franciscan - September 2000
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2000
by Sue Watkins TSSF
After taking the dog for a walk this morning and seeing my son off to school and my daughter leave for her work placement, I spent a few hours lying on my bed reading. My body was telling me that I was in desperate need of rest. I had no other plans for that time so it was entirely appropriate and, as far as my health and sanity were concerned, extremely necessary that I relaxed and enjoyed an undisturbed moment.
It’s not that I’m lazy but I had come to the end of a demanding year of ordination training. The last month had included examinations, an exchange visit to Leipzig in Eastern Germany, a full-time counselling course, the joys and woes of fellow students leaving to take up curate appointments, as well as the important maintenance of family life and love. It strikes me that each one of the actions I have mentioned has come about by a conscious decision by me about what is fundamentally meaningful in life: the choice to marry, have children, to respond to the call towards ordination, each taken in a prayerful way and lived out by having continually to make the choice to love and express my devotion to Jesus Christ in these ways. We all serve God according to our abilities and circumstances. The way we express that commitment to service depends on our past experiences and our anticipations of the future.
If we go back a step, though, we may ask ourselves why we make those commitments; what is the intention behind our choice and actions? Heidegger refers to this as ‘understanding’; it may also be named as ‘life-value’ or ‘faith.’ Our ‘understanding’ or ‘faith’ betrays itself in the way we live our lives each day.
Our time management is intimately connected with our life-values, which are embedded in the acting out of our lives in our own personal narratives or stories. These give form or substance to our personal identity. Our actions in time reveal who we are. Kierkegaard put it like this, ‘choice itself is decisive for the content of personality.’ Here ‘choice’ means subjective truths or life-values and it is inferred that ‘who’ I am is intrinsically bound up to the narrative meaning underlying my actions and it connects them into one meaningful, personal story.
I became a Tertiary for many reasons. I was drawn to Francis’ holistic approach to faith; the understanding that faith is not just cognitive agreement to certain dogmas but a whole-hearted handing over of life. The Principles of the Third Order begin with a vision of immense generosity (John 12.24-26) and encouragement to bear fruit by bringing others to Christ and praying and working for the coming of the Kingdom of God. The greatest breakthrough in my ‘understanding’ was the realisation of the in-dwelling Christ.
For Francis, faith became the centre of his life, his raison d’être, and this attitude broke through in everyday, concrete, temporal actions. It is my desire to become increasingly aware of the indwelling Christ, the source of strength and joy. There are many times when I live as though he were not there, but I find the practice of an examen of conscience very helpful at the end of the day. By that, I mean the looking back over the day and being aware of the presence of God in all the happenings. It is a short prayer exercise to help increase one’s sensitivity to God’s working in one’s life and provides the enlightenment needed to co-operate and respond to his presence. The exercise begins with thanksgiving followed by asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance to look back over the events of the day, finding God in all things. These times help me to focus on my attitude to the experiences of the day; they help me discover my underlying attitudes and how my actions and choices flow from them. Something in my heart or in any one attitude may need conversion. There may be areas on which I need to focus my attention, seriously to pray over, to take action on. This time of prayer then continues by seeking forgiveness for the times when I have not co-operated with the One who loves me, and praise for the times when I have.
Sometimes an awareness of God comes in unexpected ways. There was one such special moment yesterday at a formal occasion at college. A restless baby lay in his pushchair. A beautiful toddler with Down’s Syndrome who had been sitting close by realized the presence of the baby and went over to the pushchair and stood against it. He proceeded to smile and play peekabo; each child was only aware of the other as they engaged in joyful play.
So prayer is woven into life in the humdrum as well as the extraordinary. Someone rings up on the telephone and wants to speak about a problem they are experiencing in a relationship and, by offering a listening ear, we become channels of unconditional love. At such moments a concrete response is required to the matter at hand but in the same moment we can hand the person over to God.
Action and intercessions are close kin. In asking that God’s Kingdom will come, we also need to open our hearts and lives as channels so that it may come in and through us. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there seems to be a change in the missionary emphasis. John Hull, professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham, put it like this: we are moving from an era of Christianity to an era of Christianness. That is, a new state of awareness, a revival of discipleship and rediscovery of the Trinity. The exclusivity of Christian Western Europe has resulted in a grossly divided world, not least between the rich and the poor. I need continually to ask how I can best act in the light of Magnificat and the Beatitudes.
During the last year I have begun to study New Testament Greek in order to read the original writings. I’ve looked
at Source, Genre, Form & Redaction, Narrative, Social, Anthropological and Black & Feminist critical approaches.
All these are helpful in understanding the scriptures in a wider context and provide background for teaching and
preaching. Studying has been one of my main modes of being for the last nine months. This knowledge however is
not for its own sake but for application. As the Principles of the Third Order put it, for ‘a better understanding
of the church’s mission in the world; the application of Christian principles to the use and distribution of wealth;
the questions concerning justice and peace; and of all other questions concerning the life of faith.’
I see life as a searching, learning process. Meaning is found as I bring my ‘faith’ into action with the changing circumstances. The way I spend my time is chosen by me and affected by the life-values I have. My family is important so they are always part of my consideration when I take on things outside the home. I serve God in my relationships with them. I try to live a life of integrity, holding together the three ways of service, prayer, study and work. It is not always easy with timetables and deadlines, and the inevitable unexpected happening in life, but the Principles provide a very open guide which can be applied to our own circumstances. They bring us back to our ultimate ‘understanding’ of what life is all about. f
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