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As I hinted at in the last post being in formation and study has been somewhat of a challenging time. One can almost glimpse into the pain and emotion Jesus may have felt in the Garden of Gesthemane. At one level there is a feeling that God is calling me to ordained ministry and on another the process seems to be just too overwhelming and too difficult to manage. It begs the question then is this sense of call something worth ‘fighting’ for. The trick is finding the point by which one can say ‘let this cup pass’ or ‘not my will but yours’.
It is hard to know the general consensus of others going through formation but I suspect there are varying degrees of ‘Gesthemane’ experiences going on for people. There is a sense of becoming the body broken, a complete self emptying so that God can put us back together in the way God wants us to be.
A few weeks back I thought I had a solution to part of the problem I was going through and some things began to make a little sense. But it has not turned out to be so crystal clear as it was. That in part has really thrown me and I have really reached the place of asking is it better to let the cup pass or can I get to that sense of not by my will but yours.
I’m not sure how one gets to that place.
My ‘blog conscience’ has been on me to post more; she knows who she is. There have been two major decisions I have been wrestling with for quite some time of late. The first is in relation to taking life vows in our community (SSF) and the second in relation to exploration of a vocation to the priesthood. Part of my recent trip to England and Assisi was in part a time to get away from everything here to be able to ask those kinds of questions in a new ‘space’ as well as to remind me of part of the journey that led to these questions being asked. Did I come up with any answers people seem to be asking me; what heavenly insights resulted from my trip. I’m not sure I can fully articulate what these insights are; except for being a little too simplistic and say in the end you have to follow Nike and just do it. Well this was certainly the advice of one person who I spoke with on my trip.
I was also reminded of a short anecdote told to me a friend when I was pondering over joining religious life in the first place. He told me the story of a person waiting to be saved from a flood by God; a row boat, speed boat, and helicopter later and the person was dead. In heaven the annoyed person asks why God did not save him. God says well I sent you a row boat, speed boat, and a helicopter what else did you want. In other words Andrew was telling me that we can spend so much time sitting around waiting for God’s telegram and not enough time reading the ones God has already sent. While in Assisi I went to the church looked after there by one of our brothers, Tom. During the service while reflecting on the Gospel a man recalled this story, I had to have a quiet laugh to myself.
I have often said it before, I don’t necessarily want to be brother or a priest, but I think it is what I am called to be. I look around at my friends who are in loving committed relationships, who have children, or who have others aspects of their lives that appeal to me. I think we are all called to a certain way of life, or better yet – vocation; whether this is married life, single life, professional life or whatever, there is something that is important for us to do.
The idea of being in a committed relationship is very romantic. Whilst it appeals to me, and at the late hours of the night I sometimes long for one I know that this will never be a reality. The feelings pass and I move on and in reality these thoughts only occupy a small amount of my thoughts and feelings. The idea of having a child too is also a romantic one. The thought of being a parent of a child, watching that child grow and develop and mature and take on their own life is appealing too. Watching my friends with their son, or hearing of the birth of my great nephew, or seeing students in their final year of school and talking with them about their plans for after school all stir a part of me that wonders what it would be like to parent a child. Though these feelings too pass and also in reality do not occupy my mind at length and I move on.
I hear of the struggles of my friends and family who do have these things. Particularly those who find trying to juggle relationships, families, jobs, study etc with their spiritual life. Then, if it were a revelation I don’t know, I realised I have a gift to offer them. As a brother I have the opportunity to spend perhaps more time reflecting on our journey with God. I have the opportunity to have more time to pray, to think about some of those spiritual struggles we all have, and I have the time to share the ‘juggle’ with others who do not have that luxury. Non attachment to relationships and possessions which are supposedly the hallmarks of religious life mean that I can be there for those whose lives are given over to other callings of family, professions etc.
