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Monastic Living, Even Briefly, Can Be Truly Enriching

Between 1993 and 2006, I participated in many conferences in Europe. The location of these meetings offered me the opportunity to experience something of the life of diverse monastic communities on the continent, which I found to be profoundly enriching.
On the occasions when I attended meetings in Annecy, France, I was able to join in worship with the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Tamié.

This Cistercian Abbey, established in the 13th century, lies in the beautiful French Alps, 50 kilometers from Geneva.

After joining in worship in the church attached to the abbey, hardly can one forget the silence, the prayers and the rest and joy that filled one’s mind.

On a special occasion, there was a rare opportunity to share fellowship time with leaders and members of the community. I experienced Tamié as a place marked by the Pax Christi.

The week I spent with the Community of Grandschamp in Areuse, Switzerland, was richly rewarding.

We were allowed to join in community meals characterized by simple fare taken partly in silence.

I remember experiencing the night as a time for entering into the darkness with God, observing silence from the evening until time for morning prayer the following day.

The rhythm of prayer, the reading and rereading of the same Scripture each day and the corporate worship events were sources of real personal nourishment.

It was in the 1930s that women belonging to the Reformed Church formed the Grandschamp Community in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and what a difference that community has made.

Visits to a number of monasteries, especially the Monastery of Sobrado in Galicia in northeastern Spain, reminded me of the blessing that comes with leading a simple lifestyle.

At Sobrado, everyone shared a modest meal served on plates aged to perfection by use.

The monks at Sobrado reflected the joy one may derive from carrying out daily chores that are understood to constitute part of one’s vocation.

A week spent at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Fontgombault, near Châtellerault in France, reminded me of the more austere side of monastic life.

Founded in 1091, the abbey now follows the prayer and work routine characteristic of the Benedictines.

During the entire week I spent there during the harsh winter of 1997, the temperature never once rose as high as 1 degree Celsius.

However, the bitter cold could not destroy the sense of the presence of God that invaded the place, especially when we were carried on the wings of song by Gregorian chants.

The abbey, being only 75 kilometers from Poitiers, made possible a memorable visit to that center, which triggers cherished memories of the time when Hilary composed his well-known theological treatises and believers were baptized by immersion—the women and men separated in a large baptismal pool.

Those in whose initial ministerial training a not-so-positive view of monasticism is conveyed, soon learn from experience—if they have opportunity—that not everything that is taught in seminary is worth remembering.

Even when one never really fully comprehends the meaning of some expressions of monastic community life—as was the case when I spent a week at Bad Herrenalb in the Black Forest of Germany, where an abbey associated with the Oriental Orthodox Church existed—one wonders whether in these communities, old and not so old, observers are not drawn to a depth of spiritual meaning that has the potential for decidedly positive spiritual outcomes.

When, two years ago, I made my third visit to Australia, my greatest disappointment was that I was unable to visit and share fellowship with a religious community in whose origins Baptists played a prominent role.

The Community of the Transfiguration in Geelong, Victoria—see Paul Dekar’s book named after the community and published by Cascade Books—grew out of a Baptist congregation.

It regards religious life as “an injection of evangelical principles into the institutionalized structures of our age, both secular and sacred.” Several other such places are on my “to visit” list.

For example, perhaps, I will one day be able to visit even one of the Sisterhoods in Germany in whose founding Baptists played a vital part, groups such as the Bethel Baptist Sisterhood, which was established in Berlin in 1898 and Albertinen Baptist Sisterhood, whose beginnings date back to Hamburg, in 1900.

Oh, the multiple dimensions of Baptist spirituality.

Anyone who has read Henri Nouwen’s “The Genesee Diary” will attest to the potential treasure to be mined from spending time experiencing the life of a monastic community.

The same is the case with reflections on “spiritual journeys” as, for example, George Carey’s “Spiritual Journey: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Pilgrimage to Taizé with Young People.”

If you agree with William Loyd Allen that, at least in some places, spiritual discernment within community is a “lost dimension of spirituality” among Baptists, perhaps you should ask yourself whether we have done enough to explore what Baptist scholar, E. Glen Hinson, once dubbed “the contemplative roots of Baptist spirituality.”

Their essays appear in “Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision,” edited by Gary A. Furr and Curtis W. Freeman and published by Smyth & Helwys.

It did surprise me, although it really shouldn’t, that in Noel Vose’s exquisitely written “Mena: Daughter of Obedience,” the central character never truly realized the fullness of her calling until she found her religious vocation in the Benedictine St. Scholastica’s Priory.

If you get an opportunity to visit and share, even briefly, in the vibrant community life of a monastery, hardly are you likely to come away from that experience without discovering some of the immense value that modern monastic life holds.

Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana, in 2007. A version of this article first appeared on the BWA general secretary’s blog, and is used with permission. You can follow BWA on Twitter @TheBWA.