded and extremely perceptive young woman who we consider to have the great potential for ministry in the Church of England.”

The first 24 hours or so after that call were spent trying to process the news. But things began to feel very real when on Saturday morning an email appeared in my inbox which had initially arrived on Wednesday morning, but which I had decided to schedule to disappear and reappear once I’d heard from the Bishop and had time to process whatever the decision was! It was an email from the Admissions Secretary at Cranmer Hall, the college where I will be training, asking for my accommodation preferences. Having to think seriously about where I want to live now that I know that I am moving to Durham in 4 months’ time really brought home the reality of it all.

Now that the initial shock has worn off I’m filled with joy that my sense of calling has been affirmed, am eager to begin training in September, and am incredibly excited that my training will unfold at the wonderful Cranmer Hall. But as I write this my thoughts are with Jem, who is currently on their way to Mucknell Abbey, where they will spend some time with the community there as they discern their own calling. As you celebrate with and pray for me as I prepare for the next step of my journey, please pray for Jem as they discern theirs.

BAP: public or private?

Before joining the Way2 Community, when I thought about the possibility of going to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) I imagined it as an event about which I would be very private. I would only tell the date of the panel to a small number of people who I would trust to pray for me throughout, and keep the discernment process as private as possible. But since joining the community, I have found myself immersed in many different communities and different aspects of church (particularly Anglican church) life.

Being part of a scheme which is headed up by the Diocese of Truro, there are people all across Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and the two parishes in Devon – which together form the Diocese of Truro – who are aware that I am discerning a calling to serve God as a priest in the Church of England, and are keen to know how I am progressing on this journey. Having visited a handful of theological colleges, to consider where God may be calling me to study if I am recommended for training, I have shared my journey with others who have trodden this path before me, and been assured of their prayers for me. I have moved to Cornwall from Somerset, where I was involved in local churches for many years, and so have friends there, including my ‘home’ church, who love to hear what I’m up to and pray for me. And I’m a part of a community here with whom I share my life, who have been upholding me, hugging me, and promising me cake as a reward after BAP, who know probably as much as I do about my journey!

With so many people who have shown me love and support on this journey, it has naturally become the case that I have been more open about the process than I was expecting. Through conversations, blog posts and social media, I have shared the ups and downs of my journey – from the excitement of visiting a college which felt like the place to which God was calling me, to my handful of pre-BAP wobbles which my community have experienced firsthand. Sharing the process has been incredibly helpful to me as I work through and reflect on my experiences and emotions, and I have been overwhelmed by the prayers that have, are, and will be offered for me. Whilst the journey of discernment is at its heart a private one between myself and God, making this journey more open, more public, has lead me to being surrounding in love, prayer and support more than I could ever have imagined.

Thank you to all those who are praying for me. As the date of my BAP dawns closer, and with it the huge decision about my future that is about to be made, I have reached a place of peace where I am confident that whatever the outcome, I will be held in God’s love and surrounded by people who will support me through whatever the future holds.

Stepping out of my comfort zone

I’ve just returned from the Good Friday service in my parish. Myself and a Local Worship Leader (LWL) lead the service between us, which was centred around the images of the 14 Stations of the Cross in the following pattern:

  • Bible reading
  • Meditation
  • Taize chant
  • A candle was extinguished following the words “the light grows dim. The darkness deepens.”

I was very much looking forward to leading this service. The readings were moving, the meditations hard hitting, and the extinguishing of candles powerful. And then my incumbent suggested that, as we would be sat in the choir stalls to lead this, I should help to lead the singing of the Taize chant. Those who know me will know that I am NOT a singer. Yes, I’ll belt out a Scouting for Girls song when I’m driving alone, but even singing along to folk songs with my community is too much for me as I become uncomfortably aware of my out of tune voice clashing uncomfortably with other – much better – voices. So to be asked to sing loud enough for others to hear me was terrifying.

