Hugh and I spoke over Zoom in early August. With a global pandemic, social uprising, and political tumult the background to our cross-cultural dialogue, we discussed what it means to live within God’s time, the challenge of finding presence in a distracted world, the gifts of silence and community, and trusting God.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a town called Winchester, which is now a moderately-sized town in the south of England. Once upon a time, it was a very important place. It used to be as important as London several centuries ago, but now it’s just a sleepy market town with a very famous cathedral.
How would you describe the cultural context of your childhood? Was Christianity an important part of that upbringing?
I was brought up in a Christian family. We didn’t go to church a lot, and there werevarious reasons for that. I didn’t voluntarily start going to church until I was in my late teens, and particularly my 20s. I suppose I was conscious that I was being brought up in a Christian way, and I would have identified as Christian, but without necessarily the depth of understanding that other people would have had.
Did you study religion formally at any point? If not, what is your educational background?
My university program was history, so I did an undergraduate degree in that, and then I went on to do a masters, and then a doctorate in medieval history. Of course, by extension, that covered quite a lot of church history.
As a medievalist, you can’t escape the fact that the many of the people you study and write about were in religious orders. In terms of theology, I had never studied theology as a discipline, and I still haven’t really.
What drew you to the Community of Saint Anselm “A Year in God’s Time” program?
I remember, when the Community first started, I felt something quite deep inside me prompting me to take it seriously. There was definitely a call, even at that early stage, but it wasn’t practically something I could do because I had already committed to a teaching post at university.
I got a lot of experience and found a lot of pleasure in teaching, but I think, at heart, I didn’t feel like it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. There was something in me which was calling me to reassess what I was doing and how I was going to serve God, and how I was going to orient myself better to His purposes for me.
At that point, I thought, “Well, why not give the community a go?” I was accepted, to my great surprise, but also, to my great joy. I knew that I was starting to understand something quite deep within myself that I had been aware of for quite a while, but hadn’t necessarily had the courage to go with up to that point.
Did it feel daunting at all to make the year-long commitment and change your life in such a profound way? Were there feelings of apprehension?
There were. It was something that I knew was, on one level, a great risk, but also an adventure. Sure, there were times leading up to it when I thought, “Have I made a mistake here? Is this really something I can do? Am I going to have the stamina to stick with it?”
In a sense, I didn’t know everything that I was signing up to, but on some quite profound level, I just knew that my desire to go deeper into my own sense of calling, and to go deeper into my relationship with God, was something which would carry me wherever it carried me. I was quite willing to surrender to that.
Surrender is such an integral part of the contemplative stance. It’s interesting you were feeling and sensing that from the very start.
It’s about trust. It’s about trusting that God is in control of things, and that you can willingly offer yourself to Him and trust that, through His great compassion and majesty, things will be okay.
What is your understanding of the meaning of ‘living in God’s time,’ and how did this shift for you as you progressed through the program?
When I started, I had a notion that it was about simply stepping away from what you were doing already, stepping away from the rhythm of life and the kind of work that I did outside the community, and just stepping into a different kind of space: a space where I would have more time to spend with God, to pray, to spend with others, and to discern God’s will for me alongside others and then help them in their journeys of discernment as well.
This may get a bit academic, but the idea of God’s time, on one level, doesn’t make any sense, because God is timeless. But on the other hand, you can look at that as meaning that God is eternally present. Being called to live in God’s time is being called to be eternally present, to be in the here and now, not to dwell too much on the past or the future, but to live out God’s purposes and be with God and others in the moment.
Worrying about the future – the program ending and what I might do afterwards – was always taking me away from the present moment, but I realized I wasn’t in the community to worry about the future. I was in the community to be present, to be in that moment with those others around me. That’s part of the act of surrender.
Is there a moment you will always carry with you?
Everyone in the community is given a spiritual companion, someone whom they meet with weekly to talk over how things are going for them, and to reflect on their experiences and their discernment. He would ask me the question, “Have you arrived?” By which he meant, not ‘have you physically arrived here’ because of course you have, but rather, ‘are you fully present here?’ Have you left behind those anxieties and apprehensions you had? Are you feeling settled? Are you feeling open to going deeper? Do you feel comfortable really stepping into this adventure?
About a month into the program, I knew that I had arrived. We had a week where we spent a lot of time in sharing groups, and I felt there was a quiet joy welling up within me. I was fully present. God was starting to work something within me, and I was growing more responsive to what He might be calling me to.
The other moment which comes to mind from a silent retreat, doing the Ignatian spiritual exercises, toward the end of the program. A handful of us went away to a monastery in Switzerland to do exercises alongside about 60 other people we had never met before. At the end of the retreat, I realized I’d become very close to these people. Some of them I’d never even spoken to. My French is really rusty, so I wasn’t always able to communicate easily with everyone.
There was something about the shared rhythm of life we had, and the way that we were, in a sense, holding each other in all of our personal discernment. I was being held by everyone else in my journey. In my own exploration of that and in my own prayer, I was holding all of them in theirs. I felt like I did know them quite profoundly by the end. The idea that one could grow very close to people in silence, in a shared discipline of silence and prayer, was very moving.
