What’s next for you?

We’re all used to setting ourselves challenges at the beginning of the year: losing weight, exercising more, developing a hobby or changing jobs . . .  But what about making some spiritual changes too? Lisa Phillips meets three women seeking a new direction in their relationship with God

‘I’m exploring the possibility of becoming a novice oblate’

Achieving that elusive balance between family life, work and prayer is something of a lifelong struggle for most women. And if we’re honest, we’re often guilty of relegating God to the backseat when we’re feeling pressured. Suzanne Davis, wife, mother of twin boys, school governor and an active member at her local church, is acutely aware of this temptation, and has taken what some might consider extraordinary steps to deepen her walk with God.

Last autumn, she attended an oblate enquirers’ weekend at St Mary’s Abbey in Kent with the view to being accepted as a novice oblate of the Abbey this month. Oblates are men and women who feel called by God to follow the Benedictine way, but outside the cloister, devoting themselves to the rule of life in their private lives as closely as individual circumstances permit.

The Rule of St Benedict, which is a book of precepts written by St Benedict of Nursia over 1,500 years ago for monks living in community under the authority of an abbot, is the result of St Benedict’s personal experience lived out over decades. Since the 7th century, it has also been adopted by communities of women, and has since become the leading guide in western Christianity for monastic living in community in Orthodoxy, Catholicism and, since the Reformation, within Protestant and Anglican traditions. The Benedictine way is essentially about how to live in relationship with God and each other, finding a balance between prayer, work, worship and study.

“We often think of rules in a negative way, but here the word ‘rule’ comes from the Greek word meaning trellis,” says Suzanne. “So you have the idea that it’s a support structure that aids healthy, fruitful growth.”

Oblate enquirers are encouraged to go away from the weekend and develop a rule of life that fits their particular circumstances. The main elements consist of saying the divine office each day, receiving the eucharist at least once a week, praying regularly, reading the Bible daily, and doing Lectio Divina – that is regular slow and prayerful reading of scripture.

“These are some of the ‘tools’ within the Rule of St Benedict that provide this support structure”, she adds. “I remember Mother Abbess asking me if I felt it is ‘life-giving’ for me. Is it helping me to grow in my relationship with God?”

The love and care of the community, combined with the peace and rhythm of Abbey life first drew Suzanne into its midst. St Mary’s is an Anglican Abbey based in West Malling, Kent. “Benedictine hospitality means that everyone is welcomed as though they are Christ. Every time I walk through the gates of the Abbey, I feel that I’m coming home,” she says. “There’s such a warmth and a love, and I feel so cared for. It feels that I can be more ‘me’ there, than I can be anywhere else.

“The first time I went there was a life-changing experience. It was such a contrast to the busyness of life. I was there for four days, and it completely shifted my outlook on life. I experienced a way of life that can bring such peace and focus on God. When I left there, I remember thinking, ‘it’s lovely that I can come here, but I don’t want this just to be something that I go and visit periodically. I need to be able to bring this back into my life out here.’”

This desire grew over time, and even before the enquirers’ weekend, Suzanne began to adopt the rule into her daily life, a discipline which, combined with regular retreat times at the Abbey, has sustained her through turbulent times and led her to desire a more formal commitment.

“There are so many new fads and ideas that come along,” she says. “I did a history degree, so maybe I’m just wired up to appreciate the lessons of history. The fact that this has been lived out and has served generations of the faithful over so many hundreds of years makes me feel that I’m on a safe, proven path. Countless people have gone ahead of me on this path, and I can learn a lot from them. So that gives me a great sense of security.”

Once Suzanne is a novice, she will train for at least two years before making her life oblation to God. The long timeframe is designed to give oblates a chance to discern from both God and the community to which they’re attached if this is truly God’s direction for their lives before making this final life-time commitment.

In the meantime, she has been assigned a sister from the Abbey to support and guide her on her spiritual path, as well as an experienced oblate partner, who will help her to translate the Benedictine way into practical, every day living outside the cloister. “The discipline of following the Rule is helping me to find a rhythm of life that makes space for God throughout my day. And by this practice of listening to God in the quiet times, I find it easier to listen to him in the busier, noisier times of life as well. For me, it’s about finding God in all areas of my life.”

I’ve become part of a prayer triplet where we pray and fast for our families every week’

Like many women, Clare Sage found it difficult to carve out regular, alone-time with God, and often felt guilty for neglecting this particular spiritual discipline. The more distant she perceived herself to be from God, the more life’s struggles seemed to spiral out of control.

