Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Loving God, loving our neighbours, and God's love for us all

Loving God, loving our neighbours, and God's love for us all
Sermon for the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 14th July 2019 – preached at St. Michael's Croydon.
Bible readings: Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Colossians 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37, C.f. Genesis 1, Deuteronomy 30:19; 1 Corinthians 12; Galatians 3:28; Kierkegaard, King & Peasant Girl.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and redeemer. Amen. Please be seated. 

Imagine that you're a member of the Royal Family. You're studying at university, or college. It's been the end of a busy day of lectures, and you're off to the pub with some friends to relax. You also happen to be single, and – completely by surprise – that special someone captures your heart. You're Royalty; surely if they're single too, you could easily make them fall in love with you! But you don't want to risk it being a forced, one-way relationship. You want the other person to genuinely, freely express their love for you too, just as you express it to them. 

This is a modernised version of the analogy of the King and the Peasant Girl, by the 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. His analogy might help us in understanding how God asks us to respond to His love for us; He wants us to freely choose to genuinely love Him and our neighbours, rather than to force us. 

In our readings today, we are reminded of the importance of loving God and our neighbours. These are two of the greatest commandments God gives to us, and we are commissioned to always carry this mission out as best as we can. But let's briefly consider just why we are asked to do this? God is omnipotent – that is, He is all-powerful, and could therefore easily force us to – and He would probably do a better job of it than we sometimes do. Yet, God gives us many gifts – including those of free will, reason and conscience. These are some of the properties which define us as human beings, who are all created in God's own image – and it is by these gifts that God wants us to choose to genuinely love Him and our neighbours. God's infinite love for us comes from Him – our love for God and our neighbours must come from us. So, how might we do this most effectively? 

In our first reading today, we are reminded of the importance of obeying God and His commandments. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy, we read that it is our calling to “choose life;” it really is in our hands, to respond to God's love for us by expressing love ourselves. It is our duty – our joy – our responsibility – to use our free will as best as we can. Thinking back to the Book of Exodus, remember the Ten Commandments – these collectively instruct us to love God and our neighbours. 

Jesus very helpfully affirms these in today's Gospel reading, when the instruction to love God and our neighbours is recalled by the lawyer with whom our Lord is speaking. This a well-known and well-loved parable of Jesus; even before studying Theology at university, this has always been one of Jesus's parables that has particularly struck me. 

Who is the neighbour? Well, it seems obvious from today's Gospel passage, and it's not the person we would have expected. Samaritans and Jews did not normally speak to each other, and yet it is the Samaritan who comes to the fallen man's help. Note how those we might expect to help just pass by. Was this because of embarrassment? Or not knowing what to do? Perhaps being set in their ways, they just would not associate with someone they assumed had been stricken down because of his sin, or maybe they were just too preoccupied with what they were on their way to do. 

St. Luke himself, as far as we know, was not himself Jewish. He was a Gentile Christian; a Christian who was not of Jewish heritage, rather than someone like St. Matthew who, having originally being Jewish, converted to Christianity. And this parable of Jesus, as recorded by Luke, breaks down the barriers between peoples of different religions and nations. Let us consider the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians – that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” 

St. Paul in our second reading today reminds all of us that we are all God's children. Christ is the first and the last; He is the Alpha and the Omega. He is supreme to all – for He is fully divine as well as fully human. And yet, as we read in the creation accounts of the Book of Genesis with today's Epistle, all people are created in the image of God and through Christ. All people – you, me, those who come to our Church regularly, those who do not, and indeed all adults, children, babies both born and unborn – all people. Life itself, together with what is in it, is a gift from God to us; this is the sanctity of all human life, and – seeing God in all people – it is so important to always serve those around us, just as it is to serve God. 

What a huge task, you might be thinking – but you're probably already doing it, on an everyday basis – even when you're not conscious of it! In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes how the one and same Holy Spirit dwells within us, and moves us in a whole variety of different ways. We are all gifted in different ways, and are called to serve God and His people in all kinds of different ways. 

