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.