Thankfully my fellow community member Jem is an excellent singer, and had the graciousness and patience to sit down and teach a very stubborn and unwilling student yesterday afternoon. I was extremely uncomfortable with the whole process, embarrassed at my inability to sing anything in tune or work out how on earth I was supposed to make my voice do what I wanted it to! But with a lot of patience on Jem’s part (and a lot of giggles on mine when they got me singing the words “nee naw” a few times!) we eventually got to a stage where I was comfortable with what I was able to do.

Then came the service itself. I was confident about the readings and knowing what I was doing and when. However, I was extremely nervous about singing the chant, and when our LWL and I practiced singing together before the service began I struggled to follow him. I am not a musician, so managing to sing in vaguely the right way was an accomplishment in itself, and trying to follow his lead was a real struggle. It was then suggested that I should lead the singing, and he would join in with whatever I managed to do. This was a terrifying suggestion! Not only was I going to be singing loudly enough for everyone else to hear, but they would all depend on me starting off correctly so that they could follow! After practicing for a bit longer I was reasonably confident that I could sing roughly what I was supposed to, so I agreed that I would start the chant each time around… All 14 of them!

A running joke in our community is to say “well, nobody died!” as a marker of success if we get through something we thought might go wrong or were anxious about. And you know what, nobody died as a result of my singing so I’d call that a success! Singing at all is a big step outside of my comfort zone. Leading a Taize chant in a church service? That put my comfort zone on a different planet in relation to me! But I’m glad that I did it. And who knows? With more singing lessons from Jem I may be able to sing not one but two Taize chants before long!

6 weeks to go…

With a little over 6 weeks to go before I attend my Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) I thought that I would take some time to reflect on recent events, as well as look ahead to the weeks to come.

Just over a week ago, I travelled a great distance from the far reaches of south Cornwall to a city far, far away… Durham! Having visited the colleges of St Mellitus South West and Ripon College Cuddesdon earlier this year, it was suggested that I should consider a third option as a possible training centre, should I be recommended for ministerial training. I had briefly looked into Cranmer Hall when I was initially scoping out the Church of England’s ordination training colleges and was really impressed with what I read, but did not consider it a serious option as it is such a distance from my family and friends. However, when discussing the need to consider a third option I mentioned my interest in – as well as my fears about – Cranmer to the DDO, who encouraged me to at least go and take a look at it. I came home from that meeting and starting looking into Cranmer Hall again, this time pushing aside the niggling thought of “it’s so far away!” and was really excited about what I read. Less than 24 hours after that meeting I’d contacted the college, arranged a visit, and began looking into my travel options! I had been looking forward to the visit with great excitement, and my short time in Durham did not disappoint. I was made very welcome and well looked after by students and staff, got a taste of a day-in-the-life-of Cranmer Hall, and had the opportunity to learn a lot about life at the college, as well as explore a little of Durham itself (and tick ‘visit Durham’ off my bucket list). It was a long and uncomfortable journey back on the sleeper train – having arrived back home in Falmouth 13 hours to the minute since I left Durham – but well worth it for the experience of visiting Cranmer Hall and asking whether that, or one of the other colleges that I have visited, is the place to which God might be calling me.

I finished my placement with the Chaplaincy team at Treliske Hospital at the end of February, which was a very challenging but stimulating time of growth for me. After a few weeks of settling in, shadowing the experienced chaplains, and learning the ropes, I spent much of my time on two particular wards with which I became very familiar. The conversations were frequently uplifting, at times challenging, but always a wonderful priviledge. I have realised that, frighteningly, I only have a little over 4 months left in Cornwall – where has the time gone?! Thankfully there are still many things in my diary that I can look forward to in that time, but I am sad at the prospect of leaving this county which I have come to call home.

Since finishing my placement I have used Mondays (my usual placement day) as an opportunity to prepare myself for my BAP. This has meant submitting a large amount of paperwork, preparing my presentation, and doing some reading in preparation for my interviews and other assessments. I hope to leave Falmouth as prepared as I can be on the Friday before my BAP so that I can enter my retreat that day ready to be still and meet with God in the quiet of that weekend. As the number of days on my countdown app get ever smaller, I am beginning to feel the nerves kick in. It feels as if this is the moment towards which I have been heading for a long time, and I am both excited and apprehensive about what the future may bring, post-BAP. Whether or not I am recommended for training, I can be confident that I have been obedient to God’s call on my life in exploring this possibility and seeing where this path leads.

