8 min read

There’s much more to ‘monk mode’ than productivity hacks

Lianne Howard-Dace is a writer and trainer, with a background in church and community fundraising.

In the heart of London Lianne Howard-Dace spent a year trying to live a simpler, slower life with others.
A group of young people wearing white habits stand and laugh with each other.
Community of St Anselm members and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Six years ago, I stood in white, full of nervous excitement, in front of a priest to make a vow. But it was a prayer robe, not a dress, and the priest happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was not getting married but joining a religious community. 

The Community of St Anselm (CoSA) was founded by Archbishop Justin Welby in 2015, and I was amongst the third cohort of young Christians, aged 20-35, committing to spending a year together. Some of my fellow community members came from across the globe, entirely stepping away from their everyday lives. They spent the year living in Lambeth Palace, devoting their time to prayer, study and service. Others, like me, remained in our homes and jobs, whilst also trying to reorientate our lives around those three worthy pastimes.

By committing to a pattern of living, giving up on the idea that I was in control and limiting my choices I found much liberation. 

In my experience, much of life - and the Christian faith in particular - is counter-intuitive. It would be a logical hypothesis to suppose that restricting your life in this way – agreeing to reorientate towards living by a set of rules and to fall into a structured way of being – would be stifling. And yet, like thousands before me, I found the complete opposite to be true.   

Our culture upholds choice; we are told that the ability to choose is the ultimate expression of freedom. And whilst this may be true with big choices – where to live, who to live with, what work to do - our brains don’t cope as well with a lot of day-to-day options as we might be led to believe. In a 2000 experiment, psychologists observed that a supermarket display with 24 different types of jam generated a lot of interest but not many sales. In contrast, a display with just six different types of jam meant people were nearly ten times more likely to go on to make a purchase. If, like me, you’re prone to spending inordinate amounts of time deciding what to have for dinner, I’m sure you can relate. 

Monks and nuns have understood this human tendency to get overwhelmed and expend energy on small decisions - suffering from what we now call decision fatigue - for many centuries. Whilst we may find the idea of a rigid schedule and a limited menu and wardrobe austere, not having to make those decisions every day can free up mental energy for other things. It’s the same reason why some tech entrepreneurs espouse the idea of wearing the same black turtleneck or grey t-shirt every day. 

Whilst my own experience of religious life was not as extreme as those who make a life-long vow, I did find that in committing to a pattern of living, giving up on the idea that I was in control and limiting my choices I found much liberation. The chatter in my mind quietened a little. I became more comfortable in my own skin. I felt more and more like my truest self. 

Attempting Cal Newport’s monk mode productivity hack by turning off our digital devices for the morning - or listening to a podcast from former Hindu monk, Jay Shetty - is as close to encountering monasticism as many of us get. CoSA draws on wisdom from several saints who themselves founded religious communities: St Benedict, St Francis and St Ignatius of Loyola. Whilst trying to emulate their way of life wasn’t always easy, I seized the opportunity to go deeper and threw myself into the intensity of the year.  

As a teenager I was always late to morning tutorial, despite being able to see my secondary school from my house. During my time in the community, I struggled to shake this habit and would usually be rushing to Lambeth Palace each Monday evening, arriving after those who had travelled from as far as Oxford, Poole and Canterbury, despite only working 10 minutes down the road. 

Those evenings were spent eating, talking and praying together and quickly became the highlight of each week for me. A time to put aside the day-to-day stresses and just try to be present with the other members of the community. We finished each gathering by praying compline, or night prayer, in the crypt at Lambeth Palace. In Celtic Christianity there is a concept of ‘thin spaces’, places where the boundary between heaven and earth seems a little more permeable. The cool, silver-lit crypt at Lambeth is one of those places for me; it seems to crackle with sacred potential. 

We also took three retreats in an Abbey during the year, near a stretch of wild Cornish coastline. Precious time away from the bustle of the city. Away from the demands of life admin and meetings and untameable inboxes. The strapline - for want of a better word – of the Community of St Anselm is “A year in God’s time”, and I think that actually sums it up pretty well. We spent a year trying to live a simpler, slower life. A life marked by prayerfulness and the sufficiency of God, rather than the bigger, better, hustle culture pressures of modern living.  

We went into these new relationships acknowledging that we wouldn’t agree on everything, but actively deciding to love each other anyway. 

Only the most disciplined of us can maintain healthy habits, like daily prayer and reflection, on our own. It’s easier to go to the gym with a buddy. The upcoming book club meeting nudges us to keep reading. I think that’s what drew me to join CoSA; I knew I needed mutual accountability and support to sustain the spiritual disciplines I craved in my life. 

In the community’s Rule of Life – the guidelines we each agreed to follow during the year – there is a line “We choose on another” and this has had a profound effect on me. The idea that we chose to put our shared life in the community ahead of everything else for that year has shaped me deeply. I have forged some amazing friendships through the community, but before we had even met each other, or learned to like each other, we chose to love each other in all our diversity and difference.  

I do find that church is one of the places I am most likely to encounter people who are different to me – particularly intergenerationally – but even in finding a place of worship, there can be a tendency to seek out one that ticks as many of one’s personal preferences as possible. In the weeks leading up to joining the community I had been unsure what to expect. Having not grown up in a Christian family, would I feel left behind? Coming from a less-wordy type of church, would I get lost in the orders of service? Would everyone think I was too socially liberal? Would I find them too conversative? 

The act of choosing one another put all of that aside. In stepping out of our everyday lives, we also stepped out of our respective echo chambers. We went into these new relationships acknowledging that we wouldn’t agree on everything, but actively deciding to love each other anyway. It was hard at times, but I came to see that whilst people had come to different conclusions on issues to me, they had done so no less thoughtfully. I came to see that we had much more in common than the things which society would say should separate us. 

In smaller ways too, I believe it is possible to choose to love others around us. We can choose to recognise the humanity of the person who is rude to us on the bus.  

I usually hate household chores, but some of my fondest memories from the year are chatting in the Lambeth Palace kitchen whilst putting away cutlery or singing together whilst washing up on retreat. By sharing the load, we learned ways to find joy in the smallest of things. And, by getting stuck into the mundane tasks of living and being together, we learned to see the humanity in each other. 

It’s no coincidence that those in long-term religious life call each other sister and brother; it’s certainly the best analogy for community life I can think of. As a child I was excited for the arrival of my siblings before I had even met them; I knew that it was my role as big sister to love them unconditionally. I’m not sure, if we weren’t related, whether my path would have crossed with my sister and brother as adults. Yet, they are some of the most important people in my life.  

In smaller ways too, I believe it is possible to choose to love others around us. We can choose to recognise the humanity of the person who is rude to us on the bus. We can choose not to assume the worst about someone’s post on social media. We can choose to share a kind word with a colleague, even if we don’t think they’ll ever return the favour.  I’m not saying that it’s easy, or that I always manage it myself, but it can be done.  

In community, on the days you have doubts about the things you are saying in morning or evening prayer, you know that your fellow members are lifting you up with their words, they are lending you a little of their belief. Learning to be held by others in that way is just one of the many gifts I took from my year in God’s time. I also learned that I do not need to be or do anything in particular to be loved by God or by others. That working out faith and belief with other people can reveal things you never would’ve found alone. 

In September, the Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed the ninth cohort of CoSA in a commitment service at Lambeth Palace. Young people from as far away as Sri Lanka, Australia and Zimbabwe made the decision to spend the next year living differently, making time for God and each other in new ways. And I, along with 23 others from around the world, Zoomed into the service and made a new commitment too. 

This year, for the first time, there is an opportunity for alumni of CoSA to become members of a dispersed community, the Chapter. Like third order Franciscans or Benedictine oblates, we will attempt to stay linked to the life of our community, alongside our everyday routines. I’m looking forward to being more intentional about re-engaging with the daily rhythms and lessons I learned in my year in community. We will have a less intensive programme of events to help us feel connected and will follow a simplified Rule of Life that focuses on learning from Jesus, seeking reconciliation and unity in the Church, serving with compassion and, of course, choosing one another. I’m excited to see what the year holds.  

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4 min read

Benefiting from the many facets of beauty

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

A jewellery start-up is challenging what Belle TIndall perceives as empowerment and agency.
Three women stand, two lean into each other sharing a joke, while the other laughs too.
Members of Zena's Launch Pad team, Kamuli, Uganda.

I have a conundrum. I’ve started and re-started this article four times now. And I’m surprised that I’ve settled on this opening. But alas, I have a deadline to adhere to and a cold coffee to warm back up. So, this will have to do. I’m struggling with this opening paragraph because when it comes to writing about Zena - the female-led, non-profit, environmentally friendly jewellery and accessory brand - I simply do not know where to begin.  

