Cellophane and Custard

I spent last week in a monastery in West Sussex, ‘drinking deeply from the well of silence and from Holy Scripture.’ It felt like being on the edge of the known world. This week, we six Ordinands from Cranmer Hall in Durham, were challenged to translate contemplative prayer into an urban mission context. Our second week placement was in St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle.
Dealing with the practicalities first, we had to acquaint ourselves with each other’s experiences. Then we needed to think about all the ways in which we could share this. By the end of the first day we’d been very creative and productive: we’d generated more ideas than we could possibly deliver! It was a lot of fun bashing out ideas onto paper.

Canon Steven Harvey was our host for the week and suggested we reflect on these ideas overnight and try not to over-achieve. Good advice! We’d also been told by one monk (from Crawley Down) that our goal for the week should be to “get on our knees and pray”.

It became clear that our experiences from the week before, and each of our approaches to mission and contemplative prayer were diverse. We wanted to give visitors to the Cathedral an opportunity to share in a quiet connection with God, we wanted to reach out to the community of Newcastle and we wanted to engage with God in his mission to the world; all through contemplative prayer. Thankfully we found a way to navigate this with group and individual exercises.

The Cathedral offered a tranquil location in the centre of the bustle of Newcastle, so between us we crafted a variety of spaces for contemplation which included prayer through art, movement, and observation. There were art stations set up, the Cathedral’s chalk labyrinth was refreshed, a video of natural scenes was projected onto the white cloth of the communion table. These areas were linked together with chalk foot-prints in and around the building. We made ourselves available and as approachable as possible, to welcome visitors.

In addition to this we created an incense filled crypt.

Yes. An incense filled crypt! It was a brilliant little space where ‘lamentation’ could be approached. Using the Book of Common Prayer I read aloud ‘The Litany’ (pg30) – slowly and deliberately. The incense spilled from the crypt and filled the Cathedral. We also had the Lord’s Prayer on printed cards in over twenty languages, so visitors could stop and feel invited to pray.

Outside the Cathedral and during the day: We took two different approaches to engaging with the community. One group generated an elegant flyer which simply invited people to pause and find space and quiet in the Cathedral. This was really well received and sparked several conversations in the street.

I tried a different approach: At first I sat praying outside the Cathedral, armed with coffee and a piece of beetroot brownie. I was drawn into conversation with a homeless gentleman, Mark, and I found his story frankly distressing and depressing. Later, I tried walking through the city and holding what I saw in a non-judgmental witness before God. Praying where it felt appropriate, just observing and holding the situations in mind. I found the juxtaposition between the silent contemplative prayer (deep in the heart of West Sussex) and the contemplative observation in Newcastle city centre really difficult to handle. If last week I felt like I’d been swimming with God, today I felt like I’d been wrapped in cellophane and dropped in custard. I was overwhelmed by the oppressive atmosphere of mid-afternoon on a Thursday. This is not something I’ve ever noticed before in Newcastle, but by simply opening my eyes and looking at what was going on around me I saw people suffering. Whether it was the obvious drunk sitting on a curb down an alleyway, or the look of exasperation on the face of someone taking a mobile phone call in the street. I let myself absorb it, and I found the city life swamping me.

Opposite the Cathedral is a small coffee / sandwich shop that has just opened. I sat and prayed through what I’d experienced before returning to the Cathedral and joining the others.

During the day the group of us engaged with the regular worship in the Cathedral; with Holy Communion at 12:30pm and Choral Evensong at 5:30pm.

In addition to the regular worship, we added ‘Jesus Prayer’ and ‘Evening Prayer’ at 7:45pm and 8pm respectively. While at Crawley Down, we’d experienced the monks saying the Jesus Prayer and it was such a powerful experience we wanted to try and emulate it a little.

Public prayer is a challenge; on one hand I’m interested in modelling prayer and being open enough to invite others to join in, and yet on the other-hand I’m keen to minimise my own personality here: this prayer is not an ‘act’ of worship, it is ‘action’ of worship. Sitting at different places around the Cathedral; Petrica, Chris and I alternated 5 minute sessions of “Lord, Jesus Christ; Have mercy on me, a sinner.” with a reading of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

While it may have looked like a performance from the outside, this was a deeply moving and personal connection with contemplative prayer, carried out in a public way. During this time I realised that a lot of what I’d observed while walking around Newcastle came back to me and was offered up to God in prayer.

I am very grateful to David Goodhew and Cranmer Hall for giving me this two week placement activity, to the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity for inviting us into their life, and to St Nicholas Cathedral Newcastle, and Steven Harvey for giving us the space to explore contemplative mission.

Is contemplative prayer effective in the city? I turn to Psalm 127:

Unless it is the Lord who builds the house,
the builders’ work is pointless.
Unless it is the Lord who protects the city,
the guard on duty is pointless.

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