January: the month of edible glitter, theological colleges, and anointing a bishop

This month has a strange one. It started off with me returning home from my Christmas break on New Year’s Eve, where I spent the evening making a puzzle and drinking cider with Melissa (our deputy warden) before we watched the fireworks display at Pendennis Castle from the warmth and comfort of my bedroom window… pyjamas and homemade hot chocolate (with a splash of Bailey’s, freshly whipped cream, marshmallows and edible glitter) were necessary parts of our new year celebration! On New Year’s Day I ticked a place off my ‘Cornish Bucket List’ as we spent the day wandering around the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

As January got into full swing there came a very exciting event: the Diocese of Truro welcomed our new Bishop – Philip Mounstephen – in a special service. In December I was amazed and honoured to find an email in my inbox inviting me to be involved in the anointing of +Philip, and so I went along to the rehearsal the night before the service to run through the service with the vast number of people involved. Then came the event itself, which was an occassion of great celebration, and a wonderful blend of tradition, modern influences, and a celebration of Cornish history. It was an honour to represent the Way2 Community in such a lovely service, but also an incredibly moving moment for me personally, and I would like to express my thanks to all those involved in allowing me the opportunity to do so (and my apologies to my Auntie Laura for missing her hen party!)

Two days later I was driving up the A30 once again for some time at home with my family either side of a visit to Ripon College Cuddesdon. Now that I have a date for my BAP I’ve started thinking about where I would train and study if the Bishop were to recommend me for ordination training. Having already attended an Open Day at Cuddesdon in October, this visit was an opportunity for me to experience the college on a ‘normal’ day and have a couple of interviews. I had a wonderful time and really enjoyed my time there, especially catching up with Way2 alumni Christine and Sophie who started training there at the beginning of this academic year. I was also treated to a sprinkling of snow, showing off the already beautiful college! Having stayed overnight I was able to join with the college community for Morning Prayer in their amazing chapel, and when we opened the chapel doors to leave we were greeted with a small but glistening layer of snow.

Sadly, the evening before I left for my trip home/to Cuddesdon Alice shared the news that she would be leaving the Way2 Community that coming Friday (the day I would be travelling back to Falmouth). I missed her departure, but we all met up for a fun evening of bowling and yummy food to say goodbye. We all wish her the best for her future, and look forward to seeing her in and around Truro!

The morning after our evening outing I was at Penmere station at 6:25am waiting for a train which would begin my jaunt to Plymouth where I was attending the Open Day at St Mellitus South West. This was another interesting day where I was able to experience a regular teaching day at the college (being context-based, the students only gather once a week for lectures and spend the rest of their time in personal study or in their parish contexts) and learnt a lot about how my training might look if I were to study there. After my visits to both Cuddesdon and St Mellitus, I’ve been left with a lot of information to take in and a lot of thinking to do…

The rest of this month should be fairly normal, by my standards! I have spiritual direction, a meeting with the DDO, and my placement at RCH Treliske amongst many other things to look foward to… and there’s still another 8 days of January left! It’s certainly been an interesting month, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I joined the Way2 Community to learn, grow and experience new things – I’d say I’ve managed all three this month alone!

Gulp! Writing and delivering my first sermon (and why it was a great experience)

On Sunday, I climbed into the pulpit to deliver a sermon for the first time. Having been involved in public speaking in the past (I was the head of the Student Forum (student council) at secondary school, which involved a good amount of public speaking) my confidence was knocked when I started university, to the extent that I felt unable to raise my hand to answer a question in lectures. So having had very little opportunity for public speaking since, the prospect of finding myself stood in a pulpit about to share my thoughts and musings on the Bible passages of the day was a daunting prospect. But it was also an exciting and humbling prospect: the opportunity to share how God was speaking to me through these passages with two congregations who have welcomed me warmly since I arrived just 9 months ago was a huge privilege. Thankfully the event wasn’t captured on any sort of recording, but I thought that I’d share the ‘script’ that I used to encourage others to consider having a go at giving a talk, homily or testimony in their own churches, home groups, or other setting – if I can do it, anyone can

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Opening prayer: May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer.