What was most challenging about your time in the program, about sustaining this way of life for a year?
One of the things that was particularly challenging was being apart from a lot of people I was used to spending time with, including my family and a lot of my close friends. My grandparents are very elderly, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to see them, and I wasn’t going to be able to support them. That did haunt me, in a sense.
I suppose at times it almost felt self-centered because in order to grow deeper in my relationship with God and with my brothers and sisters in the community, I had to sacrifice something else. I don’t think it was quite like that, because going deeper into relationship within the Community did so much in the long term to replenish and deepen my relationships outside it, but there were times I was tempted to think like that.
Over your year in the community, how did your view of yourself change?
I learned, in difficult times, that I could be as irritable as anyone else. I learned that I could be as petty as anyone else. I learned that I could be as anxious as anyone else about things when the going got tough. It was very humbling, because you do have to accept there are lots of things about yourself that you don’t like. The experience does hold a mirror up to you in a very powerful way, and you have to learn to look into it.
But by doing so, you learn to look into the loving eyes of God much better. There’s this thing that’s sort of commonplace in a lot of medieval theology and spirituality: ‘know thyself.’ St Bernard talks about that as the first step in knowing God better. If you know yourself, you know yourself as the image of God, even with all your imperfections. And that’s the first step in discovering more about God and about being more responsive to Him.
Community is incredibly beautiful. It is also hard. I think entering into a community where you don’t know anyone and learning to surrender to that process of self-discovery is one of the hardest things you can do. I still feel the power of it even though I’m not in the community anymore. I still feel that I am held by everyone else who I was in community with just as much as I still hold them in whatever they’re doing, wherever they are.
It is community for life. On one level, it wasn’t a life commitment, but on another, perhaps it was because I still feel as committed to my brothers and sisters as I did when I was inside it. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now without the support that I know I have from all of them.
I learned God had been with me a lot of times when I thought He hadn’t necessarily, and that what I was tempted to look at in my life as time wasted was, from God’s perspective, nothing of the kind. As somebody who set out on an academic career and then radically shifted, there was a temptation to think of the whole academic career as a waste of time, as though I should have shifted sooner and been more responsive to God’s call earlier.
But I learned that God doesn’t really work like that. God works through us wherever we are, in whatever situation we’re in, and all that we go through, in a sense, has meaning. God isn’t distant from us. I learned about God’s patience and that I should trust God more. God abides with me in my life.
Richard Rohr, in The Naked Now, writes, “In the West, religion became preoccupied with telling people what to know more than how to know, telling people what to see more than how to see… It has been like trying to view the galaxies with a $5 pair of binoculars.” From studying and practicing contemplative life, what do you make of this?
This reminds me of a quote one of my sisters from the community shared with me from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Perhaps too often, we think that there’s all sort of stuff that people need to know in order to be Christians, but, at heart, we are all seekers. I think we all do have a yearning deep within us. We need to learn to be true to the yearning deepest within us: to understand that, in a sense, our deepest yearning is the point where we can most clearly see and be in relationship with God. It’s something you can’t really teach people, but rather, something you can help them awaken within themselves. Without that, all the other stuff will just be scaffolding.
Going to church doesn’t necessarily emphasize how to walk with Jesus in everyday life or how to go out of the church and be disciples. Being a disciple is also about responding to the deepest yearnings within us and understanding our own journeys of discernment. In the end, yearning builds up a much more mature and durable faith than rote learning of doctrine.
Frederick Buechner writes of vocation, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” How does this description of calling resonate with you?
I’ve known about Frederick Buechner for a long time. He has been someone who has accompanied me through a lot of ups and downs. Recently, I’ve been in the discernment process for ordination.Although I only began the formal process in the Church of England after I left the community, it’s something I’ve been praying about for a long time. A significant part of this discernment was done in the Community, and particularly when I was on my retreat doing the Ignatian exercises. I was bringing this question before God, asking for Him to illuminate it and praying for His guidance.
One of the metaphors from the 30-day retreat was that, in an Alpine lake, the waters can be very choppy, and then maybe the level below the surface, there can be quite deep currents, but at the bottom of the lake, there is a deep stillness. We’re trying to reach that place of deep stillness, which is where your deepest desires and God’s desire for you are one. That’s where they meet. I felt my desires and God desires met in the idea of serving God in the priesthood.
In a sense, it’s in God’s hands now. I just have to wait for how I go forward. As I’ve said, I couldn’t have done all I’ve done this year without the community or their ongoing support.
Thank you, Hugh. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Well, for anyone who is considering this, the best I can say is, “do not be afraid.” It’s an incredible adventure. Sometimes, in the first month, I thought, “I don’t know what I can actually bring to this, because I’m surrounded by people who have extraordinary life experiences that I can’t match. They have incredible depths of wisdom that I don’t have. They have spiritual disciplines that I am still fumbling to grasp. Who am I to be among these people?”
But everyone can bring something. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or a bit older, whatever your life experiences are, you’ll contribute to the community. Bring a spirit of openness and generosity, offering those gifts to other people and receiving them in return.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Godric by Frederick Buechner
The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict