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.