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franciscan - September 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Why I Left

by Terry O’Brien

I recently returned to Hilfield Friary for a weekend – the first time for three and a half years. I was not sure why I was going, what my reception would be, or whether it was wise to go at all. I have to say that the gardens were the loveliest I have known them. While there I read a series of articles in franciscan, under the titles Why I Came, Why I Stayed, Why they Left and Why? I felt there needed to be some response along the lines of Why I Left.

I first visited Hilfield about twelve years ago and, between then and arriving there to live as an Aspirant just over five years ago, I had visited the Glasshampton, Birmingham and Paddington houses and got to know several of the brothers.
I had to test out my vocation – I was so inspired by Francis’ life and felt so much about the life I saw. I could not get on with my life with this urgency hanging over me, and words of the hymn that goes: ‘What can I give him? Give him my heart’ came to have such intensity.

Over the three and a half years since I left, I had felt that I had let my brothers down in leaving – though I could only see that on my return last weekend. I guess there is something mutual in that, though I can only guess how others feel. The reasons for leaving are complex – and probably very different for a novice or someone in first profession or life profession – and I can identify no single reason; I am sure the reasons why anyone leaves are as different as the reasons for joining in the first place.

Leaving, for me, was not done lightly, and the difficulty in reaching that decision was as big a thing as the decision to come. It was very painful to leave and I am grateful that I had time away from the community – keeping the Rule – to make that decision. Ironically, my leave was not prompted by a need to address the issue of leaving; however, time at Glasshampton shines light in dark corners of the soul which one would rather not know about.

So: reasons for going! Seeing a life profession ceremony, and knowing deep down ‘I can never do that’ – then it is just a matter of time before you go. Seeing one’s own vocation spoiled, in tatters, as one gropes to put it back together again – having lost sight of what it was all about in the first place. Hopes, dreams and intentions shattered – a broken person trying to be whole. Brokenness, weakness and failure in the one thing that mattered.

But, of course, this is precisely what the noviciate is all about – testing one’s vocation. In testing that vocation, some will find confirmation whilst others will leave. It can be no other way.

I have regrets – regrets that I did not do it better – that I did not live the life to which I had aspired. But I have good memories of people, times and places. I know my life was changed and that I was converted in a way that could not have happened any other wise. I am ‘doing well’ and ‘happily married’ now – but I can talk to a guy camped-out in a shop doorway and look him in the eye: we do not fear each other now.

I have come to see vocation as more than I had done previously. For me, we are all called – in Christ – to be the persons he created us to be. A vocation to the Religious Life, it seems to me now, is a form with which we clothe that vocation – there are as many vocations in SSF as there are brothers, and each becomes himself as God intended by taking on that form in community. For others, we may become less than God intended and the form may become damaged – so, we leave to find how we can best express that unique person God created us to be.

For me, the change had come in that I had become more fully human. When I left, I was not sure where it would lead, whether I would one day return to Hilfield wearing a habit, or at dead of night as a wayfarer. I certainly never expected to fall in love and get married. But then, that is what vocation is all about – being brothers and sisters in Christ, being true to ourselves, each other, God and the world. And we never know where it will lead us. In my experience, it does not stop when we leave SSF – but SSF may have put us onto the track to discover it.

Personally, I am grateful to have been given the opportunity – and I know that I am a better person through it. I am not diminished by it – and there is no reason for regrets. I now realise that I let no one down. SSF gave me the opportunity to serve in community, and an opportunity to be served by community. The truth is, if more people came and went, the world would be a better place. §


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