John-Francis Friendship introduces his new book exploring the wisdom offered to the world by the Religious Life as it has been lived, and in particular by Anglicans
‘When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.’ Jeremiah 29.13
This is a book about a Life that has nurtured the Church for almost two-thousand years yet is hidden from the view of many. At a time when some believe the way to renew the church and make it appealing is through adapting aspects of current Western culture, there’s still a hunger and thirst for spiritual food which Religious have offered for centuries.
Religious Life is custodian of a treasury of freely available wisdom, and my primary purpose in writing has been to show what it can teach all of us about the essence of life in Christ. I’ve also had in mind those considering their call: too often ‘vocation’ is limited to ‘ministry’ yet from the time Anglican Orders re-appeared in the early 19th century until the turn of that century more than 10,000 women alone responded to the call. Most were fired by the Oxford Movement which, beginning in 1833, enabled the church – often in the face of violent opposition – to recall its Catholic roots severed at the Reformation, not least those which aid sanctification.
Christian community comes in many forms and this book is n0t intended to be a history of Religious Life nor an introduction to every Anglican Order (although stories will be told).
What’s the point?
Many feel the brokenness of the world overwhelming and some want to ’do’ something to address its problems. Religious share that sense but know they need, first, to be rooted in God; that anything they ‘do’ must be the consequence of that ever-deepening relationship. Fr. Benson SSJE (1824-1915) said that it’s not a job or being a particular kind of person but a calling by God to God; a Life that ought to be one of the great means of spiritual instruction for the Church – an outward and visible sign of what the Church is called to be. Through their consecration, he said, Religious are yeast, reminders that we’re all called to be hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3.3f); people who ‘tend a fire that cannot go out’, in the words of a Carthusian.
We also need this Life because it witnesses to our baptismal consecration and a church without Religious may become ignorant of important aspects of that consecration. Rather than a social construct, the Church is the sacramental expression of the mystery of God, and behind whatever ministry an Order has its members – first and foremost – are given to God as they say, with Mary: ‘Let it be with me according to your word’.
We do not come into our Community principally to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves. Then, if by God’s grace we are converted to Him, He must use us in missionary work, or in any other way that He pleases … (Fr Benson SSJE, Christian Progress)
Like others, my teenage years were confusing, but Christ was knocking on my heart asking to inhabit the whole of me; his request was loving and peaceful and something awoke as I responded. For long I’d wanted to do something for God and was considering ordination, but here was a field containing treasure for which I was prepared to sell everything. … What Franciscans and others show is something of the simplicity and joy, struggle and beauty of life abandoned to God. We may not be asked, as God asked one young man, to sell our possessions but when, at the end of the Eucharist, ‘we offer (God) our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice’ we need to risk meaning that and go into the world with a heart filled with thankfulness and an awareness of Divine glory in all things.
Religious Life needs directing and moulding by the wisdom of Jesus, Word of the Father, whom we’re to desire, seek, and incarnate through our lives. We may have taken this Life too lightly and need to wake-up to the treasures it offers in earthen vessels. It may not sparkle with the same allure as some aspects of the Church but is its most precious gift and prophetic witness. Thankfully, some still realise this and know that the spirituality which flows through it can refresh us at times when the Church can feel a little lost, a little shallow – a little in need of the ‘wisdom of the ages.’
At heart, it’s a way of expressing those baptismal promises to die to sin, renounce evil and reject the devil. Its wisdom is of value to all who want to respond to God’s call, who recognise the need for that ‘metanoia’ – change of heart – which alone brings peace and joy as we turn, again and again, to Christ, our Saviour and Lord.
Religious Life is a function of witness and labour,
the total commitment of self, holding nothing back
in order to be the channel of God to the world.
Fr. Gilbert Shaw (talk to the Sisters of the Love of God)
The Revd John-Francis Friendship spent 25 years as an Anglican Franciscan friar and is the author of Enfolded in Christ and The Mystery of Faith. His new book, What do you Seek? (Canterbury Press) draws on the whole breadth of monastic history and experience.