As a priest I would be able to offer another set of gifts be way of sacramental ministry. It is clear I’m not called to a committed relationship or the life of a parent but I would be able to bring the gift of baptism, eucharist, reconciliation, marriage as well as the ministry of the word to those whose lives are called to an equally gifted vocation of single and committed relationships and professions.
As I said, this is very hard to articulate. I think what I am trying to say is that I can share the spiritual journey with others when that journey becomes too overwhelmed by relatiopnships and professions. I can share the ‘spiritual parenting’ of young people who find it hard to share that journey with their parents. Perhaps what I can offer is to ‘hold’ people through the pot holes of spiritual life – not because I have got that sorted myself (let me be the first to say I am far from it) but because it is the gift that God calls me to. Through the Grace of God my gift to others could be to just be, to lighten their load sometimes so that they can do what God calls them to do.
I’m not suggesting the answers to my questions have been answered but I at least feel as though I now have a direction to look for the answers in.
Most people who read this blog will be somewhat familiar with the story of how I came to learn about the Society of St Francis, the Anglican Franciscan Community. Well, this is St Paul’s Cathedral London, UK; where it all began. Part of my wanting to visit the UK was to re-visit some of that early sense of call to vocation within a Franciscan religious community.
Not long after moving to London for work I started attending services at St Paul’s Cathedral. Later in that year some friends from Australia visited me while on holidays in the UK. During the ‘Red Bus’ tour we stopped to visit St Paul’s. While they were wandering around I noticed a small table at the entrance which had some pamphalets on it; the front had a picture of a ‘monk’ on it, along with a series of questions asking the reader whether or not they had felt called to explore religious life. Not to be seen by my friends I quickly folded it and put it into my pocket, only taking it out to read it later when my friends could not see what I was reading. Shortly after I made quick tracks to an internet cafe where I could find out more about this religious community. The pamphalet was an invitation to explore Franciscan religious life.
I emailed the vocation director who said he would drop by to see me while in London. I of course got cold feet and went out to the movies that day. He did however come and left a number of brochures abour St Francis and the Society of St Francis. The more I read about the life of St Francis, and how he tried to live his life in imitation of Christ, the more I felt that God was indeed calling me to live my life as part of a Franciscan religious community. I attended the vocation day at St Martins-in-the-Fields Church. Although it was a little while later before I actually joined the Society of St Francis, my visit to St Paul’s that day was one of the defining moments of my sense of being called to Franciscan religious life.
It was good to re-visit St Paul’s today. As I was sitting in the Cathedral one of the Cathedral guides came to talk with me. It was nice to share with her how my visit to St Paul’s had been such an important part of my call to religious life. It is good to be able to recall these moments. There are times when we can be too caught up in the busyness and distractions of the world and forget that it is God who calls us to live our lives as people of God. Thus in re-visiting those significant moments in our lives, either by physical journeying, or remembering through sharing our stories, we can continue to re-affirm not only God’s call but our response to God’s call. This is particularly important for those many moments when worldly busyness and distractions tempt us to forget that it is God who calls us and it is us who respond.
The discernment process continues. I got home today to find a letter from the Archbishop inviting me to attend the Vocational Discernment Conference on the 27-29th July. The conference is an opportunity for the Arch and his examining chaplains to meet those seeking to enter into diaconate and priestly formation – and vice versa. The weekend will be a series of interviews, group discussions, and discernment exercises. This weekend, along with all the written reflections and other paper work will be used by the examining chaplains in deciding whether or not inquirers show the necessary qualities and motivation to enter ordained ministry formation or whether their strengths lie in taking on some aspect of lay ministry in the Church. Please pray for all who will be attending this conference.
I finally finished the three discernment reflections I had to submit in application to attend the Diocesan Discernment Conference coming up later in the month. I have posted links to two of them; one on The Nature of the Priesthood and the other on The Nature of God. The other I referred to in the last post is a Life Sketch and I decided that it ended up a little too personal to put on such a public forum.
I found each of the exercises suprisingly challenging, but very rewarding. It was interesting to read over them when I had finished and was surprised at some of my thoughts. It will be even more interesting to read over them in a few weeks, years time. I found myself starting and stopping these reflections on several occasions – they just never seemed to end up looking like how I meant them too. In the end the pressure was on as the date to get them in was well passed and the powers that be needed them ASAP. So in the end I was pushed to make a decision and, well there they are. You are welcome to have a look and comment on them here or send me an email if you think it is particularly personal, or if you want to accuse me of being a heritic and burn me at the stake. In the end I went with what felt right to me and not what I think people want to hear. I particularly got a lot out of my Life Sketch, I’m sure the psychologist will have fun with that one for ages.
Oh, and just a side, I was given two large yummy crabs last night. The joys of being by the beach. I’m off to eat them now for dinner.
At the moment I’m supposed to be preparing three reflections for the Diocesan Discernment Conference later in the month. I have to say it is quite the challenge. One is a Life Sketch, how does one put down in a few pages how one’s life has been shaped toward inquiring for Ordination. What do the Examining Chaplains want to know? The exercise has been quite useful and I might even finish it this side of a thesis. In doing this exercise I have learnt not only how the various parts of my life have lead me to be the person who now offers for discernment, but it has also reminded me of just how unworthy I am to be called a servnt of God. That is to say, that my life has been less than ideal. There are a number of things I’m neither pleased about nor proud of. However, it does remind me that God calls people just as they are. I guess that is the message I would like the Examining Chaplains to know; that despite how human I am, for all my frailties and faults, it is God who calls me to serve.
The second reflection is The Nature of God. Well another mammoth task to get down to 1 – 1/2 pages. Who or what is God. In doing this reflection it dawned on me how the more we try to describe the nature of God, the more we are limited by our human ability to communicate the Divine. We have draw on points of reference that we as humans can relate to. However, in so doing, we already limit our ability to describe which is in essence a spiritual encounter with the Divine. It also dawned on me that we spend far too much time feebly communicating the Divine and not enough time experiencing the Divine. It is like what I tell students when they ask me do I believe in God. I can tell them of my experiences of God but I cannot give them my experiences. What they need to do is seek out their own personal relationship with God.
The final reflection is on The Nature of the Priesthood. One I’m finding a lot easier. However, the difficulty for me seems to lie in how is a Priest different from a Religous. For there are a lot of similarities. Notwhithstanding the reality that both stem from the same aim, that is, to live in a more purposeful way our Baptismal vows to live as Discples of Christ. What then is different, perhaps its in the leadership of the Church, the taking on of the repsonsibility to pass on the traditions and mysteries of the faith.
I’m sure when I finally get these done I’ll have something more useful to say about them. In the mean time, I’m enjoying the sun and warmth here in Pormpuraaw. It won’t be long before I’m back in cooler Brisbane, but I’m looking forward to spending some time with Br Ghislain from Taize when he comes to do some school visits.
On Saturday I attended one of a series of reflection days designed for those inquiring about ordained ministry within the Anglican Church; Diocese of Brisbane. We began by sharing a brief life sketch by way of introduction. This was followed by some reflections looking at our greatest success, our biggest sense of failure, and our awareness of moments of calling or vocation in our life. I found the reflection day quite beneficial. Although the group was relatively small, due to some technical issues, common themes were occurring in most people’s stories. There was something affirming about hearing strings of similarity among each of our life sketches.
Perhaps the most obvious was an awareness of the persistance of feelings people had with regard to a sense of being called by God toward a particular ministry within the church. I had to laugh when the facilitator had referred to this persistance as the Hound of God. When we looked over our lives we could identify consistent moments when we felt a sense of being hounded by God until a point is reached where we had to at least test this feeling outside of ourselves; hence ending up as inquirers on a reflection day.
I don’t envy the tasks of those involved in discerment, whether that be the inquirer or the Archbishop and his Examining Chaplains. From an inquirer’s perspective it takes a lot of willingness to trust others enough open up yourself and reveal parts of yourself which you would normally keep private. Also, and not speaking for the others but from my own experience, there is the battle to identify what comes from ego, or self, and what comes from God. In other words, where does our sense of calling come directly from Divine Grace and where does it stem from something about us a human beings.
