franciscan - September 2000
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2000
In the city
interviews conducted by Brother Desmond Alban SSF
‘Is there not lurking in our minds the idea that we pray in order to support what we’re trying to do? We make a plan and then bring in prayer to bolster it up, as if prayer was secondary instead of primary.’ These words of Augustine Hoey CR, in a book on parish missions written over forty years ago, express for me a change in emphasis that inspired me when I began to test my vocation as a Religious. Previously I had been taught that prayer was a vital support to all our actions as Christians. But part of our Franciscan witness is to the primacy of prayer, with the action flowing from that. How well do we achieve a right balance in our activities in a busy urban house, such as the sisters’ house in Brixton, or the friary in Ley Hill, Birmingham, of which I am a member?
In interviews, both Nan and Rose spoke of the value they find in the regular rhythm of communal prayer. Intentions matter. ‘The routine that happens willy-nilly is the freeing thing,’ commented Nan, ‘it doesn’t all depend on me. It is also where our stability comes from.’ This prayer in common extends beyond the daily office and the eucharist. At Ley Hill, as in our larger houses, the morning silent prayer time is spent together, and Rose explained how she valued the recent adoption of the same practice in Brixton: ‘It helps that it is communal. It is easily lost otherwise in the time before going out to work.’
‘Going out to work’ is a characteristic feature of our city houses. Rose and Nan actually earn a salary through the work they do outside the house and that makes work, physically, a priority – they cannot easily take time off, for instance, for any other Franciscan engagements. Rose explained how, in her heart, it was her one day each week of voluntary work for the homeless, along with community living and prayer, that comes first. But even her paid work, as an administrator of a User Employment Project at Springfield Psychiatric Hospital, is not quite ‘just a job.’ For her two closest colleagues, Rose represents almost their only real contact with the Church, and ‘they’re great about me being a Sister, “Make sure you don’t miss Evening Prayer”, that sort of thing!’ The brothers in Birmingham spend much of their time in schools, parishes and other projects, and in visiting and supporting local people on an estate now deliberately being run down for demolition, but both houses are also engaged in some work at home. For Brixton, there are occasional guests and groups; whilst in Ley Hill, youth-grant money has just recently been spent on a pool table and games console, and one of our two flats is largely given over to youth activities. Why invest in new work when the estate is soon to be cleared? ‘We want to be here for local people as long as is possible,’ says Alan Michael, ‘and the need for positive activities, for the young especially, has become greater in this uncertain time.’
So what of study? ‘I don’t do any study.’ reports Rose with characteristic directness, ‘Some people call reading study – I don’t – I call it reading!’ Nan admits that for her, too, study is somewhat the ‘Cinderella’ of our three ways of service. For myself, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a ten-week evening course in theology earlier in the year but I’ve nothing formal now. Alan Michael commented that he would find any serious course of study quite impossible alongside the work of a house such as this one. So do we not study? Perhaps we need to allow the wider definition that Rose uses. She herself reads: not ‘lots and lots of spiritual stuff’ (though she admitted to some) but she does read good novels. ‘They give you knowledge of others, knowledge of self and insight into life. I have never felt I’ve wasted one second doing that.’ Nan, too, finds she does have space for reading within the routine of Brixton. Here in Ley Hill we keep silence for an hour in the early evening and after Compline on four nights each week (through to 9.00 am the next morning, if there are no guests at mass) but, for me, ten minutes reading with a coffee before Morning Prayer is one of the very best moments of my day. Alan Michael makes similar use of time at night – if the demands of his desk and late-night pastoral visits allow. The other books and journals I find queued up to read sometimes manage to get a look in during a silent breakfast or a train journey! But perhaps study is wider even than reading. Nan spoke of the value of certain conversations that stimulate deep thought and reflection, and if study can be defined as ‘anything that develops yourself’ then none of us, Rose would admit, are quite as remiss in this as we might first appear.
Flexibility, finally, emerged as a key feature of life in both these houses.
Structures and routines undoubtedly help us all, but for the sake of the active ministry they sometimes have to be laid aside. ‘When I look back with Jesus,’ said Nan, ‘at the path of my life, it will be strewn with the whitened bones of failed systems. And, of course, it doesn’t matter!’ f
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