I was chatting to a friend recently about not really fitting in with church. He pointed out that Jesus spent most of his time with the outsiders, the ones that didn’t fit in. The religious people of the day excluded the poor, the prostitutes, the Samaritans and all the others who didn’t fit with their strict criteria. If the Messiah was coming, surely he would visit the righteous, they thought. But when Jesus returned from his going out into the desert, he came to the synagogue and made the announcement to the religious people –
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…’ (Luke 4:18)
He makes a speech about Jubilee – the blind see, debts cancelled, prisoners freed. They all say how wonderful he is.
‘And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ So all bore witness to Him, and marvelled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in your country.”
Then Jesus tells them that, just as in the past, he isn’t coming for the religious but for those who don’t fit in. He lists some of the times God did that before.
‘But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. (An outsider.) And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (An outsider.) So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way.’ Luke 4:21-30.
Then the people got really angry with him and threw him out of town. But, actually, if you don’t fit in, or you’re a bit of an outsider, Jesus is good news.
At his birth he wasn’t found in the palace or even the hotel. He was found outside in a stable with a few farm workers, outsiders.
In his death, he wasn’t in the city, but outside the city wall. He came for the outsider. He identified with the outsider. And most of his miracles were done out on the street, with the outsiders – the least, the last and the lost.
So many people tell me of their struggles with Sunday church – feeling like a passive observer, watching an irrelevant performance, cringing at a shallow and often trite worldview.
We seem to have wandered far away from what Jesus left us in the Early Church – a group of people who just spent time together each day, who went about their daily routines, and yet transformed the world.
History is at a crossroads. Recent studies show that more than two thirds of Christians in the UK have left the Sunday morning event and gone off to explore a deeper more meaningful walk with Jesus. Something is happening in society. There is a sea change going on. It is time to be prophetic.
But we need not fear. Jesus comes to us outside. The Community of St Anthony is a scattered group of believers who are journeying in a more Celtic or monastic way with their faith.
If you sometimes feel you don’t fit in, you’re welcome to join us. There aren’t any services as such, but a meeting for coffee, or a walk, here and there, now and then, in twos and threes, and journeying online. This Christmas, even if we don’t fit in – especially if we feel we don’t fit in – Jesus comes to us with hope, healing and life.
The monastic life has always been seen austere, solitary, or celibate, not least because the Father of Monasticism, St Anthony the Great, began his journey into monastic life by going out into the desert to find God. His journey was therefore necessarily austere, solitary, and celibate. By contrast, my life is not austere and I am not celibate.
For me, the spiritual journey begins with solitude – the ‘going out into the desert’ to find God. I am not leaving home to live in a physical desert but I have withdrawn, I have pursued the solitude necessary to find God.
And some just don’t get it.
Backslidden! Heretic! Lost his faith…
Such are the thoughts of my detractors.
But I am not the first to ‘go out into the desert to find God.’
There was a man called Moses who climbed Mount Sinai alone, to seek God’s face. He was gone for so long his followers set up an alternative religion while he was gone. Holy cow!
Joseph had an enforced desert experience in the pit, and then in prison, before becoming the Prime Minister of Egypt.
The Holy Spirit, we are told, drove Jesus into the desert before his ministry began.
These and countless others went out alone into the desert and sought the face of God.
‘What about fellowship?
‘What about Church on Sunday?
‘What about accountability?
‘What about being part of a community?
No doubt they faced similar questions. But the truth is, the going out into the desert is absolutely essential. It is there, in deep solitude, that we will hear the still small voice of God. It is there in the desert that we receive the call, the vision, and the empowerment.
‘Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee…’ – Luke 4:14
It is there in the desert, in the solitude, that God comes to call and empower.
The urban monastic life, therefore, straddles two worlds – the world of solitude and withdrawal, and the world of everyday life.
Strangely, it is not the chatter of the world, but the chatter of the faith-community that we need to silence – the quick fixes, the trite quotes, the shallow solutions and, frankly, the denial of the depth of God. All these voices must be stilled, and the only way is withdrawal.
When the clamour of shallow voices is finally hushed, then we may hope to hear the still small voice of God. If we truly want to be like Jesus, we would allow the Spirit to drive us out into our desert, into our place of solitude, to seek the face of God.
And here’s the thing – it’s not something you can pop out and do on a Thursday afternoon for an hour. It takes a long time.
It took Moses a long time. The people became impatient.
It took Jesus forty days.
It took St Anthony thirteen years!
It takes as long as it takes.
I have been journeying in this desert walk for three years. I think I have only just started.
Organised and institutional church is dying. People are leaving in droves, to pursue a more solitary walk with God. Something is happening. It’s a moment in history. It is time to hear the voice of God. It is time to journey into the desert. ___________________________________________________________
I have written about my journey into urban monasticism in the book Excess Baggage:
It’s been an interesting few days. I have been challenged recently about the importance of community in terms of pursuing our walk with God. At the end of last week, I thought that maybe that is what holds the old institutional church together. They do seem to have community at least once a week.
But then I read this article – The Rise of “The Dones” as the Church Kills Spiritual Community – and realised that what looks like community, actually often isn’t.
So where does that leave us?
Over the weekend, I had a call with an old friend – a retired vicar. We hadn’t been in touch for about a year. As we talked about a new sort of monasticism – the subtitle of my last book – he said that true monasticism is reflected in the life of St Anthony. It is a going out into the ‘desert’ to find God. It is from that finding God that a call or a leading comes. Then out of that calling or leading a community may form, as in the case of the Desert Fathers.
All this encourages me to continue to pursue this adventure of seeking God ‘in the desert.’
But it may also be time for a few of us to get together and share something of our journey. I am always interested in getting a coffee or going for a walk to chat and reflect with those on, or considering this journey.
The other thing my retired clergy friend did was to point me in the direction of the writings of Ray Simpson of Lindisfarne, and his books and downloads from his website may be of interest. Others had mentioned Ray Simpson to me, but this was the push to finally do a bit of research.
May this week be a week of new spiritual discovery for all of us.
St Anthony is known as the Father of monasticism. He was a man who sought spiritual truth and decided to get away from everything and everyone to find it.
Anthony began his spiritual journey into monasticism by going into the desert and purposely living alone. He was the first known ascetic going into the wilderness (about AD 270–271), a geographical move that seems to have contributed to his renown. He is notable for being one of the first ascetics to attempt living in the desert proper, completely cut off from civilisation. His lifestyle was remarkably harsher than that of his predecessors. Yet the title of Father of monasticism is merited as he was the inspiration for the coming of hundreds of men and women into the depths of the desert, who were then loosely organised into small communities.
As the rest of the church fitted in with the Roman legalisation of Christianity – a move which led to the introduction of pagan elements into Christianity, like temple, priest, and ritual – Anthony, and eventually his followers, developed an alternative to the Romanised version of the faith. It was, once again, people seeking an ‘aliveness’ in their faith rather than being stifled by the institution.
Anthony seems to be a great example of some parts of the emerging church.
The friends I meet with are seeking a similar alternative to institutional or organised religion.
The idea of the Community Of ST Anthony came to me one day as I sat in a coffee shop waiting to meet another Free Range friend. I was thinking about having some loose community of like-minded people. As I looked down at my coffee cup, the logo on the cup – COSTA – seemed to suggest the Community Of ST Antony. I wouldn’t for a minute say ‘God told me’ but the idea of something light and all about friendship, which often happens over coffee, readily suggested itself.