Monday, June 13, 2005

Blog from the island (delayed)

L’Île St Honorat, Thursday 9th June 2005

Three days of meetings finished this morning with a communion service in the Abbey church. The island it reached by a little ferry from Cannes, which runs up to 5.30pm. After the final ferry leaves, the only sounds on the island are birdsong and the chant emerging from the church. I now have ahead of me two days of silence and solitude. There’s no wireless internet, so this blogging will have three days’ time delay at least.

The community is very welcoming and hospitable. The brothers were very interested in our work. We were joined by Mgr Robert Le Gal OSB the Bishop of Mende who is the head of the Episcopal Commission for Liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church in France, with him was Brother Patrick Prétot who heads up L’Institut Superieur de la Liturgie in Paris. We were also joined by several of the brothers, including the Abbot, Dom Marie Vladimir Gaudrat. During the meeting we had session discussing Emerging Church that was based on a paper written by Peter Craig-Wild, which featured a visit to Contemplative Fire in Great Missenden. Our French counterparts were particularly interested in this, especially to hear about the way worship and church are engaging the challenges and opportunities of postmodern culture. Afterwards, I had an interesting conversation with Abbot Vladimir, who is very clear that there has been a massive culture-shift affecting the background of younger novices who enter the community over the past 20 years.

The Rule of St Benedict stresses that stability is key to the development of the spiritual life. For this reason, monks who follow the Rule rarely move away from the community that they first joined. This contrasts sharply with the increasing mobility of the surrounding culture – where relationships can be made and loosened with equal rapidity. It also entails a voluntary reduction of choice, that quality which has become the supreme fetish of postmodern culture. Of course, advanced communication offsets some of the negative aspects of this (we can stay in touch), but it also alters our experience of one another in quite drastic ways. All our relationships are based more on transitory choice than voluntary covenanting – of self-binding. I wonder whether this also alters our understanding of what it means ‘to have faith’. If one essential aspect of faith is a self-binding (eg. St Patrick’s breastplate: I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity…), then this can only happen when we discover that we are truly free to do this. But how can we come to such freedom? Only with sufficient self-respect, and in a full realisation of our dignity as made in the image of God, can we realise our true freedom to take this step of self-binding and consequent self-limiting. The sad part about the clinging onto choice, which I think we all suffer from to some degree, is that for the most part it is borne of a deep insecurity, lack of self-respect and lack of genuine freedom. But the greatest act of freedom is to limit oneself freely (Phil 2:5-7).

As for me, I am enjoying these few days of isolation (Italian: Isola = Island). It is possible to walk around the island in about forty minutes, and there are eleven chapels to visit. I had a ‘Franciscan moment’ on the first day: as the evening office ended, a bird just outside the Abbey church started to sing, almost as if it had been waiting for the end of the liturgy to begin its own praise to God. Perhaps the local birds know the office well enough from hearing the monks sing it day after day. The acoustics of the abbey church mean that the sound of the chant is amplified by the building and waft outside across the island. There are, of course, seven offices per day. I’ve decided that I’m not going to the night office (it begins just after 4am) but the bell rings loudly so I am always woken by it – but I drift off again very rapidly.

L’Île St Honorat, Friday, 10th June 2005

A strange day for the island. The monks have been away on their one day away per year (at least together). So there have been few offices, although there was a mass at the usual time. After a stormy night, today was sunny again, so I set off after breakfast to a lonely beach on the west of the island, and spent a lot of the day reading Steve Taylor’s The out of bounds Church? Steve sold me a signed copy in Pasadena. It’s a very economic book, getting adequate description in and then cutting to the key theological discussion. Well worth a read, and now funding my own thinking in regard to the need to make quarterly alternative worship services lead into something to which people can belong beyond the basic encounter. (Postcard/Chapter 7 is particularly helpful in this regard.) Steve, if you’re reading this, I reckon I get the prize for having read your book in the most idyllic location, sitting on a rock next to the sea, occasionally dipping in for a lovely swim.

Poor St Augustine. He stopped off in 596 at the monastery here in St Honorat after he’d been asked by Pope Gregory to evangelise the English pagan tribes. He had to be ejected from the island in the end at the command of the Pope because he didn’t want to leave. Just as well for England that he did in the end. Well, I know how he felt, because tomorrow I will be getting back on the little ferry boat which I’ve been watching all afternoon as it went back and forth to the mainland. I will leave St Honorat on the 10.30 ferry and watch this lovely, holy island slowly get smaller as I move back to Cannes, then take the bus to Nice airport, and arrive back in Bristol by late afternoon.

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