Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"The center of the world"

Photo by talajbeg of sxc.huOne of the celibates I live with in our community has long found Henri Nouwen's writings illuminating. She lent me 'The Genesee Diary' recently, Nouwen's account of seven months he lived 'as a monk' in the Abbey of Genesee in upstate New York. Along with 'The Wounded Healer' (see my last post), I've been finding this book pretty nourishing.

Here's a taste. Nouwen's starting point for thought is a statement by John Eudes, the abbot - 'The monastery is the center of the world':

The monastery is not just a place to keep the world out but a place where God can dwell. The [worship], the silence, the rhythm of the day, the week, and the year, and the whole monastic life-style with the harmony of prayer, spiritual reading, and manual labor, are meant to create space for God. The ideal of the monk is to live in the presence of God, to pray, read, work, eat, and sleep in the company of his divine Lord...
...In so far as the monastery is the place where the presence of God in the world is most explicitly manifiest and brought to consciousness, it is indeed the center of the world. This can be said in humility and purity of heart because the monk, more than anyone else, realizes that God only dwells where man steps back to give him room.

I found these words arresting. The place of God's presence is the center, not the periphery; prayer is engagement, not disassociation; Christian community is at the heart of the human community, even while it is different, even set apart, from it.

You may have heard the quip, "Christians are called to be 'in the world but not of the world', but are far better at being 'of the world and not in the world'!" Yet when a Christian community is truly a place of prayer, of faith, of brotherhood, and of worship - when God is really present there - then, precisely because it is different, it is acutely and vitally relevant and central to the surrounding world.

There is a danger in talk of monasteries and so on (particularly for an Anglo-Saxon-Protestantish type like me): 'monastery' can be a romantic notion, attractive in its 'otherness', rather than a lived-out reality. But when Nouwen writes of 'the monastery' he is not referring to the Tolkeinesque (elegant arches, grey habits, or haunting plainsong); he is referring to God, the reality of God living among people as they share all things and worship with their whole life.

And this is - and must be - precisely what any Christian community pursues, not least one like mine where we brothers and sisters live together and share all things in common, and eat, work and live together day by day.

Photo by toki of sxc.huFor the meeting place with God is the Body of Christ, not some building (however beautiful) or some place of nature's majesty (however evocative). As Jesus put it, we worship neither in a temple or on a mountain, but in spirit and truth.

It's made real in the rhythm of Christian community: meals, prayers, conversations, silences, meetings, songs, boisterous times, quiet times... messy tables, rumpled furniture, upturned mugs on draining boards (and dried up mugs on the rack!)

Oh God - let us be a community in which You can dwell in all that we are: Your gathered people, Your dwelling place!

The center of the world.