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franciscan - September 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

The Witness of Life

Interviews with brothers and sisters of CSF and SSF

Edited by Sister Rowan Clare, novice CSF

In what follows, I am indebted to the brothers and sisters quoted, and to Brother Desmond Alban and Sister Rose who took time to interview them for this article.
‘In very truth, I tell you: when you were young, you fastened your belt about you and walked where you chose; but when you are old you will stretch out your arms and a stranger will bind you fast and carry you where you have no wish to go.’ (John 21.18)

Jesus’ words to Peter carry a poignant reminder of the cost of discipleship. For older members of C/SSF, vowed for life to a community which changes of necessity through time, it may have particular resonance. Obedience means having to bear with painful adjustments throughout your community life; your contemporaries may die or leave, a fulfilling ministry come to an end, a house which had become home may close. New members bring with them new perceptions, a flavour of the changing world which may seem disturbingly unfamiliar. Leadership inevitably passes to a younger generation. Yet our older brothers and sisters retain potent links with the communities’ histories and original charisms.

As I begin the process of discerning my next step of vocation, I am reflecting on the identity of the community I have joined and the vows that will bind me more firmly to its members. Suddenly, that overworked concept, ‘heritage’, has meaning for me: I cannot reach valid conclusions on how to live as a Franciscan now without some understanding of the experience then, and that means listening carefully to our older members.

At life profession, a mutual commitment is expressed: ‘As you have bound yourself to us for life, so we bind ourselves to you for life, to strengthen and support you in our common vocation.’ Brother David Stephen, now aged eighty-four, is clear that this is an evolving process: ‘When you’ve lived as long as I have . . . it would be unwise not to think you can contribute. But if you do everything, then you’re not helping other people to become competent, and to develop and take responsibility.’ He recognises a delicate balance between encouraging the community to use accumulated experience and wisdom, and inhibiting younger members by making them feel they have comparatively little to offer. Brother Arnold, too, recognises the necessary cost of change: ‘It’s better to have a younger brother in charge. I’m getting tired . . . you must leave it to a younger person even if you feel they’re off the rails. Not easy when you’ve been used to doing things your own way.’

A life commitment does not, of course, end when a brother or sister becomes too old or disabled for active service. ‘In the early days, the Rule used to say that brothers had to be prepared to finish their days in the Workhouse,’ says Brother Gordon, now resident in a retirement home near Alnmouth Friary, where he has begun a Bible-study group and relishes the quality time he can spend with brothers away from the demanding routines of a busy friary. ‘I feel very privileged here . . . I am very much part of the community. I’ve got a sense of ministry [as part of the house] even though I’ve come out of it.’

Gordon’s view echoes the intention of the community to see its elderly and physically-infirm members as fully contributing brothers and sisters who happen to be elderly and infirm. Even where it is necessary to find appropriate care for an individual away from a community house, it is clear that this can be managed creatively, despite the inevitable feelings of pain and loss. Before joining CSF, I worked for a while in a nursing home for elderly people with dementia. Many times I saw mirrors of Gordon’s experience, better relationships being possible all round once the responsibility of physical twenty-four-hour care was taken away, and the individual’s own need not to feel a burden was removed. Grief, guilt and anger at change need to be tackled within community just as they do in a blood family, and all community members need to feel that the mutual commitment they have known will not dry up once they start needing more support. Perhaps there is a reminder here for all of us of our ultimate reliance on God: even now, in relative youth and fitness, I am well aware that I cannot be entirely self-reliant without subverting the purpose of being in community!

Last year, CSF took over the brothers’ house in Birmingham with the aim of providing a more central and accessible house for elderly or physically less-able sisters. For many, the prospect of moving was difficult; not just because of apprehension about change, but also because of their own perceptions of ageing. ‘I don’t count myself as old,’ says Sister Alison Mary, ‘so I minded living with older people. I had help from on high to settle in . . . now we are quite a happy lot.’ Sister Barbara’s experience was similar: ‘At first, I felt strange and bewildered [but] people here are caring and the house feels like home.’ She values the extra opportunity for prayer and quiet time, something she shares with many older community members.
And Alison Mary describes how her awareness of God has deepened over the years: ‘I’m more at peace with myself now, more accepting.’

There are mixed feelings among older brothers and sisters about living together in age-related groups. It is obviously necessary to adapt houses physically, for example with lifts and ramps, to enable people to live in community as long as possible without feeling penalised by their own physical limitations. Yet we are all wary of the risks of losing touch with our older members, of them becoming ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in a house which might falsely be perceived as halfway to the nursing home. David Stephen stresses the importance of keeping cross-sections of age within houses: ‘Both younger and older have valuable and different contributions to make. Most of my close friends are much younger than I am. It keeps me in touch and keeps me young.’ But Gordon suggests, contrastingly, ‘A home for elderly brothers together would be nice, rather than having to separate them.’ One possible advantage of a house together might be a timetable adjusted to older body-clocks, as has been the case in Birmingham, so that it is possible to say daily offices together without wearing anyone out; being able to say a regular office, whether in chapel together, in your own room or in a nursing home, is perhaps the most vital way of remaining at the heart of the community.

What clearly is important – when trying to balance the needs of our older members with the continuing work of houses (and demand for our active ministry which consistently outstrips our numbers) – is that people feel their views and preferences have been listened to, even if the decisions eventually taken may be hard for some to accept. Arnold has robust views on this: ‘If you can’t be positive about things, what are you doing in community? After vows, you know it has to be rough going . . . Surrender your life to God. Look at a crucifix and see our Lord – tempted to come down from the cross, but he stayed there.’

The experience of ageing in community will affect people very differently. As David Stephen comments: ‘Some people, it seems to me, are almost born old, and some people never get old.’ It may well be freeing to be able to concentrate on prayer or other ministries, like spiritual direction, which do not demand a fit body. It may also involve re-assessment of one’s own life and the life of the community, a coming to terms with change and with mortality. Saint Francis himself struggled with the increasing frailty of ‘Brother Ass’, but his influence and ministry to those around him never abated. The final word on how it feels to face ageing in the Franciscan community today belongs to Sister Barbara, born on the tenth anniversary of the foundation of CSF:
‘You don’t feel any different. When I look at my birth certificate, I think there’s been a mistake!’ §

 

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