Hidden and visible? Contemplative Fire South Downs (Tessa Holland)

Tessa HollandThis contemplative ministry is twofold, involving the hidden area of prayer and the more visible task of trying to nurture community locally. Tessa Holland, who lives in Sussex as a contemplative-in-action, tells us more.

The last three years have seen a huge sea-change in my life from a curacy in traditional village parish ministry to a contemplative pioneer presence in a semi-rural area. We haven't moved house, but the landscape of mission and ministry is entirely different, with its own particular mix of challenge and opportunity.

This ministry is primarily hidden and solitary which is both enriching and, at times, difficult. The usual landmarks are not present. There is no church building, no set services, no congregation and no public role. When I left parish ministry with the blessing of general license, it was like setting out into uncharted territory. Gradually there have emerged cairns and way-markers for the journey. The Contemplative Fire Rhythm of Life of contemplative, creative and compassionate practice offers a trellis for daily life which grounds me locally and also connects me in prayer and practice to my fellow companions around the country.

Being home-based with family also provides an earthed environment and rhythm of physical work in the house and garden. I have at last stepped wholeheartedly into the hidden work of listening in prayer, Scripture and creation as work that I have been given to do with much to learn! Earlier this year on silent retreat, I was struck by the monastery enclosure which enables the nuns to live and breathe a life of prayer. This brought home to me a call to step more deeply into prayer as that which gives breath to the whole; I was also struck by the paradox of how enclosure enables deep engagement with the creative activity of God in the world.

We have discovered the hard way that doing less and staying local enables us to be more authentically present to place and people – there is a temptation, and often an expectation, to be seen to be doing

This work of prayer feeds a shared visible ministry of creative and compassionate action, which seeks to enable and nurture the Contemplative Fire community locally. We meet occasionally with other Companions from across the area for mutual listening and learning, usually around a meal. We are attentive to the cultural thirst for meaning, stillness and silence, and seek to avoid the prescriptive, authoritarian or activist styles of some religious practice. Gatherings for the Eucharist involve creating liturgy together and each month, we also offer early Saturday morning sessions on contemplative praxis, in a small farmyard church up the road on the Downs. A wide range of people come, travelling in from across the region, including those hungry for stillness and those who are 'spiritual but not religious', drawn by a mystical perspective of Christ. Spiritual Direction and monthly Quiet Garden days are also on offer at our home.

In the midst of all this there are things being learned and questions being asked. Firstly, we have discovered the hard way that doing less and staying local enables us to be more authentically present to place and people. Secondly, there is a temptation, and often an expectation, to be seen to be doing. It really feels necessary and important that that as a community we honour, as primary, the call to the deep work of silence, prayer and contemplative practice – staying counter-cultural and at the edge.

Another challenge is that relating as a whole community takes an investment of time and commitment. We recognise that small cell groups work for some people, but not for others; within community we have a wide range of personal callings– one size does not fit all! So, how do we enable people to be part of Contemplative Fire in a way that is life-giving to them and to community? This isn't only about turning up at things! Should there be a set time of discernment before somebody becomes a Companion, maybe followed by a personal decision and promise to be renewed periodically? These are all potential growth points which we are wrestling with.

There are other questions too – about leadership and gifts, order and priesthood. In this edge place, out of the limelight, we are, as part of the wider Contemplative Fire community, seeking to live the answers and to be an authentic and mutual local community of presence, hidden and visible, active in the way of Christ.