Now unfortunately for you all, [incumbent] has decided to let me loose in the pulpit today, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I share some of my thoughts about our readings today.

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that there was a lot of talk about seeds in our gospel reading today.  You may have heard the parable of the mustard seed plenty of times before, but perhaps haven’t heard the first parable as often.  Unlike the parable of the mustard seed it doesn’t have an official title; instead, it’s referred to by many different names, my favourite of which is “the parable of the seed growing secretly” – I think it’s the element of mystery in this title that I’m drawn to!  I’m sure that you all remember planting cress seeds as children: sitting a little pot on the windowsill with your seeds in it, and – if you were anything like me – overwatering it in your enthusiasm! – then watching with amazement as over the next few days it sprouted, and green shoots emerged from the tiny little seeds. No matter how many times I planted these seeds, the result never failed to amaze me.  There’s something about the life and growth of seeds into their various forms that sparks a childlike curiosity within me, a curiosity which is always amazed to see that the seeds have grown while I wasn’t looking, and which is always fascinated by the mysterious workings of seeds as they grow secretly.  So just for fun, as I had seeds on the mind this week, I decided to replicate the cress seed experiments of my childhood with mustard seeds, and grew this little pot over the past week.  It serves no purpose other than to confirm that I am still fascinated by the mystery of seed growing!

But as well as seeds, there’s other talk of life and creation in our readings today.  In our epistle we hear St Paul trying to explain what Christ’s death means to him, and encouraging the Christians in Corinth to change their perspective on life, love, and creation.  We read,

“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

For me, this passage speaks about two things: the first is the “new creation” that comes through Christ, his actions bestowing love on all creation and making everything new.  Nothing is regarded “from a human point of view” any longer – there is a unity between all of creation, a unity which we are a part of.  Thomas Merton, a monk and great spiritual writer, describes this unity in one of his writings as follows:

“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom. I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.” (“Hagia Sophia,” Emblems of a Season of Fury, p61.)

This unity with creation is what leads me to reflect on the second aspect of this reading: which is that this unity serves as a reminder that Christ died, rose, and ascended because God loves us and all his creation.  It is this love that urges St Paul on and to which we are called to respond, living as if we have been born into a new life, urged on ourselves by Christ’s love.  So how do we respond to such a powerful act of love?

For some, like Merton, this “urging on” comes in the form of desiring to know God in a deeper, more intimate way – he writes of the “yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him.”  For others, responding to God’s love means doing new things, giving up old things, or adopting a radically different lifestyle.  But I’d like to suggest that our response to God’s love may begin simply with our accepting life as a gift bestowed on us by our loving God, and allowing ourselves to be guided by love, seeing God’s creation the way that he does.  When love becomes our driving force, urging us on, we allow it to govern our thoughts and actions.  Love works in us, and through us, in ways that we don’t often understand or see happening – just like the seed growing secretly in Mark’s gospel.  We may make a conscious decision to do a good deed or to say a kind word, but just as the seed grows in the soil as the sower gets on with his life, love works in us in the same way, unseen, constantly growing and developing, always at work even when we can’t see it happening, as we too get on with our lives.

But what role do we play in the life of the seed?  If our response to God’s love is to share that love with others, allowing ourselves to be guided by the spirit of love, then we may become like the sower in the first parable, scattering seed on the ground whilst getting on with our lives.  We may find ourselves prompted to do and say small things in love, whether it be donating to a food bank, speaking kind words to a troubled friend, giving a homeless person the change in our purse, choosing to buy eco-friendly products, or any number of things.  In doing so, small acts of kindness become seeds, which in their very sowing share the good news of God’s love for all, and we become the sower, scattering the seed and getting on with our lives whilst “the earth produces of itself”.  We are told nothing of the sower, or of the progress of the seed – all that we know is that the seed was scattered, and “when the grain was ripe” it was harvested.  Perhaps what this means for us is not to be concerned with the progress of the seeds we sow, but to continue to scatter them anyway, and be ready for the coming harvest.

