franciscan - September 2001
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001
Listening to each other
By Brothers SSF & Sisters CSF
Sister Moyra writes:
‘In my early twenties, when I was drawn to the idea of Religious Life, but did not know ‘where’ or ‘how’, I spent a lot of time reading various accounts of the lives of the saints and founders of different communities. A strong conviction grew in me that Francis was the saint who came closest to living out the values and teachings of the gospel. And more importantly, his lifestyle as a ‘lesser brother’ and as someone who aligned himself with the poor, was one that I could identify with strongly, and see myself trying to live out. It was certainly a very long way from the traditional stereotype of Religious Life I had been envisaging, and dreading having to try and live out.
Over the years, the places I have found myself most at home as a Religious are those where ‘the poor’ (however you define that, be it poor in body, mind or spirit, as well as materially poor) could be found. In an inner-city, deprived areas, in schools where the neediest children were and where what mattered most was not what I did but who I was. They were also places where not only could I find ways of serving, and giving of my time and talents, but where I could also receive in abundance. I cannot and do not want to live in a Religious community that does not engage with the reality of the world around me. I find my inner, spiritual life completely dries up when there is little or no engagement with the outside world, and that my involvement with the outside world is arid and sterile when I have no engagement with my inner life.
So, for me, the future of Religious Life lies in working out what following the gospel means for today, what Francis
means for today, how that all relates to those we meet and see every day and how best to balance the demands of
prayer and ministry so that each feeds the other. It means being open to changing need. What I may feel called
to do at one stage in life may be totally different at another stage. It means being open to the prompting of
the Spirit, and accepting that my vision is only one tiny part of a whole wider purpose, which is God’s purpose.
‘This place is all about fraternity’. So Brother Samuel explained to guests something of the ethos of Hilfield Friary. Surely a useful model for community life wherever we are living it. There is a sense in which the main work of our lives concerns the experiment of living-in-community under the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit of the Gospels. Then, by the grace of God, we can bear fruit for the church and the world. This goal of fraternity can make sense of the peculiar customs and habits that accrue when people live together (I read somewhere that good walls make good neighbours!), but also often calls us to look beyond them for the sake of fellowship and the compassion of Jesus. We are led into areas hitherto unlegislated for where we ask each other: ‘What are our ideals?’ ‘Where do we go from here?’ and particularly since we are Franciscans, ‘How can we live a community life based on fraternity rather than patriarchy, without our community life dissolving too much in the process?’ Look closely at any community and I suspect that the stereotypes of the ideal vocation fall away and the unifying factor left is the shared awareness of the Creator God, almost in spite of us!
At the recent conference at Burford Priory for Anglican first-professed brothers and sisters, Brother Stuart invited
us to begin to imagine new ways of living the consecrated life in the Anglican Church. As sisters and brothers
in small Religious communities, we are no longer joining invincible Orders sailing above contradiction, either
through their intimidating authority or heroic piety (if it was ever thus). Now we are less sure of the way ahead.
But perhaps we are beginning to see the giftedness of our situation, and sense that we need each other on the road.
It seems, talking to others in First Profession, that so much of the process of formation and community living,
although wildly varied on the surface, is actually only symbolic of processes going on inside which are the same
for all of us. God strips us down, re-moulds us and encourages us to grow in His love for life in all its fullness.
At the Last Supper, shortly after Jesus had washed his disciples feet, he said ‘I give you a new command-ment:
love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another’ (Jn 13.34). Once when I was speaking to
a class of nine-year olds, I asked them what ‘chastity’ meant; unexpectedly a hand shot up, ‘It means you don’t
have affairs’. I’m interested in a Religious Life in which, more consciously, we grow through our initial romantic
affair with our vocation towards true loving relationships.
So, in emphasising relationship, I’m more interested in engaging in the process of learning true relationship than in speculating about new models or structures of the Religious Life. As such, the structures and practices of the Religious Life become not an end in themselves but merely a means of facilitating the process of learning how to relate in the Spirit.
But learning to love and to serve the other, beyond the ‘affair’, requires the growth both of self-knowledge and of a knowledge of the other. I believe that this crucial under-pinning of understanding, in love, arises only within the process of true dialogue. The capacity to engage in dialogue of mutual listening, hearing and knowing the other is a rare skill, and a grace, which simultaneously needs to be learned and prayed for in the Spirit.
But where do Religious learn to engage in the work and prayer of growing in true loving relationships through dialogue? Historically we trace our roots back to the Desert Fathers, and to the skete, the place where hermits met to exchange wisdom.
The transmission of the knowledge of the love of Christ was fostered in the engagement and exchange between Father
and disciple, and between disciples, in the ongoing life of the skete. My suggestion is not that we all return
to our deserts (wherever they are) but that the intimacy of the skete is consciously brought forward as an essential
element of our lives, of equal importance alongside private prayer and study, corporate worship and work in the
A brightly-coloured, variegated, flowering plant comes to mind, small and fragile, but surprisingly widespread and persistent, popping up here and there quite widely in unexpected places. Some plantings are clearly visible, others more hidden. Even on a single site there is an abundance of colours, shapes and textures delicately interwoven. Sometimes they shoot out spontaneously with untidy abundant growth, and at other times remain for long periods obviously fragile yet persistently alive against the odds. In different contexts they may at first glance appear to be different species, but a longer acquaintance reveals characteristic markings.
For me, two of CSF's crucial markings are passion and compassion. They need to grow together and remain in dynamic tension. Passion without compassion can result in destructive evil, while compassion alone may lose its identity, becoming woolly and directionless. Passionate response to, and sharing in, the passion of God must co-exist with a gentle humanity, engaging with our own and others' brokenness honestly with tenderness and hope.
Central to my vision is the on-going ministry of hospitality, offering a welcoming and unobtrusively supportive space where people can be for a while. Flexibility is essential to cater for the widening range of people seeking such opportunities. As well as requesting retreats, quiet days, spiritual direction and pastoral support, people seek hospitality for rest, respite, study, meetings, and quiet holidays. They are drawn by a friendly relaxed atmosphere, by a peaceful and beautiful setting, by simplicity, love and laughter. For some our very flexible attitude to payment is necessarily a crucial factor. The under-girding rhythm of prayer is often experienced as somehow enriching by those who do not come to chapel, and may not claim any religious faith, as well as by those who choose to pray with us.
I am committed to CSF offering a range of other ways of mission through the varied life, work and prayer of its members. I also see our community life itself as an instrument which the Holy Spirit uses to awaken us and others to Kingdom values.
To many people, our way seems extraordinary and somewhat fascinating. What are we about and what might our life point to, or participate in? I believe that the taxing and joyful ordinariness and fragility of life together help to focus these questions. f
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