A group of Uniting Church members and theological students recently had the opportunity to experience the rigours and rewards of monastic life as part of a pilot program being run by Pilgrim Theological College and the Banyule Network of churches in Melbourne’s north-east.
The Banyule Network is home to a ‘learning hub’ where students study online at Pilgrim Theological College and meet in their local area with minister Rev Sandy Brodine for tutorial discussion over dinner and also to hear from guest lecturers.
In April, students as well as members of Banyule’s SPACE Contemplative Community along with Pilgrim course convenor Dr Katharine Massam and Ms Brodine took part in a retreat at the Tarrawarra Abbey run by Cistercian monks in the Yarra Valley.
The retreat was offered in conjunction with the learning hub subject ‘Fullness of Life: Traditions of Christian Spirituality’.
“Some of us came for an evening, others stayed one or two nights,” Ms Brodine said.
“We experienced the hospitality of the Abbey guesthouse, worshipped with the monks and spent time walking, reading and enjoying community life together.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to experience this ancient religious way of life. We were also blessed with the opportunity to hear Fr Michael Casey on the theme of ‘Cowl, Cloister and Procession’.”
The monks at Tarrawarra live a rigorous life of prayer and work, conducted according to the 6th century book of precepts The Rule of St Benedict.
They begin their day of prayer at 4am with vigils. They then gather for the Office of Lauds and mass at 6am. This is followed by three services – Terce at 8am, Sext at 11:15, and None at 1:40pm after lunch.
At each service the monks and visitors pray, sing or chant the Psalms, as well as other readings and prayers.
When not at prayer, the monks work at many and varied activities, including running the monastery’s beef cattle farm, the guesthouse, conducting spiritual activities, doing administration and study.
After work, they meet for Vespers at 6pm and finish the day at 8pm.
“We were moved by the simple and peaceful life of the monastery, and by the warm welcome we received from the Guest Master of the guesthouse,” Ms Brodine said.
“It helped us to reflect on our own contemplative worship practices within the SPACE Community. We were able to think about our own faith and prayer practices and our relationships with God.”
Kristen Barnett, one of the UCA students, agreed that the retreat had shown her how to “actively use the quiet and contemplative times to draw closer to God”.
“It was about taking the time to separate myself from the normal things that happen in life that distract me from God, and actively focus on listening for that still small voice,” she said.
The Banyule learning hub has operated for three semesters and units have so far covered a foundation subject of church history followed by Reformation history and theology.
The recently completed third semester was devoted to “Fullness of Life: Traditions of Christian Spirituality”, which considered the ways faith has been lived out over the centuries.
“By looking at three interwoven spiritual traditions – of the desert, the cloister, and the marketplace – students traced the interconnections between these three elements of personal encounter with God, the role of the trusted community and the significance of engagement in the wider context,” Dr Massam said.
“Examples such as the hermits of 4th century Egypt, the monastics of the 12th century Cistercian reform, and the Quaker communities of the mid-20th century have shown how these styles intersect, sometimes surprisingly.”
For the next semester, the Banyule/Pilgrim College hub will be studying “Earliest Christianity – An Introduction to the New Testament”.
Completed subjects can be credit towards any of the postgraduate or undergraduate awards offered by the University of Divinity.
Some hub students have already completed the Graduate Certificate in Divinity, while others are pursuing the Graduate Diploma in Theology.
For further information about studying at Pilgrim contact the registrar Erlinda Loverseed (03 9340 8800). If you are in the Horsham area where a new hub is beginning, you can contact Rev Linley Liersch (03 5382 6378).
SPACE Contemplative Community meets on Thursday nights at 7:30pm for coffee followed by worship at 8pm in Scots Heidelberg Uniting Church, Heidelberg.
The community engages in Taizé style worship on the first Thursday of each month while other weeks include contemplative meditation and practice. Everyone is welcome to attend.