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franciscan - January 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Why I Stayed

by Brother Anselm SSF

Why?’ is about cause, about motive – a good old-fashioned linear hunt for logical answers to plain questions. It takes for granted that God and we are children of the enlightenment, alumni of the Areopagus, pupils of Pascal, and that after 1200 words there will be a clear answer – we shall ‘know’ ‘why’. But this is not that sort of pursuit – this is a lateral hunt for hints. It offers a study of one life in the context of the Society of Saint Francis, and because a focus is needed, specifically in the light of ‘The Principles’ of the Society.

Here we find three ‘Conditions of Life’, three ‘Ways of Service’ and three ‘Notes of the Order’.
‘These, after a sufficient period of probation, voluntarily in response to God’s call, dedicate themselves to a life of devotion to our Lord under the conditions of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.’

The first section belongs to searching youth – to the young man who had experienced school till 18, then 18 months’ National Service (army), then university; with a degree in engineering, and conflicting parental ambitions for him (which he did not fulfil); a genuine piety which came in very different ways from both parents, and a fascination for the Franciscan legend. That was the being upon whom this vocation dawned – vocation to a life under the conditions of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The quest for a simple lifestyle, for celibacy lived in community, for a life lived in obedience ‘to rule and chapter’ began at Hilfield where the bare boards of the dormitory, the total lack of privacy and the exposure to the unpredictable demands of the community on one’s gardening and driving skills, gave us all an undiluted diet of poverty, chastity and obedience. This, taken with a rich application of instruction – in scripture, doctrine, Religious Life, Francis – was what amounted to the formation of a novice. There have to be added the nine months’ enclosure at Glasshampton and numerous excursions to preach in village churches and to help on parish missions. Three years of this resulted for me in election to profession in the formal vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

But the conditions of life can never be seen as an achievement to be put in the past. They will always remain the impossibly high ideal, something to be aimed at, a background to life. The next question will be, of what does the living consist? What am I actually going to do? Not engineering, for which I was educated. I was then a layman, so not ordained ministry. What?
‘The brothers and sisters seek to serve their Master by the life of devotion, by sacred study and by works.’
Devotion for all of us means prayer, the Offices, the Eucharist; study, sacred study; and works?

The first twenty years of my professed life were to be given to Saint Francis’ School for Boys. There cannot be a more absorbing task than work in a boarding school, and of boarding schools what for a friar could have been more appropriate than St Francis School, a community within the community of SSF, the profession of whose professionals was to be a community for and with the boys? Among the hills and woods of West Dorset we worked and played, loved and hated, were battered and found healing, absconded and came back, eventually left. Friars and sisters taught, cared, tackled mountains of washing up and prayed together in that wonderful chapel in the attic within easy earshot of swimming pool, front drive, beech tree – all populated at one time or another by noisy boys.

Of course, it wasn’t all laughter – we were a community of damaged people whose healing depended on a shared vulnerability and (on the part of the adults concerned) an awareness of and sensitivity to that fact. Staff and boys alike were dependent on psychiatric and psychological support within the strength we derived from God’s grace and love. There were many tears and sadnesses, without which the fun would not have been such a constant and unfailing surprise.

My time at the school came to an end, and I found myself for a short while without the sense of purpose which work in a close-knit group gives. For three months I was adrift, until another group (this time the brothers of our province) found me a task – I was in service once more, this time as Minister Provincial. These were years of mobility – years of petrol and kerosene driven travel. It was a time of growing familiarity with the motorway network, travel agents, transit lounges, jumbo cabins – and a growing love for Franciscan destinations – Brisbane, New York, Auckland, Honiara, Port Moresby, San Francisco, and dearest of all, Dar es Salaam. And for the brothers (of course).

To balance the mobility, I was given stability in my home friary in the East Midlands where I shared with three brothers in a varied local ministry (half time for me) and enjoyed the work provided by the garden. The children in the nearby nursery class, the old folks in the home next door, the garden, local homeless people, my brothers – all played a part in my stability, my staying. Did leadership?

There are many instances in the history of Religious Life of the unsettling effect which isolated and unsupported leadership positions can have on their occupants. In spite of the distance which a position of power puts between the Minister and his brothers, I don’t think I was ever allowed to feel isolated or unsupported – even tension and conflicts can have a positive outcome in community life.

At the end of my term of office I was not left for long to wonder what the future held for me by way of ‘works’. For ten years I had been a priest friar – now I was to be a parish priest friar, at sixty plus to have my first incumbency, and that in the Church of St Bene’t’s Cambridge where, at the age of eighteen, I saw my first friar.

During the active stages of life it is the pursuit of devotion, study and works under the conditions of poverty, chastity and obedience which are the dominant themes from the Principles.
‘The three notes which must ever in special degree mark the lives of the brothers and sisters are Humility, Love and Joy.’
We could be poor, chaste, obedient, devout, studious, hard working – self-righteous, boring and deadly. Humility, love and joy come to the rescue. And they, when the hustle and bustle are over, are all that is left.

I am still searching for an answer to the question of why I stayed. A biographical sketch has shown why it would have been difficult to leave – but that is no theological justification for staying. This is not be found in the CV, only in that of which God is the judge. Only he knows whether, in the end, this is what he meant when I thought I heard him calling.

We are in the realm of faith, not that of knowledge. I can only say that I stay because I believe that to do so is for me the only way to live my baptism into Christ – and I pray that I may be faithful when the more superficial compensations fall away and I am left with God’s mercy and grace, and the unmerited and continuing love of the brethren.

‘It is the purpose of Christ our master to work miracles through his servants, and if they will but be emptied of self and utterly surrendered to Him, they will become chosen vessels of his Spirit and effective instruments of his mighty working, who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive.’f

 

 

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