We all know that harvest is a time of great celebration, particularly in the days when a good harvest meant security through the harsh winter months, and was traditionally celebrated by both peasants and gentry.  Cornwall is renowned for its harvest celebration, known, and probably pronounced incorrectly, as Guldize.  This was a celebration at the end of the harvest, which began with a tradition known as crying the neck, to celebrate the gathering of the last neck of corn.  After this, the celebrations would continue with a feast at the landowner’s home where he would sit down to celebrate with his workers.  This scene may sound familiar to Poldark fans, when Francis marks the end of the harvest season (in series 2) with this celebration.  All of this gives me the impression of a big celebration where the whole community comes together to celebrate the harvest.  So, when our first parable tells us that the sower returns to the grain “because the harvest has come”, I think that we should add to that “and it’s time to celebrate.”  We can be the sower who scatters the seed, sharing the news of God’s love with others through simple but meaningful actions and words, but we are also invited to the harvest celebration, to be the workers sitting down at God’s table to eat, drink and celebrate with him.  We may not know what happens to the seeds once we’ve scattered them, but I think that it’s important that, encouraged by the spirit of love, we continue to scatter those seeds of love on as much ground as possible.

But why the mustard seed?  Jesus describes the mustard plant as “the greatest of all shrubs”, but the people listening would’ve considered sowing mustard seeds as likely as we would consider planting knotweed in our veggie patches!  It’s not a seed that most people would sow; it grows, spreads and is hard to eradicate; it’s a seed which is unlikely to produce a good harvest, is hardly as magnificent as Jesus makes it out to be, and gets blown in the wind and stuck to hikers’ shoelaces so that it grows where it wills.  To humans, it’s a nuisance, but to the birds it’s a place to nest in and make their home.  This then, is the metaphor for the seeds that we are sowing: seeds of love and good news which do as they please, spread far and wide, and produce an unlikely harvest.  The earth produces of itself the fruit of the seeds that we scatter in its own time, and I hope that as we continue to sow seeds of love, we are eagerly awaiting the harvest celebration.

And so, I end with some questions to think and reflect on: What does it mean for you that God welcomes you to his table to celebrate the harvest with him? How might you sow seeds of love and kindness with the people you meet? And what is the harvest that you’d like to see in your community?

My mini monastic experience

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.

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Rear view of the cloister, as seen from the nun’s private garden.

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!

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The Sisters of Malling Abbey and the Way2 Community

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.

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The family of moorhens whom we spent many an hour watching from our kitchen window

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.”

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Myself, Melissa and Sophie enjoying some recreation time in the garden

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.”

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My favourite spot in the abbey grounds was this bench beside the stream which runs from one side of the abbey grounds to another. I was drawn to this bench day after day

More than just a roast dinner

When people think about a Ministry Experience Scheme (as the Way2 Community is), I imagine that they picture we interns hard at work in our parishes and on our external placements, or perhaps – given the focus on community living that is so important to us – our communal work and prayer times. In short, the picture is formed of a person growing in their ministry, faith and relationship with one another. But another equally important part of the internship is growing into yourself, learning new life skills, and developing personal skills… such as cooking your first roast dinner!

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A key part of living as a community is the sharing of household responsibilities. We divide between us the cleaning tasks on a rota basis, and share responsibility for cooking dinners (this is less predictable as once a week we sit down to decide who is cooking on which night, and what they will be cooking, based on who is available on any given evening). Having never roasted a potato or made proper homemade gravy before I moved here in September, I have learnt how to do these things gradually over the past few months and have built my way up to cooking full roast dinner two weeks in a row! As well as learning an important life skill (cooking, baking, and coffee making are top life skills in my book), I’ve also discovered a real joy in cooking food to share with others – something that previously only applied to baking, for me! When I started this internship, I expected to develop my spiritual life, learn more about myself, and further discern what God might be calling me to, but I didn’t expect to learn to love cooking roast dinners! I feel that I’m ready and raring to face the greatest challenge of all later this year… cooking Christmas dinner!