An Alongsider's Story - the Second Time

I think it is no exaggeration to say that alongsiding at Malling Abbey has changed my life.

Arriving here has always felt like homecoming: from the very first time I saw the waterfall bubbling at the foot of the abbey wall, I knew I had reached a spring of living water; but it was not until returning for this second period as an alongsider, just over four years after my first stay, that I came to realise how much these experiences have shaped my life. Although the world of cloister has at times seemed very distant during the last few years, in other ways I have never stopped being an alongsider.

I am often asked what an alongsider actually is. In the context of Malling Abbey, an alongsider is a lay woman who enters the monastic enclosure and lives the monastic discipline alongside the vowed community for a period of time, but without any obligation to further commitment. Reflecting over the last few months however, I have come to see alongsiding as a wider vocation, and one of which our world is in desperate need.

We live increasingly in a world of divisions where difference often implies danger and criticism is taught from the cradle. In an age when our society is more diverse and our world more interconnected via media and internet than ever before, we are not unfamiliar with encountering the “other” - the “them” as opposed to the “us”. Yet how often do we really open ourselves to these encounters?

The value of religious alongsidership as encounter with the “other” is that inner transformation is intrinsic to the monastic journey and monastic discipline furnishes us with the spaces in which it becomes possible.

This commitment to inner transformation is made explicit in the Benedictine vow of “conversion of life” and is effected largely through the practice of the other two vows, “stability” and “obedience”.

Stability in this context refers to the geographical stability of the monastic enclosure and the social stability of the community. It is often seen as unnatural, irresponsible, even, to shut oneself away from the world, but it is enclosure that creates the first of those transformative spaces. The physical barrier of the enclosure facilitates the adoption of a new mentality whilst keeping the temptation of the familiar at bay. It lends to the culture of monasticism a self-conscious apartness, a self-sufficiency, and an internal rationality which clearly signal its difference and prepare the newcomer to leave behind her preconceptions.

The social stability of living in community, committed to one’s sisters, creates a microcosm of interpersonal encounters with the “other”, which must be thoughtfully and responsibly managed - disunity is not an option if the integrity of community life is to be maintained. Just as on a physical journey one is required to give way when entering a new stream of traffic , so the monastic journey too requires each sister to give way - through obedience - to the Rule of St Benedict and to her superiors. Obedience, seen as a process of giving way, creates another of those productive spaces - a space of separation from our habitual preoccupations which gives us room to follow the “other” into fresh experience and understanding. Obedience should not be seen as self-negation in a detrimental sense but rather as a new form of self-affirmation. Each sister subjugates her will to the “other”, not at the expense of who she is, but in search of that about herself and about God which she has not yet discovered - which, indeed, she can only discover through others.

The final monastic space I wish to highlight as being of relevance to alongsiding in its wider sense, is that created by contemplative silence. Such space, woven throughout the day in the Abbey, allows experience to be absorbed almost unconsciously. The new becomes less threatening. The silence tames it, allows us to approach it without fear of being challenged. This aspect of monastic experience is of vital importance if we are to creatively assimilate encounters with the “other” rather than rejecting them as overwhelmingly foreign.

In a world which constantly seeks to assert superiority through confrontation - whether physical, verbal or intellectual - the vocation of alongsidership calls us into unity with the “other” through the assumption of our own inferiority. It is hardly surprising, of course, that this model of alongsidership should emerge so clearly from St Benedict’s “school of the Lord’s service”, since monasticism is in essence a response to the call of Christ - humanity’s Great Alongsider.

My experiences at Malling Abbey have shown me how reflective growth within the context of the “other” can lead us to encounter a fuller identity in God, and this process is mutual - for the “other” the quiet validation implicit in the presence of the alongsider is itself a gentle catalyst for change. The “other”, thus encouraged, opens more readily to new experience and in turn grows more fully toward their divine potential. I believe the profound encounters which have enriched my life over these last four years - both in my work as a carer and socially - have all involved these elements of alongsidership: recognising difference on its own terms (the lesson of enclosure), accepting its challenges (the lesson of obedience), and reflecting on it in the light of personal experience and faith (the lesson of silence). That the gift of these “alongsiderships” in my life has been pure grace is attested to by the many times I still try and fail in my interactions, thinking I know best.

And now, as I prepare to leave once more, my mind returns to the image with which I started - the bubbling waterfall, gently shaping the rocks as the rocks direct its flow. I will leave with that homecoming in my heart, trusting the Great Alongsider to ripple its echoes through my life.

(DB - 2017)