Jo and I belong to The Order of Mission, which is a dispersed Order within a wider ‘new monastic’ movement. [See ‘What is TOM?’ and ‘Who is TOM for?’ for more details.] In keeping with other Orders, members of TOM take certain vows. Vows give shape to a covenant relationship. For example, marriage vows – “...to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part...” – give shape to the relationship between husband and wife – and to the parent/child relationship, because covenant vows by definition extend to any present or future children of either party. We offer all that we are – the strengths and the weaknesses of that – and all our resources – potential (e.g. intellect) and actual (e.g. material belongings) – to face together the various challenges life will inevitably throw at us. Of course, how these vows are worked-out – how the shape they provide is filled-in – will vary from marriage to marriage, day-by-day, and after the event of taking them.
Over the weekend, Jo and I helped lead a retreat for a group of people from across the north of England who are exploring whether joining TOM is the right thing for them. I had been asked to talk about the vows – a commitment “to devote myself to a life of simplicity, purity and accountability, within The Order of Mission...” – and shared how seeking to live out those vows gives shape to my belonging to other members of the Order, and to God’s particular covenant commitment to us.
The vow to live a life of simplicity is a re-articulation of the traditional monastic vow to poverty. Choosing to renounce personal ownership was a prophetic action to a Church ensnared by material opulence; today, at least in the UK, the Church is ensnared by a poverty spirit – by the perception of lack, and the inability to receive and enjoy God’s generous provision, and to be generous givers in turn. ‘Simplicity’ enjoys God’s gifts, and holds them lightly. But ‘poverty’ was always an outward sign of something else: of giving up ownership of self, and choosing to live as God’s possession. For me, committing to a life of simplicity is about recognising that I am God’s, of giving myself to his disposal, of seeking to discover and – forsaking all other distraction – to prioritise that particular call for which God has chosen me. For what God brings to a covenant relationship shaped by simplicity is a particular purpose he has chosen me for [see here for more]. And within the Order we commit to one another to this life: to follow the One who calls us.
The vow to live a life of purity is a re-articulation of the traditional monastic vow to chastity. Again, abstinence was intended as an outward sign of something else (abstinence as an end in itself is hatred of self, not love of an Other): of being set aside for God’s purposes. In the Bible, purity overwhelmingly relates to items in the tabernacle made from or covered in pure gold. The tabernacle was the tent in which God lived among his people, having rescued them from slavery in Egypt. The purpose of the items within the tabernacle was to facilitate God’s living in the midst of his people. Later, in the courts of David and Solomon, purity came to be applied to the human heart: the wisdom sayings collated by Solomon’s court include a specific connection made between pure gold and pure hearts: “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Proverbs 17:3). Gold is subjected to great heat; impurities rise to the surface, and are skimmed off. And to the early church, James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4). [See here for more.] As I seek to live a life devoted to purity – to being set apart for God’s purpose of living with us – I discover just how seriously God takes my devotion: again and again, he allows me to be tested by trials in order that any impurities in me – any area of my life which is not set apart for God, which resists that decision – rise to the surface. And that scum – literally – is unattractive, which is why I value the Order, that there are people who are committed to me and to my purification.
The vow to live a life of accountability is a re-articulation of the traditional monastic vow to obedience, to the senior member of the Order in any given monastic house. ‘Accountability’ takes into account our dispersed nature – both in geographical location and within a diverse range of workplaces. But ‘obedience’ was an outward sign of commitment to God’s call, the outworking in(to) the world of the vow to poverty and the vow to chastity. The vow of obedience recognises God as Father. While we hold on to that, the re-articulation of ‘accountability’ is Christ-centric, recognising what Jesus brings to a covenant relationship shaped by accountability: “I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master’s business. Instead I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15). Jesus has chosen to make himself accountable in his relationships – to share life, and within that to share everything he has learned from the Father. Within the Order, we seek to live in that way, as friends.
In every way, there is nothing about TOM that should be any different from the life of a disciple of Jesus. And yet the reality is that these things are easily lost. I would not choose to walk this path alone. Nor is TOM the only way to pursue such a life: but it is the company among which Jo and I have been called to journey.