Discovering God in the rhythm of prayer

A Canadian Anglican reflects on a year spent ‘in God’s time’ at Lambeth Palace

By Tali Folkins

Since 2015, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has been inviting young people from across the world to spend “a year in God’s time” with the Community of St. Anselm, a program in communal spiritual living. For 10 months of the year, participants live at Lambeth Palace, London, Welby’s official residence and office, praying, studying and worshipping together while serving the local community through volunteer work. In its 2018-2019 year, the community had its first Canadian member: Melissa Ritz, 29, an Anglican from Edmonton. The Anglican Journal spoke with Ritz to learn more about her experience of what Lambeth Palace calls “a daring experiment in following Christ.”

How did you come to be involved in the Community of St. Anselm?

I did an MDiv at Wycliffe College from 2014 to 2017, and during that time I began to be interested in community life. In one of my courses, in my third year, we watched a few videos that the first cohort of St. Anselm had done. I just remember that day. I think my class was in the morning, and all the rest of that day I couldn’t get it out of my head—I just sort of had a hunger for it. And so I started looking into St. Anselm and alongsider programs, decided to apply at St. Anselm—and got in, unexpectedly!

When I was doing my MDiv, I lived in residence all three years—and I came to realize that a lot of my life had been quite lonely. And so living with people and eating with people and having that daily connection was something that was really good and new for me. Every time in class we’d talk about the Rule of St. Benedict, for instance, I was like, “Nope, this isn’t for me”—but as we’d talk about it I’d get different feelings on it. It was something that I think God was moving me towards. But it took me a while to figure out that that was what I was going to do next.

How was the experience for you?

I think overall it was a good thing for me to have done. I met God in a different way there, and I got to know myself in quite a different way. It was challenging in ways that I didn’t quite expect. I knew there would be challenges because I’m highly introverted, and living with people is always a bit of a challenge. It was very intense a lot of the time. But I’m really glad I did it. I’ve definitely made friends and connections that will last for a long time.

How did you come to meet God in a new way?

A lot of my spiritual life prior to this year was caught up more in academic pursuits. I met God a lot in Bible study and just digging into scripture, but my prayer life was really sporadic and kind of poor. Our daily rhythm [at the Community of St. Anselm] involved two times a day of personal prayer in addition to the daily office and noon Eucharist. And then we had a week-long silent retreat, and then we did the Ignatian exercises, which is a 30-day silent retreat. I think in that time I really encountered God as a person for the first time. I also learned to listen to myself a little more and recognize some of those things that God has given me that I hadn’t necessarily identified as a gift—to sit with myself and listen to what my heart and my body are telling me, and just to bring that before God, and to start trusting some of my own instincts.

So it was through the discipline of regular prayer that you made these discoveries?

Certainly I don’t think you can pray for several hours every day and nothing happens! But I think also, just spending that much time with other people, you can’t hide as much. We each had a spiritual companion, and just having that person to sort of mirror back what I was saying and how I was reacting to things. I think that change was sort of a gradual one—it was one that as I got to the end of the year and was reviewing things I thought, you know, I’m handling this situation differently than I would have three or four months ago.

A big part of my struggle this year was that the things that I had identified as my vocation, or the places that I really felt alive, I didn’t get to do a lot of. I found that really hard, because I couldn’t express myself in the way that I was used to. I had to figure out who am I without that.

Two days a week we were assigned to a charity to volunteer at. I was at L’Arche, which, if you don’t know, is a community of people with learning disabilities living with people without. These people didn’t care where I came from, or whatever—they just cared that I was sitting with them. And so I think [it was] coming to know different parts of myself—that even when I’m not in this academic intellectual pursuit, I am still someone who loves and is loved.

What was it like to live at Lambeth Palace?

It’s a bit odd, because it’s both private and public at the same time. There are people who work there, so there’s always people around and sometimes you’d walk into the courtyard and find yourself in the middle of a bunch of important people arriving for a meeting. Because there’s a wall and it’s kind of enclosed, sometimes you’d forget that you were in central London. So stepping out the front door was always a bit of a shock, especially stepping into a group of tourists!

[Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby], when he’s around, will often lead the daily offices, he’ll take Eucharist sometimes, and once or twice in the year he and [his wife] Caroline have the whole community over to their flat for dinner. We saw him a fair amount.

What are your plans now?

This year I am taking as a discernment year. I think ordination isn’t on the table for right now. It was a possibility, but I wasn’t really sure, and so I was intentional about thinking about that this past year. In fact, what came out of this year was, I am hoping to go back to school and maybe pursue a doctorate in theology. I think I recognized just how important the intellectual part of my faith is to my spiritual life. This year is just about spending a bit of time on my own, letting some of what I’ve learned settle into place—figuring out how to live like a normal person again!

Would you recommend the Community of St. Anselm to others?

It was definitely a transformative year. I can see how it definitely wouldn’t be for everyone. I think I’d caution people who are applying that their primary desire needs to be to seek God, rather than this experience of monastic life, because I think it’s very different from an experience you’ll get as an alongsider at an established community, for instance. The idea is less about forming monastic people and more about forming prayerful people—teaching how to pray in your daily life, and instilling this rhythm, and this habit, of seeking God regularly.

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Anglican Journal, September 26, 2019