There are too many facets of Zena that deserve to sit front and centre in this article; too many details to revel in, too many stories to tell, too much success to pick at and analyse.  

Where do I possibly start?   

How about with the delightful fact that the brand is named after a beloved pet goat who makes appearances on their TikTok? You know, kick things off on an endearing note. Or perhaps the fact that there are playlists curated for all occasions, dance challenges, and even a recipe for tequila lollipops on their website? That would certainly alert people to how seriously this team takes the art of having fun. Or maybe I should open with the fact that they’ve both challenged and refined how I perceive empowerment and agency. I could explain how they have alerted me to the importance of investing in female entrepreneurs as a means of tackling extreme poverty and profound gender inequality.  

Yes. I think that’s it. Let’s start there and work our way backwards, shall we?  

These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction. 

In which case, here’s the heartbeat of Zena, here’s what you need to know in order to understand everything else about them: women living in rural poverty are currently facing two major barriers when it comes to business opportunity and entrepreneurship, and Zena are tackling both head on.  

Firstly, female entrepreneurs in these settings have little to no capital with which to launch their business ventures. To combat this, every single product offered by Zena, whose HQ is in Kamuli (Uganda), is hand-crafted by women who were previously living below the poverty line. Through the Zena apprenticeships, these women are able to support themselves and their families while also earning/saving the capital they need to launch their own businesses once the short-term apprenticeship comes to an end. These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction.  

Secondly, as well as a lack of capital, these women are battling a lack of education. And so, through a multi-phase entrepreneurship programme (The Zena Launch Pad), Zena are giving their apprentices both the theoretical and practical tools that they need to launch and sustain their own businesses. Women are graduating from this programme with literacy and numeracy skills, a viable business plan, industry-specific knowledge and skills, as well as leadership and development.  

Because here’s the bottom-line, the foundation upon which Zena stands, the deep conviction of both Caragh and Loren, the co-founders and CEOs; agency matters. Widening one’s understanding of success to encompass these women’s agency, for better or for worse, matters. Empowering these women to earn their own capital, to see the unfolding of their own ideas, to know that their decisions matter, it makes all the difference. No dependence, no hand-outs, and no debt. Just the kind of empowerment that is laced with agency.  

It’s bold. But it’s working.  

There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation.

So far, time-stamped at this moment in time, Zena’s hybrid and holistic approach has led to 67 female entrepreneurs, over 150 children in school, and nearly 500 lives lived above the poverty line. Women are hiring other women, businesses are birthing more businesses, education is generating more education.  

Pretty special, isn’t it? Pretty Jesus-like too.  

I had the immense joy of chatting to Caragh, one of the co-founders and CEOs of Zena; she reminded me that multiplication is one of Jesus’ most classic moves. Just as the people sitting around Jesus with wide eyes and numb backsides witnessed one humble lunch feed tens-of-thousands of mouths, so are Caragh and her team witnessing jaw-dropping multiplication happen before their very eyes. There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation. Compassion is contagious and innovation spreads. Although Zena is by no means an enterprise that squeezes itself into a religious box (empowering women of all faiths and none), it is easy to see how Caragh and Loren’s faith in a God who wrote generative goodness into the fabric of reality, informs their mission to write it into their business model.  

Something else that is woven into the DNA of Zena, much to my delight, is an unabashed celebration of the female consumer. 2023 may well be remembered as the year when an economic earthquake was caused by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Barbie. According to Forbes, it is likely to be regarded as the year where people began to take seriously and analyse the power of 'the female dollar'. And Zena, with their penchant for all things pink and glittery, have been sitting ahead of the curve for a little while. Their products, as seen in Vogue, Marie Claire, and Harvey Nicholls (as well as embellishing the looks of numerous celebrities), seem to have been made with this cultural moment in sight. Their aesthetic perfectly encapsulates the resurgence of female playfulness and the reclaiming of ‘girliness’ as something to embrace and revel in. As I have already referenced, joy is something that this team take incredibly seriously.  

The celebration of women infiltrates every layer of Zena’s existence, that much is clear. While their products delight the female gaze, their profits sow into female entrepreneurship. Both of which display how working toward gender equality, particularly in contexts such as Kamuli, is a means by which we can wage a war on extreme poverty. 

Women serving women, who are serving women, who are serving women. And on it goes – so beautifully circular. So intriguingly God-inspired.  

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