A nurse. A doctor. A teacher. A priest. A chaplain. A farmer. A professional driver. A politician. A foster carer. An adoptive parent. A gardener. A musician. You. These are just some of the many ways in which God calls us to serve Him and His people; we all have our distinctive God-given vocations and callings in life. 

How good are we at this? Sometimes we're very successful in loving God and our neighbours; and sometimes maybe less so. Sometimes, it may come naturally; other times less so. But we are still called to. And God is infinitely understanding and patient with us – even if our understanding and patience is limited. It is God who loved us first, and is the source of all love so that we might love others, as well as loving God. How well do we welcome our neighbours? How might we do better? Wherever we may be in this, Christ Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 

I've certainly felt very welcome here at St. Michael's, and at our chaplaincies at Croydon College, Croydon University Hospital and at the refugee centre, where I have ministered once a week alongside being here over the past academic year. I have felt welcomed, encouraged, and fully supported throughout, and I feel both ready and excited to be embarking on the next steps in my journey towards fulfilling my calling to ordination, as I prepare to start at theological College from this September for the next two years. So thank you all, and I will of course be back to visit! 

God the Word Himself, is very near to us – and is here with us – in our mouths and in our hearts. And through His great love for us, He invites us all to share in glory with Him – both in the future, and also here and now as we prepare to meet Christ in the Eucharist. Let us always respond to this great love He has for us, by loving Him and our neighbours as best we can. And we are not alone in this; God is always here with us. Let us give thanks for His presence with us now, and in all our lives. In the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Equality and unity in diversity: Refugees are welcome here

Equality and unity in diversity: Refugees are welcome here 
For the Refugee Week Celebration Event, Croydon College. Bible passages: Matthew 2; John 13
It is Refugee Week, a time when we celebrate the great contribution refugees make to our society, as members of our society - here in our College, in Croydon and Coulsdon, in the rest of London, and in many other places. Refugees give so much to us all – for instance, socially, culturally, and by means of the many skills they bring. We should - and must - always welcome them. To any refugees reading this: thank you. 

Refugees have often had some of the roughest journeys in their lives imaginable. Actually, sometimes we cannot imagine what they have experienced in their journeys, and the choices they have had to make - or the choices they have not had. Do you risk your life by travelling hundreds or even thousands of miles to a new place? Or do you risk your life by staying in your original country, where it is not safe, stable or secure? 

Refugees not only often find themselves in a new culture and place, and often having to learn a largely new language - but often they have to recover from loss in some of the most extreme ways. This might be a loss of possessions; a loss of homes; the loss of loved ones; and more. It is our duty to be here for them, to welcome and to help them as best we can; whether practically, pastorally, or otherwise, as they find and rebuild their lives here with us. 

I'm not a refugee, but I can certainly identify with one or two examples of loss which many refugees have experienced. My parents had both died by the time I was thirteen, and I then left my old home and moved into foster care for a few years. A new place; a new home. 
During much of this time, my life took the journey of an emotional rollercoaster, before it's stabilization - and I'm certainly very grateful to all those who have helped me along the way. 

In a similar way, we ought to help those less fortunate than ourselves - especially refugees. We have a duty to raise awareness of the needs of refugees to others; especially in this day and age, when refugees are often given a bad press. The current rise of hard-right politics amongst some in this country can pose potential danger to some of our refugees, and certainly to one of our country's very greatest values, which we cherish – equality. 

'We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.' These were the words of the late Jo Cox MP, which she spoke in her maiden speech in the House of Commons following her election as Labour's MP for Batley and Spen, West Yorkshire. Her time was tragically and brutally cut short just over three years ago, by someone who violently objected to her vision of equality. 

Following this, each year the Jo Cox Foundation hosts the Great Get Together weekend - a get together, a lunch, a tea party, a street parade, a sports day - where we all, as a community, are invited to meet together. Here in London, there are many such events this-coming weekend where we will remember Jo Cox, and come together with one another - meeting in her spirit and example of fellowship and love of one another. How can you as individuals welcome your neighbours? How can we all collectively welcome our neighbours? There are many, many ways that we can help others to flourish with us. 

