Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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page 5 Nicholas Alan SSFAn open return with an Oyster card

Nicholas Alan SSF 

I gave my life to Jesus in a Baptist church. I can still remember the large upstairs room where the Sunday School met after trailing out from church at the end of the opening hymn. I must have been about eleven years old at the time. But even then I was never quite sure if I had done it properly. I used to pray to be wicked, or at least moderately bad, because then I could have a dramatic conversion like those I read about in The Cross and the Switchblade, and I would know that I really was a Christian. But my chances of being a gang-member in the tenements of New York were slim, so I made do with the Four Spiritual Laws – God loves us, humanity is sinful, Jesus died for us, we must receive Christ. I’m not sure if I understood them, but they were enough.

I went to the Baptist church because my best friend went there, but I hadn’t always been a Baptist. I was baptised, as an infant, in the highest of Anglo-Catholic churches, St. George’s Bickley, in the leafy South Eastern suburbs of London. The parish priest, affectionately known as ‘Father G.’ had introduced all manner of devotions with plenty of incense and candles, golden chasubles and statues of Our Lady. As a special favour he married my parents on Easter Day: no weddings were allowed during Lent. Perhaps I inhaled the scent of the incense at my baptism five years later, to linger in my memory like the smell of apple pie at Sunday lunch, but it was a much longer time before I was drawn back to a similar style of worship.

After the Baptists I drifted for a couple of years. We had moved to the Midlands, and I floated like a small raft looking for a mother ship to haul me aboard. The first lifebelt thrown to me was from the school Christian Union, where I made some of the most significant friendships of my life. It was also a joint society linking the boys’ school I attended with the girls’ school across the road, which was a definite attraction. I still remember the after school and early morning prayer meetings, walking away in a bliss of devotion (or love?) and straight into the exam rooms at the school. I believe I was prayed into university.

A number of my friends at school attended a charismatic evangelical Anglican church in the city centre, and this soon became my spiritual home. Many students attended the church, with Sunday evening congregations of up to 500 people. The youth group there became the centre of my social life, and I still value immensely the Bible studies we shared and the trips away with the leaders of the group.

During this time I was invited by a friend to go to the Dales’ Bible Week. It was the kind of place where the younger women wore headscarves to worship services (following the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Cor.11), and the preaching was all about the renewal of the church. Nehemiah was a favourite book, all about the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. I remember one sermon on the need to reject all offers of co-operation from other Christians in the work of renewal, just as Nehemiah had rejected the approaches of those who had not been taken into exile. But I wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to be with Nehemiah rebuilding the wall sword in hand, or with Sanballat and ‘the people of the land’ craning their necks to see what was going on, and wondering if the wall was a such a good thing after all.

During one of the sessions the worship leaders invited all who wanted to be baptised in the Spirit to go to the front of the marquee. Never one to turn down a blessing, I made my way forward, was prayed over, and returned to my seat quietly singing in tongues. Nothing dramatic happened, I wasn’t ‘slain in the Spirit’, but it was rather wonderful, the kind of experience I would return to much later in praying the Hail Mary or the Jesus Prayer. But for now I was praying in a language I didn’t understand, and yet nothing was left unsaid.

Back at my church in Nottingham the worship songs often trailed off at the end into singing in tongues. It was a bit like heaven, I imagined, with angelic harmonies and whispers of immortality all around. At the beginning of services there would be prophecies or ‘words of knowledge’ shared, invitations to healing or encouragements to faith. And the sermons were rich and scriptural, the main points projected onto an overhead screen, building up the understanding of the faithful.

Then I went to university, and again I drifted for a while. I tried a staunchly evangelical church in town, but was rather off-put by a sermon on ‘The Presence of God in Creation’ during which the curate told us to forget creation and get back to the Bible if we truly wanted to know God. As a devotee of the nature-mysticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I wasn’t too impressed. Eventually I settled at a small charismatic church the other side of town. Almost all I remember now was the evening a visiting couple led the service, at the end of which the wife laid hands on my head and gave me the most powerful blessing I have ever had.

During my studies another Christian voice spoke gently at first, then louder in my ears. It was the call of community, the mysterious world of the monks and nuns whose writings had increasingly inspired me. After university I ended up, for a few months, at Hilfield Friary. I was a volunteer living in Bernard House, reading a chapter a day of the ‘Revelations of Julian of Norwich’, being unwound by the patient recitation of the Daily Office in the cold, resonant chapel, whilst being warmed vaguely by the garden-scented jumble sale tweed jacket I wore at the time. I remember the first time I crossed myself, waiting for the celebrant to circle the room with the sacred host. Do I do it now, or when he reaches me? Or twice, before the wine also? With a shaft of incense-held sunlight pouring through the window like a cloudy internal buttress, it felt secure and stable, like home. I’m glad I stayed.

My travels were not quite over though. From Hilfield I journeyed back to Nottingham and into the world of other faiths (but that’s another story), then over the seas to Korea with the Church Mission Society, where Roman Catholic missionary priests and nuns became among my closest friends, and finally back to England as a novice at Hilfield Friary. How would I describe myself now? Perhaps as a liberal evangelical catholic, with warm memories of the charismatic movement, and a deep indebtedness to Orthodox spirituality. St Paul says, ‘We are all one in Christ Jesus’; outwardly and inwardly I find that to be true. f


Nicholas Alan SSF lives at Glasshampton Monastery, where he is currently the Guardian.