Reflections on theological training at Mirfield by Oliver Coss a former ordinand and now curate
Of the many experiences in life that a person is taught to approach with apprehension, there are none quite so daunting (I discover) as putting on a clerical shirt for the first time. It is an experience I had long delayed but, reaching the long-awaited final term in my apportioned dose of theological training, it occurred to me that if I didn’t start ordering such things now, then I’d probably find myself tearing around the likes of SPCK in order to find an emergency shirt before the ordination. And so it was, on the fateful morning in which the box from Signor Barbiconi arrived, that I found myself staring in the mirror at myself in a rather constrictive white collar.
The startling experience that this proved to be urged me to consider carefully what it was I was putting on, and in the midst of this I found these words of Fr Raymond Raynes cr particularly helpful: ‘Quiet obedience is the way to sanctity; to the fulfilment of our vocation which is not to be a stained glass window; but to be one whose heart is aflame with the love of God, and therefore pure. And in the end he shall see God and be satisfied.’
It is a characteristic of the human condition that a person, even (dare I say, especially) a good Catholic person, can become profoundly concerned with what they look like, how they dress, how they are seen. In attempting to describe theological training in a monastic environment, this is perhaps the first observation I would make: in every new circumstance we understand that first impressions count, so the first few weeks are spent on eggshells. We get to know each other, discovering habits, manners and (unsurprisingly) eccentricities in our fellow seminarians: it is perhaps around the seventh week when these things begin to become intolerably irritating. Coming into a monastic environment, a feeling quickly develops that one’s very personality is being taken away in the name of the ‘common life’ of the place: all wear the cassock and scapular (indistinguishable from one to the next), all work in the refectory and serve the offices and masses, and all are expected to take their part in the life and work of what is a very social institution.
The reaction to this homogenizing is essentially a rebellion, an effort to prove to the rest of the students that T am different, T am not the same as you, T can do this and you cannot. And that is OK, because everyone does it; everyone rebels.
Rule of obedience
Whether it happens in the midst of the great times of corporate prayer, or whether it is worked out in the daily workings of the common life, we are suddenly aware that the risen Christ is standing before us, and I say ‘us’ advisedly for he most often stands among us when we stand together. He stands before us and calls each of us by name, in no order of piety, but in the order in which we turn to him.
And at once we are undone. Christ himself calls us back from our rebellion into obedience to him and to one another, not a tyrannical or dictatorial obedience, but the obedience that the Father most desires us to live in. This rule of obedience, perhaps the most important monastic discipline, should be distinguished from the notion of a law: it is a rule, not a law, that we are called to, a rule which recognizes the chaos that human life sometimes subsists in, forgiving our sinfulness and rejoicing in our faithfulness. It draws us firstly to God, and to his image that resides in those around us. All things radiate from this discipline, and it is the primary element of monastic life that the College of the Resurrection inherits.
This all sounds rather philosophical and otherworldly, but the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield has never been a community that is insular or shut off from the world: in many senses, their work in the world made them the icons of twentieth-century religious life. Each brother carries with him stories of many things and many kinds: of his own work, of his own struggle with obedience, and of his own life lived with the community. There is a sense that all the struggles and concerns I feel have been felt before.
The service of others
When I first arrived at Mirfield, I remember the then Principal telling me that far from theological colleges training people for the priesthood, they should actually be training people for the diaco-nate: this is to some extent true, and it is why obedience is not only a monastic but a diaconal discipline. It is a discipline of comprehending the needs of the people, and seeking to provide for them with no expectation of reciprocation. A community requires all of its members to do this all of the time. Fr Raynes again: ‘There is an ever present danger of individualism among Christians thinking entirely in terms of their own salvation… But the important thing about us is not that we are individuals, but that we are persons; you cannot be a person unless you are in some relationship with other persons.’
In service of the other it is Christ we serve, and Christ we make present and in our lives is the truth acclaimed. There is little pretension in this kind of life – the novelties of wearing cassocks each day or of wearing the crucifer’s dalmatic on solemnities all wear off – and gradually, even imperceptibly, we notice that our life is at even greater liberty.
So to return to the clerical shirt: it seems to me that, after three years of the anonymity brought about by the cassock, I am about to put on something which marks me out. In identifying myself as a clergyman, even from the clothes I wear, I am made aware of the suppositions that others will make of me. Everyone knows what a clergyman wears, and so the collar is instantly recognized. I enter the service of the Church at a time when the priesthood is suffering an identity crisis of monumental proportions. If any part of me is to be hidden, then I must confront the fact that I will be found out. I might model myself on the life of the Proto-martyr (for instance), but my heart must live for the Resurrection.