In February of this year, my husband Jonathan and I went to Stroud, NSW and spoke to the Advisory Council for Anglican Religious Life in Australia. We were asked to speak about New Monasticism and as part of my research, I interviewed several leaders of Communities. I thought I’d start with Anders Litzell, as he was the Prior of the community I was a part of, and he’s just finished up his role there. Stay tuned for 6 more interviews in this series!
Anders Litzell, Prior of the Community of St Anselm, 2015-2017
Interview via email, February 2017
- How did the Community of St Anselm begin?
The Community of St Anselm is an initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who is also the Community’s Abbot. The vision is to form young people, aged 20-35, into people of prayer and integrity. This is achieved through a shared life of prayer, study and service to the poor and is based at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop’s residence. The Community is intentionally fully ecumenical and international. It has a resident and a non-resident membership mode, during which members take vows for 10 months. Non-resident members have jobs in and around London and go on this journey of formation, whilst completely embedded in their regular daily activities.
- How have traditional communities helped the formation of CoSA?
That question has two answers. In the general sense, the question is akin to ‘how has the forest shaped this particular tree’? You may not be able to tell which tree dropped the seed, how far it flew on the wind, how long it lay there dormant – and, if you did, you might wonder at how differently it has grown in this soil, with this climate, with this access to water. The vision of growing close to God by the deliberate sharing of life dates back some 1700 years to the Egyptian Saint Pachomius and his group of pioneers, who re-invented the eremitical practices prevalent in the area at the time and cast it in a shared-life context. This ideal of a shared life in Christ has not only survived, but thrived during large swathes of history, and remains a strong testimony to the faithfulness of God’s love today. However, in each generation and location, this shared life takes new forms. Sometimes the apple falls close to the tree, sometimes a seed flies to become a new forest. So, in the most general sense, we wouldn’t even have the vision for a committed shared life to the glory of God if it were not for traditional communities and the inheritance from this cloud of witnesses, who have lived out their faithfulness to Christ in a vowed life in one shape or another.
The other sense is in the personal and communal wisdom from a range of traditional religious communities in the UK, from which we have learned directly and to which our members go on visits and retreats at different points – it is a list I could make very long. I cannot overemphasise the importance of the wisdom of the healthy and vibrant Communities who have blessed us with their experiences in the formation of our own shared life, how to deal with the inevitable challenges in the shared life, how to articulate our Rule of Life, how to gain perspective on our own experience in the context of a life lived in this way.
The presence of a long-established and healthy coenobitic expression of vowed life in the form of the Chemin Neuf Community alongside our Community, in a partly overlapping sharing of life, is positively invaluable. In this partnership, we learn the skills required for establishing even the baseline habits for a functioning household, let alone the growing of transparency and honesty, the importance of prayer in interpersonal conflicts, and a whole host of other pieces of wisdom to answer the challenges of us beginners. These kinds of challenges which will be received with a gentle smile of recognition by anyone who has been committed in a healthy vowed Community for long enough to pass through the first fervours of their reformation.
- Who are Chemin Neuf and what is their role in CoSA?
Chemin Neuf are a Roman Catholic community with an ecumenical vocation. Founded in Lyon (France) in 1973, it is now present in 30 countries and counts close to 2000 members of a wide variety of Christian denominations. Among its members, there are men and women, lay and ordained, married and celibate. Praying and working for Christian unity is at the heart of Chemin Neuf’s vocation. The Community’s spirituality is based both on Ignatian spirituality (the founder, Laurent Fabre, being a Jesuit) and the Charismatic Renewal. Archbishop Justin asked Chemin Neuf to send a team of members to live at Lambeth Palace from 2014, following in the footsteps of several Anglican religious communities who had been resident at Lambeth Palace over the past 25 years.
As to Chemin Neuf’s role in CoSA, one could say that it has been a “seedbed” (in a rather practical sense) for the “tree” that is the Community of St Anselm, in that Chemin Neuf brought many practical and spiritual aspects of community life at Lambeth, alongside which the Community of St Anselm could form and from which it could benefit. The two Communities share many practical aspects of daily life, as there is a shared kitchen/refectory. In other areas, the Chemin Neuf have brought models for particular aspects of Community life, ranging from personal prayer to food sourcing and cooking, to laundry rotas. Each year, two members of the Chemin Neuf are members of the Community of St Anselm core staff team and contribute their Community’s experience of Christian formation in the past 30 years.
- What particular saints or people of history guide your ethos as a Community?
In the first chapter of our Rule of Life, we say that “Jesus is our model for life. The way we learn from Jesus is given shape by the inheritance the Holy Spirit has given us in St Benedict, St Francis and St Ignatius.” The easiest way to articulate this inheritance is that the flavour and emphasis of our Rule of Life, the vision and dream of finding Christ-likeness in a shared life and the importance of a balance of prayer, work, study, rest and service – that inheritance comes from the Rule of St Benedict, which is a treasury of wisdom, and one by which our Abbot, Archbishop Justin, has long been influenced, being a Benedictine Oblate.
