Julia Faire writes about the recent Bible Week in Mount St Bernard Abbey
DRIVING along the Leicestershire country lane, suddenly the tower and imposing mass of sprawling grey stone – Mount St Bernard Abbey appears in the distance. It’s set in several acres of landscaped grounds including ‘Calvary’ (a rocky outcrop topped by a simple cross with a path leading up to it). Yes, we’re about to enjoy winding woodland walks, wide open fields, spring blossom and daffodils – but that’s not the reason we came.
We’ve come to spend a week together exploring the Bible, and hopefully learning some tools to unlock it – yes, and there’s no better setting than this – alongside a community of Cistercian monks who inhabit the abbey. For 1000 years, this order has followed a continual cycle of seeking God, singing Bible verses and living in community – and has so much to teach us.
Bible Week is something new for us; we’ve never done it before. There are 18 on the course – mostly in their early to mid-twenties. There’s certainly been an air of excited anticipation in the days leading up to it.
On Monday afternoon, after a brief look at our present Bible reading practise, we plunge straight into the course contents – why do we consider the Bible as our authority for life anyway? – followed by an overview of ancient Middle Eastern history and how the Biblical texts fits into that … ancient Sumer, Egypt, Babylon and so on.
Now to our first sung office –Vespers at 5:30pm – followed by the first of several delicious meals served by monastery staff. Already I notice the change of conversation around the table – it’s not just the usual chit chat – we are discussing the meaning of the Bible verses we have been looking at. Bible study, rightly practised, leads us not only into God but into sharing one another’s hearts, thoughts and experience. Not only is the food good here; the conversation also feeds us. Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, we spend a hilarious evening playing hangman! Esme gets the prize for the longest words.
It’s Tuesday already. The Rt Rev Dom Eric, the abbot here and a Syriac scholar, shares with us his insights into Bible translation. Just in case you didn’t know, Syriac was the language of the Middle East at the time of Jesus and Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, a dialect of that – all fascinating and almost completely new territory to most of us. We then pass on to why the Old Testament is important and look at the Messianic ‘thread’ running through it – as well as the ‘scarlet’ one – the continual thread of the need for atonement and atoning sacrifice that continues from Old to New Testament. Then we move on to an overview of Jeremiah and practising Biblical meditation.
Wednesday. Today, we are learning about how we got our Bible and reading about brave souls like William Tyndale and, of course, John Wycliffe, whose remains were exhumed and thrown into the River Soar not too far from here – for the crime of working to make the Bible accessible to the common people. Then, a peep behind the scenes of the New Testament in terms of first century politics and society.
Yes, and, oh, the peace of this place, the monks’ rhythmic and paced lifestyle is getting to me – certainly they have carved out a huge and permanent space for God in the midst of their lifestyle.
We now introduce the inductive method of studying the Bible, learned from Youth With A Mission as we study the first two chapters of Philippians. Ideas are flying – these ancient texts have direct application for us.
Tea finished and, after walking round the spacious grounds on this glorious spring day, guitars are found and a spontaneous worship and confession follows. It is rich, refreshing – so good to tune into others’ experience.
Bells toll continually – 3.30am Vigils, 7:00am Lauds, 8.00am Mass, 12:15pm Sext, 2:15pm None, 5:30pm Vespers and 7:30pm Compline. At 3:15am, awake and as I listen to the bell, I begin to think: spring is in the air; birds are nesting; the rearing season has begun – as parent birds feeds their open-mouthed chicks. But not for long; they must learn to feed themselves. Yes, it’s time to train people how to feed; being fed alone will keep them in the nest. Springtime is here for these folks here this week – they’ll learn to feed – and grow – and fly. Bible teaching is so important but nothing can replace being able to feed daily on God’s Word oneself. The round table method – we all dig in and feed ourselves and each other – has been a great model this week.
Thursday – Father Joseph, a monk who has been walking this way for many years, comes to speak to us about Lectia Divina (Latin for Divine Reading) – a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer.
Father Joseph speaks: “The key to keeping the Bible fresh is our faith, our will; it is not feelings that matter. We can feed without feeling. The word is transforming us, despite feelings. Come to the Word of God with faith and will. Look to the Bible as our guide to life. Pope Francis has said that everyone needs to carry a Bible and read it often! Tell God if you haven’t got enthusiasm for reading. Battle and wrestle with the Holy Scriptures. Come to the Word as if naked.”
We soak in his words. His lifetime of experience has so much to teach us!
Later we explore the doctrine of the Trinity before walking in the local Charnwood countryside and think we will witness Josh, the two Jakes and Sam fall into the murky reservoir – but, the day is saved – lucky for them!
Later I am well happy; the group honour fellow leader Richard and me with gracious words of encouragement, song – and a huge chocolate cake.
Friday – the last day, and we are also talking about ‘the Last Days’. This is not easy to understand but now, at least, the outline is there.
Finally, one last taste of the divine office, a group photo and we go home.
The proof of the effectiveness of and our learning during Bible week will be in the months to come. Will we continue to feed and nourish ourselves? And the wider church? Can this be springtime in the church, a time to feed and fly? Following and developing our version of Lectio Divina may well have a lot to do with that.