Every month in the seminary we have a Day of Recollection: a brief moment of silence and retreat, from supper on Friday until the Vigil Mass on Saturday evening. It’s not a long time, but it means that we are forced to put the brakes on every few weeks, even in the middle of a busy term; and a lot can happen in 24 hours if you really give yourselves over to the silence, the times of Office and Exposition in the chapel, and the reflections that are offered by the retreat giver.
Last weekend we had Fr Christopher Jamison lead the Recollection, the Benedictine monk from Worth Abbey who is now Director of the National Office for Vocation. I won’t even try to summarise the talks he gave (which connected the writings of Cassian and the Desert Fathers and Mothers with our own spiritual lives). A number of thoughts stayed with me, including what seemed to be a throwaway line about St Teresa of Avila.
Fr Christopher was talking about the famous ‘different ways of collecting water’ metaphor in the Autobiography of St Teresa. And just by way of background, he spoke about how he had come to know the Autobiography not as a monk, but when he was an undergraduate studying Spanish at Oxford. Why was this masterpiece of the spiritual life on the curriculum at a secular university? Because, he explained, it was the first major literary work in Spain to use the ordinary language of ordinary people to describe the everyday occurrences of ordinary life. OK, you can hardly call St Teresa of Avila ‘ordinary'; but the autobiography, as well as being a guide to the mystical life, is one of the clearest, funniest, wisest, most honest and compelling accounts of what it is simply to be human, to get through a life, to get through a day. And – this is the point – it was one of the first.
Her faith, in other words, didn’t just use one element of the culture to communicate itself, it almost singlehandedly created a new form of culture, a new genre, to express something that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. It’s like St Mark (if he was the first!) deciding to write a ‘gospel’ when there was no such thing as a gospel before then. It’s like the Cathedral builders of the Middle Ages searching for new forms of architecture that could express the Christian mystery in ways it had never been expressed before.
These people, and many more (please add your own examples from other centuries) were not just using the culture, they were transforming it; they were inventing new forms of culture in order to communicate the faith that had already transformed their own hearts and vision.
We often talk as Christians about being more engaged with contemporary culture, or about allowing the Christian culture we have inherited to have a greater influence on the culture of the contemporary world. The harder and more interesting question, however, is whether it is possible for us today to create new forms of culture in order to express and share our faith. What are some examples today? What are the signs or even the seeds of this renewal?