Modern-day monasticism: Why the Kingdom of God is closer than you think
Modern life can feel increasingly busy, stressed and distracted. Christians too can find themselves so caught up in its relentless pace that what is meant to be at the heart of faith – a relationship with God – can get increasingly side-lined. For others, it may not be their frenetic schedule, but their theology, that distances them from God. They may imagine God as a far-off deity indifferent to human affairs, or one primarily concerned not with the here-and-now but only eternal judgement after death.
Chris Webb is a Benedictine Anglican priest, with backgrounds in both astrophysics and theology, with a challenging word for such people. His new book God Soaked Life (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99) invites people to meet a God of abundant love whose kingdom is already 'among us', found both in monastic cloisters and the nine to five grind. Christian Today spoke with Webb about fighting distraction, discovering devotion, and why physics is just like theology.
'You dwell in eternity now,' Webb's book declares enigmatically. What does he mean?
'We're forever talking about the kingdom of God', says Webb, but often 'we project it off somewhere else, it's not where we are.'
But he says: 'Wait a minute...God is present, among us and heaven starts here. "The Kingdom of God is among you," says Jesus.'
He sums up his book: 'Maybe we are sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father living in our Heavenly Father's world which he has not abandoned, not given up on but is still absolutely present and active in. He's fully active and present in our lives and we just need to develop the awareness of that. The God Soaked Life...is not out there somewhere, or after we die, it's here. So what does that look like?'
Webb is now the deputy warden of Launde Abbey, a 900-year-old site of worship that's also a retreat centre, where Webb invites pilgrims to experience the contemplative life. Himself he practises two-and-a-half hours a day in prayer, including an hour each day in shared contemplative silence.
It might surprise some that this monk straddles the worlds of both theology and astrophysics, but Webb sees them as deeply alike. Both disciplines are 'an expression of human beings looking out into something that at the end of the day is completely beyond our comprehension'. Both use the language of 'elegance, beauty, wonder and mystery'.
Physicists attempt to observe a universe that's 14 billion light years across. It can hardly be fathomed, Webb says, 'But we'll give it a go. Because it's fascinating and its beautiful and it deserves our attention. Theologians are doing the same with God.'
But, he warns, the word 'contemplative' can confuse, and knowing God isn't the special preserve of scholars or monks. Webb isn't calling the masses to ditch their day jobs and make for the nearest convent.
'We're not trying to provide an escape or a getaway where people recharge their batteries and then deplete them again,' he says. Instead, It's more like going to the gym' – enabling spiritual fitness for the whole of life.
He helps visitors to learn the 'skills' of contemplation so that they can grow in awareness of God among their everyday demands.
In other words, you don't need holy orders to hear from God. The daily commuter or stay-at-home parent, Webb says, can live 'just as contemplative a life as you can live in a retreat centre with hours of prayer every day, if during the course of your day you have learned to be aware of and attentive to the presence of God, who is also in the office and the home and football match and everywhere else.'
Webb knows that many, having discovered a rich awareness of God on retreat, then struggle to replicate such realities at home. He encourages them to set 'realistic goals' and seek quality over quantity.
'The five minutes of prayer that you do is far better than the hour that you don't. Pray as you can, not as you can't,' he says.
As for his own life, Webb says that the practice of silence has 'been a real gift to me' and has given him a 'deep experiential awareness of God's love'.
Prayer, he says, often involves 'dressing ourselves up' to God, trying to pretend to be what we're not. But silence strips away our wordy pretences and leaves us vulnerable before a God we can't control.
Through that, reality comes in to focus and 'You begin to understand, that stuff you said: "God loves you as you are, despite everything..." – I think might even be true. What a great surprise. And there's nothing I can do to make God love me more. That's been life-changing.'
Some may be sceptical of 'contemplative' Christianity, perhaps dismissing it as a wishy-washy navel-gazing excuse for not evangelising the world. Webb agrees that there is a sad divide in the contemporary Church on this matter.
He presents the caricatures: 'You think of a contemplative monk who wants to shut himself away in a cloister and pray all day, and then you think of the evangelist out there on the streets [who says] "I have to wrestle every soul from the jaws of hell, even I even stop for two minutes to sit in silence and prayer that may be another soul lost to the devil!" So then you've got to get out there and be "active, active, active"'.
He would challenge both, because the true Christian life is both. 'I'd want to sit with the contemplative and ask: "You are seeking to immerse yourself deeply and deeply into the presence of God. But God is essentially a missionary God. Jesus calls us to follow him out into the world. So where do you think all this contemplation is going?'
Truly plugging into the 'life of God' would 'propel you into the world,' Webb says. 'Any kind of contemplative life that doesn't have a missionary edge is kind of a sham, really.'
But he'd ask the evangelist: 'What are you trying to share with people?' Do you just have an intellectual message? Or do you want to bring them into relationship with God through Jesus, do you want to share a life with them? You cannot share what you do not have.
'Your starting point has got to be a strong relationship of your own with Jesus. Otherwise you're a signpost, not an evangelist. You're pointing to places you're not prepared to go.'