At these events and in Refugee Week, we celebrate our diversity in unity - and our unity in diversity. Let us proclaim, practise and enact equality. We have much more in common than not; and how powerful we can be when we all come together, work together, flourish together, and live together as best we can. To any refugees reading this now - and to everyone else too - you are so welcome. Thank you. 

I'm one of the College Chaplains here at Croydon College - known by some as the Chess Chaplain, as I've been running the College's Chess Club this year! I've really enjoyed spending this year with you - thank you all. After the summer holidays, I'll begin my training for ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England, at Westcott House, Cambridge. All of us on the Chaplaincy team here at Croydon College are very happy to talk with students and staff - from all faiths and none - and you can usually find us here in the Common Room on most lunchtimes. 

In Matthew 2, we read of how Jesus and His family were once themselves refugees; let us love one another, following the example of God's love for us. 

Friday, 7 June 2019

Reflections on my placement at St. Michael's Croydon

Reflections on my placement at St. Michael's Croydon 
I can almost hardly believe I'm already approaching the end of my placement as a Pastoral Assistant at St. Michael's Croydon. How time flies when you're having fun! I have had a truly wonderful placement here, which has been instrumental in my pastoral, sacramental and academic formation – both in the Church and in the wider community. 
The sacramental life at St. Michael's is firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England, characterised by our daily routine of Morning Prayer, Mass and Evening Prayer. I am involved in all of these services – often either as a reader, server, or leader, as well as helping to keep the Church open for our many guests who visit us throughout the day between services. I have found our prayer and worship very helpful; perhaps collectively the heartbeat of the Church's sacramental life, this has provided me with a spiritual anchor and consistency, which I practise both at work and on holiday. I feel this perfectly compliments all the various other activities I am involved in throughout my week. Moreover, we have also made two visits to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (on the National and Adoremus Pilgrimages); these have both helped to further foster my spirituality and devotion, and I have particularly enjoyed meeting more people from the wider Catholic tradition from across the country. 
Croydon is one of the most diverse regions in the country; it is home to people from many different countries and cultures. However, it is also one of the most deprived regions – and, as visibly committed Christians in the community, at St. Michael's we believe a vital aspect of our ministry is in accompanying and aiding others in relieving their poverty as best as we can. As part of my placement, I have volunteered at a winter night shelter for those who are homeless, and I also volunteer every week at Croydon's Refugee Day Centre, meeting and helping refugees from all over the world. Furthermore, I work as a Chaplain at Croydon College, a diverse school of several thousand students where I have established a chess club for people of all levels of experience at the game. Many of our students are also refugees; and my chess club, as well as providing a fun and educational activity for those who attend, also helps to give a much-needed confidence boost to those who are not yet as proficient in English as some of their friends. Moreover, I am a Chaplain at Croydon University Hospital, visiting both patients and staff around the Hospital. I have felt this to be a crucial aspect of my placement; many of the people I meet on a regular basis have experienced all kinds of loss; and yet, they often still display an inspirational degree of hope. To be able to do my part in playing a role in their journeys helps me just as much as it helps them. 
Alongside these pastoral and sacramental aspects, there has been a distinctly academic character to my placement. St. Michael's has been one of the most academically-focused Churches I have served in to date; this has particularly appealed to me, having studied theology at university. Our studies have been largely focused on various elements central to the Christian faith; the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, and the Saints and Sacraments. Engaging with a variety of ancient and modern texts (from St. Athanasius and Melito of Sardis, to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) has provided me with a great sense of the consistency in the development of the Church's understanding of doctrine. I have particularly valued the variety in ways and mediums we have explored these Christian texts and doctrines; be it by seminars with the priests at St. Michael's and the Archdeacon of Hastings, or viewing and examining beautiful Christian artworks and artefacts at the National Gallery in London each term with one of the Curators there. I have both furthered and expanded my theological repertoire during my time at St. Michael's, in the spirit of St. Anselm's motto of “faith seeking understanding.” As well as for myself, I relish any opportunity to apply my theological learning and understanding to help other Christians on their journeys – and offering presentations to parishioners in study groups (such as our weekly Catechesis series in Church, which are open to all) gives us the perfect chance to help others around us to explore more about our faith. 
My placement at St. Michael's Croydon has been absolutely invaluable to me. I feel incredibly lucky to enjoy the experiences I have gained, and to have journeyed with the priests, my fellow Pastoral Assistant, and everyone else here. The placement has been vital for my vocational discernment, and particularly for the successful result I attained from my Bishops' Advisory Panel when I was formally recommended to train for ordained ministry. My year at St. Michael's has equipped me brilliantly, as I continue my journey towards further training and formation for ordination. I am immensely grateful to everyone who has helped make this placement possible for me – to those who pray for me, to those who mentor me, and to those who have funded the placement to make it financially possible. 

