Recently a diverse group spent a week at Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire exploring the bible and biblical themes in depth. Beth Williams describes what it was like.
On October 22nd we once again descended upon Mount St Bernard Abbey for a week of Bible study and contemplation. This was actually the fourth time Julia Faire and Richard Mercer have run this week, and my second time experiencing it. Yet again we were lucky and had some beautiful (albeit slightly chilly) weather, along with all the stunning colours that come with autumn. I think that often we draw as much from the nature that surrounds the monastery as we do from being inside, so it was a blessing to be able to explore and experience it during our week. It was also a time of reflection and quietness, with many chances to sit in on the divine offices performed by the monks and appreciate their dedication, reverence and love for the Lord, and to let their peace settle in our souls.
Our evenings were times of worship and prayer, with some of us choosing particular psalms that we read out in our own form of liturgy. For example, on the second evening we went through Psalm 23, and each of us shared about what one of the lines meant to us in particular. Another evening was spent sharing testimonies with each other, which was a moving and powerful time of vulnerability. The spirit was almost tangible when we lifted our voices in praise, and they were very special times together.
For the study sessions Julia first ran a three-part lesson on the life and letters of Paul, talking about how he was zealous, dedicated and intelligent, and committed his whole self to bring the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. We talked about Paul’s death and how at that time the church was in utter disarray, with persecution and people abandoning Paul, and Christians being martyred as indeed Paul was about to be. However, instead of losing hope, Paul remained faithful to God. Julia then said that 300 years later, when the church was officially granted toleration by the Roman Empire, not one of the churches that he had planted had disappeared. This was a particularly moving revelation.
Julia also gave us an overview of the gospel of John, widely regarded as separate from the other three synoptic gospels. It is a more spiritual gospel that helps us know Jesus in perhaps a deeper way, emphasising his words and life, and showing that he was the fullness of God made flesh. It also focuses more on the Father and Son relationship, as well as the thoughts and inner life of Jesus as opposed to just his teachings.
In another session we went through the Old Testament with Richard, picking out just a few of the great people mentioned and discussing how much of Jesus is echoed in all of them; almost as a hint to the man who was to come. He is in everyone and can be found all through the Bible! Alongside this we looked at Jesus’ life described in the gospels, and it was great to celebrate his works and the power that he carried, and be thankful for it.
Other sessions chaired by Richard included an interesting discussion on Creation and Evolution Theory, and how although faith is important, it is also good to know why we believe particular things, as well as a very moving set of sessions on biblical covenant and sacrifice. He took what we know about covenants in those days and revealed how special the covenant that God made with us is, especially compared to how heavy the covenant made with Moses was – this covenant is true freedom, not something to be bound up by. There are no restrictions because Jesus is the eternal priest, who enables all to be saved through his one eternal sacrifice. Amen! On the theme of sacrifice, Richard also talked about the sacrifices described in Leviticus, and how the way that Jesus’ death is described suggests that he is not only the sin offering, but also the burnt offering. This means that his sacrifice not only frees us from sin, but also makes us a pleasing fragrance to the Lord. How amazing to hear that God is pleased with us without us even striving for it!
Throughout our time at the monastery we also had several visiting speakers in addition to Julia and Richard. Vicky Bolton came and shared her inspiring enthusiasm and joy in studying the Bible inductively, leaving behind all our preconceived ideas and letting God just speak to us through his word. Andy Crisp also shared on the parables of Jesus and how we should interpret them, demonstrating that it is important to understand what they meant to the people who heard them at the time, not just how we might interpret them today.
This idea of interpretation seemed to be a strong theme throughout the whole week, with several discussions on how different versions and translations of the Bible can reveal very different interpretations to ours. Indeed, Father Joseph (a monk at the Abbey) was also asked to share, and spoke on his own thoughts on how the Bible can be difficult to read, as there is both beauty and ugliness in some of its stories. He felt that the scripture is fluid, and we can never presume to definitively say that any particular verse has one meaning alone – it changes throughout the passage of our lives and experiences. Indeed, this is what keeps us fresh and moving in the Spirit, as opposed to becoming fundamentalist and rigid. He also emphasised the importance of the ‘Who?’ ‘Why?’ ‘When?’ and ‘To Whom?’ questions are when reading any scripture, as well as knowing what sort of writing the book is – poetry or history or gospel? All these factors can dramatically change our understanding of certain scriptures. Through all this, he maintained that the most important aspect of studying the Bible in the Spirit is not to become a scholar, but instead to meet Jesus within the words of God, and to create men and women of prayer that are able to produce spiritual fruit.
Another guest speaker was the Rev Dom Eric, who spoke very much from the Spirit when he talked about his Monastic reflections on Community. In his talk, he described his views on being an Abbot, likening it to our own pastoral care, and how the word itself is derived from the very personal term for father; ‘Abba’. He talked about how the true role of an Abbot is to train and nurture people to ultimately become his replacement, and used a story from the 13th century to illustrate how an Abbot/Pastor is a father (or mother) to their flock. The father-child relationship he described was one that is indeed the basis of our religion – a paternal relationship that has existed since the beginning of time, and can be echoed here on Earth in this way. It was very moving and meaningful to many of us in the room.
The whole week was a time of depth and discovery, and not just on an scholarly level. I think that we all encountered Jesus in some way that week, and came away changed and full of Him. I am very grateful for the opportunity to meet together and do this, sharing knowledge and enjoying the care (and good food) at the monastery.