Citizens of Two Realms
Members of the Community of St. Anselm gather at Lambeth Palace. Courtesy Lambeth Palace
By Eloise Skinner
In the summer of 2017, I decided to become a monk. The opportunity came from London’s Lambeth Palace, where the archbishop of Canterbury had developed a small spiritual community. Resident members of the community spent a year in the palace; nonresident members attended for evenings, weekends, and retreats—I would join the nonresident cohort on my return to London. Unlike the cloistered detachment of traditional monasticism, we (the nonresident members) were to remain in our jobs and lives, with our prayers and psalms mixed in with social media and desk jobs. Far from being an incidental distraction, however, this challenge—the integration of abstract theology and daily life—was precisely the point.
Autumn arrived and I took my place within the community. We were a patchwork, international congregation, bright-eyed with the promise of a new way of life. And, yes, we were unmistakably millennial, wearing jeans under our albs, bearing spiritual tattoos and iPhones, comfortably at home in the material world. In pursuing monasticism, though, we were reaching for the promise of the unbounded. Citizens of two realms, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once described: exploiting the tangible, sensing the ineffable.
It was clear we weren’t a typical monastic community, kneeling in robes at our inaugural service, receiving the simple wooden crosses to be worn beneath collars or carried in our pockets—chewing gum, car keys, Christ. Many of us were raised with a Westerncapitalist faith; we received the Abrahamic history one day out of seven, if we received it at all. Our common goal, if there was a single uniting factor, was our search for meaning.
In some ways, monasticism is a protest—against a loss of meaningful community, against atheistic aimlessness or vacuous spirituality. (The metaphor of battle is not new. St. Benedict himself—the source of the Benedictine tradition—saw monasticism as spiritual warfare: “serving like soldiers.”) Nor, it should be pointed out, is the monastic movement unique to a particular religion—the practice has transcended faith boundaries: for example, the Hindu sadhu and the Buddhist bhikkhu. Indeed, for all of its ascetic weirdness and countercultural narrative, monasticism holds a number of universal questions at its core, questions that belong to all of us. Who are we? And what are we called to do—if anything—to make sense of our own existence? Thoreau, speaking of his impulse to solitude in Walden (1854), describes it:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
The English word “monk” comes from the Greek monos: “solitary,” “alone.” The third-century Christian monks were, indeed, alone—eremitical inhabitants of the Egyptian wilderness. Slowly, small communities began to form, unified by a shared withdrawal that was, as theologian Bernard McGinn describes, “viewed primarily as a means for the reintegration of the self through deeper knowledge (gnôsis) and more ardent love (agapê).”1 In this shift to cenobitic monasticism, communities sought to replicate, architecturally, the separation and solitude that formed the core of their theology. C. A. Ralegh Radford, the British archaeologist, wrote of the monastic “vallum”: “an earthen bank, a rampart of turf or a hedge.”2 Such physical barriers were regarded as deeply symbolic: the division of sacred and secular—a careful creation of holy soil.
Our first community retreat took place on the threshold of winter 2017 in a small Cornish abbey. During this time we discovered the daily routine of monastic life, a mix of solitary study, prayer, and household chores. In the Benedictine tradition, these three pursuits are named, respectively, lectio divina (divine reading), opus Dei (work of God), and labora (work). We were encouraged to hand over all devices: I cheerfully gave up my personal phone but pocketed my work phone guiltily. That same night, a colleague emailed me to ask about the journey to the monastery. It was fine, I wrote back. “Great!” he replied. “How is the signal at this place? Can you still handle work if we need to get in touch?”
In the end, it took a surprisingly short time to fall into a new spiritual rhythm: rise early, pray, eat, study, work around the house and in the gardens. Most of our time was spent in silence. The hallways, adorned with icons and figures of Christ, were so still that the sound of a single clock reverberated from one end of the building to another.
I continued to struggle, however, with the lectio divina. In essence, this involves close reading of scripture, before entering “imaginatively” into the text. The task is subdivided: lectio (read), meditatio (meditate), oratio (pray), and contemplatio (contemplate). The whole procedure took around an hour, repeated four or five times throughout the day. My greatest adversary was the morning session. On more than one occasion, I spent the first 45 minutes descending into an abyss of overthinking, which felt fairly similar to the biblical hell I was supposed to be reading about. Then I’d check my email.
Labora became the preference of our group. In mismatched gardening gloves and with pruning implements in hand, we moved into the grounds of the abbey. It was a relief, at last, to have a well-defined mission. Our task, albeit thorny, was intelligible, with delineated boundaries and measurable performance outcomes. Each day, we dug and dragged and trimmed, basking in the weak winter sun and our mutual achievement. And each night it rained, the mud sliding over carefully polished paving stones and we would begin again.
On the sixth day, we stumbled across a handful of small tombstones. (A monastic commitment is traditionally made for life, and community members grow old and eventually die on the same grounds in which they began their endeavor, often robed in the same garment in which they were initiated.) We stared blankly at the graves. “It seems strange,” said the girl on my right, “that there could be liberation in a life like this.” I nodded, still staring and beginning to think that, yes, actually, as strange as it might seem, perhaps there could be liberation in a life like this.
Toward the end of the program, in spring 2018, the archbishop of Canterbury and I met in a coffee shop close to London’s Liverpool Street. He told me about his vision for us and about the challenges of community. He talked about living a fully integrated life, one in which the same transparency of character is visible in every encounter. I found myself thinking about my own world of social media and corporate personal branding with the slow realization that I may have been wasting a large amount of time.
On our second retreat, we sat under the stars until sunrise, talking about the future of religion, and phenomenology, and how it would feel to go back to work on Monday. Bats passed by the single bulb above us, and I thought of Thomas Nagel’s words: that one cannot help but wonder what it would be like to experience such a different kind of consciousness. In the morning, I looked up the spiritual significance of the bat. “The bat,” the Google search declared, “is a symbol of death and rebirth.” This, on a Christian monastic retreat, seemed divinely appropriate—or, at the very least, an optimistic coincidence. “The bat,” the Google search continued, with equal conviction, “is viewed as the bird of the devil.” This seemed less optimistic. I turned off my phone.
Perhaps the predictions are right, and the Western church will move quietly into irrelevance. In his 1860 essay “City of London Churches,” Charles Dickens published his observations on London’s languishing churches (finding them damp and clouded with the dust of “dead citizens” drifting up from the vaults beneath). Yet our religious architecture continues to entrance and attract. What are we looking for? It’s easy to agree with the criticisms of atheism—appalled by the violence of scripture; sickened by religious war; rolling our eyes at iron-fisted apologetics—but it’s not clear that there’s a replacement to satisfy our collective restlessness. And religion, in spite of its past—or, indeed, because of it—has something to teach us: the observed evolution of consciousness and community, the intersection of the timeless and the temporal.
On an individual level, we—the millennial monks of the city—returned to the world when the year-long program was done. Some of us became pastors and preachers; others, including me, returned to our day jobs as accountants, lawyers, teachers. In the end, there was no triumphant metamorphosis: as it turns out, the work of transformation is messy, frustrating, and achingly slow. And yet, in the midst of the chaos, we seemed to unearth a deep, reverential awe—an awe that, it seems, resulted from full-bodied participation in the impulsive curiosity that has stirred our short-lived species from the beginning. As Rainer Maria Rilke concluded, in Letters to a Young Poet (1903):
[T]he point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
A full year later, I visited a quiet chapel in Westminster. An art installation covered the vaulted ceiling—a leviathan structure, all twisting wires and dark fabrics. “The cloud of doubt,” someone said, audibly. Some visitors dropped to their knees before the altar, murmuring prayers. Others lined up to rub the bronzed statues for good fortune. I was at the back, looking through visitor cards left by tourists and pilgrims and day-trippers. “I am an atheist,” one person wrote, “but enough of labels. I am still searching. I still have questions.”
And now, all these years later, and still without answers, I think perhaps the ceaseless search is all that there is, and perhaps this is enough. And perhaps it is not only enough, but the very gift itself: our unknown god; our inexorable curiosity; an unknowable end.
- Bernard McGinn, “Withdrawal and Return: Reflections on Monastic Retreat from the World,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 6, no. 2 (2006): 149–72.
- C. A. Ralegh Radford, “Romance and Reality in Cornwall,” in The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, ed. Geoffrey Ashe (Chicago Review Press, 1987), 59–77.
Eloise Skinner is an author, teacher, and therapist. She studied law at Cambridge University and later practiced as a corporate lawyer in London and New York. During this time, she took part in an experimental monastic community run by the archbishop of Canterbury (more detail about the initiative can be found at www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/priorities/prayer-and-religious-life/religious-communities/community-st-anselm). Her second book, on the topic of purpose, will be published in October 2021.