Friday, 31 May 2019

Saints in St. Michael's Croydon

Saints in St. Michael's Croydon
For a Catechesis class on the Saints at St. Michael's Croydon, 30th May 2019.
Saints play a crucial role in the life of the Church. They are people who are recognised for their exceptional devotion to God, and for their service to other people. Saints are remembered and commemorated for their great Christian witness in life – either in recognition for the holiness they lived their lives by, or often for a particular thing they did – and their lives, words and deeds can inspire us today. Some saints are also martyrs – people who freely gave up their lives on earth because of the love they had for Christ and for others. St. Stephen, who was stoned to death soon after the resurrection of Christ in Acts 7 for refusing to renounce his belief in Christ, is the first martyr of Christianity. An example of a modern-day martyr is St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest who took the place of a stranger who had been condemned to death at Auschwitz; the stranger and his family lived to see the saint's canonization. Some saints are recognised as Doctors of the Church – people whose work is recognised theologically as being of particular authority in Christian doctrine, especially when orthodoxy is reiterated over heresy. 

St. Michael's Croydon is a very beautiful Church building. Designed by John Loughborough Pearson and built in about 1880, it has a Gothic Revival architecture. This lends itself perfectly to the Anglo-Catholic tradition practised here, and it also provides a fitting home for the many statues, shrines and other visual representations of some very important saints. 

The Blessed Virgin Mary is well-known here at St. Michael's; but perhaps less well-known is St. Anne, the mother of Mary – and thus the Grandmother of Jesus! She is venerated both in Christianity and Islam, and although neither the Bible nor the Qur'an mention her by name, we do read of her in the Gospel of James (from about 150 AD) in the Apocrypha. She lived from about 50 BC to 12 AD, and is the patron saint of several places and professions – Canada, Brittany, Detroit, children and their carers, those without children, grandparents, mothers, pregnancy, house moves, teachers and poverty. 

St. Thomas of Canterbury, or St. Thomas Becket, was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his martyrdom just eight years later, following conflict between himself and King Henry II over the Church's privileges and rights. We have recently celebrated the Feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury, who was the first Archbishop of Canterbury and this saint's predecessor; and St. Thomas is the patron saint of secular clergy, the city of Portsmouth, Arbroath Abbey, and Exeter College Oxford. 

St. James the Greater was one of the Twelve Apostles called by Jesus, and the son of Zebedee, and lived from about 3 AD to his execution by Herod in 44 AD (Acts 12:1-2). We read of his calling to follow Christ in Mark 1:19-20 and Matthew 4:21-22, and he is one of only three apostles to accompany Jesus at His Transfiguration. He is the patron saint of many places, including Spain (his shrine being in the Santiago de Compostela), Guatemala and parts of Mexico and the Philippines; and he is also the patron saint of woodcarvers, oyster fishers and pharmacists. 

St. Martin de Porres was a lay Dominican brother, who lived from 1579 to 1639. His life demonstrated a concern for the poor; he lived a simple lifestyle himself, often fasting from certain foods. Moreover, through his love of others he established a children's hospital and an orphanage. He is the patron saint of mixed-race people, innkeepers, barbers, and racial equality. His work for the poor inspires the work of many Christian organisations and charities today such as CAFOD (the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development). Furthermore, it also inspires us today – for instance here at St. Michael's Croydon, we collect food, clothes, toiletries and other things for the refugee day centre at West Croydon Baptist Church, where I volunteer. 

St. Joseph, sometimes known as St. Joseph the Worker, is the wife of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Apocrypha, Joseph is the father of a number children including James, Simon and Jude – but most significantly, he is the foster-father of Jesus Christ. Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, and needed to be fostered and nurtured after His birth and Incarnation – just like any newborn baby. He is the patron saint of the Catholic Church, unborn children, fathers, workers, carpenters, immigrants, and of course people who are or have been in foster care – like me, which is why St. Joseph is one of the saints who inspires me the most. 

St. Michael, Archangel, is our principal patron saint here at St. Michael's Croydon (along with St. James, and all the angels). He is also the patron saint of the Jewish people, the Guardian of the Catholic Church, Vatican City, police officers, Germany, France, Ukraine, Toronto, Brussels and parts of the Philippines. St. Michael is thought by Jehovah's Witnesses to be Jesus, in his pre-human and post-resurrection existence – and Michael is identified as Adam by Mormons; but that's not our understanding! Michael the Archangel appears in the Book of Daniel, and particularly in the Book of Revelation where he is the one who leads the armies of God to defeat Satan and all evil spirits. This is the source for the 'Holy Michael, Archangel' prayer which is often said towards the end of the Rosary. 

St. George, or St. George of Lydda, is of course patron saint here in England – but he is also the patron saint for many other places around the world, including Ethiopia, Georgia and Catalonia, as well as a number of universities. He often appears as an armoured soldier, and is depicted as slaying a dragon as per the legend; although we do not actually know many details about St. George or his life with any certainty. What is widely accepted, though, is that he is a martyr – he refused to give up his Christian faith. 

St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan. He lived from about 340-397 AD, and is a Doctor of the Church. He is one of the most fierce defenders of Christian orthodoxy, firmly reiterating how Christ has always existed – that is, His attribute of pre-existence, being fully divine as well as fully human. He spoke against the heresy of Arianism, the belief that Christ had been created by God at a point in time. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of bishops, bees and their keepers, livestock, and Milan; and he also wrote the well-known Christian hymn of praise, the Te Deum, which we say during prayer offices on particular feast days and has been set to many choral anthems and settings. 

St. Gregory the Great was a Pope, and another Doctor of the Church, who lived from about 540-604 AD. He is the patron saint of musicians and singers, as well as students and teachers; another saint who particularly inspires me, given my love of academic study and how I'm a musician (I sing and play the flute – and I've also started learning the ukulele, too!). He is particularly remembered by theologians and Christian scholars for his Commentary on Job. 

St. Augustine of Hippo is a philosopher, and a particularly well-known Doctor of the Church. He is the patron of the Augustinians, brewers, printers, and theologians. Living from 354-430 AD, he was a bishop and has written some of the most influential Christian works, including The City of God, De Doctrina Christiana, and of course his Confessions. St. Augustine's Confessions are almost unique in his field, because of their genre; the work is written as a prayer to God, as he journeys from his earlier affiliations with the Manichees towards Christ, and his coming to repentance from earlier sins. This is a helpful and reassuring reminder that even the saints are not perfect – noone is perfect, apart from God – and we can look to them for inspiration as we seek to live our lives as best as we can. 

St. Jerome, who lived from about 347-420 AD, is another Doctor of the Church. He is best known for the Vulgate – this is his extensive translation of the Bible into Latin, and also for his commentaries on the Gospels. He is the patron saint of archaeologists, Biblical scholars, libraries and their librarians, students and translators. 

These are just some of the many saints who are depicted in the Church building at St. Michael's Croydon. Which of these saints inspire you the most? And are you inspired by the lives and works of other saints? 

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Loss and hope: Vocation and our journey as a pilgrimage with God

Loss and hope: Vocation and our journey as a pilgrimage with God 
Focus texts: Exodus; 1-2 Kings; Mark 1:40-42; Matthew 16; Luke 9:23, 15:11-32. 
Today, I would like to reflect on finding hope in times of loss as we journey with God; in particular, how my experiences of this have helped to form my sense of vocation; and how we might help others who have experienced loss of any form to find hope. 
In our lives, we are all on a journey. Together as individuals in our daily lives; with our families and friends; with the wider Christian Church; and beyond. Life is like a pilgrimage; it has a beginning, a destination, and a journey along the way. God is both our companion and our destination on this journey; our Christian vocation takes us to our destination. 
This journey in life has many features and characteristics; like a long road trip, comprising of several different sections, and times of certainty and uncertainty. Sometimes it's easy and well signposted, and the road is free-flowing as we follow our planned routes. But at other times it is not; diversions and unforeseen circumstances cause uncertainty in our path. 
Perhaps one of the most profound times of uncertainty is when one experiences a loss of life. I have experienced this to a fair degree on my journey so far; this is perhaps why I'm particularly interested in the topic I've chosen to talk about today. I had been orphaned by the time I was thirteen years old, and my grandparents had all died by the time I was one year old. For some time, my journey's direction seemed to be uncertain. What was I to do when presented with so many difficult forks in the road? 
Was I without hope? No. For God - who is omnipresent - has always been there. God is always with us on our journeys; even when I didn't know where my journey was headed, God did. This is something I came to realise more in hindsight – and realising my absolute dependence on God through my circumstances has been instrumental in my discernment on my vocational journey so far, together with my sense of call to serve God to a greater degree than I currently am. One of my favourite poems is 'Footprints in the Sand'; to me, this beautifully demonstrates how God is always with us on our journey - giving us hope - even when this is less obvious to us. God Himself works in us, and through those around us; even at times of loss, God – our hope – is still with us. How beautiful. 
There are many other forms of loss; for instance, loss of health, status, stability, job, possessions or home. As part of my current placement at St Michael's Croydon, I volunteer at a refugee centre and a hospital once a week, where I meet with many people who have experienced loss in these ways. And yet I often find they still display hope and joy, even in their sometimes profound circumstances; just last week, I met a patient in the hospital who prayed for me just as much as I prayed for him, so happy he was when I told him I'm discerning a vocation to the priesthood. 
In the Bible, we can see many kinds of journey; both individual journeys like Jesus's parable of the lost son in Luke 15, and collective journeys such as the Moses story in Exodus, and of course the Exilic Age. The themes of loss and hope are both prominent in these accounts – and we ourselves might be able to relate to them. Jesus acts with great compassion when He heals those who have lost health or life; for instance, the leper in Mark 1; the resuscitation of Lazarus in John 11; and, even just before His earthly death, he makes sure that His mother and the beloved disciple will take care of each other, in John 19. 
If and when we suffer loss, we are not without hope, empathy or understanding – for Jesus Himself knows what it is like. In Matthew 16; Peter tried to talk Jesus around the Messiah's prediction about His death; but Christ knew that He had to suffer before His exaltation, and remained firmly committed to following through on His journey. It is Christ we follow on our journey, as Christians; and, while at times this is not necessarily always easy (as Jesus suggests by saying how we must take up our cross), we are made stronger as a result. 
We are all moving. We are all travelling. And we are all making progress; however much or not we feel it. This is perhaps especially important to remember at times when our journeys might lack certainty, or when we experience loss. Our lives happen in the providence of God, who gives us hope; His omniscience is both comforting and reassuring, especially when we don't know what might be in store for us on our journey. 
We all have vocations; all we need to do is to listen to God throughout our journey in life. How might God be calling us to help others? 

Saturday, 11 May 2019

From Chevetogne Abbey to Aachen Cathedral: A Lenten retreat

From Chevetogne Abbey to Aachen Cathedral: A Lenten retreat 
Reflections on my retreat at Chevetogne Abbey & visit to Aachen Cathedral, April 2019. 
Focus texts: Matthew 6:6; Passion Narratives (Jesus & Pilate); The Rule of St. Benedict 
As many of you will know, I am someone who likes being busy, doing things I enjoy, and living a generally active lifestyle. But I had also felt a desire to take a break, in order to reflect on my journey with God and my discernment process with the Church by means of a retreat – particularly a monastic one – whenever such an opportunity arose. Moreover, travelling is one of my favourite hobbies; whether returning somewhere familiar to me, or exploring a completely new place. For a week during Lent last month, I made my first visit to Belgium and Germany, to spend a few days on a monastic retreat at the beautiful and ecumenical Chevetogne Abbey, after which we also visited Aachen Cathedral just across the border. 
I particularly wanted to go on a monastic retreat because I had gone to school at Ampleforth College, a Benedictine Roman Catholic school attached to an Abbey in the countryside of North Yorkshire. It was my time at Ampleforth which introduced me to Roman Catholicism (and, perhaps, my particular appreciation of the Catholic tradition in the Church of England); I attended Mass and sung in the choir, and I often attended Compline since the monastic offices were also open to everyone. As a student, I had been on a number of retreats organised by the school, both with my house and my school's year-group. But what would a monastic retreat in a smaller group as a prospective ordinand in the Church of England be like? 
Chevetogne Abbey is beautifully set just outside a small village in the countryside not far from a city; rather like Ampleforth. The community, true to their Benedictine identity and the Rule, extended a warm welcome to us as soon as we arrived. They invited us to attend all of the services as we wished, and we ate together with them at mealtimes. Their hospitality extended further still; some of the monks showed us around the monastery and grounds, explaining the history of the community along the way. We even learned how to make incense in their workshop, and bought some back home to use at St. Michael's Croydon! Most importantly, we spent much time with the monks in conversation; we formed friendships, with our shared interest and desire for further ecumenism. 
Chevetogne is a monastery where both Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity meet; a crucial aspect of the monastery's ecumenical life. The community worships in two different places; those in the Western tradition worship in the Latin Church, while those of the Eastern tradition worship in the Byzantine Church. But they remain as one community; they all share mealtimes together, and – perhaps most significantly – they live under the direction of one Abbot. 

We attended Mass and Compline in the Latin Church, and while the services were in French, these were very easy to follow; it was immediately obvious as to what was happening. While Matins and Vespers in the Byzantine Crypt were less familiar to us, we realised the monks there prayed essentially the same things as we do at Morning and Evening Prayer back at St Michael's; and it was so interesting to get a taste of how Christians in the Eastern tradition pray these offices. The offices were very elaborate; much of the language went over my head (being in a mixture of French and Slavonic), but – thinking of us present in the congregation – some of the monks very kindly said a few prayers in English for us. Regardless of our familiarity with the languages, the monks were still praying for us – and with us. 

I think one of the biggest differences in Eastern services to Western services is how many people walk in and out as they wish during an Eastern service. Services in the Eastern tradition, on the whole, are significantly longer than Western services, sometimes being twice as long or more. Timekeeping was, thus, a key difference; while you would normally attend a whole service in the West, in the East you can attend it all or just come to as much of the service as you feel or require – like recharging your camera batteries, or refuelling your car. 

The monastic offices marked the beginning and end of each day, providing a routine of stability around our days otherwise filled with a rich variety of activities and times in silence. Praying and eating often happened in sequence; in the morning for instance, Matins and Mass would be followed breakfast; lunch would be eaten immediately after saying the Midday Office, and supper would punctuate Vespers and Compline. 

We lived a very monastic lifestyle during our time at Chevetogne. We stayed in simple yet perfectly comfortable rooms, we wore cassocks when in the monastery and around the grounds, and I also found I had more time to do things like reading, writing, occasionally visiting the two Churches for some more silent prayer – and of course a run in the valley. True to what I had desired in this retreat, we spent as much time in silence as we did in prayer and worship. Furthermore, while I had taken my mobile phone with me, I chose to keep it on 'Airplane Mode'. I was thus free from any distractions from the outside world, which – given the United Kingdom's political situation at the time – was quite refreshing! I think it's good that we experienced the monastic life as fully as possible during our retreat, in many ways – indeed, we spent a few days living pretty much as monks. 

En route home, we took the opportunity to visit Aachen Cathedral (with both Chevetogne and Aachen being close to the Belgian-German border). We were made most welcome by the Cathedral staff, who very kindly showed us around on a guided tour they ran specially for us. There are a number of very sacred relics kept in the Cathedral and in the museum nearby - probably the largest collection of relics I've seen in one place so far. During our tour, we saw the Throne of Charlemagne, a large stone structure composed of a large chair atop some steps. It came from the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem; these may be the very same steps that Jesus Christ Himself walked on, when he was led up to be presented by Pilate to the crowd at His trial. How very moving and powerful indeed. 

After attending Mass and a visit to the Cathedral's museum and shop, we returned to England. I have found this retreat both restful and restorative, and I am already looking forward to visiting again in the future. Have you ever been on a retreat? If not, would you consider going on one? How might a retreat help you to become closer to God? 

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

The importance of academia in the Church

Reflections on the importance of academia in the Church 
By Will Lyon Tupman, Lay Pastoral Assistant at St. Michael's Croydon 
In addition to the many pastoral and sacramental aspects of being a Lay Pastoral Assistant, there has been a distinctly academic flavour to my placement at St. Michael's Croydon. Having studied theology at university, this has been particularly appealing to me – and St. Michael's has been one of the most academically-focused Churches I have served in to date. Our studies each term have been focused on three main themes; the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, and Saints and Sacraments. 
In examining these doctrines and beliefs central to the Christian faith, the priests at St. Michael's have run a course of guided reading, using a variety of academic texts by some of today's most renowned theologians. These include former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth. Crucially, these academic texts clearly radiate the faith of the authors, which has been particularly pleasurable for me as a Christian and a theologian, especially as I explore ways in how I can use my theological learning and understanding to help myself and other Christians on our journey. 
Further to our guided reading programme with the priests at St. Michael's, we have attended seminars with the Venerable Dr. Edward Dowler, Archdeacon of Hastings. In these sessions, we have examined the texts On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius, On Pascha by Melito of Sardis, and The Rule of St. Benedict. I have both furthered and expanded my theological repertoire – and attending these seminars have been very much like attending Cambridge supervisions! 
In addition to our reading and seminars, we have visited the National Gallery in London each term. One of the Senior Research Curators, Dr. Susanna Avery-Quash, has kindly led us on a study of some of the most beautiful and theologically significant images (many of which were originally used in worship in Churches) relating to the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery and the Sacraments. 
St. Anselm's motto of “faith seeking understanding” underpins our Adult Catechesis programme, a series of Christian learning sessions at St. Michael's open to all, which has corresponded with our Pastoral Assistants' study scheme. Offering presentations to parishioners in study groups gives us the perfect chance to apply our studies and learning to assisting the learning – and faith journeys – of others around us. 
My academic formation at St. Michael's has been both useful and helpful for me, especially in how we have comprehensively examined some of the most important Christian doctrines and beliefs from several denominations – and in both textual and visual mediums. I believe it is vitally important to attain a good balance of sacramental, pastoral and academic aspects of the Church's life – and my placement at St. Michael's excellently embodies this. Having a greater understanding of my faith, through academic study, is both helpful for me and for those around me, as I use my understanding and theology to guide others in their Christian journey.