My name is Josh, I’m currently a lay member of the Holywell Community. The Holywell Community is a Benedictine ‘new monastic’ community. Lay members of the community are young people (usually in their 20s) who come for one or two years and live, as much as possible, in the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict.
One of the main functions of the community is to provide a space for discernment. Some previous members have gone on to explore vocations with more traditional Anglican religious communities. Another former member has recently been ordained as a deacon in the Church in Wales. Others have gone on to other forms of church and non-church based work.
But I’m supposed to be talking about my own path into the Holywell Community!
I had a need: space for discernment. The Holywell Community has provided exactly that for me, as it has for its previous members. In my time here, I have also become much more comfortable in my Christian identity.
To explain how I got to where I am now, it’s necessary to say something about my ‘journey’ more broadly. A lot of this story is about ideas and arguments, but I’m going to try to avoid any kind of technical detail.
I’m a New Zealander, who’s been in the UK for around six years. I grew up in Christchurch. Christianity was very important in my childhood. Life was oriented around the events and services at the local Bible Chapel.
I was baptised at 14. But within a year or two I’d begun to have serious doubts about the whole package. I took to the internet quite young (by the standards of the late 90s and early 2000s anyway) and had started to fill my head with all sorts of ideas that I wasn’t hearing at church. I recall being shaken when I first came across the idea of strong similarities between the story of Jesus and various pagan figures and when I first came across the messy history of the development of the Biblical canon. What I was hearing in church didn’t give me any resources to deal with these problems (and I’d have been too proud to ask for help, in any case!).
Although at the time I thought my worries were simply intellectual, in hindsight it’s clear that they were also motivated by more practical considerations. The Brethren tradition has a stronger sense of being ‘set apart’ from the world than many other forms of Christianity. Coming into my teenage years I wanted to be more ‘in the world’ than I could see my way to being as a Christian. I’m sure these desires made arguments against Christianity seem a lot more appealing than they might otherwise have been.
Whatever the explanation, I stopped attending services at around 15 and had a period of aggressive atheism (of the ‘religion is a mind virus and spreading it to children is child abuse’ sort). Meeting people from this phase of my life who I haven’t come across in a long time can be quite amusing. Member of a religious community is fairly low on the list of things they expect me to say that I am.
My longing for something ‘religious’ didn’t go away though. I was drawn to quasi-mystical beliefs which advertised themselves as ‘just science’. If the mystical has something to do with an experience of oneself as uniting with or dissolving into something bigger, then I certainly understood evolution in a mystical way. I recall similar feelings when reading speculations about the development of super-powerful AIs – of being merged with the development of technology. Perhaps this was the hope that, even if there wasn’t a God, we might be able to make one!
All these ideas are fine, in their own way. The point is that I was constantly searching about for this sort of ‘big idea’; for a kind of substitute for the big picture provided by the Christianity of my childhood. This kind of speculation is important for the sciences, but it always goes far beyond the more established, carefully circumscribed, results of the sciences.
It will not surprise the reader to learn that this young man decided to study philosophy and mathematics at university. One of the most important consequences of my time studying, especially the history of science and philosophy, was seeing how wrong the idea of an essential conflict between reason and religion is and also seeing that the atheist arguments that I thought were so good all had their own gaps and shortcomings. This is a common experience for people when their smart-for-the-internet views are brought into contact with serious scholarship.
The view that religion was inherently irrational and that there were a series of knock-down arguments against the existence of God functioned as a wall against any engagement with Christianity or other religious traditions. But once those walls had been knocked down, my underlying longing for something ‘religious’ was given freedom to move in the direction of belief in God and of the various monotheisms. At this point the desire to wander into churches started to stir and I was filling my ears with the music of Tavener, Górecki and Pärt and thereby exposing myself to a more liturgical, more catholic, form of Christianity.
After the walls had come down, my return to Christian faith was still a slow process. On the intellectual side, I tried out quite a few ‘lite’ versions of traditional theistic belief: perhaps ‘the community’ could play the role of God and perhaps adopting an attitude of gratitude towards to world or of unlimited hope for the future could play the role of belief in God. Eventually, I decided to the original recipe was preferable. It’s not that I don’t think there aren’t other possible options or that Christianity is the only intellectually respectable option. Rather, all the considerations I’ve come across, filtered through my own experience of the world, has left belief in God (as revealed in the Christian tradition) as the most sustainable and attractive option.
On the more practical side, I had periods of dipping in to Anglican cathedral worship in both New Zealand and the UK. These periods would come and go and I did not receive communion. At some point, I began to pray again, including taking up the Jesus Prayer and other traditional forms of prayer. At this point, it was probably inevitable that I’d commit myself again to Christian belief.
One Sunday, I woke up, got on my bike and made it on time to a church in the centre of Sheffield called St Matthew’s. It’s much harder to be anonymous at a church like that and I was quickly welcomed and helped in to a life oriented around the sacraments of the Church.
I was very quiet about this transformation. Academic philosophy isn’t particularly friendly to religion. I’m sure many people from my time in academic philosophy think I’ve completely lost my mind. I would use slightly misleading (and sometimes straightforwardly deceptive) ways to hide that I had been attending church. This, unsurprisingly, led to a bit of a split personality.
A series of questions arose. I had returned to a Christian identity, but needed to explore how I could integrate it with my previous life. I needed to consider how it might change the course of my life. I also, to consider, whether my sense of calling to some kind of vocation in the Church was merely the zeal of the convert, which moderates over time, or the path which I had been preparing for all along without being aware of it. These questions had begun to stir long before I appeared at the door at St Matthew’s, but became unavoidable by the time I’d been there for a few years.
After a conversation with my parish priest, it was suggested that some kind of discernment programme would be ideal. A few phone calls were made and I was on a train to Abergavenny to visit the Holywell Community within a few weeks.
The structures of the Holywell Community, which are inspired by the monastics tradition, are quite effective for providing appropriate space for this kind of discernment. Our life is built around the Divine Office, the core of which is the slow and meditative recitation of psalms, and the Eucharist. We are also put together with a spiritual director and, if it is part of the member’s practice, a confessor. On top of this foundation, we engage in work in the parish and community. We get something of the experience of both pastoral ministry and monastic life. Consequently, it’s quite a good place for exploring all sorts of vocations.
In my own case, I am coming to the end of my time with the Holywell Community and am reflecting back on what I have learned here and how I have grown. I still don’t know where this path will go. But I do know a few things: I’ve come out the other end of my year with the community as a much more integrated person and as a less anxious person. My prayer life has improved. I have also come into contact with some of the pastoral realities of parish life. All of this, and the development of habits of regular communion and the daily office, will be vitally important wherever I end up in the future. (Indeed, carrying on a life centred around the Divine Office and the sacraments of the church is something open to all, not just to those who are ordained or those discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life).
I hope that this story is of some interest or use to someone out there and hopefully you’re going to hear from other members of the Community before the year is out.