This is where I think the trust and openness is hard, but vital, from an inquirer’s point of view. The Archbishop, as the instrument of unity and person ultimately responsible for ordaining people into the Church of God, through his Examining Chaplains has an equally hard task. How do they as human beings discern the Will of God in the lives of others. Of course a lot of the answer to that comes from how open inquirers are with them, and how much they are willing to reveal of their lives. The other part of the answer comes no doubt from their own (the Arch and his Chaplains) experiences of God in their lives and seeing it lived out in the lives of others.
Over the coming months there will be many opportunities through reflection days, reflection papers, interviews and ultimately selection conference, to try and put what is an external feeling out of ourselves and into the hands of others, with the help of God, to see if we are truly called my God. We will have reflections on the nature of God, the nature of the diaconate and priesthood as well as reflections on our sense of calling or vocation.
For me right now I don’t see as far as ordination. I more think about this as a process of finally putting out my sense of vocation out there for others to reflect on and comment on and see if there is a match. Then, and only then, can we talk about anything else.
Just prior to joining the SSF (the Society of St Francis) I was beginning my PhD studies in nursing looking at the concept of Nursing as a Vocation: do nurses still view nursing as a vocation. I of course set that aside when I joined SSF in order to focus on the move to religious life. Six years on and I still find this a phenomenon which interests me. Perhaps more personally these days. Given that the word ‘vocation’ takes on both a religious and secular connotation answering this question already commences with some sense of ambiguity of definition. Definitions of vocation range from purely secular; that is relating to the appointment to a job or profession to purely religious; relating to sense of calling by God to a particular way of life. There are of course those definitions which try to hedge their bets either way.
Since entering religious life, the phenomenon of nursing as a vocation, a calling from God to a particular way of life, has had a particular place in my reflections. I think this is particularly so as I experience the art of nursing with particular revelations about the nature of God and an awareness of the desire to share those revelations or insights with the people of God. Not necessarily in a literal sense of telling people about the spiritual experience itself, however on occasion I have, but more in the sense of being aware of how these revelation insights influence the way in which I interpret and interact with events and people in the world. For example, in the art of nursing I experience an awareness of God’s love for humanity, and thus the desire to express that love to humanity; through the simple act of caring.
I think that this sense of interpreting and understanding the experiences of nursing is vastly different to the understanding of nursing as a purely caring profession. The difference being that on can care for another out of love and charity, or less altruistically for money and career, but that it hold no significant religious experience or sense of being present with the Divine; one can simply experience the joy of caring for another. However, when, in that art of nursing, one is challenged to see the face of God in the person whom they are caring for, and that that experience moves beyond the physical worldly realm to the Spiritual and Divine world then this surely moves beyond an understanding of vocation in a secular sense and is interpreted as a calling by God to a particular way of life.
I found myself thinking more about this today and I did a quick look through nursing literature that has been written on nursing and spirituality and or nursing as a vocation. I was intrigued that the plethora of articles I scanned mostly focused on whether or not nurses had an appreciation for the need to include the concept of spirituality into the care of their clients and patients. The other major area covered seems to be how one can measure or include spirituality into the care of patients. A minor segment of literature focused on the movement of nursing from a vocation to a profession; which was mostly motivated by a desire for nursing to be taken seriously as a profession and for there to be appropriate professional recognition through wages and career pathways. There seemed to be no articles which spoke about how nurses experience nursing either as a vocation in the secular or religious sense. It makes me curious, is this not an area of interest today, are nurses concerned that such discussion will repeal their achievements of professional standing and career prospects, or has the art and vocation of nursing been lost, do nurses no longer feel called by God to a particular way of life but merely a job.
