Monday, 17 November 2014

Christian Community and the Sick

When I first heard about the Community of St Anselm, the new community of prayer being established at Lambeth Palace for people aged 20-35 to “spend a year in God's time”, I was terribly excited and ready to sign up right away. I have been increasingly interested in the ideas around community for some years now and the practises of regular prayer through the day, although I have been less successful always in establishing that discipline at home on my own. It sounds like a fantastic opportunity to grow, learn and experience God. Most of all I thought, “imagine not being lonely for a whole year, not being a Christian alone, being with other Christians”. Being sick, unable to work and coming from a non-Christian family has been intensely lonely, both from a general point of view and from a specifically Christian point of view.

But then reality kicked in, the reality that this community needed energetic people, it was there in the language of discipline, rigour, discomfort and hard work. The reality that someone like me would never keep up for a week, let alone a year. The reality that being around people can be draining. The reality that being chronically ill has made me something of a hermit, unable to be around people, too tired to take part in so many things, not a willing hermit, but one because of circumstance.

My natural reaction to this is to be thoroughly fed up at seeing yet another opportunity go out of my reach, being shut out again because I have no energy to be busy and active, feeling useless yet again. Yet although these feelings are valid and need expressing, it does not have to end here does it? So I cannot be part of this community? It does not mean that I and others like me are shut out of all expressions of community?

I hate to think of there being others out there like me, each isolated from the wider church, feeling outside and being unable to connect with one another. Although things are easier now, I have been through times of intense isolation and still feel too isolated from and out of step with other Christians my own age, and I cannot be the only person in a similar situation? Beginning to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together has provided a challenging view of community and I have been especially struck by his view that to live in community with our brothers and sisters in Christ is a privilege.

“So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God's Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went 'with the multitude... to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday' (Ps. 42.4). But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God's will. Yet what is denied them in actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith.”

So community is not only a privilege, but also a prophetic way of living that foretells the way things will be on the new earth. However, as we are still being remade and are not yet fully perfected, living out this calling is a tremendous challenge as we need to be able to leave behind our own needs, priorities and concerns in order to love one another and live together in harmony. Do the demands that illness make upon my body leave enough energy and strength for this challenge?

In myself certainly no, but in God's grace and with His help who knows what may be possible, always bearing in mind that as things stand I am not healed. Therefore maybe my challenge is to consider other means of living in a degree of community, looking for a way for people like me, who are shut out because of sickness, to come together for fellowship, be it virtual or visible? Prayer is one of the few things you can still do when you have next to no energy, so there is no reason for the sick to be shut out of Archbishop Justin's call to prayer, but the challenge is to find ways of enjoying the privilege and blessing of praying with others. Paradoxically this illness has been the means by which I have learnt to value prayer and to rely on God in prayer, because I have fewer of my own resources. I have learnt that prayer takes incredible perseverance, some days just concentrating enough is a massive struggle and of course there are days when the prayer is the simple, primeval, “help!” and no more. God is gracious and helps me when I ask Him to help me with prayer and reading the Bible. But being able to come together with other Christians daily for prayer continues to be something I dream about.

It seems, therefore, that I will be sitting out the Community of St Anselm, but perhaps it can prompt me to fresh thinking about community and its different forms? And of course I can pray, for the Community itself, for the wider church and that we can find a way for people like me to take part in a community of fellowship and encouragement, virtual and face to face. I have no idea what form this will take or what it will look like, or even if it will happen, but for now I will keep reading, praying, hoping and waiting on God.


  1. Stephanie, having watched my daughter languish with ME for a few years, cut off from the world, I have very often pondered the question of what we as Christians are doing for people with chronic illness. Very fortunately for us, the youth leader of her current church came to visit her at home for a number of months, sometimes accompanied by a Young Person, and eventually she was able to go along to the youth group, initially for only 15 minutes at a time. Now that she (again, very fortunately) is much better, she is able to do so much more and is even thinking about aiming to go to a Christian week away next summer. But why should practising one's faith only be for the very well? I'm aware that churches often do a lot for the elderly. However, the idea of a young person being shut away seems to cross no-one's mind. In this day and age of technology, Christian community should surely be accessible to those who are unable to leave the house. I think about this so much, and when my daughter is finally on her own two feet and I have a chance to decide how to use my time, I sometimes wonder if there could be anything I could do. But it seems like such a difficult, overwhelming problem, and I keep coming back to the importance of every Christian community reaching out to those who are ill (not just the long-serving members in their last years) - rather than setting up some "invalid-only" network... It seems to me that the Community of St. Anselm, and other similar projects, should be trying to find a way to include those in poor(er) health. It is true that illness can present terrific opportunities for prayer and reflection (on good days). Why not capitalise on this? I will end by saying that I think our entire society, while making great strides in inclusivity as regards a number of disabled people, still has a huge problem with illness and generally doesn't want to know.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write such a long, considered answer. I'm so glad your daughter's been so much better lately. I think you have a point about not just making it invalid to invalid, sometimes it can be helpful to talk to people who have been through the same/similar things to you, but we all learn more when we get to know other people who have experienced different things. One problem I have found with church is an emphasis on what you do, rather than who you are and people who are sick or disabled are bound to lose out on this. We have caught this from the society around us, where people are valued according to how much they can work and how much money they can make, we lose our distinctiveness when we have this focus. Another problem is that different disabilities and illnesses have different needs, so making your church wheelchair friendly and putting in a hearing loop only help so far and it is complicated and difficult.
      Being sick can open out time and space for God and can cause you to lean on God more - as I'm sure your whole family have found - and I'd love to be able to share some of that and be able to use it to benefit the church around me. It's just working out how and seeking God's vision and will for it.
      Don't feel on your own behalf that what you can give is too little though, remember Matthew 25 and the cup of water, or the widow's mite, they all add up and ripple out.

  2. Hi again - promise to be brief this time! I'm doing a little giveaway on my blog, so please come and leave a comment!

  3. We did a pastoral survey last year at church, and it was obvious that anyone who wasn't retired got missed - if they weren't in church it was just assumed they were on holiday. Whereas people were rallying around to go and visit older people who were housebound. There was also an assumption that if you were young (i.e. under 50!) you had both a group of friends around to support you (not always, particularly in cases of long term ill health) and a family around (again, not always, and that assumes that they want to help you).

    I lived in a Christian community for two years, whilst doing my part-time MA. I thought it would be a nice safe space to live, pray, work and study in (it was based on the rule of St Benedict) and give me the space I needed to sort out some stuff. It was actually fairly horrendous and I ended up not going to church for two years once I left it! Things like that are hard work, and all the interacting with other members of the community and working out your relationships is hard, as is praying with people you might fundamentally disagree with.

    Have you considered looking into being an Oblate? That way you make a commitment to a community based on what you can do. They have them at the convent I sometimes go to on retreat:

    1. In terms of church and ill-health I'm inclined to think of "young" as including up to 50 or even 60!

      I'm under no illusions (ok, now my initial excitement has died away!) that community would be easy, I'm sorry you had such a hard time. I think with where my life's currently headed community may well mean a more local community focus for now, if that makes sense? I'll be writing about it some more I think, especially as I have read more of the Bonhoeffer book now (brilliant btw).