Two years ago, when life was at rock bottom, she and two friends decided to start meeting together each week to pray for their husbands and families. After a year, they made the further commitment to fast on these days. “This was a real lifeline,” says Clare. “Three people together, praying on a regular basis . . . I no longer felt like I was alone. It was a safe place to talk about things. Now we’ve moved on from just doing small prayers at the end of the afternoon, to devoting at least half the time to prayer, which is fantastic.”

The commitment to pray and fast every week has had a profound impact not only on her walk with God, but also on her home and family life. “The main thing I’ve taken away from it is learning grace. Because I’m not a gracious person by nature! I need to bite my tongue and be kind to my family instead of telling them exactly what I think.”
Although the emphasis of the group has been to pray for the women’s families, the spiritual spotlight has more often been pointed at the three of them. “We’ve been the ones doing the changing,” says Clare. “God has worked on all of us.”

Spiritually Clare has become aware of the huge power of prayer, and the privilege of praying to an Almighty God who cares. “Sometimes that just bowls me over,” she says. “Our Creator is listening to our prayers. And seeing answers to prayer in so many small but continuous ways has made me aware of the endlessness of him. It makes me feel very safe and comforted. If we look back to where we started, and look at where we are now, what a journey we’ve been on.”

The decision to fast, although difficult on mornings when tempting breakfast aromas drift by, has added another dimension. “The fasting is a commitment on my behalf,” says Clare. “God’s already committed. For me, it’s a way of saying ‘I mean this. I’m not taking it lightly, and I’m committed to praying today’. I think as we go on with it, we’ll be able to look back and see that the fasting has opened up a conduit between us and God.”

In fact, that first decision to meet up as a prayer triplet, and the commitment to continue with it over months and years has already opened up channels to God within the homes and families of all three women. “It would be fantastic if ten years down the line we were still meeting and still praying,” says Clare. “I don’t want it to end, ever. It’s not one of those things that has a shelf life.”

‘I’ve joined a women’s Bible study group and plan to be baptised’

Lisa Hartwell’s deepening spiritual journey was prompted by the death of her mother early last year. Grief at her mother’s loss, anger at its suddenness, and questions about God and his purposes spurred Lisa to return to the church community of her girlhood.

“I went along one Sunday morning and it was like having a light switched on,” she says. “This is what had been missing from my life – the message of God. Initially, it was a real challenge to get over my fear of meeting new people. I have always struggled with new situations, and I drove around the block twice before I pulled into the church car park.”

Lisa’s husband David and her two sons Jack and James not only supported her decision to go back to church, but have embraced it themselves, attending with her whenever they can, and getting stuck into the youth programme. Within a few weeks of her first Sunday, Lisa gathered her courage and decided to take things further by joining a women’s weekly Bible study group called Journey Home.

“I had no idea what was involved, but I liked the idea that we were all women of similar ages, and in similar situations. I thought it would be a more informal way of learning about God and the Bible.”

Now Lisa reads the Bible every day, absorbing God’s truths and bringing her questions to church and the group she attends. “I pray, which I never did before, and although I find it very difficult to pray out loud, it feels good to be able to talk to God about problems, and about family and friends,” she says.

“It clears my mind and comforts me that God is always there to listen and never gets bored. I have felt a real change within myself. I feel freer than I have ever done and more confident about myself, although I do wake up most nights at about 3am trying to make sense of what I’ve read in the Bible that evening!”

Lisa is not content to stop there. Having experienced a little bit of God, she is ready to experience more, and has decided that baptism is the next step on her journey.

“I feel it is important to demonstrate my faith in God, however new I am to faith. If you have made the decision, why wait? I want to be committed at the start of my journey, then my faith in God and his love for me will grow together. I feel that baptism is that commitment which will take me forward.”

What’s your challenge?

This Lent, take time to be still, and reflect on how God is asking you to deepen your walk with him. Is he asking you to take a step of faith in any of the following areas?

* Committing to keep a prayer journal
* Working through a particular book in the Bible
* Making time to be still in the busyness of life
* Trusting him with your finances and giving generously
* Committing to pray for a particular person or situation that he has laid on your heart
* Mentoring a younger Christian
* Forgiving another
* Taking on a new area of service within your church or local community
* Fasting from food, television, magazines
* Seeking baptism