A part from why do you wear a brown dress and what do you wear underneath the commonest question I am often asked is why did you become a brother. This question came up in part in a conversation I had this afternoon, but more in relation to the context of my forthcoming attendance at a Diocesan discernment day (for those exploring ordained ministry in the Diocese of Brisbane).
It is usually at that point, but why…, that I have come to stop people and respond by saying I don’t want to… but…. I don’t think it is a case of want, that is, when people say why did (do) you want to… I want to stop them and explain that it is not like I want to be a brother or a priest. There are many things I want in life; travel, money, a great job with good benefits, a relationship, a home of my own, control over decisions about my life. There are some things I don’t want in my life; having to consider other people when it comes to making decisions (good or bad) about my life, yet more study, yet more ‘formation’.
However, there is a reality of which I must face. That is, the consistent and often persistent plague of thoughts that I am to live a different life than the one I want.
When I was a young lad my family lived below what people call the poverty line (which when defined or quantified is already far below the poverty line). It got even worse when my father passed away and my mother had to raise four kids on her own, with the grateful help of the department of social security. Going out was a big deal, even if that was to have lunch at the Woolworths’ cafeteria in Town Hall with my uncle during the Christmas school holidays. We (us kids) would be given a small amount of money to get lunch. One Christmas holidays we had our annual outing. Standing waiting for my uncle to arrive to meet us at Town Hall a lady, dirty, in ragged clothing, pushing a cart, passed us and proceeded to go through a garbage bin to find something to eat. I remember watching in horror that someone had to do this. I recall telling my uncle, who’d arrived, that she could have my lunch. I was fobbed off with some meaningless statement. But all I could think of was what if that was my mother, I’d want someone to help her and give her something better to eat and not have to be so degraded as to have to eat left overs out of a bin.
I also had a very itinerant childhood. I think I attended more schools than I’d had hot Sunday roasts in the same years. As often the ‘new boy’ I experienced all too often what it was like to feel left aside. On some occasions, I’d never worked out exactly why, sometimes being ‘on the outside’ meant being targeted for systematic terrorising by those ‘on the inside’. I was perplexed as to why people would exclude others and treat them in an appalling uncompassionate manner. I never understood the logic of that kind of treatment. Thankfully there were other moments when I found people who could rise above the apparent social ‘rules and customs’ and act in a fair, just and compassionate manner.
When I discovered church at the age of 11 I began learning about people who set aside their lives for the sake of others. They would forgo their lives, money, cars, houses, jobs, careers etc to enter the ‘missions’. They felt so strongly about the needs of others being greater than their needs that they were prepared to give up their lives for the sake of others. I was so inspired by the stories our ‘missionaries’ would tell, of how they had been in some developing country teaching, nursing, spreading the gospel that I wanted to be just like them. It made perfect sense. Surely being there for another in their time of need was exactly what I had learned from all those countless sermons and Sunday school lessons.
The feeling to be ‘just like them’ has been a constant dichotomy between the life I want to live and the life I feel called to live. As I got older there were times the voice was still and if I was lucky – silent. But then in the faces of the lonely, the hungry, the sick, the dispossed, the excluded it would raise its voice into a full symphony; using the lives of people like Damien of Molokai, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Calcutta, to name a few, to be the instruments.
Out of curiosity, perhaps exhaustion, what ever it was I had to find an answer; to find if the symphony of voices could be silenced. So I decided I could do nothing else but to submit to the voices and see what happened. I gave up the life I had (I wanted) and entered into the life I felt the voices calling me into. I still don’t know if I belong in this world. I’m still not sure if I want to be in this world. I certainly battle to fend off temptation to go back to the life I want.
So when people ask me why did (do) you want to be… my first reply now is I don’t. But the Catch 22 is that the voices have not silenced, and while they continue their Opus in my heart and soul I cannot listen to the ones in my head which tell me I should return to my old life, the life I want.
So when a student says to me why do you want to be a brother or the examining chaplain says why do you want to be a priest I simply now say I don’t but I need to at least explore if I should.