George Lings, of The Sheffield Centre, has written on the various sacred spaces of (Christian) monastic community. Although these are expressed in different ways across various monastic traditions, Lings identifies seven recurring spaces:
the Cell, where we meet God on our own, and must also come face-to-face with ourselves;
the Chapel, where we gather for corporate worship;
the Chapter, where we discuss issues facing the community, and make decisions;
the Cloister, where we meet others – both those we like and those we dislike – in passing encounters;
the Garden, where we engage in productive work, complementing liturgical worship and study;
the Refectory, where we eat together;
and the Scriptorium, where we pass knowledge on, from one to another.
Lings suggests that most churches are overly-focused on the chapel experience, and to greater or lesser extent neglect the other spaces which monastic communities have discovered it to be essential to balance if Christian community is to be healthy.
It is interesting to apply Lings’ seven sacred spaces to missional communities, not least because the development of such communities in Sheffield was recognised by the Church of England to be ‘New Monastic’ in character, leading to the invitation to establish a formally recognised Order – The Order of Mission – which was inaugurated in 2003.
[To Lings’ list, we might want to add the infirmary, where the sick were cared for, and the almonry, from where aid was distributed to the poor. While these are not commonly recurring spaces for contemporary monastic communities, they were traditional features of at least larger monasteries. They became obsolete, as the state first dissolved the monasteries and later took on responsibility for health and social care – but as the state increasingly struggles to meet this burden, the time may be ripe to reinvent these roles.]
Missional communities certainly can attend to all seven spaces, and some do in practice. Clearly one cannot attend to multiple spaces simultaneously: to encounter God and other in the chapel necessitates that we are not encountering God and other in the scriptorium at that moment in the day. These spaces are distinct, but connected – in both time and space, as members of the community move through their day and night. Certain times are set aside for certain activities. Different spaces are passed-through on different cycles: for example, within a monastery the chapel is passed-through up to nine times throughout the course of the night and day, but never remained in – rather, it gathers us from one activity and sends us out into another – whereas the community gather in the refectory three times a day. Blurring the distinct nature and purpose of each space is discordant; viewing each space as unconnected to the others is equally discordant.
But how might these spaces look – how might these principles be applied – in a community that does not live and work together in a monastery?