I spent the inside of last week away on a Diocesan training course. Odd though it might seem, it took place in St Andrew’s Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery a few miles outside Bruges in Belgium. The Diocese often uses this monastery for courses like this, partly because it means we can spend some time surrounded by the rhythms of prayer and daily life of the monks who live there, worshipping and eating with them, sharing the healing balance of their daily routine.
But as we were leaving on Friday, we realised that their routine was being thrown out of the window temporarily. They were setting up to mark a very special occasion. One of their number was celebrating his Golden Jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of him taking his permanent vows as a monk. There was going to be a special festive meal, and a service of celebration. And quite right too. Half a century is a long time. This was evidently a monk with considerable stickability.
Benedictine monks and nuns make three vows when they commit themselves to the monastic life. They take a vow of obedience – to God, to their abbot, and to one another. They take a vow of “conversion of life”, a commitment to a continuous process of renewal, growing in God’s love. And they take a vow of stability, literally to stay put, in that particular community, in that place, with those people, for the rest of their lives. Some do get moved around, of course. Monks from St Andrew’s Abbey had founded monasteries in West Africa, Brazil and China; so there was some coming and going from those places, but only at the instigation of the order. They aren’t free suddenly to nip off on holiday, or move jobs, or even to wander off into town for a bit without permission. And they certainly aren’t free to seek out more congenial companions if they aren’t getting on with their fellow monks.
From my conversations with monks and nuns over the years, whether Roman Catholic or Anglican, it’s often this vow of stability, which is hardest to keep. If the other members of your community irritate you, as they will do, that’s tough. You have to find a way to bloom where you are planted, to get along together. That’s part of the reason why the 1500 year old Rule of St Benedict sets out a way of life in which boundaries are clear, and silence plays a big part. If you are going to be thrown together year after year, you have to find ways of allowing each other space and privacy. I noticed the monks at St Andrew’s Abbey didn’t feel under any obligation to acknowledge each other, or us, every time they passed. They didn’t put on fake smiles and false bonhomie. They obviously cared about each other and knew each other well, but they’d learned to let each other be, rather than continually interfering in each other’s business. It’s a wise way of living that could help us in any community where we live closely with others – families, workplaces, churches.
There’s a word in this week’s Gospel reading which came to life for me as I watched them. It’s that little word “abide”. “Abide in me as I abide in you, “ says Jesus to his disciples on the night before he dies.
“Abide” isn’t a word we probably use much in daily conversation, but it’s a good and powerful word. Maybe it reminds you of the hymn “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide”, a prayer for God’s presence at the evening of the day and the evening of our lives. Or maybe, using it in a negative way, you’ve sometimes said in exasperation “I can’t abide Mrs X!” or “ I can’t abide it when people do such and such!” - we can’t bear to be around that person, or that behaviour. Or maybe you have described yourself as “biding your time”. Abiding is about staying put somewhere, sticking to something, even if nothing really seems to be happening, but it’s not a passive word; it is about actively waiting and watching for the right moment to say or do something. Our “abode” is the place where we live, the place where we feel at home, the place which nurtures and sustains us, but also the place where we have responsibilities. Much though I enjoyed my stay in Bruges, I was glad to get home to my “abode”, to Philip, to this parish, to the tasks I’m called to, and to you, the people I’m called to. There would have been something wrong if I wasn’t glad to be home.
The man we met in our first reading, the Ethiopian official, longed for that sense of abiding, for a place to belong. He’d been to Jerusalem to worship, we are told, or at to try to worship. What he would have found, though, was that, as a eunuch, he wasn’t allowed in the Temple. The law expressly forbade it – you had to be physically perfect and whole to worship there. Those who’d been castrated were singled out for specific exclusion. We aren’t told what Philip and he talked about when they met, but the fact that he was reading the book of Isaiah gives us a clue, and the particular quotation is even more of a clue. Isaiah talks of a time when God will use and bless someone who is like a sheep before his shearers, a lamb who will be slaughtered. If we read around this quotation we would find that this figure was someone who was “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”, someone who was marred and disfigured. No wonder this man is puzzled. If God could love and use this suffering servant, why couldn’t he love and use this Ethiopian eunuch? Philip answers by explaining “the good news about Jesus”, a crucified, broken man who had been raised from death – and therefore blessed –by God. In him, God proclaimed that no one now was beyond his love, outside his family. Everyone could belong. Everyone could abide in him, as he abided in them. You didn’t even have to go to the Temple. God was wherever you were. The Ethiopian loses no time. “Here is some water for baptism! Let’s get on with it! I’m in!”
He discovered that he could abide in God, because God was already abiding in him, and it transformed his life – he instantly knew it for the precious privilege it is. And tradition says that discovering he belonged changed the course of history, because according to Ethiopian belief, he brought his new found faith back home with him, and founded a Christian community which is still there to this day. It has to have got there somehow, so why not through him?
Abiding in God, which also means abiding in the places and situations he’s called us to, is just as much a privilege for us, something we should be delighting in. But let’s be honest, abiding can be tough too. It can be tough because we find ourselves stuck in situations we can’t escape, and which we didn’t choose – illness, sorrow, challenge that we’d give anything to be able to walk away from. But it can be just as tough when we do have choices, because we have choices. We live in an age where choice is king, where the freedom to change our minds, change our direction, follow our dreams is often held up as a basic human right. Abiding takes commitment, though, and commitment can feel frightening and limiting. Committing ourselves to something or someone means cutting off all sorts of other possibilities. If we take this job, we can’t take that one. If we live here, we can’t live there. If we spend our time on this thing, we can’t spend our time on that thing. We can become like the proverbial donkey that starves to death between two bales of hay because it can’t decide which one to eat first. We’re eternally restless because we can’t settle to anything or settle for anything. The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and the fence beyond that, and the fence beyond that, ad infinitum.
Abiding means saying no to many things, so that we can say yes, fully and freely, to the thing that really matters; to the job, the relationship, the activity God calls us to. And how do we even know what that is? I’m always happy to listen if you want to reflect on that with me. You may remember that a couple of years ago I began to invite people, to come and talk to me, asking them three simple questions. The first was: “What do you think God is calling you to at the moment?” The second was “How can I help you to fulfil that calling?” and the third was, “Who else should I be talking to who might appreciate this chat?” I had a lot of very fruitful conversations, and I’m happy to have more, or to talk again if you’d like a follow-up chat.
Wherever each of us is called to be, to abide, specifically, though, our fundamental calling is to abide in God through Christ, to discover our home in him. Jesus uses the image of a vine to describe this. He is the vine. We are the branches. If we don’t abide in him, if we don’t allow ourselves to be connected to him, through prayer and worship, through fellowship with each other, through loving service of others, then we eventually shrivel up and die inside. We are not created to go it alone. We are called to each other and to him.
Abiding can be hard work. I’m sure that monk who’d just clocked up fifty years of faithful service in his monastery could have told us that. In our choice- hungry, freedom-obsessed age it often feels counter-intuitive to commit ourselves to one thing, one place, when we have so many possibilities. It can take time and prayer and effort to discern our calling, but these readings remind us of the age-old wisdom that true freedom isn’t found in rootless wandering. We can only become truly free as we allow our lives to be grafted into the life-giving vine of God’s love and learn to abide together in its life. And if we abide there, the life of God will flow through us, like the sap through the vine, and give us the strength to abide wherever he calls us and to abide whatever he calls us to.