The Franciscan inheritance is most clearly seen in the way we seek to find and serve Christ in the faces of the most vulnerable in society. If you wonder what I mean by that, see Matthew 25:31ff. This aspect of our shared life adds a rootedness in the frailty of our shared humanity, in our most basic human needs which are provided for abundantly by our Heavenly Father, yet of which we so casually deprive each other, and of which we ourselves could be so readily stripped. In that simplicity of meeting as people all made in the likeness of God and all equally dependent on Him for our existence, there is a great wisdom to be found about the humility of Christ.
Finally, the Ignatian spirituality is the model through which we learn to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit among the temptations and distractions, which surround us and in the midst of which we are called to live our lives and to shine the light of Christ. This is a particularly valuable gift to a Community like ours, where membership is time-limited and exists to form and build up a people of prayer to live and serve in every sphere of human society; lives shaped by the overriding priority of following the footsteps of Christ through our everyday lives.
Then there is, of course, St Anselm himself. Anselm was a Benedictine abbot, who became Archbishop of Canterbury. He was, among many other things, a scholar who articulated the salvation of Christ very crisply by engaging with the philosophical and academic climate of discourse of his day; he followed his convictions for the sake of the Gospel to the point of exile (twice) and fought against slavery – not a bad source of inspiration for our shared life.
- What to you is new monasticism?
Oh, I don’t suppose we shall know for another 2-300 years, really, but it seems clear to me that God is stirring up men and women around the globe to live in a different way to the surrounding society – not just different for the sake of it, but for the sake of Christ. The range of these expressions, often in their infancies, appear to me to sit on a scale between, on the one end, faithfully rearticulating and rediscovering the treasures and spiritual gifts of vowed life that we have inherited from our fathers and mothers over the last 2000 years or so. On the other end of the scale, there lies a positive re-imagination or reinvention of the ethos that has shaped the traditional communities. I think it is also fair to observe that I often see more diverse engagement with forms of commitment. Whether many or few of these expressions will, in the fullness of their maturity, develop in the direction of life-long commitments, is for the future to tell, but for now the idea that life-long commitment is not a necessary requirement (and often never intended) to pursue this way of life, seems another very common factor. However, I have far from a comprehensive view of what God is doing around the world. In our shared life, we have a rather clear sense of the calling to rediscover the ancient treasures in a way that faithfully re-articulates them for our time – but we do so through a vow that is limited to 10 months and in two modes of membership; resident and non-resident, where the latter and larger group live out their journey of formation into a people of prayer whilst completely embedded in their workplaces and ‘normal’ lives in and around London.
- How would you define discipleship and have you seen new monasticism effective in discipling young adults? If so, how?
Discipleship is becoming more like Jesus in thought and word and deed. Whenever God does something, which I believe is the case with this resurgence of desire for a life that visibly and structurally fosters a closer walk with God, we can turn it into something futile with only very little effort – no effort at all, in fact. Whenever the ‘new monasticism’ becomes the focus of the discipling efforts, it has failed. Just like everything else is bound to fail whenever the vessel gets in the way of the content. I say with St Benedict: “Prefer nothing whatever to Christ” – He is the Alpha and the Omega of discipleship; many other things are beautiful, good and maybe even holy – but they are not discipleship.
At its best, a rediscovery of monasticism becomes a vessel for belonging together in Christ, in nurturing humility, fostering charity, giving out of the abundance of the gift of God in our hearts, of freedom from vanity and temptations and distractions. It becomes a place of freedom for prayer and joy and peace in all simplicity.
At our worst, we become nothing more than yet another alternative sub-culture, distinguishable by our tribal markers, in which we invest our sense of purpose.
- What do you think stops young adults from remaining engaged in church?
I really wouldn’t know; I spend my days with young people who are sacrificing deeply to follow Christ in a life of humility and obedience. I receive hundreds and hundreds of applications each year, filled with the desire of other young people to do the same. I am much more concerned with making the stories known of those who do, of those who discover the joy of a life that finds its fullness in the presence of Christ in every thought, word and deed. I am deeply inspired by the young men and women with whom I have the privilege to share one year of their journeys. I believe part of the challenge is letting each other see the ways in which we ARE following Christ and living out our faith in the world around us, and to be inspired and challenged by each other. That kind of sharing of our lives and mutual challenge starts looking a lot like Church to me.
- What parts of traditional monasticism inspire you?
Oh, what parts don’t? I can be inspired even by the aspects to which I do not aspire – I couldn’t possibly enumerate them all. But I pray, and I wait, and I long for the torrent of riches from the generations of faith that have showed us the way of faithfulness before us, to start welling up through this little well we are digging in this place, at this time.