Gospel reading John 10.1-10
Many people at the moment are trying to cope with the unfamiliar experience of living in isolation. We shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties of it – the struggles of solitude are a classic theme in the monastic tradition, and one of the key places where we are tested. As a result the monastic tradition has some helpful things to say about it, and this takes us to today’s gospel. Jesus speaks about those who have chosen to follow him. And he speaks of them as being within a sheepfold. The sheepfold belongs to a number of rich images used by Jesus and St Paul after him. We are all branches on one vine; we are one body with many organs; a temple built of living stones. It is abundantly clear from these images that the Christian can never be alone. We can be alone physically in the sense of being the only person in the room, but Jesus is saying that if we follow him it is impossible to be alone.
Let’s think first of all of when we pray. It is not just me in isolation trying to speak to God. I’m praying together with all those people all over the world who are praying at the same time: we are all praying to the one God, and that binds us all together. I know I am never praying alone. But there’s more to this than just thinking there are other people doing the same as I am. The New Testament talks about this great gathering-together of people, the body of Christ, as a mystery. In other words, there is something here that is bigger than us: it is this that is holding us all together. The image of the sheepfold is about the Mystery of the Church. When I pray I am praying with people all over the world, and also with the great cloud of witnesses, all the angels and saints in the company of heaven. As we say in the creeds, we believe in the communion of saints. Communion. We are all carrying each other – my prayer is carrying other people in prayer, and other people’s prayer is carrying me. Prayer isn’t simply something we try to do out of our own efforts. It’s God at work in us. God prays in us. The Holy Spirit is in our hearts, crying Abba Father. So prayer is like a vehicle that we step onto. It’s like riding a bike while hanging on to the back of a lorry. We are drawn along. It is a great song which goes on and on without any intermission, ever. We simply step into this cosmic music whenever we pray. In prayer we are immediately plugged into a great network. God’s hidden network of grace. Your prayer is feeding into that for the good of the world.
When Jesus talks about us being gathered into a sheepfold he is talking about something which is really a mystery which is mostly hidden from our site. This sheepfold isn’t a physical construction situated in one place. We aren’t all physically gathered together like sheep in a real sheepfold – the sheep Jesus is referring to as he speaks are in fact are scattered all over Palestine and beyond. There is no physical wall to this sheepfold, never mind a doorway for him to be the door in. What Jesus is giving us is an image of an invisible mystery. Even though scattered over the face of the earth, we are at the same time safe together in a sheepfold. What is happening here at Mirfield at this very moment can help us think about this.
If our equipment has decided to work properly, this service is being streamed all over the country and to different parts of the world. There are people watching in San Francisco, Madagascar, Argentina, as well as Manchester, Somerset and Glasgow. It is a good image of the Mystery of the church. We can’t see you. You can’t see each other. But the unity of all of us is real.
Now here is something else. What you see on your screens is a monastic community. Many people tell us they find it helpful to be praying with a monastic community. We receive many expressions of gratitude to the brethren. But – we have to be careful to get things right here. The real thing we have to look to is the Mystery under which the brothers sit. Monastic life gives a kind of focus, an emphasised form, if you like, of things that belong to all of us. The important thing here in this church is not first of all the brethren, it’s the life. The life of the monastic tradition. Like the mystery of the church, there is the mystery of the monastic life. This life is bigger than us. It touches you, many people find it helpful, but we ourselves say these good things will come about most often despite the brethren rather than because of them. We are unworthy servants and we know it – we know each other too well. The life is bigger than us.
What is this mystery, the life of religious communities? Is it some sort of gas, or a kind of glow in the background? Well – it is certainly part of God’s hidden network of grace, but it is also concrete. The Mystery of religious communities is there in their tradition, in tried and tested ways and practices, in a heritage of teaching and wisdom; and in buildings and places and people. (Never underestimate buildings – wherever there are human beings there are buildings – you can’t be a human being without buildings, and buildings and special places are an inevitable part of Christian life.) We’re not talking about something airy-fairy. If the monastic mystery is concrete, it is a mystery because these things you can see and touch are sacramental. The main reason for us brethren of CR being here is not that we should be of any use for anything, or any use to anybody. We are a fairly useless lot, however we may try our best. The main thing about the life is simply the life, and the prayer and worship which are at its heart – our Community has always said this right from its beginning. This life and its prayer feed into God’s hidden network. You can think of the monastery or convent as a boiler house, feeding into God’s hidden plumbing system through which he sustains that miracle – and what a miracle it is – w hat we call life on this earth.
I have said that religious communities simply focus things a bit more. They don’t have a monopoly on anything. What you find in religious communities belongs to all Christians. The Eastern Orthodox say that all Christians and monks and nuns. You could just as well put it the other way round – all monks and nuns are simply ordinary Christians. All we’re seeking to do is live the gospel. There is something in monastic life for everybody. Not least for people living in isolation.
Another thing is this. The sheepfold has no roof – it’s open to the sky. You can walk up to a sheepfold and have a conversation with the sheep over the wall. The mystical sheepfold of the church looks inwards and outwards – Jesus says the sheep go in and out. Monastic life too looks outwards – always. We look to the world that Christ came to save, to all those who are not of this fold. So when I talk about the monastic life having prayer at its heart, you have to think of a group of people not shut up in a box, but engaging with everything that is real, in the world of the spirit, and in the world of daily life and ordinary humanity.
At this time of lockdown we have a chance to see if we can live our isolation in a bigger way than we thought we could.
We can pray regularly at set times each day. A regular rhythm like that is good for all of us, even physically and psychologically. But in Christians it’s essential. Try and do it with us. Even if you do it in a different way from the way we do it here in our Community. Each of us has a ministry of prayer. We can pray for the world, pray for all the people who need praying for.
We can make an effort to learn – to learn about people’s situation at the moment, to learn about Christian faith and what it is, and so we can grow in knowledge.
We can see if there is anything we can do, even if it is just ringing somebody up.
But fundamentally we need to know that we are never alone; because we are in the Church. There is no need to get too self-preoccupied; there’s no need to feel we can’t pray very well. Of course we can pray. You just get on with it. Pray the words of the Church and of the Scriptures knowing that we are far from being alone, and knowing also that we are all carrying each other. We are together in the sheepfold.
We haven’t yet mentioned the door. Jesus tells us he is the door. This door is not a thing – it’s nothing less than the Lord himself. If there’s anything to be said about what I have been saying, it is that the Lord is with us. A hermit once wrote to St Peter Damian in the 11th century and said that when he was praying the offices of the church, should he say on his own the words “the Lord be with you – and also with you”? St Peter Damian wrote back and said, of course you must – for you are not alone. The Lord is with us, the Church is with us.
All we need to do is to grow to love it. We are praying for you – please pray for us. And pray with us and with one another, and the great cloud of witnesses.