This year, three exceptional young people took part in the Monastic Internship Program, living, worshipping, and working alongside the community for nine months. We asked them to reflect on what they would take away from the experience. Here is what Raphael Cadenhead had to say:
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). How, exactly, does life in community transform and ‘sharpen’ us? This question has been on my mind since I arrived at SSJE in September, and I’m only now beginning to grope for an answer.
I’ve been living in a community of one sort or another throughout my life: my family home in London from infancy to adolescence; a close-knit college environment in Oxford during my undergraduate years; a house of ‘odd sorts’ during my masters degree in Cambridge; a small hall of residence during the first two years of my doctorate; finally, a residential theological college (dedicated primarily to the education of women for lay ministry in the Roman Catholic Church).
All of these varied community contexts have been deeply formative in their own right. But it is fair to say that my experiences as an intern at SSJE have been uniquely transformative and revelatory. It is a full immersion experience into a monastic rhythm of work and prayer that few can lay claim to.
I’d like to share some of my own observations about the ways in which community life here has ‘sharpened’ me over these past few months:
1. Sharing in the sorrows and joys of life. The human condition, with its emotional ebbs and flows, is thrown into sharp relief in community life. Put simply: there’s no escape! My emotions can’t elude the notice of others, no matter how hard I try to disguise them. No one’s self-made façades last for long. There are countless times when I’ve been touched by a consoling word or a knowing look during times of exhaustion, frustration, or irritation. Other times, when content or excited, I’ve been energized by the frivolity of those around me. It is through these experiences that I have come to re-evaluate how I respond to others when they are sad or annoyed or content. Community living, in other words, models loving practice. Transformation, it seems to me, is a reciprocal process in which those we live with become our teachers and guides in the way of love, and we become theirs.
2. Community prayer. It’s February. It’s dark outside. And here I am at Morning Prayer. I’m tired, my voice is hoarse and strained, and I wish I’d gone straight to bed after Compline yesterday. I don’t know how it works exactly, but there’s something powerful about the very practice of sitting together (and singing together) in prayer, five times a day, even – and perhaps especially – when you feel less than inclined to do so.
3. Communal meals. Most meals here are silent meals, and silence has a way of bringing you into conversation with yourself. The clamor and clatter of life can be a distraction from everything that’s going on inside. To eat together, to be silent together, is – I’ve come to realize – a profoundly intimate and transformative experience in its own right.
4. Negotiating difference in others. Learning to appreciate the differences you see in others is not an easy undertaking. Difficulties I face in relating to someone else – at any particular moment – often say a great deal about myself. As I see it, God has placed me in community with this specific conglomeration of people for a reason, and it is my task to work out why that is.
Everything I have learnt here will, I hope, continue to deepen and burgeon after my time at SSJE has come to an end. If there’s one thing that I’ll take away, it’s that community life is costly, at times challenging, but always deeply rewarding and revelatory.